Monday, February 28, 2022

The Little Engine That Couldn’t: Elmira’s Watrous Automobile

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

In 1904, Thomas S. Watrous founded the Watrous Automobile Company (WAC) on Main Street, hoping to cash in on the public’s growing desire for automobiles. The new industry was hot. The first American patent for a combustion engine had been filed twenty-five years earlier and now over 3,000 models were on the market. Each car was assembled by hand, making the median price around $1,000. However, the average yearly salary was only $200 - $400. For many the dream of owning their own automobile was still unattainable. Watrous wanted to offer customers more affordable options.

The first car purchased in the county was a Winton Roundabout six years earlier. The buyer was a local doctor William H. Fisher, and the car was manufactured by the Winton Motor Carriage Company, out of Cleveland, Ohio. It was summer when the car finally arrived. The event was announced in the local newspaper and a spontaneous parade was organized to celebrate its arrival. Winton automobiles had a reputation for quality and durability. A few years later, a Winton Roundabout would be driven across the country, successfully completing the nation’s first transcontinental drive. Without connected roads or reliable maps, Dr. H. Nelson of Vermont drove from coast to coast in under 90 days.

Fisher’s Roundabout engine had one cylinder and an advertised speed of 20 mph, which he put to the test.

Dr. Fisher and Dr. Carey in Fisher's Winton

Accompanied by Dr. Chauncey Carey, he recorded the county’s first distance drive, visiting Van Etten, Spencer, Owego, and Waverly in one afternoon. In a later attempt to prove his automobile’s prowess, Fisher raced against a horse at the County Fair, only to stall out and be forced to be towed home.

In the spring of 1904, when T.S. Watrous established the Watrous Automobile Company, business headquarters were located at 125 S. Main Street, Elmira, long gone today. His plan was to open a manufacturing plant on 11th Street in Elmira Heights, where WAC would produce two affordable models: the Model B, a Touring Car which would cost $500, and Model C, a Runabout which would cost $400. This was half the cost of other car models at the time. In early 1906 WAC was ready and advertised their vehicles widely. Orders soon rolled in.

To secure a vehicle, potential customers were asked to send cash deposits of $100 - $200. The company began producing inexpensive car parts, getting ready to assemble, but demand soon outstripped their capacity to deliver. Very quickly they gained an undesirable reputation.  The Third Edition Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805 - 1942, a well-regarded catalog, reports the car was "...a noisy car, and a pretty awful one. Local wags dubbed it the waterless, gearless, powerless, useless Watrous.” 

In March 1906, Hilliard Clutch & Machine Company moved into the building occupied by WAC, and by summer WAC was out of business completely. Watrous’s automotive dream was over. Previously, Watrous had been a carriage painter and earlier notices in the newspapers had him claiming to be the inventor of a “revolutionary” fruit preserving process that would change the industry. When WAC folded, he returned to his earlier profession of carriage painter for a few years, then in 1911, moved to Florida.

In the end, the Watrous Automobile Company assembled just one vehicle. After the company folded, the car was sold to a client in Pittsburgh for the sum of $300 in addition to a previously made deposit. It was reported in the Star-Gazette on September 15, 1909, that according to its owner, this Watrous “worked alright.”

This would be the only automobile ever produced in Elmira. Other automotive companies associated with Elmira, like Willys-Morrow produced their cars elsewhere. In 1908, Henry Ford manufactured his Model T in Michigan and created a new kind of production model. He designed an assembly line and changed industry standards and customer expectations. Manufacturers shifted from producing a small number of handmade cars to producing millions. Ford’s approach brought the price of automobiles down and within reach for more Americans.  


Monday, February 14, 2022

Ernie Davis Day

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

On the evening of February 3, 1962, around 1,400 people packed into the Notre Dame High School’s gym for the banquet in honor of Elmira’s favorite son, Ernie Davis. It was the last stop in what had been an action-packed day. The banquet was attended by such notables as state and local officials; teachers and coaches from EFA and Syracuse University; representatives from the Cleveland Browns and, of course, Davis’s mother. They were all there to pay tribute to his accomplishments and toast his up-coming career as a professional football player.

Although Ernie Davis is Elmira’s hometown hero, he wasn’t actually born here. He was born in New Salem, Pennsylvania and grew up in Uniontown. At the age of 12, he moved to Elmira with his mother and step-father. Here, he excelled at baseball, basketball, and football. While playing for Elmira Free Academy, he earned two All-American honors in basketball and football and was heavily recruited by colleges. He ended up attending Syracuse University where he played football and majored in economics and finance. In 1961, he became the first Black player to be awarded the Heisman Trophy. After graduating, he was recruited by the Cleveland Browns, signing the most lucrative contract of any NFL rookie up until that time. The citizens of Elmira could not have been prouder.


Planning for Ernie Davis Day began in late November 1961, shortly after Davis was awarded the Heisman Trophy. The day overall was going to be sponsored by the Elmira Association of Commerce with assistance from various fraternal groups and corporations. For months, the planning committee worked to schedule events, secure venues, and arrange speakers. They raised funds to buy Davis a new 1962 Thunderbird.

Officially, Ernie Davis Day began at 2pm at the YMCA with a youth meet-and-greet sponsored by Pepsi-Cola. Unofficially, kids began to gather on the sidewalk outside as early as noon. By the time Davis and his friend and fellow football player Jim Brown showed up a little after 1:30pm, there were nearly 400 boys running around. By the time the meet-and-greet officially began, the number had swelled to 700. There were speeches by Ernie Davis, Jim Brown, EFA football coach Bill Wipfler, and others. Each child received a card autographed by Davis and Brown. A few lucky ones actually got to shake their hands.


Next, Ernie headed off to an informal press reception at the Notre Dame High School library along with the ever-present Jim Brown, plus coaches Ben Schwartzwalder of Syracuse University and Arthur Modell of the Cleveland Browns. They schmoozed for an hour or so until Governor Nelson Rockefeller arrived around 5:30pm and the real press conference began.  

Around 6pm, the crowd started gathering for the banquet. Speeches began at 9pm after everyone had eaten their fill and there were a lot of speeches. Governor Nelson talked. President Kennedy talked, or at least wired a toast to be read aloud on his behalf. There were toasts by Ernie’s high school and college friends, his teachers and coaches, the mayor, and the Star-Gazette sports writer who had coined the nickname “Elmira Express.”  All of them wanted to celebrate Davis’s accomplishments and the promising start to his pro football career.

Sadly, his promising career never came to be. In the summer of 1962, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia. Ernie Davis died in a Cleveland hospital on May 18, 1963 at the age of 23. His wake at Elmira’s Neighborhood House on May 21 drew over 10,000 mourners. His funeral featured speeches by many of the same teammates, friends, and coaches who had spoken at his banquet. Even President Kennedy sent a statement to be read aloud. It was, in many ways, a dark reflection of the earlier, happier Ernie Davis Day.