Of Aitkin County, Minnesota

An Early Automobile, an REO Speedwagon, in Hill City
Courtesy of Bill and Esther Lange

Did you know that the rock band, REO Speedwagon,
adopted the name of an early motor vehicle?
Read on ~

My friend Chris Miller, a former Winonan, now Michigander, says:

"The REO Speedwagon was most famous as a type of fire truck and that's where the rock band got their name. The following web page has a picture of one: Torrance Firefighters Association

"The REO Motor Car Company was around from 1905 to 1936. It was run by Ransom Eli Olds in Lansing, Michigan.. It has been gone a while and is a fairly obscure part of automotive history compared to Olds' other company. The following site contains more information: REO Motor Car Company Of Lansing, Michigan 1905-1936

"R.E. Olds is best known for the Oldsmobile auto manufactory, which he left in 1904. Lansing, Michigan has several monuments to him, including the Olds skyscraper that overshadows the state capitol and the R.E. Olds Museum."

I asked Steve Olds, a great contributor to the White Elk Township page, if he was related to the famous family. He answered:

"Dr. Robert Ould was the first to come to America in the later part of the 1600's. His first wife passed away after bearing eight children. His next wife mothered the line that R.E. Olds, the father of the speedwagons, is from. I was told that he was among eight more children, Robert's second familiy."

[Excerpt of Rabey from "Beyond the Circle" by Leo Trunt]

Trains were not the only mode of transportation over the railroad. A number of people used the rails as a means of transportation by using "speeders" and motorized vehicles that would run on the rail. Sometimes they also met with disastrous results. "In a collision between a hand speeder and a railway motor Saturday evening, Mrs. Chas. F. Kaiser received a bad cut on her head and was rendered unconscious and the other passengers received minor bruises and were badly shaken up.

"The 'motor' in charge of W. W. Rabey, had as passengers, Mrs. C. F. Kaiser and her sister-in-law, Mrs. J. D. Wilde, and was coming from Rabey to Hill City, endeavoring to get in ahead of the train. They were running at a good speed when they met the speeder ridden by E. E. Reynolds. In the darkness neither party saw the other until it was too late to avoid the smash-up.

"Mr. Reynolds managed to get clear of his machine and escaped with a shaking up and some minor bruises. His speeder was badly broken up. Mr. Rabey had just time to shut off his power and put on brakes when the crash came. He escaped unhurt but the ladies were thrown a distance of fifteen feet. Aside from some minor bruises Mrs. Wilde was uninjured, but Mrs. Kaiser was not so fortunate. She struck her head, cutting a bad gash in it and was rendered unconscious. She was attended by Dr. Stewart and it was found that her injuries were not as serious as it was first feared.

"The accident clearly points out that such things are within the range of possibility and that all speeders and motors should be equipped with lights for night travel." (Hill City News ~ October 14, 1914)

[Excerpt of Swatara from "Beyond the Circle" by Leo Trunt]

Walking to school was now replaced by the convenience of riding the bus:

"....These kids rode to school in five school buses over many routes. The original conveyances were Reo Speed Wagons with wooden Wayne bodies, which at the time were considered the best available. These were used for eleven years on roads that left much to be desired. These bodies were of the narrow 30 passenger type packed, in sardine fashion with a long seat on each side of the bus. The children faced each other and at first there was no way of heating them....It wasn't until 'Buck' Gillson drove one of the buses that he conceived of the idea of running a large pipe down the center of the body and ran the exhaust through it. It was hard on rubbers and shoes when they made contact with the hot pipe, but it made the inside of the bus more comfortable on below zero mornings." (Ibid, pages 56-57) Some of the other bus drivers were Si Perkins, Lawrence Kelly, Glen Baty, Con Angermo, Gale Gorsuch, Ralph McNeil, Roger McNeil, Bill Trepanier, Sam Bailey, Oscar Nystrom, Carl Nelson, Everett Ramey, Meade Myers, Herman Nelson and others. (Ibid, page 59)

[Excerpt of Hill City from "Beyond the Circle" by Leo Trunt]

The Hill City and Western Railroad suffered another loss in 1918. "Tuesday night at eight o'clock the roundhouse of the Hill City Railway caught fire and in a few minutes the entire building was a mass of flames. In a comparatively short time a line of hose was laid from the nearest hydrant, but it was then too late to save the building or machinery. All efforts were directed toward saving the fuel and supply warehouse. Estimated loss is from $10,000.00 to $12,000.00, partly covered by insurance. Practically all the machines and tools are a complete loss. Some may be put into shape for use again but most of them are a mass of junk.

"As nearly as can be ascertained the fire was caused by fire dropping from a kerosene torch. As the building was of frame construction and bone dry the flames spread quickly. The floor and benches were saturated with oil and grease, the accumulation of the past nine years, and this aided the fire in getting a quick start. There was a great quantity of cordwood piled around the building and about 600 tons of soft coal and this was on fire several times. A small amount of the fuel was burned but nearly all of it was saved.

"A flat car and a gasoline speeder were inside the shop and were lost. The two engines were run out to safety, although the coal on one of them was on fire. Most of the heavy machines are warped or cracked so as to render them useless. Tools, many of them specially made, that have been accumulating for years were practically all destroyed. Many of these expensive dies and taps and some of them it is next to impossible to replace. The building itself is the smallest part of the loss, being of wood and roughly constructed. It will probably be replaced by a brick or concrete building. To replace the machinery and tools will cost a great deal more than the loss and will take a long time owing to conditions throughout the country. It was by far the most expensive fire in the history of Hill City." (Hill City News ~ March 14, 1918)

Did I hear someone say the "Good Old Days" were boring?
Not so, especially if you were a train engineer and had to contend with "speeders" and moose!

[Excerpt of Hill City from "Beyond the Circle" by Leo Trunt]

The employees of the Hill City Railroad were a hard working bunch, but also had a little fun at times. "B. B. H. Johnson, master mechanic for the Mississippi, Hill City and Western Railway had a little adventure last Thursday the like of which does not come to many men. While making a run over the road last Thursday, he was surprised to see a large moose ambling up the track ahead of the engine. It was evidently in no hurry but when B. B. H. grabbed the whistle cord with a convulsive grip and let off some steam the aforementioned moose became frightened and threw on the third speed. Butler opened up the throttle and gave chase. The race was a merry one for a short distance punctuated at various intervals with sundry blasts from the siren. But the moose was no marathon runner and after trying in vain to distance the engine gave it up as a bad job and with a mighty effort leapt over the ditch to safety, and a pine stump. The stump got in the way and threw his nibs over on his face and he appeared stunned. B. B. H. jumped off the engine and ran over to assist the moose to his feet but the animal spurned his assistance and jumping to his feet made off up the track at a speed which showed he was only fooling at first. The engine crew decided they couldn't afford to use up fuel in chasing an ornery moose and besides it was getting towards supper time and they didn't want to miss it." (Hill City News ~ June 9, 1910)

Click HERE for a wonderful French site dedicated to antinque American cars. Be sure to find the section for the Ransom Eli Olds Museum in Lansing, Michigan. Remember, you don't have to speak French to look at pictures!