The History of Joliet – Chapter 29

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“Horse shoes just couldn’t compete in the new century with those dreamers and their horseless carriages.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

In 1900, business was booming for the Phoenix Horse Shoe Company in Joliet. But the beginning of the end was already in sight for horses.

Horses were being replaced by horsepower in the horseless carriage.

While Henry FORD and Ransom Eli OLDS were dreaming about an automobile industry in Detroit, George ELRICK, Wilbur DAYTON and others were having that same dream in Joliet.

As early as 1896, ELRICK, a machinist, was working on a four-wheel vehicle in a Joliet garage. He was so confident about his horseless carriage that he advertised it.

He described his car as having four pins, which could be removed to convert it into a motorcycle. The vehicle’s single-cylinder gasoline engine weighed 20 pounds and could reach a speed of 25 mph. ELRICK said the cost of running it was 10 cents every 100 miles.

ELRICK‘s vision for his car included use by express, delivery, postal and military services. The car was built and tested. But it never went into production, probably because of inadequate financing.

Shoes for horses

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Horse Shoe Co. was employing 300 workers in its Joliet plant and another 400 in a plant at Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Manufacturing 130 sizes and patterns of horse and mule shoes, the Joliet plant was turning out 1,600 kegs of shoes a day.

The horse shoes were filling orders that arrived from all over the world. The Phoenix shoes were considered the very best.

But horses and horse shoes just couldn’t compete in the new century with those dreamers and their horseless carriages.

At least a dozen automobile companies were started with various models and designs in Joliet during that first two decades of 1900.

These vehicles carried names like the Van Fleet, the Van Guard, the Economy, the Crusader, the Cruiser, the American Traveler, the Goodspeed, the Commonwealth, the New Era, the Dayton, the Matrix, the Pratt and the Steinhart-Jensen.

The Economy Motor Buggy Co. started manufacturing its vehicle in Fort Wayne, Ind. in 1907. But because of infringing on patents held by a St. Louis company and resulting lawsuits, Economy quietly closed its Indiana shop and moved to Joliet, where they opened a three-story building on Bissell Street.

The original investors in Economy had included Joliet’s Dr. J.C. FLOWERS and Col. John LAMBERT, the steel industrialist. But they sold out to a group of Chicago investors in 1910. The company went into bankruptcy the following year.

The bankruptcy property was bought by William PRATT, who built a prototype of an electric car. But the vehicle was never produced for sale.

Dayton’s dreams

In 1909, William DAYTON came to Joliet from Chicago. With partners, he organized the Matrix Automobile Co., but their car never went into production.

However, DAYTON had lots of ideas. He designed the DAYTON, a cyclecar with bicycle-like wheels. In 1914, this car made a trip from Chicago to Joliet in one hour and 35 minutes.

“The DAYTON is one of the fastest cyclecars so far built in America, the speedometer needle having pointed to over 60 mph on several occasions,” said one publication about the speedy trip.

Built with a hickory wooden frame, the company moved into the old Economy facility and started production. But production of the DAYTON ended five months later.

William DAYTON had more ideas and he designed the Crusader. But only experimental models were ever built. At this time, DAYTON went to work for the New Era Engineering Co., which did make several hundred vehicles.

Of all these early car companies in Joliet, the most successful was the Commonwealth Motors Corp. Built with a sturdy frame, the Commonwealth was produced between 1917-22 in Joliet.

The company eventually merged with a Chicago company and began making Checker Cabs. The cabs were made in Joliet on Moen Avenue for two years before the company moving its operation to Kalamazoo, Mich.

As the car dreamers continued to come and go in Joliet, Henry FORD made the dream come true in Detroit with mass production on an assembly line. His 1908 Model T kept getting better each following year. And it was affordable for the working man.

The horseless carriage was here to stay. With it came the first paved roads in Joliet and the rest of the country. Next Saturday: The mysterious murder of the warden’s wife at the Collins Street prison in 1915.

Published October 13, 2001