I don’t know if Jessie Thomas Merica was a horse-obsessed boy, but even if he was, I bet he soon forgot ole’ Pet the family equine once the automobile came into his life.
Jessie was born in 1916, which was exactly the right time for a boy who would have a life-long love affair with cars. His was one of the first generations to grow up with the automobile, mostly those 4-cylinder 20-horsepower open-top Model T jobs, a simple, economical car invented by Henry Ford that would dominate America’s roads for 20 years. Until Ford’s modern marvel the average car sold for about $4,000, twice the average American’s income. Ford introduced the assembly line into manufacturing, bringing the Model T’s price in at $825.
Car ownership suddenly surged. The roads filled with Ford’s black Tin Lizzies, a tin can of a car in a world that before then had only known expensive, custom-made, hand-built autos. The Tin Lizzie was reliable, though, and even stubborn old farmers saved for them.
The first car in Shenandoah, where Jesse’s family lived, was owned by Dr. B. C. Shuler, and it turned heads everywhere he went. One day Jessie’s mother, Florence Merica, walked with a friend from their home in the Fleeburg district into town. They met Dr. Schuler there going about his business, and the three got to talking. When the women admired his car, he told them to hop in and he’d give them a ride home.
That ride gave Florence a notion that the Mericas needed a car too, and she made up her mind right then that her family would have one.
By 1929 over half of all American families owned a car. And the Merica family wasn’t about to be on the zero side of that equation. They weren’t the first in Fleeburg to have a car. But they weren’t the last. Tom Merica, Jessie’s father, brought home a Model T Ford with canvas top, eisenglass windows, and a bud vase, which was strictly an aftermarket addition for those who wanted a little elegance with their basic black car.
That Model T was the beginning of a love affair that lasted Jessie’s whole life. No, not just a love affair. It was also a job, a business, a recreation, even a grudge.
He was already used to being the family chauffeur even before the Merica family joined the new mobile era. When his mother wanted to visit her two sisters or mother up at #2 Furnace or Jollett Hollow she often asked Jessie to drive the wagon those six or so miles. She could do it herself, but liked when he came along.
But his best days were after he was allowed to chauffeur the car, especially when his mother asked him to drive her to her third sister, Jessie’s Aunt Emmie.
From their home in Fleeburg, a district of Shenandoah, Emmie’s home in Newport News was a good 175 miles or more. Instead of the three hours it would take today, it was a good half-day trip, four or more blissful hours of steering along curving, straight, rising, dipping, bumpy, and occasionally smooth roads from nearly one edge of the state to the other, ending at the Atlantic Ocean.
Jessie and his mother sat up front and talked together a good part of the way while Jessie’s little sisters, Ruthy and Annie, rode in the back seat. On hot summer days with the top down the the girls sat up and let the wind whip their hair. When they’d had enough they crawled off the seats and rode crouched on the floor till they were ready to climb back up and start the cycle again.
On one of those trips to Newport News Jessie took Ruthy and his mother, Florence, to the Buckroe Beach amusement park. Florence rode the ferris wheel with a grin as wide as her face, then said once was enough, and she was glad she wouldn’t have to do that again.
Jessie took Ruthy off to ride the roller coaster and carousel, and play carnival games. But when he spotted a pretty girl, it was all over for Ruthy.
He stood up straight, pulled his shoulders back, ambled over and asked the object of his interest if she would go on the ferris wheel with him. While they were twirling in the sky Jessie leaned over and kissed her on the lips. Ruthy watched from the carriage behind in awe and embarrassment.
Jessie and his new girl played more carnival games while Ruthy tagged along behind. He won a prize and gave it to the current love interest, then they disappeared into a photo booth and had their picture taken. Ruthy had her picture taken too. Jessie gave the photos to Ruthy on the way home and asked her to put them someplace safe.
Once home she slid his under the cloth mantle on the piano. There it stayed until several years later when Jessie brought home the love of his life, a pretty young lady named Emily Doom, and announced that she would be his wife.
Ruth – for she was a young lady now too and no longer went by Ruthy – took out the photo and showed it to Emily, thinking Emily should know that Jessie once kissed another girl. Emily just smiled. She knew Jessie had never loved another.
But before Jesse would meet and marry Emily, he had some more growing up to do. He needed to learn a trade. But more than anything he needed a car.
One dank winter day Jesse took Ruthy along in the family car to pick up Uncle Nash, the aged black man who lived in a dark home by the railroad tracks in Shenandoah.
Uncle Nash was still eating his breakfast, a big plate of ham and eggs and pancakes that powerfully scented the small room.
Jessie looked around, then told Uncle Ned, “Well, I think I’ll just take today off. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He turned, Ruthy followed. They stopped to visit their oldest sister, Ola Grimsley, before leaving Shenandoah for home. It was too cold to work that day.
By the time Jessie was 15 his older brother Charles had taken control of the family car, and because Jessie desperately needed to drive, that meant he had to buy his own. So he worked hard, saved his money, told no one, and one day pulled into the driveway in his own car, a Model T, like his father’s.
His reception was not what he expected, though. Instead of being heralded as the bright, industrious hero he thought himself to be, his father told him in no uncertain terms that he was not to have his own car, and to “get that thing out of here.” He said Jessie was still too young, too irresponsible.
Tom Merica, Jessie’s father, was as big, strapping, and handsome as Jessie. And he was as stubborn as Jessie. Thus an argument ensued. Jessie lost, and here is when Jessie decided he was man enough to leave home.
He was already responsible for hiring and managing the field hands on their farm, like Uncle Nash. He chose them, decided where and when they would work, showed them how it was done, paid them, picked them up and took them home when need be.
Tom and Jessie could not come to terms on the car. “Get rid of the car or leave,” Tom said. I don’t know if Jessie’s father already understood the outcome of that ultimatum. Maybe anger clouded his mind. Maybe he thought Jessie would back down. But no, that was not to happen.
Part 2 of At the Wheel: The Life of Jessie Merica will be published next Monday. To ensure you don’t miss it, enter your email address in the box at the top right of this page, and it will be mailed to you. Or, follow via WordPress.