Today when we want to hop in the car, insert the key in the ignition and fire up the engine we take it all for granted. But it was as little as 100 years ago when cars were a novelty in central Minnesota and especially the rural areas.
One of the first accounts written of the automobile’s emergence to the Watkins area was penned in 1911 in the diary of the late Rev. Nicholas Donnay, who grew up on a farm near town. Excerpts from that diary were published in the Watkins Centennial history book entitled “The First 100 Years.”
Donnay wrote: “On June 20, 1911, a bright shining Overland car came to the farm. Cars were still rare privileges and the thrill which came to us with the new horseless buggy was almost overpowering.
“In the middle of this bright summer day, all work was forgotten by the entire family, all but mother; she never showed much excitement, not even any definite approval to any of the cars that ever came onto the place. The car had no top, but it had doors, which were an addition to the latest model of cars. The steering wheel was on the right, the shift levers were on the outside of the chassis, a bright carbide token ornamented the running-board which was to furnish the gas for lights at night, but most remained an ornament.”
The man who delivered the car from Litchfield had to teach members of the Donnay family how to operate the car before he had to be driven back to his home.
Nicholas’ brother, Joe, was “broken in” as the first driver.
“Joe drove to Watkins to show off a bit; gave a lady a lift to her home; and brought the car back to the farm. In the afternoon, Father and Joe took the agent back to Litchfield, from where the car had come, and the first car troubles, the first of many in those days, came on the way back home. It got to be so bad that Father had to get out and push whenever a hill of any size came in the way, and he would enjoy the pleasure of riding only when the path led downhill.”
The car troubles were repaired when Joe found a loose wire.
“Things were always going apart on those early contraptions. With the wire fastened in its place, the rest of the trip home was most successful.”
Nicholas wrote that the car “annihilated space.”
“We could drive to Eden Valley in a half hour, a fact which we proved on the following Sunday. The trip to Litchfield could be negotiated in an hour when all went well. The distance to Watkins was, of course, a mere matter of sitting down and getting up again, a poor treat for one who loved to ride in the car.”
Of course, the car grew its share of spectators.
“On the following Sunday some 50 people, friends and neighbors, came out to the farm for an afternoon visit. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the car had something to do with this but, if any had come for a thrill as a passenger in that car, they were completely disappointed. The car was not taken from its shed all that afternoon.”
The Donnay’s car began opening up new and unexplored worlds for the family.
“On Aug. 14, the car had to make the trip to Glencoe. Father had come from this place but had not visited there for 27 years. We children hardly knew anything about the relatives down there. Though the distance was only
45 miles, the terrain was as unfamiliar as if we were in South America. Roads were mere wagon trails in some places. The shadows of evening had fallen when we finally found our way into the farm yard of Pete Donnay. We had planned to return home the following afternoon but, alas, it rained. That was just all right for myself, Joe and Anna, but Father and Uncle Henry were not so elated about it. The rain served to make us young folks all the more frolicsome.”
The car was parked under a cowshed to keep it out of the rain.
“But we could sit in it and since the shed was of considerable length, we hit upon the idea of getting a ride by motoring back and forth on the inside of it.”
It’s difficult in this day and age to imagine being thrilled to ride in a car inside of a cowshed. And imagine how impatient we would all be if it took a half hour to get from Watkins to Eden Valley!