Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 36, no. 2 (Fall 1988), p. 11-13
When "Clint" Folger opened the year with a roar: the Automobile Controversy of 1917
By Edouard A. Stackpole
For nearly twenty years, from 1900 to 1918, Nantucket was the only place in the nation that successfully fought encroachment of the automobile within its limits. Opposing politicians on the mainland and large property owners, mostly non-residents, Nantucketers kept the island free of the "gasoline buggy" until the final vote of the town on May 15, 1918. By the narrow margin of forty - 326 to 286 - the automobile was allowed entry.
By 1900, few of the "horseless carriages" had arrived on Nantucket during the summer months. Dr. George Folger's father, then a resident of Melrose, Massachusetts, led the van with a Stanley Steamer followed by a Locomobile owned by Samuel Howe of Ithaca, New York, and another "mobile" owned by Howard Willet, another summer resident. However, it was a motor vehicle owned by W. Verplanck Birney and operated by a 'Sconset resident that frightened several horses drawing carriages and forced the townspeople to rise up in arms" and protest. It was soon obvious that most Nantucketers were opposed to the new-fangled automobile. After they were heard, a special act of the State Legislature in 1908 made it illegal to operate an automobile on the island.
In 1913, Clinton S. Folger, a livery- stable proprietor, brought an Overland car to the island and installed it in his stable on Beach Street. Every now and then he would make a sortie into the streets of the town and quickly disappear.
The "anti-autoists" held meetings at John Terry's livery stable on Middle Pearl Street or in David Gibb's barn on Upper York Street. Protests would appear, the Selectmen would insist the law of the town be obeyed, and the police were ordered to apprehend the transgressor. This accomplished, the town settled down again.
The only road that autos could use was the State road to 'Sconset -- a 7-1/2 mile stretch from the first milestone, beginning one mile out of town. "Clint" Folger had the government contract to carry the U.S. Mail to 'Sconset; so he had a horse tow his Overland through the streets of the town to the milestone, and then proceeded via the automobile to 'Sconset with the mail.
Following is an account of something that happened in December 1916, an episode that began the last phase of the struggle. The habitues of the Pacific Club had just settled back in their chairs around the big stove for a late afternoon rest, with supper about to arrive. The boat was in, the papers had been placed on sale at Jernegan's and the mail distributed in the boxes at the post office on Main Street.
Suddenly there was a low rumble, not unlike thunder. The club members had no sooner pricked up their collective ears than, with a sudden increase in rumbling, the sound appeared to be right at the front door. John M. Winslow tilted his chair forward so that all four legs were on the floor; Clinton Parker dropped his feet from the stove rail; Horatio Adams sat bolt upright in his chair.
At that moment the roar filled the room and a black shape rushed out of South Water Street to careen across the cobbles like a ship under full sail. It dashed around the water fountain and darted into Union Street, where it came to a jolting stop by the post office back door.
"What the thunder!" ejaculated Mr. Adams, tugging at his white beard.
"It's Clint Folger," announced Mr. Parker coolly. "He's got that automobile out again."
"What!"John M. Winslow muttered, "Again! He can't do that!" "Well," remarked Mr. Adams, "as a member of the Board of Selectmen, John, you know he's breaking the town's ordinances, but Clint thinks he's taking advantage of time."
"This has got to stop," observed Mr. Parker in his moderate manner.
"He can't do this!" declared John M. Winslow, shaking his head. Another member came in the door. "It's Clint Folger with his black car. He's back again, and," he pointed, "there she is!"
During the first week of 1917 the controversy grew steadily. Clint Folger revived the old contention with a roar. The old argument continued, but the roar of the "anti-auto" faction was louder than the followers of Clint Folger. The Selectmen held a special meeting and decided to hold a Town Meeting at Red Men's Hall on January 26, 1917. At this special meeting it was argued that the State Legislature's act excluding autos from Nantucket was not fair to the town. Finally, it was decided that the matter would be placed on an Australian ballot, (1) to allow the voters of the island to have a say in the matter. (1) An official Ballot printed at public expense on which the names of all the nominated candidates and proposals appear and which is distributed only at the piling place and marked in secret.
The special meeting was held as scheduled. The hall was wellfilled - with the ladies in attendance almost as numerous as the men, although they were not allowed to vote. Henry Riddell was elected as Moderator and, after the usual formalities, the following question was put to the vote: "Shall the auto-exclusion act be placed on the ballot of the town meeting?" The vote was taken, with the "nays" winning 79 to 39.
There was a momentary bit of excitement during the voting, when Benjamin Williams arose and pointed down the hall. "That woman has her hand up -- she can't vote!" Moderator Riddell cautioned the ladies against attempting to vote and order was quickly restored.
Clint Folger's only reaction to the tide of the voters was "The people are still undecided."
"Up at Bill" Holland's store the controversy was kept alive for several weeks. Customers argued the possibilities of an avalanche of automobiles invading the island's streets and lanes.
"Show me anything a car can do that a horse can't," said Bert Chase.
"Get back and forth to 'Sconset in an hour," answered his son, Leonard Chase, with his customary grin.
"I claim that Clint Folger hasn't broken a town law," announced Charles G. Austin.
"Well," observed the genial Mr. Holland, "somebody broke the law, you can be sure of that. Either it was Clint for getting his car under way again, or the party who called up the chairman of the Board of Selectmen to say that Clint was going to do it, or Chief Gibbs for not arresting him, or those who witnessed the whole procedure and did nothing."
"Hold on, Bill," exclaimed Bert Chase, "you've got half the town included as lawbreakers!"
"Maybe I have'' agreed Mr. Holland, smiling.
It was a year later that the voters made the decision, however there were still islanders who were unconvinced.
One thing was clear and certain - Clint Folger had opened the year 1917 with a demonstration of the quickest way to carry the mail to 'Sconset!