Editor’s Note: In this chapter, the author takes us back to the days when automobile travel was a novelty, a rather unreliable novelty at that. Most Americans relied heavily on train travel as is herein described.
When I was about 8 years old, I had my first automobile ride. One of my uncles had a Studebaker, an open car with carbide lights. He took my mother and me to Hudsonville, where some of my mother’s family lived. I can well remember that just as we were leaving the city limits on Chicago Drive, my cap blew off, and my uncle had to stop the car to retrieve it. All in all, this was quite an experience.
Shortly after my first ride, in 1916, my dad bought his first car, a Model T. It was the first automobile in the neighborhood. It was a pickup truck that could be converted into a run-about by taking off the box. This car had one seat, with the gas tank under the seat. It had one door, a half door on the passenger side. It had a brass radiator. It had to be cranked. In cold weather one of the back wheels had to be jacked up and the car put into gear to give added inertia for starting.
The car had a kerosene lamp for a taillight, which went out on rough roads. It also had magneto head lights, which would dim very low when the engine idled. They were at their best when the engine was revved. One dark, drizzly night my brother and I were riding east on Lake Drive. Visibility was bad. As we slowed to turn at the corner at Diamond we suddenly heard a thump. My brother stepped on the brake, and we saw a dark figure arise in front of the car. As it came under the street light we saw that it was a woman, who ran away like a hunted deer. She was evidently unhurt but sorely embarrassed. We left our name, address and license number at the corner drug store, but never heard any more of it.
On a Fourth of July my parents decided to make a trip to Hudsonville. My dad rarely drove, and was not the best, nor the fastest driver. We left around seven in the morning, went to Fulton St. and then along Market to Chicago Drive. We rode until we came to grain elevators in Jenison. There we turned left, traveled a certain distance, and then turned right to get to Hudsonville. By the time we arrived it was 9:00 a.m. Between three and four in the afternoon we left, arriving home about 6:00 p.m. A long day and a strenuous experience.
A few years later, my brother-in-law, Otto Vander Woude, also had a Model T, with enclosed front and rear seats.1 One day, his oil line was clogged, so we took off the pan under the engine, took out the copper oil line, ran a wire through it and soon had the engine put together and running again.
In 1927, Richard Veldman, Gerrit Vos and I were in Doon to supply the pulpits in Doon, Hull and Sioux Center. We went by train to Hull or Sioux Center for Sunday services. But during the week we borrowed a car from one of the farmers. It was usually the extra car that they had. One day, when Vos was driving his wife, son and me to Sioux Center, the steering shaft came loose. The car ended up in the ditch. We walked to Sioux Center, and the farmer had to fetch his car, while we had to find a way back to Doon.
On another occasion Rich Veldman and I had gone to Sioux Center to attend a consistory meeting. It was about 11:00 p.m. when we started for home. Instead of going to the Main Street we stayed on the street of the church and soon settled in the Iowa mud. This was not the first time we had gotten ourselves stuck in the clay, but now we were dressed up and did not feel like digging with our hands in the mud. As we pondered how to get out of this mess, a young fellow returning from his girlfriend’s house, came past. He first wanted to change his clothes. We thought that to be an excuse and settled down to sleep there. But soon he returned with a shovel and had us on our way to Doon.
But in the mean time the radiator had run dry, as we noticed a short distance from town. Rich went into a farmyard, pumped a bucket of water and carried it out to the car. But by that time the man of the house came out to check on the disturbance. So Rich threw the bucket into the yard and ran back to the car.
On another occasion I was going to Sioux Center to teach catechism. Immediately I discovered that the Model T had neither clutch nor brakes. To start it rolling one had to push it and hop in. To stop it, one ran against the curb or another obstacle. I left the car on Main Street of Sioux Center. But on the way home as the car was climbing a hill, my hat blew off. That meant that I had to bring the car to the top of the hill, run back for my hat, and then start the car by going downhill.
After staying about three months in Doon, Rev. Vos decided that he, his wife and his son should go home. This meant we had to borrow a car to take them to the Hull railroad station. Having packed his trunk, and having put his wife and son in the back seat, Gerrit, Richard and I took our places in the front seat. All went well, even going downhill, but the problem came when we tried to climb the next hill. Suddenly the engine kept running, but the car stood still.
Gerrit stopped a passing motorist and informed him of our difficulty and of the fact that they simply had to catch the train in Hull. This fellow felt sorry for him, so the trunk, the wife, the son and Gerrit were off with the motorist. Rich and I sat in the car that had refused to run. Giving it another try, we found that it ran perfectly. So instead of turning back, we went to Hull to see Gerrit off on the train. His first thought was that he was seeing ghosts. Then he decided we had pulled a prank on him. He refused to be convinced that, after we were relieved of him and all his possessions, the car ran well. When we took the car back to the farmer we felt obligated to inform him of our experience.
In June, after coming home for exams, Rich Veldman and I returned to Doon for the summer. This time Andrew Cammenga came with us. During our stay, we decided to ask Nick Buyert of Sioux Center for permission to take his car, which we were borrowing, to the Black Hills. He consented. On Monday morning we were off to South Dakota. Before dawn we rode over a skunk; for a while the smell was almost unbearable. As the day progressed we noticed that the car was heating up. Since it was a borrowed car we felt that we should check. So we stopped at a garage and asked the mechanic if he knew how to prevent the car from overheating. He took a look and told us, “When you get out of town you will see a junk yard. Bring the car there and leave it.” That hardly solved our problem, so we went on. After we returned home, Mr. Buyert informed us that he had just had the car overhauled, so the pistons were still tight.
Late in one afternoon of our trip, in torrents of rain, we were approaching Rapid City. When we stopped to ask a passing motorist how much farther we had to go on the muddy road, the other driver asked us how long we had been riding in the mud. By the time we reached Rapid City the car was so hot that we could not shut off the engine. We brought the car to a garage where they set it against the wall and revved the engine till it stopped. The next morning they had to tow it to unlock the back wheels.
Now we were ready to see the park. But the hills were steep. So two walked up the hills, while the third drove the car. The most hazardous part of the trip was going down those steep hills. The brake could not slow up the car at curves, so the driver was forced to reach out frequently for the emergency brake.
We did have a broken spark plug wire in the park. A piece of fence wire took care of that until we were home again.
We spent one night in a motel that had bed bugs. All three of us were in one bed. The next morning Rich was full of red spots. He had had it. He wanted to go home.
That day we did stand in a railroad station and wonder whether we should avail ourselves of the opportunity to see Denver, since it was likely we would never get there if we did not go now. Our better judgment prevailed and we started back to Doon, making the trip without further mishap.
By the latter part of August we were thinking of going back home and to school. Rev. Vos had accepted the call to Sioux Center and was preparing to go there, but was first waiting for the birth of a baby (Marilyn). We were told to stay until the baby arrived. So patiently we waited it out day by day. Finally the word came that the baby had arrived, so we could make plans to go home and belatedly return to the seminary.
Mr. Cammenga, the father of Andrew, had purchased a new car and decided to come to Doon to bring us home. So on a Monday morning at four o’ clock we started out. The roads were still made of gravel and led us through every town along the route. We reached our first brick road about one hundred miles west of Chicago. This was one lane, requiring two wheels off the pavement when we happened to meet a passing car.
Stopping only for gas and a bite to eat we traveled all day and all night. After going through the Loop of Chicago we passed through South Chicago, Hammond, Gary, Michigan City, Benton Harbor, and then on through the woods to South Haven, Saugatuck, Holland, Zeeland, finally to arrive at our destination at nine on a Tuesday morning. That took us thirty hours. Now the trip is made in twelve to fifteen hours.
In July 1934 my wife and I were expecting our third child. We made the trip to Grand Rapids with our two boys and stayed with my folks. They were glad to have us come, but were also eager for us to leave. They did not fancy having a baby born in their home.
This was the summer of the big drought, the summer of grasshoppers devouring the entire crop in South Dakota, the summer of the unforgettable dust storms. It was a hot summer even in Michigan. Therefore we decided to leave for Hull at 2:00 a.m., to drive through the cool of the night at least part of the way. By the time we reached Holland, Michigan we were already turning up the windows. By the time we reached Chicago, we had to turn the heater on in the car as the car was overheating. This made me feel miserably sick. So we decided to stop early in the afternoon, sleep through the night and get an early start the next morning. Mom made the arrangements at a motel somewhere near Dubuque. But when the manager saw me staggering out of the car, she decided that the deal was off. She wanted no pregnant woman with a drunken husband in one of her rooms. It took a bit of persuasion to convince her that we would create no inconvenience.
There were others also who had interesting experiences in the automobile. Two men of the consistory of Hull PRC were appointed to attend the combined consistory meeting in Grand Rapids. They decided to go by car, even though they had never before ventured on a trip as big as this.
They rode along the gravel road and later in the day came to a detour. Returning from the detour, they found themselves back on the Atlantic-Yellowstone-Pacific Highway and continued on their way. After some time one remarked: “Never before have I seen the sun set in the east.” The other agreed. So they decided to stop at a gas station and ask whether this was the highway to Chicago. They were informed that it was but as they were driving off the man at the station called to them, “Are you coming from or going to Chicago?” Being informed that they were on their way to Chicago, they were told that they were going the wrong way. Finally having reached Chicago they discovered that the highway led them right through the heart of the city. Cars passed them on both sides. Never had they experienced anything like this. So at the very first opportunity the driver brought the car up on the sidewalk, where he stopped with a sense of relief. He was reminded that this was not Grand Rapids. So a taxi driver was hired to bring them safely though the city and on their way again to their destination.
On another occasion, delegates from Doon, Rock Valley and Sioux Center respectively had gone by train to Grand Rapids, and were now on their way back home. Mr. Tim Kooima from Rock Valley had stopped in Chicago to buy a car to drive home.2 Mr. John Broek of Sioux Center and Mr. Harm Zylstra of Doon had gone to the Union Station to await the train to Rock Valley. While they were waiting, Tim Kooima stopped at the station to offer them a ride home. Mr. Broek consented, but Mr. Zylstra decided to go home by train. But somehow the train had pulled out without him. He stayed in the station for 24 hours waiting for the next train. Because of the milling crowd rushing past, he was very reluctant even to rise from his seat. During the night a policeman thought him to be a bum and wanted to send him on his way. But in broken English he showed that he had a ticket for the train and was allowed to stay. It was Saturday evening before he could board the train, which brought him into Rock Valley on Sunday morning during the church service. Rather than interfere with the service he waited in a car outside and obtained a ride back home to Doon.
The most common means of travel at that time was by train. Yes, we did go by car when the family traveled, but in those days ministers could travel by train for half price. Therefore, when we traveled alone, we traveled by rail. This was most enjoyable, even though we rarely could afford to take a sleeper. It was a trip we looked forward to when the various delegates from the Midwest would travel by train to classis (At that time, classis was not yet divided into east and west).
Also going to classical appointment by train was a pleasure. Because of the Depression the train carried very few passengers. They would do almost anything to satisfy those few who did still ride their coaches. On one occasion I had gone by train to fill a classical appointment in Pella and Oskaloosa. The train that was to take me from Des Moines to Mason City, where I would transfer to the Chicago Milwaukee line, was an hour late. I told the conductor that, since they were an hour late, I would miss my train in Mason City, and would not be able to get home until the next day. After a bit of investigating he came back and asked me whether I was willing to follow orders strictly. I assured him that there was not much I would not do to get home that same day. So the arrangements were made. As we approached the switches of Mason City, the train had to slow up to almost a complete stop. I stood, as ordered, on the bottom step of the coach, travel bag in hand, and as the train slowed up I jumped into the ditch. Then, still following orders, I waited until the train was past, only to hear a most welcome voice in the distance, directing me to a waiting taxi. Five minutes before train time, we arrived in the Chicago Milwaukee station.
On another occasion I had two chickens, stripped and drawn to take back to Oak Lawn. It was warm in the train, so that I became concerned about my two chickens. I talked to the conductor, who took them to the water cooler, where they stayed on ice until I arrived in Chicago.
At that time Hull was more or less the center of the churches in the Midwest. This congregation had the largest church building, so that classes, lectures, conferences with the German Reformed Churches, and other prominent meetings were held there.
One year comes to mind when a number of delegates from the east were coming by train and were stalled near Spencer because of floods. A few of us got into our cars and drove down to where the train was stalled to pick up the delegates, among whom were Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Ophoff. That noon we had thirteen people around our dining room table. Thirteen hungry men and we had but one scrawny chicken. Having come from a large family, Mom did not get too excited about these unexpected impositions. She usually had canned meat in the basement, which could readily be heated up.
On one occasion Rev. Hoeksema was staying with us when two elderly couples came from Kalamazoo. When one of the ladies heard that Rev. Hoeksema was staying with us, she was determined also to stay with us. When told that we had no room, she got herself sick, so that she could not stay “out in the country”. The result was that she stayed in bed all day, and then when we were ready to visit a bit in the evening, she got up, once making the remark, “Oh Dominee Hoeksma, I could sit up all night and listen to you.” He answered, “But I’m going to bed.”
And so, since the nation was increasingly on the move with these advancements in travel, we were able to keep in touch with our extended family and other churches in the denomination.
1 Otto Vander Woude was the father of John, a member in Grandville Church, and Mrs. Corson, a member in First Church, Grand Rapids.
2 This was the father of Tim Kooima from our Hull Church.