INVASION OF THE HATED “DEVIL WAGON” (October 18/96)

Praising the automobile and reminding Canadians “how much part and parcel of everyday living the automobile now is, “an institutional ad from the ’30s said there would one day be a car in every driveway and “people would be unable to work and play without this mechanized marvel.”

Those words are stilted and I suppose “thirtyish”, but they were prophetic. Imagine working and playing today without the automobile. We might be able to get along without a “mechanized marvel”, but most of us would find it difficult and most likely impossible.

It wasn’t always that way. Nova Scotians bitterly fought the automobile’s introduction. It’s part of our history few people are familiar with, but there was a time when people actually organised to stop the automobile’s encroachment.

The first automobile arrived in Nova Scotia in 1899. Within a few years, howls of protest over the invasion of the “devil wagon” were heard everywhere. In 1908, terrorised citizens petitioned MLAs for legislation giving every town, city and municipality the right to forbid the operation of automobiles in their boundaries at least several days a week.

It was a close call for the handful of motor vehicle owners who were driving in the province at the time, but the legislation was never passed province-wide – although in some towns and municipalities, automobiles were denied entry on market days. However, the fact that such legislation was seriously debated by the provincial government gives us an idea of how alarmed people were. These excerpts (the first an editorial, the second a letter to the editor) from provincial newspapers in 1908 indicate the level of that alarm:

“Autos were a rich man’s toy and a poor man would be jailed who contrived a devilish machine so constructed that in looks and noise it scared horses, broke wagons, killed people and spread terror among women and children, as it flitted like a ghostly personification of his Satanic Majesty.”

“Our country roads are not fit for automobile travel on the same days that the country people are supposed to go to the market. Automobiles are preventing almost every man, woman and child… from driving on the public roads with horse and wagon.”

The writer of the letter proposed there be “Peoples Days” from Monday to Thursday, “when one could go to the market without none daring to molest or make them afraid by the so-called motor vehicles.” Anyone running a motor vehicle on “Peoples Days” would, after due notice, be subject to being “fined and shot and maybe killed” the writer added.

Looking back today, the objection to the automobile seems absurd, perhaps even paranoid and ridiculous. But put yourself in a farming community at the turn of the century. Life was relatively peaceful and uncomplicated. For generations the horse and oxen had been mainstays. Then along came a clattering, dangerous machine that disrupts a countryside that had been quiet for centuries. People saw the automobile as threatening the very fabric of their lives and they resented it.

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