George Morrill Started Something When He Bought First Car
By ANNE SHEEHAN
Local late-nite-radio freaks who happened to spin their dials to WGBH-FM, sister station to Boston’s public TV Channel 2, around midnight last Tuesday, got a shock of recognition as they heard humorist and raconteur Jean Shepherd describe “the little town of Norwood, Massachusetts” as “the site of an almost completely unknown but absolutely unique historical event.”
Shepherd, actor, writer, TV and radio personality and sometime philosopher, is the sole performer on a radio show, “Inside Jean Shepherd”, originating from WOR, New York, and aired here each weeknight on a delayed basis.
His style is a blend of simplicity and sophistication, the superficial and the profound, wit and serious thought done rather in the manner of Will Rogers as Fun City hipster, interspersed every so often with five or ten minutes of “Shep”, as his fans know him, doing a kazoo solo or twanging away on his harp to the accompaniment of an ancient and much scratched record of something called “The Bear Missed The Train.”
Tuesday night, however, aficionados, whose taste for the program’s offbeat approach, like that for raw oysters, has to be acquired but is never lost thereafter, heard Shepherd about as serious as he ever gets.
Starting with the thesis that the real stuff of history never gets written down in books, Shepherd argued that historians are so preoccupied with the same old things — wars, famines, political power plays — happening in the same old way that they never get around to the real “firsts” of history, the real turning points that, once they occur, forever change the way we live.
NEVER AGAIN THE SAME
“For example,” he queried his listeners, “did you know that on this very day” (Nov. 21, the program having been subject to a week’s delay before its Boston airing) “back in 1896 something happened in Norwood,
Massachusetts, that represents a real historic first, a moment after which things were never going to be the same again?” “On that day,” he went on, “a gentleman in Norwood by the name of George H. Morrill purchased, actually bought and paid for, the very first car ever bought by anybody anywhere. Now think of that for a great moment in history!”
Shepherd went on to explain that there had been a number of cars built prior to that by Henry Ford and others, but that they had all been put together as experimental models by their owners who enjoyed tinkering away out in the barn, each with his own version of the horseless carriage. Morrill’s car, on the other hand, was one of thirteen built during 1896 by Frank Duryea and his brother, Charles, who set up shop in Springfield, Mass., to produce the first commercially built motor vehicles under the name of the Duryea Motor Wagon Co. The low production quota for that year is accounted for by the fact that each of the thirteen had to be constructed entirely with individualized hand labor since the conveyor belt assembly line had not yet been dreamed up by Henry Ford. (Frank Duryea, incidentally, had, a year previously, in Chicago, won the first automobile race ever held in the U.S.)
And indeed, when one views it, as Shepherd went on to do, in the light of all that was to follow from that initial sale to Mr. Morrill, it was a genuine historical watermark of the first order.
The enormous U.S. auto industry, the flashy showrooms dotting the landscape in every town in America, the endless miles of superhighway, each with its Howard Johnson watering hole for exhausted motorists, the glossy full-color ads featuring semi-dressed, sloe-eyed females stretched luxuriously over the hoods of this year’s model, all geared to luring the next customer to follow in the footsteps of George H. Morrill.
Like most turning points in history, moreover, it leads one to speculate on what might have happened, had the person in question been given a look at the consequences that would flow from his action.
Would Antony have snuggled up to Cleopatra, had he known what it would do to his career?
Would Marie Antoinette have advised her subjects to eat cake, had she foreseen what effect their reaction would have on the state of her health?
Would Napoleon ever have sailed away from Elba, had some oracle whispered to him of Waterloo just around the corner?
Would Mr. Morrill, had he been able to visualize the action along the southbound lane of the Southeast Expressway every evening around 5 o’clock, ever have signed on the dotted line with Mr. Duryea?
And there is one other question, even more intriguing than that, which Jean Shepherd, in his historical research efforts, entirely overlooked.
Did George H. Morrill, as he contemplated making the first purchase of the first car sold by the first car salesman, put his hands in his pockets, assume a thoughtful expression, and walk slowly around the car kicking the tires, thereby establishing a ritual to be followed with almost religious precision by generations of succeeding car buyers?
Learn more about George H Morrill and the Morrill Ink Company
This Day in Norwood History-June 5, 1892-Lady Bicyclists
Dr. Soberbrow, in his address to the graduating class of one of our lady colleges last year, while he complimented them on their attainments and beauty, said that he hoped…
This Day in Norwood History-June 1, 1950-John B. Kennedy Sworn In As Town Manager
MANAGER SWORN IN—John B. Kennedy, Norwood town manager (right) was sworn into office by town clerk, Walter Blasenak at the Norwood municipal building. The new manager will commute between Winthrop…
This Day in Norwood History-June 5, 1950-Last Tribute Paid To R. Russell Williamson
Prominent Citizen, Banker, Businessman And Churchman, Dies Here At Age of 71 Norwood’s outstanding citizen, banker, businessman, and churchman. R. Russell Williamson, died unexpectedly at the Norwood Hospital Saturday afternoon…
This Day in Norwood History-June 5, 1950-New Steel Display Shelves at the Morrill Memorial Library
FOR THE CONVENIENCE of its users the Morrill Memorial Library has arranged to have the steel display shelves constructed in the Plimpton Wing as well as a small reading nook…