When Motorcycles and Cars Came

Roanoke Times & World News, Sunday February 14, 1993

by Ellison A. Smyth

Its 1912 and changes are happening in Blacksburg. Following is an excerpt from essays by Ellison Smyth on his memories of the era, "RetroSpect: Growing up in Blacksburg and Other Tales Through a Long Life," to be published this summer by Pocahontas Press.

It was not with that raucous, deafening B-rrr bang-bang that scares the liver-lites out of an ordinary mortal, but a sedate put-put-put, that Professor Holdaway proceeded down Faculty Row on his ancient motorcycle.

He had recently arrived from New Zealand, with his Canadian bride, to take charge of the VPI dairy herd, serve as an elder in the Presbyterian Church and serve as treasurer and Sunday School teacher.

And there he was with apologies to no one, riding in public view on one of those motor propelled cycles.

Then with a louder sound, Russel Minter dashed down Faculty Row on his four-cylinder job, and mothers frantically called to their kids to "Get out of the road! Here comes Minter!"

He was in charge of the electric distribution system.

Captain John Smith ran the power plant with its Corliss steam engines, belted to generators, that supplied the campus and town with enough electricity to light the homes and arc lights at several street intersections - until 11 p.m. when anyone with any sense was supposed to be tucked in bed.

Minter was a good friend of ours; he let Brother Randolph and me string a single wire, no higher than we could reach, on the light poles down through the back yards of Faculty Row for our private telegraph line.

When Dr. Holden arrived to teach geology in 1903, he had a Harley Davidson but ran down Faculty Row in a very sober, deliberate way.

He was showing some attention to a visiting cousin of ours, and I was the little kid who was always in the way. He devised a very effective 'kid-eliminator.' He invited me to go for a ride on the handlebars of his motorcycle.

We went out on the old Christiansburg rutted clay road as far as Midway, where he had to stop and cut a peg to drive into a place on his machine. Then we returned at high speed- hitting all the bumps and ruts. I held on for dear life.

I had to tie a pillow on my bottom and ate standing up for several days. But I left them strictly alone after that. In my engineering courses at VPI I avoided having anything to do with geology.

"Put-Put" Brainard had an old Stanley Steamer that had to go so slow on the curving gravel campus roads that Sam Pritchard and I could run and hang on behind it.

Dr. Ribble had a 'Brush' auto that had a friction clutch. When he drove through a stream and water was splashed on the leather face of the clutch, it lost traction. It also had no reverse. To turn it around, you had to get out and push it around.

The mechanical engineering students rigged up an old buggy and mounted a one-cylinder, reciprocating gas engine in it that was unpredictable in its behavior.

They sometimes managed to coax it half way down Faculty Row before they had to call for reinforcements and push the contraption back to the shops.


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