Kane County History: Batavia Hardware Store Owner Was One of The First To Build a Racing Car

Kane County History: Batavia Hardware Store Owner Was One of The First To Build a Racing Car

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Batavia Park District Marketing and Communications Coordinator Kristen Zambo.

Here in the Tri-Cities, we rely on cars, trucks and trains every day, but we don’t really stop and think too much about them.

At least, not until the car breaks down at the worst possible moment or supply chain issues put a serious crimp in our online shopping deliveries. Hello, the holidays are coming.

Edwin Meredith knew something about car trouble.

The Batavia man once owned E. Meredith’s Hardware Store, which was located on the corner of River and Wilson streets, where The Comedy Vault is situated today, according to Depot Museum archival records.

Born in 1860, Meredith’s profession was listed as a blacksmith in the 1880 Census and as an engineer in his April 26, 1886, marriage record. Somehow, he got the notion to spend his spare time building a racing car.

That’s right, a racing car. And he built it and entered it into what is believed to be the first automobile race in the U.S., which was scheduled for Thanksgiving Day in 1895, according to John Gustafson’s Historic Batavia.

The Nov. 28 race was the brainchild of H. H. Kohlsaat, the publisher of the Chicago Times-Herald. He was hoping to promote this new motorized buggy industry, and sell more newspapers, so on July 9 that year he announced that a $5,000 prize would be awarded to “inventors who “can construct practicable, self-propelling road carriages,” the Encyclopedia of Chicago states.

Initially, the race was going to begin in Chicago and end in Milwaukee, but bad roads to the north of Racine, WI, forced the race to take a shorter path. And when we say “bad roads,” it’s not just the potholes we’re used to today in the Midwest.

Roads weren’t made of concrete and blacktop. No, early roads often were made out of gravel or compacted dirt. So if it rained, or snowed, those roads would become soupy, treacherous mud puddles that could have sections washed away.

It wasn’t until around the early 1900s that a type of glazed brick began to gain in popularity for use in streets, Depot Museum records show.

So instead of that longer route in 1895, the drivers would travel a 54-mile course from Chicago to Evanston and back. For reference, the dual start and finish line was located near the modern-day Museum of Science and Industry, the Encyclopedia of Chicago states.

This whole motorized buggy thing was so new of a concept that folks in the U.S. didn’t know what to call them. So Kohlsaat’s Chicago Times-Herald invited its readers to come up with a name. Some of these were: Horseless Carriage, Automobile, Automobile Carriage, and Moto Cycle.

Image of a race car from that time period from Encyclopedia of Chicago — not specifically the one built by Edwin Meredith.

The winning term, “Moto Cycle,” was revealed on July 15, 1895, by the Times-Herald, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago.

As Meredith built his racing car, just imagine how anticipation must have crackled through the air like electricity. But poor Meredith, his car experienced engine trouble and he couldn’t compete in that historic race.

And he wasn’t the only one.

Nearly 80 people had entered the race, but come Thanksgiving Day, the temperature was about 30 degrees, and there was a blanket 6 inches thick of snow on the ground, with drifts topping out at 24 inches, the Encyclopedia of Chicago details. Just 11 drivers agreed to race in such weather, but only six cars made it to the starting line.

Just two of the entrants finished the race: the imported and modified Benz owned by Hieronymus Mueller & Co. of Decatur, IL, which was driven by a son named Oscar, and the Duryea, which was built and driven by J. Frank Duryea.

The Duryea won, crossing the finish line 7 hours and 53 minutes later, with an average speed of 7 mph. And it used 3.5 gallons of gas.

That connection to the automobile’s history, and a Batavian’s place in it might not seem remarkable at first blush. But consider he was the first person in town to build a race car and enter the first known auto race.

Batavia developed along the banks of the Fox River, moving from canoes to horse-drawn buggies to electric rail lines and finally the cars, trucks and motorcycles we see today.

Depot Museum, 155 Houston St., features a new exhibit that explores Batavia’s connection to transportation through the ages. Good Roads: Batavia’s Volunteer Highway, allows visitors to literally step into the past on those brick pavers that became popular around the early 1900s.

This movement was launched by bicyclists in an effort to improve the roads upon which they rode. It actually paved the way for the development of better roads and motoring conditions.

An array of artifacts, photos and stories about Batavia’s connection to the Good Roads Movement are on display through Dec. 18.

Travel a musical history tour of the Lincoln Highway during a special event hosted by Depot Museum at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 14 at Shannon Hall, 14 N. Van Buren St.

Classically trained singer and composer Cecelia “Cece” Otto, who also is a best-selling author and historian, will perform “An American Songline: A Musical Journey Along the Lincoln Highway.” To attend this unique show, simply register here.

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