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William Knoedelseder

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eBook - ePub


William Knoedelseder

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About This Book

The New York Times bestselling author of Bitter Brew chronicles the birth and rise to greatness of the American auto industry through the remarkable life of Harley Earl, an eccentric six-foot-five, stuttering visionary who dropped out of college and went on to invent the profession of automobile styling, thereby revolutionized the way cars were made, marketed, and even imagined.

Harleys Earl's story qualifies as a bona fide American family saga. It began in the Michigan pine forest in the years after the Civil War, traveled across the Great Plains on the wooden wheels of a covered wagon, and eventually settled in a dirt road village named Hollywood, California, where young Harley took the skills he learned working in his father's carriage shop and applied them to designing sleek, racy-looking automobile bodies for the fast crowd in the burgeoning silent movie business.

As the 1920s roared with the sound of mass manufacturing, Harley returned to Michigan, where, at GM's invitation, he introduced art into the rigid mechanics of auto-making. Over the next thirty years, he functioned as a kind of combination Steve Jobs and Tom Ford of his time, redefining the form and function of the country's premier product. His impact was profound. When he retired as GM's VP of Styling in 1958, Detroit reigned as the manufacturing capitol of the world and General Motors ranked as the most successful company in the history of business.

Knoedelseder tells the story in ways both large and small, weaving the history of the company with the history of Detroit and the Earl family as Fins examines the effect of the automobile on America's economy, culture, and national psyche.

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The first great fortunes in America were made in the timber business as the country’s immense northern forests were felled, first to clear land for homesteads and later to provide lumber for bridges, buildings, towns, and cities.
Commercial logging began in New England and then moved inexorably west into New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, taking down nearly everything in its path. When the first loggers arrived in Michigan in the 1840s, they found a vast expanse of untouched white pine and a network of navigable rivers to transport the cut timber to ports on the Great Lakes. In other words, log heaven.
Detroit, which was founded as a fur-trading post in 1701, developed into a major logging hub in the latter half of the 1800s as timber companies floated islands of logs down Lake Huron to the city’s many sawmills, which cut them into lumber for shipment east through Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Michigan timber thus provided the underpinning for Detroit’s rise as an industrial center. Detroit-based lumber barons invested millions in real estate and manufacturing, built vainglorious mansions, donated to art museums, libraries, and colleges, and formed an aristocracy that fostered an image of the city as the “Paris of the West.”
All the while, their armies of loggers laid waste to Michigan’s pine forest, leaving behind millions of acres of stump-studded, debris-littered land that was unsuitable for farming but fertile ground for dry-season fires that periodically destroyed vast tracts of uncut timber and killed hundreds of people. Most of the cutting went on during the winter months so the logs could be hauled to the rivers over frozen ground by horse- or ox-drawn wagons and sleds. Which meant the loggers spent the entire winter in the forest, sheltered in shantylike log bunkhouses that held as many as a hundred men. The so-called shanty boys—mostly single and in their teens and twenties—worked from dawn until dusk six days a week for twenty to twenty-six dollars a month.
Jacob William Earl was a typical shanty boy. Born in 1866 in Oneida, Michigan, a hundred miles west of Detroit, the son of a farmer, J.W. didn’t go to high school. After completing eighth grade, he served as a blacksmith’s apprentice for a few years and then went to work in the woods, where he labored first as a lumberjack, the most difficult and dangerous job in logging, and later as a sawmill worker, which paid better—thirty to sixty dollars a month—but required him to provide his own room and board. His time as a lumberman coincided with Michigan’s peak as the foremost lumber-producing state in the union, when its output amounted to a fourth of the nation’s total, nearly equaling the next three states combined. But the pace of the cutting slowed in 1887 as Michigan’s timber resources began to play out. Having consumed an estimated two-thirds of the state’s pine forests, the large lumber companies started moving their operations on to Indiana, Wisconsin, and, ultimately, the Pacific Northwest.
At age nineteen, J.W. took a break from logging and traveled with his uncle to visit relatives in Arcadia, California, a sparsely populated agricultural area a few miles north of Los Angeles. After those harsh winters in the northern woods, he apparently was seduced by the scent of the citrus blossoms and the persistent warm sunshine. He never returned to Michigan.
He worked for a while with his uncle, who was a carpenter, then found employment in a small blacksmith and carriage repair shop in downtown Los Angeles. The shop’s location, near the corner of Fifth and Hill Streets, turned out to be a stroke of luck because it placed him just a few blocks from the home of Harley and Mary Hazard Taft, a prominent couple whose patronage would prove a turning point in his life.
The Hazard-Taft clan was one of the city’s most storied pioneer families. The chronicle of how they’d come to settle in Southern California read like a frontier novel.
Mary Hazard was born in Detroit in 1841, the daughter of Ariel Merrick Makepeace Hazard, a ship captain on the Great Lakes and a first cousin to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who won a brilliant naval victory over the British in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812, after which he supposedly uttered the famous line “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
When Mary was an infant, her father moved the family to Chicago, which amounted to little more than a village at the time. The Hazards lived in a small log house on the banks of Lake Michigan while “the Captain” plied his trade, piloting ships loaded with Michigan lumber. He became successful enough to own three ships, but all were lost in storms one terrible spring, leaving the family in dire financial straits.
Desperate to restore his family’s fortune, Captain Hazard left his pregnant wife and five children behind and headed to California in 1849, seized by “the gold fever,” as Mary recalled later in a private journal. He sailed aboard a freighter around Cape Horn and after three months arrived in Hangtown, California, a chaotic, violent mining camp during the Gold Rush, so named because of its frequent hangings and later renamed Placerville. Hazard became a merchant, providing prospectors with dry goods, lumber, and groceries. After two years he had amassed enough money to return to Chicago to fetch his family and lead them to what he hoped would be a golden new life in California.
This time, Captain Hazard chose to travel west over land. The family of eight crossed the Great Plains in two ox-drawn covered wagons he had built in the shape of boats so they could float across rivers. He even fashioned tent poles that were flat so they could double as oars. The journey took eighteen months, impeded by a cholera outbreak, herds of buffalo that stretched from horizon to horizon and held them up for weeks at a time, and several skirmishes with Indians. In one instance, a member of their wagon train was shot with an arrow an inch below his heart as he attempted to keep a band of Indians from stealing their supplies. “We ran to him and managed to get him in the wagon,” Mary wrote later. “He pulled the arrow out . . . and came very near dying and suffered for many days.” Her brother George recalled that the Indians “robbed us of most all we had to eat and wear. They left Mother and the girls with only what they had on their backs. We could see them going over the hills with Mother’s flour sacks, containing clothing and her paisley shawls, flung over their backs.”
In Council Bluffs, Iowa, the family watched as a town mob dragged a murder suspect to the spot where his alleged victim lay with his head split open in a pool of blood, and then they “hung him on one of the trees,” George wrote in his own journal. “About that time, the sky became overcast with intensely black clouds and those who thought him not guilty said it was because they had hung an innocent man . . . describing it as Black Friday.”
On a happier day, June 30, 1853, Eleanor Hazard, the Captain’s wife, gave birth to their seventh child, Eugene, in one of the wagons. The Hazard family bible notes that he was “born at the Platte River in the Sue [sic] Nation on Nebraska Terrian [sic].”
(Fifteen years later, Eugene was helping his older brother Daniel guide another wagon train west when he reached into a wagon to fetch a shotgun to shoot some quail and pulled it out muzzle first “with both barrels discharging into his intestines,” according to his brother George’s journal. “He died in Daniel’s arms. His last words were, ‘May God forgive Daniel.’” They buried him there, “under the tree where they had, moments before, just eaten their lunch, and built a rock border around his grave. Somewhere on a hilltop in Arizona.” As his sister Mary wrote in her journal, “He was born among the Indians and buried among the Indians.”)
The Hazard family arrived in El Monte, California, on Christmas Day 1853, planning to resupply nearby at what was then known as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (the Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels) before continuing on to gold country along El Camino Real. But according to Mary’s journal, they were “delighted with Los Angeles and gave up the idea of going north.” The Captain acquired thirty-five acres of land four miles outside the town, built a large adobe house, and settled into ranching and farming for the next ten years, during which time the Hazards crossed paths with Harley Taft.
* * *
The twenty-three-year-old farmer’s son had sailed around Cape Horn from Rhode Island in 1849, the same year as Captain Hazard. Census records indicate that he quickly found work in Los Angeles, first as a stable keeper and later as a teamster. According to family records and correspondence, one of the places he worked was the livery stable on the Hazard ranch, where he met and, in 1862, married Captain Hazard’s daughter Mary, who was fifteen years his junior.
Fate was not finished with the Hazards. In 1864, “our land was declared government land and we did not pre-empt, so we lost it all,” George wrote in his journal. They were forced to move into town, where Captain Hazard and his new son-in-law, Harley, began prospecting for land deals. They hit pay dirt on February 1, 1866, when they attended a public auction of tax-delinquent property and bid on an undeveloped five-acre parcel at the edge of Los Angeles. Located next to a large open pasture that arriving settlers had turned into a rowdy, disreputable camp, it was hardly prime real estate, but the price was right. Harley and the Captain bought the entire block between Fourth and Fifth Streets and Hill and Olive Streets for $9.90.
That piece of land became the cornerstone of the family’s prosperity as the town expanded into a city, encircling the block over the next three decades. Captain Hazard and Eleanor lived out their days on the Hazard-Taft homestead. Harley and Mary had six children in their house at 411 West Fifth Street. Their oldest son, Alfred, married and built his own house just around the corner from them at 457 South Hill Street. Three of their children did not survive early childhood, however: Walter died as an infant; Alice and Emily died at age two and three, respectively, in 1885.
Mary’s brother Henry, meanwhile, graduated from the University of Michigan law school on his way to becoming Los Angeles’s city attorney. He also developed the lot at the corner of Fifth and Olive into the city’s premier performance hall, Hazard’s Pavilion. Opened in 1887, it seated as many as four thousand people for sporting events, music concerts, business conventions, and religious revivals. The legendary prizefighter Jack Johnson won his first title there as “Colored Heavyweight Champion.” In 1889, Henry was elected mayor of Los Angeles.
The Hazard family’s remarkable American journey helps explain why Mary and Harley Taft might have seen potential in J. W. Earl. He may have been an uneducated lumberjack from the Michigan woods, but he was also smart, determined, and ambitious, a skilled craftsman who knew his way around horses and wheeled vehicles. Indeed, J.W. quickly rose from employee to partner in the carriage shop, and in 1889 bought out the other man and named the business Earl Carriage Works. All of which impressed the Tafts to the point that they allowed him to court their eighteen-year-old daughter, Abigail, who likely was impressed with his lanky good looks (he was six foot one) and pale blue eyes.
J.W. married Abbie Taft (whose childhood nickname was “Taffy” because her hair color matched that of the candy) on June 21, 1891. A year and a day later, she gave birth to their first child, Carl. A second son was born on November 22, 1893. They named him Harley, after his grandfather. A third son, Arthur, arrived two years later.
Earl Carriage Works expanded as rapidly as the Earl family, with J.W. relocating the business several times as his clientele increased, eventually taking over a large three-story brick building at 1320 South Main Street. Before long, he had several dozen men working for him, designing and building all manner of horse-drawn conveyance, from simple farm wagons to fancy carriages for the wealthy to sleek sulkies for the harness-racing crowd at the nearby Agricultural Park track. Given that Harley Taft listed his occupation as “capitalist” on his 1890 U.S. Census form, it seems likely that the family patriarch invested in his son-in-law’s growing business.
The city of Los Angeles was growing rapidly, too. Just across the street from the Taft and Hazard homes, the old settlers’ camp had been developed into a beautifully landscaped municipal park (now Pershing Square) with a bandstand for outdoor concerts that drew crowds of locals and tourists out for weekend buggy rides. The corner of Fifth and Hill had turned into one of the city’s most prestigious and busiest intersections, which increased the family’s property value, but at the expense of their peace and quiet.
So in 1893, three generations of Tafts—Harley and Mary, their twenty-seven-year-old son Alfred, and his wife, Blanche, and their three children—summoned up the family’s old pioneering spirit and migrated once again, albeit a much shorter distance than in the past. They bought twenty acres in the Cahuenga Valley, about six miles from Los Angeles near a dirt-street village called Hollywood, where they built a two-story Dutch colonial house in the middle of a lemon grove at what is now the corner of Taft Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. Their new community consisted of a small general store, a one-room schoolhouse, and a dozen or so Spanish-speaking families who tended the area’s strawberry and barley fields and nascent orange and lemon groves. Shortly after the move Blanche Taft gave birth to a fourth child, Sarah, who later would write that she was “the first Anglo-Saxon child born in Hollywood.”
The Earls eventually followed the Tafts into this new frontier. On July 4, 1900, J.W. moved Abbie and the three boys into a large three-story house he had built on five acres that Mary Taft had deeded to Abbie just down the street from the Tafts’ place, at what is now the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Bronson Avenue. With a front gate made of stone and ironwork fashioned at his carriage works spelling out the Earl name, the new home was twelve miles from J.W.’s business—a ninety-minute buggy ride—and a world away from that log shanty in the pine forest.
At age thirty-four, J.W. was not about to settle into the life of a country squire, however. His business was growing, but he knew it faced a looming existential threat: the dawning of the new century was bringing an end to the era of horse-drawn vehicles. The Industrial Revolution had accelerated the pace of American life. Increasingly mechanized manufacturing and a doubling of the population were driving a growing demand for goods that needed to get from point A to point B more quickly, and all along the supply chain horses were holding up the process as coal- and steam-powered trains and ships waited for them to trudge to the loading dock. It seemed that horses no longer fit into the modern urban landscape.
Their slowness wasn’t the only problem. America’s cities were packed with more than 3 million of them—nearly 200,000 in New York, 80,000 in Philadelphia, 12,000 in Detroit. That many 1,200-pound animals produced an epic amount of manure. The city of New York calculated that between 3 and 4 million pounds of it a day had to be removed from its streets and stables, along with 41 dead horses (15,000 per year). The city of Rochester estimated that its population of 15,000 live horses dropped enough road apples annually to make a 175-foot-high mound of manure, which would cover an entire acre.
In addition to creating an ungodly stench and costing untold millions to clean up and cart away, the manure caused serious public health concerns. By one estimate, three billion flies hatched in urban horse droppings every day, at times resulting in veritable clouds of the pathogen-carrying insects. Between flies and windblown dung dust, horses were blamed for outbreaks of cholera, smallpox, yellow fever, and typhoid, feeding a growing consensus that the beasts should be banished from American cities.
“The vitiation of the air by the presence of so many animals is alone a sufficient reason for their removal,” the U.S. commissioner of labor wrote in Popular Science Monthly. An editorial in the magazine Scientific American stated that the banning of horses “would benefit the public health to an almost incalculable degree.”
Fortunately, one man’s pile of horse poop proved another man’s opportunity. For more than a decade, a generation of mechanically inclined young men had been working feverishly in garages, barns, and machine shops all across the United States and Western Europe, racing to create a self-propelled vehicle that would put the horse out to pasture as the world’s primary means of transportation and earn themselves...

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