Florida’s First Automobiles

Florida Memory is now digitizing two ledgers containing Florida’s earliest automobile registration records, dating from 1905 to 1917. Although the project is still in progress, we have already found some fascinating information to share in celebration of Collector Car Appreciation Day on July 10th.

Ranson E. Olds in the Olds Pirate racing car on Ormond Beach (circa 1896).

Ranson E. Olds in the Olds Pirate racing car on Ormond Beach (circa 1896).

In the 21st Century, vehicle registration seems like a given. After you buy a car, you register it and display the license plate issued to you. It hasn’t always worked that way, however. Florida first began requiring residents to register their vehicles in 1905. Because the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles did not yet exist, it was the responsibility of the Department of State to issue the registrations for automobile owners. Auto owners would send an application to the Department of State with the make, model, horsepower, and factory number of their car, as well as the name and address of the individual(s) or business to which the vehicle was to be registered. All of this information was recorded in a ledger, along with a registration number assigned by the Department. Once the registrant received the certificate, the registration number had to be displayed on the rear of the vehicle. The earliest license plates were often handmade by the owner out of wood, metal, or leather.

Example of the ledger entries for new automobile registrations with the Florida Department of State in February 1909. This excerpt shows registrants from Miami, Seabreeze, Daytona, Pensacola, and Pine Barren (Volume 1 of Record Series 644, State Archives of Florida).

Example of the ledger entries for new automobile registrations with the Florida Department of State in February 1909. This excerpt shows registrants from Miami, Seabreeze, Daytona, Pensacola, and Pine Barren (Volume 1 of Record Series 644, State Archives of Florida).

An automobile registration issued to L.A. Wilson of Tampa in 1909 by Florida Secretary of State Clay Crawford (Volume 1 of Record Series 644, State Archives of Florida).

An automobile registration issued to L.A. Wilson of Tampa in 1909 by Florida Secretary of State Clay Crawford (Volume 1 of Record Series 644, State Archives of Florida).

Many of the automobiles listed in these records were manufactured by familiar companies like Buick, Ford, Cadillac, and Olds. However, many early vehicle manufacturing companies remain unheard-of, and even bizarre, to the modern car owner. For example, did you know that the White Sewing Machine Company also produced automobiles? Although the company originally prospered as a manufacturer of sewing machines, it also produced agricultural machines and engines, which led to its involvement in the automobile industry.

Barney Oldfield sitting in his Blitzen Benz on Daytona Beach (circa 1910).

Barney Oldfield sitting in his Blitzen Benz on Daytona Beach (circa 1910).

Claude Nolan Cadillac dealership in Jacksonville (circa 1910s).

Claude Nolan Cadillac dealership in Jacksonville (circa 1910s).

By 1900 the White Sewing Machine Company had produced four types of steam-powered cars, inspired by a semi-flash boiler invented by founder Thomas H. White’s son and heir, Rollin White. One of these steamers, a Touring Car style, was the first car registered in Florida to Standard Oil co-founder and influential Florida railroad tycoon, Henry M. Flagler. Flagler spent the latter half of his life developing Florida into an “American Riviera”by constructing railroads and hotels, donating to hospitals and schools, and building up communities like Palm Beach and Miami.

Henry Flagler being transported by pedi-cab in Palm Beach (circa 1900s).

Henry Flagler being transported by pedi-cab in Palm Beach (circa 1900s).

Famous names appear frequently in the registration records, but automobile ownership expanded quickly beyond the wealthiest upper crust of Florida society. Electricians, surgeons, attorneys, merchants, and many others are represented in the collection also. Genealogists will find the records useful for discovering early auto owners among their Floridian ancestors. Local historians will be able to find out who had the first registered vehicles in their communities. Automobile enthusiasts will now have a wealth of data about the earliest cars on the road in Florida, including many of the race cars that once zoomed along Daytona and Ormond beaches. In case you were wondering, for example, the average horsepower rating of a registered Florida vehicle in 1905 was a whopping 10.5!

 

Men in a Buick race car on Daytona Beach (circa 1900s).

Men in a Buick race car on Daytona Beach (circa 1900s).

The Florida Automobile Registration Records will be fully digitized this fall, and will be permanently displayed on our Collections page. Follow the Florida Memory Blog to get the latest information on this and other projects underway at the State Library and Archives of Florida!

Dr. Buena V. Elmore and Albert Cayson in the first registered automobile in Blountstown, nicknamed the

Dr. Buena V. Elmore and Albert Cayson in the first registered automobile in Blountstown, nicknamed the “chicken killer” (circa 1905).

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6 thoughts on “Florida’s First Automobiles

  1. This is by far one of the most interesting articles yet. I just
    did a talk at two of the libraries in our county of Hernando on my becoming the Great Brooksvillian 2014.Part of that was talking
    about my love of history, I told them of your web site and the
    wonderful articles you send to tantalize us for more. Thanks
    again, keep up the good work, I have now started a book on your
    articles for my records. Jan Knowles, Historian Brooksville, Fl
    Hernando County.

  2. I own a 1909 Buick which supposedly has been in Florida since new. I will be interested in scanning these ledgers once digitized to see if I can find it.

    • The following are interesting observations from the Weekly Tallahassean. The first is dated November 8, 1900:
      “Tallahasseans had their first view of
      an automobile on last Monday. It cre-
      ated a great deal of interest. We have
      seen horseless carriages in town before
      but this was the first auto.”
      November 13, 1903
      “A locomobile owned by one of the
      winter tourists has been the center of
      attraction for the past few days.”

      C.A. Griscom of Tallahassee registered his car with the Office of the Secretary of State in 1905. The Tallahassee Weekly True Democrat of October 20, 1905 commented about another car in town:
      “Mr. W.C. Hodges has received his
      splendid new touring car, and is en-
      gaged in entertaining his friends with
      auto rides about the city.”

  3. Awesome resource! Family history tells the story of Tallahassee’s first automobile ownership as belonging to my great grandfather, Will Roberts aka Little Willie Roberts. Legend has it he was driven by carriage to the train station (possibly Thomasville, GA) to take possession of his new purchase which was shipped by rail. The entire family and beloved staff along with a few friends kept a watchful eye towards ‘Big Gate’ anticipating his return.

    There was no need to summon the others as Willie could be heard bellowing at the top of his lungs, “Whoa! Ho there! Stop! Whoa!” as he pulled violently on the steering wheel, straining with all his might as the dust roiled behind him. Finally, he steered into to strong post of the front gate crashing to a stop… Tallahassee’s first motor vehicle accident! Two firsts in one day!

  4. This is neat! I bought an old post card from 1914 and noticed a car had a license plate with 5276 – I was able to find that the car belonged to Fred Fee of Fort Pierce!

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