When cars came to Haliburton County 

By Sue Tiffin

Published June 27 2017

A 1912 Model T Ford was the first car to be owned in Haliburton County driven by local councillor and business owner Charlie Kellett according to Haliburton Highlands Museum records.

“There's a story about Theophilus Bellairs who was one of the local remittance men driving his buggy and meeting Kellett who was driving his car in town” said Kate Butler director of the museum.

“Apparently Bellairs’s horses panicked and he was heard to cry out ‘anybody who would drive such a contraption would kill his own mother.’”

A few years later Bellairs himself became a car owner according to Butler.

“But he was reputed to have atrocious eyesight and caused several accidents” she said.

“It was the first car to be owned in Haliburton but I don't have a record of if it was the first car to set wheels in Haliburton” said Steve Hill museum curator. “I've never been able to find that out. I'm sure there were a few cars that came through town before Mr. Kellett bought one or how would we know about them unless he went down to Lindsay?”

Hill noted that being the first car driver in the area might have some downfalls at that time.

“Where would he get gasoline for his car?” Hill asked. “He had to have it shipped up in barrels for his specific use.”

That all changed in 1920 when William Robert (W.R.) Curry built one of the county's first garages and had curbside pumps installed at the sidewalk.

“The tanks were buried at the sidewalk that belongs to the Bargain Shop building now and the pumps were aboveground” said Hill. “You could buy your gas from Mr. Curry.”

Through the years more curbside gas pumps were installed at other garages on what is now Highland Street including one outside of where Algonquin Outfitters is today. Soon after the garages came the county's first car agencies – businesses that had one model on display for a test drive and brochures for potential buyers to look through.

“In the early days of the garage Curry was also an undertaker and had a freight service and taxi service” said Hill. “If someone needed a sleigh ride into a lumber camp or someone needed a ride out to West Guilford he had horses and wagons and drivers that could take them there. When he realized the car was going to make inroads of the horse he started selling cars.”

Different types of cars were sold through an agency but in 1923 General Motors in Oshawa told Curry that if he wanted to sell a GM car he'd have to commit to becoming a strictly GM dealership.

“Curry didn't have a monopoly on the car business but he was the biggest one” said Hill.

Though less than 100 people in the county likely drove a car in the early ’20s car businesses were becoming abundant.

Moss Davies sold Durants and Stars where the Peter Curry building is today. Rex Boice was selling International trucks from the Village Barn and later at what is now known as HalCo Plaza on Maple Avenue. A Dodge DeSoto dealership once operated from where JoAnne Sharpley's Source for Sports is now. A sub dealership of Little Motors in Fenelon Falls opened up where McKecks is today.

“There was just enough room to fit a car in the front window” said Hill. “They sold the Model A Ford out of there but once the Depression got really tight by the early ’30s they must have closed down because we know the Kosy Korner started in that building around that time.”

As cars and trucks began replacing horses and wagons the streets of the village looked different.

“A lot of local people they'd be isolated but would come into town with the horse and wagon on Saturday nights when stores were open late to do shopping” said Hill. “Now a lot of people would come into town with their new car – or new-to-them car – and it was nice to come into town and let people see ‘hey he's got a car now.’ There was a bit of a status thing about having a car.”

“My favourite story is about the effect that increasing numbers of cars had in the community” said Butler. “In 1937 the Municipality of Dysart had to pass a by-law prohibiting cows from running loose on the streets because they were getting in the way of the cars.”

Car owners at that time were resourceful with their vehicles.

“The car around here wasn't just transportation it was also a tool” said Hill.

He recounts one story of a man who owned a 1923 and 1927 Chevrolet.

“When it came time to do the family firewood for the season he used to jack up the car put a power belt on the rear wheel and run it to a buzz saw” he said. “It wasn't just transportation but a portable power plant to power machinery to do work.”

Garages and car dealerships only became more popular with time and names like Elstone and Chambers became associated with car culture in Haliburton County. Attempting to recover from the Depression Edwin Hunter moved here from Peterborough to sell Fords and Willys. Lloyd Coneybeare returning from the Second World War took on an Austin franchise. Volkswagen Bugs were sold in the area in the late ’50s.

Hill said there are reports that in the mid- ’60s high school graduates would return from their job at General Motors in Oshawa with convertibles for a cruise down the main drag showing off the results of their new career.

After extensive research Hill knows quite well the advent of garages and dealerships that flourished as car culture did in the area though there are still some gaps in information he'd like to fill in what he said is sometimes “hazy” history.

A display about the history of garages and car dealerships in the area can be seen at the Haliburton Highlands Museum located at 66 Museum Road in Haliburton.