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Bierly’s Bit in Building Bloomington First Horseless Carriage

Blog post by Randi Richardson


O. Howe with friends in his Winton, c 1907. Photo courtesy of Monroe County History Center.

In 2017, in a blog item on this website, Joshua O. Howe was credited with assembling the first horseless carriage to run on the streets of Bloomington.  But there seems to be another side to the story.

Mary Loftin, in an article published in the Bloomington Daily Herald Telephone on June 7, 1955, suggests that Howe did not work alone on his machine.  She reported that in addition to Howe, Ora “Dick” Bierly and two unnamed others were involved.  Bierly, who was 79 years of age when the story ran, was given many of the bragging rights for the car’s assembly.

Bierly, who ran a bicycle shop at the time, reportedly was always interested in something new.  When he saw his first car in 1906, he and three of his equally-interested friends decided to build one themselves.  Initially Bierly worked on his portion of the assembly in the bicycle shop, but eventually the four men moved the operation to the backroom of Howe’s jewelry store where they worked on it every spare minute.

The machine was described as a buckboard type with small wheels carrying one-inch, solid rubber tires, an air-cooled, one-cylinder engine mounted at the back, with six dry cell batteries and a coil to provide spark current, and a steering rod as opposed to a wheel because that’s how most early automobiles were operated.

When the assembly was complete, the four discovered the car wouldn’t fit through the door.  Howe said he’d fix that.  And, according to Bierly, “He picked up an axe and took out one side of the door frame.”

For the next two years the little Bloomington-built car was a familiar sight on Bloomington streets.  A five-gallon tank of gas would take the car about 50 miles and water from a bucket on the front seat was used to cool the engine when it overheated.

In 1908 something went wrong.  The car quit and wouldn’t go again.  Bierly tried everything he could think of but nothing worked.  Finally he called IU and asked if they would like to have the car as a museum relic.  For a while, the car was on display on the third floor of what was  then IU’s main library with a sign giving credit only to Bierly and Howe for its construction.

Meanwhile Bierly, ever the optimist, took it upon himself to build another, better car.  However, when his home caught fire and destroyed his work before it was completed, he totally gave up the idea of assembling a car and never looked back.  Fact of the matter is, he no longer trusted the modern variety enough to ride in one.

Source:  Mary Loftin, “Early Auto Builder Doesn’t Trust Fast Models of Today,” Bloomington (IN) Daily Herald Telephone, June 7, 1955, p. 1+.  NOTE:  Two photos, one of Bierly and the other of the car, accompanied this item but did not copy well from microfilm.