On June 17, 1993, Norm and Bill and I lunched at the picturesque Crescent Beach Restaurant in suburban Rochester, New York. We had chosen this lakeside venue because Canada lay north of Lake Ontario's blue horizon, and our reunion commemorated a motor trip we had taken as teen-agers through the provinces of Ontario and Quebec just 65 years before.
After that safari of 1928 we three, neighbors in Corning, New York, and schoolmates at Corning Free Academy, had moved out upon divergent walks of life. Norm became the Reverend Norman A. Remmel, an Episcopal priest, who was ordained in 1935 and retired in 1972 as Rector Emeritus of St. Peter's Church, Geneva, New York. Bill, William H. Corwin, an active Episcopal layman, chose the business world, retiring in 1976 from the corporate headquarters of Rochester's Sybron Corporation. I myself was ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1936. I served 43 years as professor of church history at St. Bernard's Seminary, Rochester, and was put out to pasture in 1981 when that institution closed its doors.
However dissimilar our callings, our trio has kept in contact, and broken bread together on the main anniversaries of the Canada jaunt. At these get-togethers we naturally ignore our dignities, become Norm and Bill and Bob once again, and review with gusto our Canadian memories. Our pooled recall remains pretty exact. Nevertheless, when we reminisced in 1993, at the respective ages of 84, 82 and 82, we shook our heads in wonderment at the sheer exuberance we had possessed at 19, 17 and 17.
From the very moment of our return to Corning on July 14, 1928, we "Three Musketeers" (an unoriginal monicker we had adopted) have been boring people to tears with the account of our expedition. That very month, I even dashed off a log of the tour. The Corning Evening Leader was indulgent enough to publish it, despite its literary flaws. Thus we were able to inflict our tale on an even wider range of victims.
This article, our final and definitive version (we promise), presents the story not as a shallow boast but as a typical bit of youthful Americana from the so-called "Roaring Twenties." I think that anybody who in his salad days has tripped to Canada or elsewhere in a jalopy will read his own experiences into ours and laugh along with us.
Oddly enough, neither Bill nor Norm can agree on what triggered the Canada project. Which was the chicken, which the egg? Did buying the car suggest the trip, or did the trip necessitate the car? No matter. When Norm and Bill picked Canada as the destination in 1927, they also picked the carrier.
Both N. and B. were then sufficiently "into business" to have some sort of credit rating. Norman was working after school and on weekends at Suffern's Grocery. Bill had risen from the post of peddler of the Saturday Evening Post and other Curtis magazines to that of local distributor. Not without confidence, therefore, they approached the Corning Studebaker dealer, Willard J. Morrow. Did he have any second-hand auto that would suit their budget?
Morrow pointed out one item on hand, a black, five-passenger Studebaker touring car, the "Light-Six" model manufactured in 1922. The Studebaker Museum in South Bend, Indiana, has kindly provided me with the illustrated description of the low-cost automobile given in its 1922 catalogue. The car's wheelbase, said the catalogue, was 112 inches; it was equipped with a 40-horsepower motor; and the price, brand new, was only $975. The Studebaker "Light-Six," the blurb continued soberly, merited to be called, "the world's greatest lightweight automobile."
By 1927, of course, Morrow's 1922 "Light-Six" was five years old, and the odometer registered a high mileage. Nevertheless, they asked, "How much?" The dealer replied, kindly but shrewdly, "Take it as is, and you can have it for $45." Only time would tell what he meant by "as is," but he had a deal.
The proud joint proprietors drove their chariot off and parked it in the Remmel back yard. There it stood most of the winter, although they turned the motor over now and then to keep the battery charged. Meanwhile plans were laid for a trek around Lake Ontario's Canadian shore, down the St. Lawrence to Quebec, and back home through New England.
Not long after the purchase I became interested in the trip and asked if three would be a crowd. The owners said that if I were to pay $15, I could become a third co-owner of the Studebaker and a full-fledged fellow explorer. Although I was then "unemployed," my mother gave me the money and I bought in. We set the departure date at July 2, as soon as possible after Norm and I were graduated from C.F.A.
Our parents and neighbors followed our preparations with lively interest. We must have started packing on Sunday evening, July 1, for we had much baggage. The car had no trunk, so whatever we needed to take had to be put into the back, either on the floor or on the back seat. Somewhere under this pile were the Studebaker's heavy waterproof side curtains with their isinglass windows. (Since ours was an open car, these were standard equipment for bad weather.) Then came our suitcases. Also two tennis racquets and some tennis balls. (N. and B. were ardent players).
Finally, there was a small tent with some standard camping equipment. I was a sedentary non-Boy Scout. The others were advanced Scouts, experienced in the arts of "camping out," and determined to introduce me to its thrills. I also had no driver's license. Norm, possessed of a senior license, was to be the main chauffeur, and was granted the theoretical rank of mechanic. Bill had a junior license, so he would take turns with Norman. We did exchange seats now and then, but I spent most of the trip, I believe, perched on the baggage in back. This had its perils. Whenever our auto plunged into a pothole, the so-called "shock absorbers" gave a mighty jerk, and the backseater flew up against the canvas roof.
"We're leaving uhly Monday morning," Norm warned us again and again. We did get off fairly early. Our families gathered to wish us "bon voyage," and they were joined by the Sharps and perhaps by some other neighbors. Waving goodbye, we fired the motor, started up West First Street, turned north on Walnut and west on Market, crossed the Chemung over the iron Bridge Street bridge, and soon found ourselves in open country westbound for Buffalo.
In this initial period we established our pace. Our average speed throughout the next 12 days would be 30 miles per hour. Sometimes we whipped the motor up to 35 miles per hour, but that was only when the roads were fine and the traffic was light.
The first 40 miles, our "Light-Six" caused us no worry. However, when we approached Wayland, New York, it played its first discouraging trick. One of the "32 x 4-inch cord tires" blew out, beyond repair. Our drivers had enough skill to replace it with the spare, but when we entered Wayland we knew that we had to fork out for a new tire, whatever the cost.
Dansville, our next stop, cheered us up a little. Norm had three elderly relatives there, the Ruff sisters. We called on them and they treated us to a lovely meal, God bless them!
We had scarcely left Dansville, however, when our Studebaker again did us dirt. As we puffed up the long hill out of the village, the motor suddenly went dead, and we had to let the car roll back to the curb to brake it.
Norman went through the formality of looking under the hood. Everything seemed to be there. We finally decided to try the motor again. This time, to our pleasure, it started. Part of our "as is" bargain, it turned out, was a worn clutch. Once the chauffeurs had learned how to keep it from stalling the motor, it was not too hard to manipulate the gears. But we knew that from here on we must keep our fingers ever crossed.
It was fair sailing from Dansville Hill onward. We roller-coasted down Warsaw Hill, swung through East Aurora, and finally reached Buffalo. Here we crossed at once into Ontario, by the international Peace Bridge, dedicated just a year before. We had at least made it to Canada. So far, so good!
© 1993, Robert F. McNamara