As 19th-century technological advances changed transportation and made global travel faster than ever imaged, it also changed how individuals saw the world as well as themselves.
Already stirred imaginations were stirred further in 1873 with the appearance of French writer Jules Verne’s novel that bore (for that time) an unbelievable title, “Around the World in 80 Days.” The book’s hero uses steam engines — as well as horse and wind power — to race around the earth in less than three months, win a bet, and become a symbol for the unstoppable human spirit.
Era-inspired European and American adventurers took heart and gave up on horse power and harnessed machines to compete with time and space.
While men led the way, women also caught the fever and rushed to take their places in history, especially after the 1908 Great Auto Race from New York City to Paris, France.
The book “A Reliable Car and a Woman Who Knows It: The First Coast to Coast Auto Trips by Women, 1898-1916” chronicles several women who gladly traded in pedal pushers for gas pedals and upped the ante for what women could do.
One woman missing from those pages, however, is the Trenton car adventurer, Harriet White Fisher.
In 1909 the well-to-do Fisher launched an auto tour that not only went coast to coast but conquered the world.
Her fantastic journey — one that sounds like a set up for a vintage Walt Disney adventure film and included (in addition to the middle aged widow) a 22 year old New Jersey male driver, a British butler, an Italian maid, and Boston bull terrier named Honk-Honk — is now the subject of a spirited and unusual Trenton City Museum exhibition, “Trenton Entourage Motors ‘Round the World in 1909.”
The exhibition is made up of 119 photographs, numerous camp objects, letters, maps, cameras, souvenirs, and the American and Automobile Club of America flags flown on the car.
The local connection is further accented through the involvement of another woman, Ewing-based exhibition curator Rebecca Urban, who is also one of the granddaughters of the trip’s driver, photographer, and record keeper, Harold Fisher Brooks.
On Sunday, June 30, Urban will make a presentation at the museum, show images, answer questions, and allow her grandfather to tell his story (more on this later). The show continues to Sunday, September 22.
Harriet White Fisher, according to her own conflicting accounts, was born either in Pennsylvania or Ohio in 1860 or 1867. She came to Trenton in 1899 when she married Clark Fisher, owner and operator of Fisher & Norris Eagle Anvil Works. The business was formerly located on the present site of a New Jersey Department of Labor parking lot.
Clark Fisher died suddenly in 1902. While his wife writes that he died from injuries related to a train accident, Urban says that he actually died of a urinary tract infection. No matter what the cause of her husband’s death, Harriet Fisher took command of the company and expertly guided it to wealth, an effort aided by a federal government contract for work on the Panama Canal.
In 1909 the very wealthy Fisher decided to embark on a trip that began in Trenton in mid-July, spanned 20,000 miles and 13 months, and ended back at 125 East Hanover Street in Trenton on August 16, 1910.
In her 1911 memoir, “A Woman’s World-Tour in a Motor,” she explained her motivation. “I have only the plain unvarnished tale to tell of my trip around the world in a motor-car; the trip of a woman who had grown a little weary of the details of a useful but somewhat heavy business, and sought recreation under India’s burning sun, in Ceylon, China, Japan, in many places where no motor-car had ever taken man or woman before.” The trip — which also involved transportation across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans — attracted hundreds of excited spectators in cities around the world and numerous newspaper articles.
Urban says of Fisher, “I think she was marvelous, courageous, and adventurous, but she would have never made the trip without the three others. Outside of paying for it, I don’t think she was the primary person to make it happen.”
That person, Urban argues, was her grandfather, Elizabeth, NJ, native Harold Fisher Brooks. The high school graduate’s expertise with engines and cars had gotten the attention of a fledgling northern New Jersey auto industry entrepreneur who in turn recommended him to Fisher after she had made inquires for someone to help repair an engine. The businessman was Alfred Sloan of the future General Motors, says Urban.
Fisher, obviously imagining her grand tour and showing her organizational smarts, hired Brooks as a private secretary and chauffeur, though Urban says her grandfather was horrified when anyone called him the latter. The label secretary was actually a euphemism for trip coordinator and allowed Fisher to keep her star role. He was paid $50 a month, which Urban says, was often sent to his parents.
Since the name Fisher was shared by both the employer and the employee, Harriet Fisher claimed that Brooks was her nephew. The ploy, Urban says, took away the social stigma of a widow traveling with a young man and, when not traveling by car, allowed Brooks to be treated as a first-class citizen. The maid, Maria Borge, and butler, Albert Bacheller, always traveled second class.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” Urban said in reference to her grandfather’s adventure with the Trenton businesswoman.
For the trip, Fisher purchased a Locomobile touring car, a four-cylinder vehicle that produced 40 horsepower and seated five. “It was a high-end auto,” says Urban. “There were about 62 other gas engine car makers at the time, and this was like the Rolls Royce.”
The car was customized for the journey. While there is no indication that the auto included a toilet, additional gas tanks were added to allow the car to travel 400 miles before refueling. Since the auto industry was new and the availability of gas stations would run from scarce to non-existing, Brooks needed to coordinate rail deliveries of gas along their route.
Among Brooks’ biggest fears, says Urban, was making sure that there was gasoline and tires, and that Harriet not become upset. “An overriding concern was to make sure she was happy.”
Fisher’s book — which can be found and read online — recounts the journey as a series of quaint adventures that include camping, hunting, washing clothes in rivers, and visiting royalty. Although there is a section where they encounter bandits, they escape blithely — with Fisher simply noting “and we congratulated one another on having escaped.” Overall the narrative seems a long pleasant journey with minor obstacles and few mechanical problems, a literary version of a PBS travel show or an Animal Planet episode (Fisher often interprets the dog’s reactions to the various encounters and how she made sure that the dog and a newly acquired monkey would “become the best of friends”).
Brooks’ journal and letters home, however, differ, says Urban. “His description was defiantly more different than what she gave. The word boring came up often.” Urban says her grandfather was most bored when on steamers that transported the traveling quartet and their specially-crated auto across the oceans. “He commented on it and he often left many pages blank while on board. He never left a day blank when they were traveling by car. I think he liked to be active both mentally and physically.”
Urban adds that “every single day practically he was doing something to the car. Sometimes he had to change three tires in one day. He changed springs on the road. He even took an engine down to the crank case. “
There were also constant problems that her grandfather needed to solve. “Their biggest difficulty was going over water, and (Fisher) sent my grandfather alone in the car to test one of the rivers,” although she wrote that she was the one who performed the dangerous feat. She also had photos taken to suggest that she participated in driving, when she would only drive for guests or for show. “The Hakone Range Pass took overnight to cross. And crossing the United States desert was the hardest. There were no roads. The drove on rail road tracks. They were given wrong direction. It was hot.”
Brooks also commented about personal hygiene. “My grandfather mentioned in his journal that he and Albert went swimming when they could. They did carry a canvas container with two handles to hold water. I imagine that they splashed water on their faces and maybe washed other vital parts with a washcloth or towel. The ladies were probably doing a lot of cologne and powder. In the pictures everyone always looks very well groomed. Only a couple of shots where they even look hot and sweaty,” says Urban. She notes that restroom stops were improvised.
Urban notes that while Brooks remained friends with Harriet, his children (including her mother) did not like Fisher. That attitude shaded the curator’s own thoughts about the woman for many years and prevented her from reading Fisher’s account of the journey.
However, Urban now has a more objective and appreciative view of Harriet Fisher. “She liked to embellish the truth. She shaved 17 years off her age in the 1930 senses. She was 78 years old when she died (in 1939). But I think she was the most open minded of the four about new opportunities. She was very willing to try new things. I think she’s just a farm girl who made it big. I do believe she learned the business from the ground up and she earned the respect of the men.”
However, Urban says, there were some contradictory traits in the woman. “She was the first woman member of Manufacturers of America, yet she would write that woman should not have the right to vote and that they should stay home with the children.”
Fisher’s book shows additional glimpses at her thinking, especially when she writes about practices in a section of India: “The women here practice polyandry, so I was told, being permitted to have as many husbands as they desire. The way one husband would know his presence was not desired in the home of his wife was when he saw another pair of shoes on the doorstep. That was a signal that she was not to be disturbed or molested until those shoes disappeared. So I found in these mountains one place where women were permitted to enjoy legally the same privileges that men who are sometimes called gentlemen enjoy illegally.”
Urban says that Fisher “broke rules in business, but not in her personal life.” Naturally there are conjectures about her personal behavior while traveling months with a young man. “The question comes up if there was a relationship between them. But the way he writes it is clear that she’s the boss. And Harriet scolded him often.”
The relationship between the Maria and Albert is somewhat different and complicated. The two sat close in the hot back seat of the car, squeezed in among the boxes of clothes, and camping equipment. They were eventually joined by a caged bird, a monkey, and another dog. The accounts from both Fisher and Brooks say that the two were always polite and smiling, and while there is no indication of physical engagement between the two during the trip, the servants married when they returned to Trenton. The couple, Brooks, and Fisher took up residencies in Ewing and Trenton and maintained a friendship.
Urban says that her grandfather, after marrying in 1916, established several auto related businesses in the Trenton area, including Cadwalader Garage and three car dealerships. However, “he lost everything in the depression. He struggled. He put all his kids in private schools and had lived on Prospect Street in Trenton, an exclusive place, but the world changed.” He eventually moved to Ewing, where he died in a nursing home at the age of 76 in 1962.
As for the others: Fisher maintained the Trenton anvil business, married Argentine naval officer Silvano Andrew, moved to an estate in Ewing (Bella Vista), and died in 1939. Andrew, and then his second wife, Althea, continued the business until the late 1960s. Fisher’s mansion was recently razed by a developer.
Albert, who immigrated from England to Trenton to work for Fisher in 1903, and Maria, an Italian who arrived in 1906 for the same reason, lived the remainder of their lives in Ewing. She died in 1952, he around 1958.
“Albert and Maria continued to work for Harriet until her death in 1939. They lived on the grounds of Bella Vista. They are listed on the various census lists until 1930 as living there. I believe they purchased their home at 4 Kirk Avenue around 1941-’42, and Albert was listed on tax records for the home until at least 1957. Fred Andrew — the only child of Silvano and Althea Andrew — tells me that he remembers them, so maybe they continued to work at Bella Vista after Harriet died. They would have been in their late 50s or early 60s around her death. I surmise that she left them sufficient money to buy a house and live in retirement. I get the feeling that she was generous with her employees. I think she helped my grandfather get his first few businesses going,” says Urban.
Honk-Honk, noted as the time as the first dog to travel the world by auto; Billikins the monkey (the name coming from a good luck doll popular at the time in the U.S.); and Jappy, the dog obtained in Japan, lived the remainder of their lives with Fisher.
What remains of the journey and journeyers in Ewing are the stories, the ghostly images, the artifacts, and the exhibition curator.
Urban grew up close to her grandfather in Trenton. Her parents taught in the Trenton School Systems, and she followed in their footsteps, got an MA in reading from Rutgers University, and retired in 2009 after 26 years at Reynolds Middle School in Hamilton.
While she did not know her grandfather well, some of the objects in the current exhibition were around her house and silently told his story. “I grew up with the China bowl. It was in our front room and used for mail.” And there were boxes of over 240 photos, the cameras that he used, and the “magic lantern” used to show glass slides.
As with other Brooks relations, especially the younger members, Urban says she had little interest in their grandfather’s past and the rich and strange woman who spent $25,000 (or approximately $600,000 in today’s economy) to drive around the world, have dinners with royalty, and have her grandfather fix the car.
But that changed when she retired and the 100th anniversary of the trip arrived. When an aunt gave her permission to use the materials, she became more interested and wanted to share the details. The current exhibition was born last year after Urban’s presentation on the trip to the Ewing Historical Society. The organization’s president is also a trustee of the Trenton City Museum and the director of the museum also attended.
The exhibition — a volunteer effort by Urban with fitting assistance from the Mid-Atlantic AAA Club — mounted in the 1848 built mansion reflects Fisher’s era of a typical museum presentation and fills rows of wood and glass cabinets. The photographs reflect a period approach that strives to record exotic vistas, staged scenes, or portraits for print, rather than capture mood or psychology. Never the less, given the reality that the young Brooks learned photography literally on the move, the photographs are a testament to his ability.
Brooks, in an interesting arrangement, will provide his own testament of the trip during Urban’s Sunday, June 30, 2 p.m. presentation, which will be a recreation of her grandfather’s 1956 public talk to an historic society. In addition to showing the same slides that Brooks often used, an audio-recording preserving the driver’s observations will let the world traveler speak again.
Think of it as an event that lets our lightening fast 21st century technology will help an audience race back to a time when people just thought they were going fast.
Trenton Entourage Motors ’Round the World in 1909, Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, Cadwalader Park, Trenton, Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sundays 1 to 4 p.m., through Sunday, September 22. Free.
Rebecca Urban’s presentation on “Trenton Entourage,” Sunday, June 30, 2 p.m. Free. 609-989-1191 or www.ellarslie.org.