The State Library and Archives of Florida has over 300,000 individual records housed in various collections, many of which have been digitized and are publicly accessible via floridamemory.com. These resources can be invaluable to research, or just a good way to kill some time. I decided to look at the available collections and ask simple questions just to see where it takes me. Using the Early Auto Registrations, 1905-1917 collection, I decided to ask: Who registered the first vehicle in Leon County?
The first automobiles didn’t arrive in Florida until around 1900. Florida didn’t even start requiring vehicle registration until 1905, thanks, in part to the State of New York and State Representative Edward L. Wartmann of Citra, Florida.
Rep Wartmann, borrowing from existing legislation in New York, introduced a bill that required automobile owners to register their vehicles with the Secretary of State, keep registration documents in the vehicle, display the registration number on the vehicle, have safety equipment like a bell, horn, or whistle, as well as two signal lamps for nighttime use, abide by a statewide speed limit, give signal when approaching horses or other animals (drivers were required to stop if directed to by the individual riding/driving the animal), and allowed for Boards of County Commissioners to set aside time for speed tests or races on public roadways.
The Secretary of State was responsible for registering vehicles until 1917, when that responsibility was transferred to the Comptroller’s Office. An application was mailed to the Department of State with all of the required information, which was recorded in a ledger (Figure) along with the assigned registration number. This number was often displayed via wood, metal, or leather license plates handmade by the vehicle’s owner.
On October 19, 1905, William C. Hodges of Tallahassee became the first person to register an automobile in Leon County. Hodges was born in Illinois in 1876, moved to Florida in the 1880s and unsuccessfully ran for governor on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912, and again in 1936. He was elected to the Florida Senate in 1923 and served as the President of the Senate in 1935.
An interesting aside: Hodges purchased the Goodwood cotton plantation—now a Tallahassee landmark—because his wife Margaret had always admired one of the beds at the estate. Apparently, to buy the bed, he had to buy the estate. The Hodges’ would go on to entertain the high society folks at Goodwood “in a fashion unequaled since the Civil War.”
The registration record on which Hodges is listed reads as follows. Registration Number: 57, Style of Vehicle: Gasolene, Horsepower: 30, Factory Number: 1191, Makers Name: National (National Motor Vehicle Co.).
Founded in Indianapolis in 1900, National began as an electric car company that manufactured its own electric motors. Production of gasoline vehicles began in 1904, and National dropped all-electric vehicles from production in 1907.
Hodges was most likely rolling in National Gasoline Model C or Model Cb, as these are the only two gas-powered models produced in 1905 with 30 horsepower. Both models boasted a four-cylinder engine that produced 24 to 30 horsepower.
The National Motor Vehicle Co. successfully produced gasoline cars, including racing cars, until 1923 when it was merged into Associated Motor Industries. AMI consisted of existing car, truck, and parts manufactures, and was intended to standardize production, but it went out of business in 1924.
Hodges went on to represent Leon County in the Senate for eighteen years until his death in 1940 at the age of 64. The announcement of Hodges’ death, published in the Flagler Tribune January 18, 1940, closed with the following: “In the senate, Hodges was a master of wit and sarcasm. His stooped shoulders and flowing gray hair made him a colorful figure in debate. When he filibustered against legislation he opposed, galleries filled to capacity because Hodges made a show of the occasion.”
“180 Years of Goodwood.” Goodwood Museum & Gardens, www.goodwoodmuseum.org/history/.
Clymer, Floyd. Treasury of Early American Automobiles, 1877-1925. Bonanza Books, 1971.
“Florida’s First Automobiles.” Florida Memory, 10 July 2015, www.floridamemory.com/blog/2015/07/10/floridas-first-automobiles/.
Florida Memory. Early Automobile Registrations, 1905-1917. https://www.floridamemory.com/collections/early-autos/.
Historic American Building Survey (HABS) FLA, 37-Tala.V,1- Goodwood Plantation, Tallahassee, Leon County, FL. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fl0163.sheet.00003a/.
“Researching Escambia County at the State Archives and State Library of Florida.” Florida Memory Blog, 26 Sept. 2018, www.floridamemory.com/blog/2018/09/26/researching-escambia-county-at-the-state-archives-and-state-library-of-florida/.
Test, Charles D. “National Motor Vehicle Company Archives.” Chuck’s Toyland, www.chuckstoyland.com/category/automotive/national-motor-vehicle-company/.