First Automobile Registrations- Part 1
by Pete Zizka
3-12- 2022
Do you know who had the distinction of being the first Willimantic resident to own an automobile? It was Ernest P. Chesbro. A newspaper article in August, 1901 said, “He was treating his friends to rides. It is a neat looking vehicle and on stretches of smooth roads it can make people hold their hats on. The power is steam, generated by gasoline”. Soon after, Chesbro started the area’s first automobile dealership and had a showroom at 1029 Main Street. He is also credited with selling the first automobile in Willimantic, a Stanley Steamer. Just for fun this week, let’s go back to 1903 and find out which area people were the first to register automobiles in Connecticut. Perhaps some of the names will be familiar, or even relatives from the past. Coincidentally, the first Willimantic resident to register an automobile was DeWitt Clinton Hill who was given registration number 101 for his new car, a Stanley Steamer. Historically, the next registrants were  A.G. Turner (443), Samuel Adams (689), Louis H. Jerome (993), Fred Bugbee (1250) and Maro V. Palmer (1215). Thread Mill superintendent Austin Boss had a car delivered in 1904 and was given registration 1294 which had previously been held by another registrant. At the Willimantic Fair in September, 1903, there was an exhibition of five automobiles owned by local citizens. Each was sent at slow speed around the fairground’s racetrack. Then two were sent around the track to check the time to complete one mile. DeWitt Hill’s six-horsepower Stanley steamer turned the mile in 2 minutes, 11 seconds while Samuel Adams’ Stevens Duryea gasoline engine made the mile in 2 minutes, 59 seconds. In 1903, Motorcycles and cars were given their registration numbers in sequence. The first motorcycle registered in Willimantic was that of Leverett M. Clark (1000). We should note that even though a registration numbers were assigned, there were no plates given. The registration fee was $1. For that, the registrant received a paper certificate with the number and all registrations began with “C” followed by the number. The registrant had to furnish the plate and so most were leather with metal numbers attached to them. Plates were not issued by the state until 1905 (see photo). (Registration number 1 had been issued to James P. Woodruff of Litchfield. That number is still held by the family.) Who were some of the first registrants from area towns? From 1903-1905 there were only two from South Windham. Guilford Smith was the earliest registrant (202) followed by Robert Binns (1722). Louis Wilson (1362) and fellow townspeople J.A. Hartson (1576), R.A. Harris (1937) and Leslie F. Hartson (2149) were the only four from North Windham. Columbia’s first and only registrant as of 1905 was Tressillian Tucker.(In that year, motorcycles began to be registered separately and Tucker received C-050.) J.S. Champlin (745), Wm. M. Reeves (1252) and Mrs. George N Phillips (1297) were Coventry’s first registrants. From Lebanon, L.P.Smith (277) and William Blanchard (734) were the only two registrants. Frank Atwood (453) was the first and only from Mansfield through 1905.There were no registrants from Brooklyn, Canterbury or Scotland. By the end of 1905, there were 2,155 motor vehicles registered in Connecticut. By 1908, there were about fifty automobiles registered in Willimantic and a small group of owners organized an automobile club and affiliated it with the state club. They began having meetings and participated in automobile related events in the area. In 1910, there were 65 automobile registrants living in Willimantic as well as 7 motorcycle registrants. Willimantic now had three automobile dealerships, Chesbro (plate 107D), Arthur Hill (210D),and  the Windham Garage (284D). There were three registrants from Columbia, 14 from Coventry, and 8 from Lebanon. Mansfield had 17 registrants, Chaplin had 4, Brooklyn had 3, Scotland had 3 and the Windhams had 14. Overall, Connecticut had about 10,000 registered automobiles and 16,000 licensed operators by the end of 1910. A curious fact noted by the Motor Vehicle Department was that many people who had formerly registered their vehicles had let the registrations expire and were now re-registering them. They had held off on re-registering, “until the highways were in good shape”.

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