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Joe Menard brought the first automobile to Missoula in 1901, but this is an ode to Frank P. Smith.

In their old age Frank and Delia Smith walked sadly out of their Slant Street home on a dreary October day in 1960 to go live with a nephew in Kalispell. They left behind a combined 130 years in Missoula. Both had arrived in their youth in the 1890s.

Frank spent a brief time driving freight wagons between Bearmouth and the mining camps of Garnet and Quigley. By the turn of the century he was back in town operating a livery stable on East Front Street, next to the Missoula Mercantile.

Menard, manager of the Merc’s implement department, got Page 4 coverage when his car arrived on a train in this town of dust and mud in April 1901.

“After long and anxious expectation Missoula has an automobile,” the Missoulian reported on April 18.

But for reasons unclear, Frank Smith’s new machine quickly displaced it in the flow of history.

On May 15, 1901, less than a month after Menard's horseless carriage arrived, the newspaper hailed the “Milwaukee Steamer” on Page 1:

WE SLING ON STYLE

Missoula Has an Automobile and Streets to Run On

Frank Smith of the City Livery Stable Gave a Number of his Friends a Nice Treat

There was no mention of Joe Menard.

“If there was anything lacking to place Missoula in line with other metropolitan cities of the west, the void was filled yesterday in the arrival of an automobile, spick and span from a Milwaukee factory,” the story read. “The new machine is a beauty, and as it gracefully rolled about the city streets yesterday afternoon the amazement of the old settlers and the satisfaction of the more modish was everywhere apparent.”

For the next week, Smith ran a daily ad:

“Patronize The City Livery Stable and get a free ride in The Automobile. The First in Missoula. Frank P. Smith. No. 126 East Front Street.”

Smith was “about as pleased ... as a boy with his first pair of boots,” the story said. 

The Steamer’s “shiny and well varnished sides make it an object of fright for high spirited horses, but this will soon be overcome, and the success that is expected for the first machine will make them objects of common use before long.”

In these days of asphalt and interstates, it’s hard to imagine the novelty of the steamer, its power generated by simply turning on the gas, as it buzzed down Higgins Avenue, out to Lolo or over Marshall Grade on bumpy wagon roads.

Picture, then, the sight just a day or two later. Chief Charlo and a party of Flathead Indians were in town “to attend to business affairs for their followers,” the Weekly Missoulian of May 17, 1901, explained.

“The new automobile of Mr. Smith which passed them attracted their attention, and the novelty and strangeness of the affair caused them to start and exclaim in amazement. They were prevailed upon later to get in for a ride, and the grunts emitted by each of the unfathomable mystery of a self-propelling vehicle were plainly in evidence. Their ride was eminently a pleasing one as explained by one of the party, but throughout it all they clutched the seats and sides to guard against possible harm.”

The joyrides didn’t last long.  The July 4, 1901, Missoulian carried a story of an “Anti Automobilious Attack.”

“A fire in a shed adjoining the City livery at 1 o’clock this morning burned it to the ground and destroyed completely Frank Smith’s automobile. ... The origin of the fire is a mystery.”

In a 1954 interview, Smith told the Missoulian's John A. Forssen he'd decorated the car with paper festoons for the next day's Fourth of July parade. During the night the decorations somehow caught fire and destroyed the machine. 

Smith sold his livery stable a couple of years later, but that didn’t keep him from starting the city’s first automobile taxi business in 1911 (then selling it the same year).

He told Forssen the automobile could reach a speed of 20 mph with everything running right. And he remembered how the machine scared the horses.

“They would have climbed a tree if they could,” Smith said.

He hatched the idea of an automobile livery service with D. Harold Peat, who managed the Windsor Hotel across the street from the Merc.

“At about that time, Peat quit as manager of the hotel, so it was he who went ‘back East’ to make the purchase,” Forssen reported. “He shopped first in Chicago, then went to Milwaukee. He bought the car for $1,000 and was given a course of instruction in how to operate and drive it.”

With freight costs and other expenses, Smith and Peat were into the car some 1,600 bucks. Even before it was uncrated, Smith bought Peat’s interest. But it is Peat at the tiller in the rear seat, with Smith beside him, in a photo that ran with Forssen’s story.

“I bought gas to fire the steamer for 50 cents a gallon at the drug store,” Smith said. “The tanks weren’t very big, and we ran out of gas often. Of course there were no filling stations.”

It might have been Forssen who wrote the Smiths’ goodbye-to-Missoula story in 1960. It carried no byline.

Frank Smith was 89 and still drove a car, though sparingly.

“I hate to get mixed up in the traffic now," he said. "It’s getting pretty thick.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian