v26-2 13 year old girl wins auto race

Vol. XXVI No. 2 - SUMMER 2015

By Kathryn Gemperle

The story of young Jeanette Lindstrom captured the interest of many early auto owners in Chicago in 1901, when she won an auto race in Washington Park. What was the rest of the story?

Jeanette Lindstrom was the daughter of Swedish born Charles and Augusta Lindstrom, who came to Chicago in 1894 in a quest to get involved in the auto industry. Her birth was registered in Boston as Jeanette Susie Lindstrom, but she later used her mother’s middle initial W. Her father, Charles, was a trained engineer from Sweden who, after serving in the military, sought his future in the United States. As an engineer he knew machines and had lots of ideas on the production of autos. He met and formed a partnership with John Hewitt and created the Hewitt Lindstrom Company to produce electric vehicles. Mr. Hewitt lived in Edgewater in a large frame house at 5902 Kenmore, and the Lindstrom’s lived at 4827 North Ashland. Their company offices were at 347 N. Wabash.

Prior to 1900, almost all cars were electric and often had two motors, one for the front wheels and one for the back wheels. The vehicles could be light weight or heavy. They had drawbacks in the limited range of the batteries, but on the whole were quiet and efficient. These early autos really did look like horseless carriages, since they often had bench seats, no windshield and were steered by a tiller like a ship. This steering involved moving the arm to the opposite direction of the intended turn much like a sidewalk wagon. There was no dashboard and there were no safety features like doors on the sides. The wheels were wood and covered in rubber. The horn was often a button, and much attention was paid to the braking mechanism, which needed to be shielded from road debris and moisture. Speeds for these vehicles were about 8 miles per hour, with some reaching 12 miles per hour. In this period many entrepreneurs produced vehicles with a range of success. One of the more famous electric car companies was the Woods Electric, which was produced in Chicago until 1919.

Charles Lindstrom worked on three kinds of vehicles, the “runabout” was lightweight and designed in the Stanhope style. He also developed a delivery truck and an omnibus to haul up to 20 people. These designs and many other early autos were dependent on a variety of inventions including the improved making of steel, the technology of batteries and the mechanisms for steering, braking and flexibility of design for the balance and suspension of the wheels. It must be noted that when autos first appeared there were all manner of road surfaces from dirt and sand to macadam, cedar block and clay bricks. In early auto races, much attention was paid to the road surface, since it could make the trip faster or slower.

Charles Lindstrom was an inventor and held many patents on mechanisms to be used in cars. Among those listed by the U.S. Patent office are brakes for electric motors, an electric carriage, a supporting frame for motors of electric carriages and a controller switch. Perhaps the most interesting is the work he did on the “perches” of the vehicles, which permit the wheels to adapt to the inequalities of the road (what we today call suspension). As an inventor with a fledgling company, he knew that his design of an auto needed some public exposure, so he entered his vehicle into an auto race for electric vehicles at Washington Park (an event that was part of the Chicago Auto Show) and won the gold medal for the one mile race in 2:34 minutes in 1900.

That same year he taught his 13 year old daughter Jeanette how to drive, and brought her to the first drivers license exam by the city electrician, E.R. Ellicott. This was the first exam given by the City of Chicago. It was a written exam, no on-the-road testing. She passed with flying colors, and Mr. Ellicott noted that her father represented the fact that he had taught her to drive and that she had three months driving experience.

On October 6, 1901, Little Miss Jeanette participated in several races at Washington Park. The electric vehicle races for Saturday, Monday and Tuesday resulted in the following: first prize and second prize: Hewitt-Lindstrom Motor Company with a winning time 15 minutes and 4 seconds. Special ladies race 2 miles: first place M.A. Ryan; second Miss Jeanette Lindstrom, both in the Hewitt- Lindstrom vehicles; time 6 minutes and 43 seconds. A special one mile race of electric vehicles of standard type: Alfred F. Leopold first; Bruce Clark second, both in Woods vehicles, time 3 minutes and 22 seconds. There was also a two mile merchant delivery race taken by the Hewitt-Lindstrom Motor Company, and last but not least, the Five Mile ladies race “free for all” (any type of vehicle), won by Miss Jeanette Lindstrom with a time of 12 minutes and 42 seconds.

But by 1902 the Hewitt-Lindstrom company had dissolved for unknown reasons. It is not known if the ideas were sold to another company or if the two gentlemen lost all their funds and had to shut down. Certainly there was enough competition in the Chicago market, and the difficulty in making your inventions stand out added to the pressure. The Woods Motor Company, located two blocks south on Wabash in Chicago, continued even as Henry Ford worked to mass produce the internal combustion engine Model T, and make cars affordable at $825 in 1908.

From Cook County records we learn that Mr. Hewitt’s wife died in 1911, and Hewitt returned to Ontario, Canada where he died in 1919. By 1910 the Lindstroms had moved from their beautiful brick house at 4827 North Ashland to a two-flat on Foster Avenue. Jeanette became a music teacher. In 1920 the Lindstroms left Chicago for Miami, Florida, and Charles Lindstrom began selling real estate. Charles held a number of positions including police sergeant and inspector of weights in Miami. He died in 1924 and Augusta died in 1933. Jeanette taught music and worked as a stenographer until her retirement to Gulfport, Florida. She died in 1969. So the little girl who became famous for winning a car race in 1901 did not go on to become a race car driver, but she did lead the way for the auto industry to pay attention to female drivers.

In the photo below, Jeanette is pictured in a straw hat with flowers, the picture of femininity. There is no indication that she was covered up with a duster to protect her from the road dust or that she wore goggles to protect her eyes. If she had hoped for a windshield or a closed-in car with windows, we can only guess that she, like her father, would be on the side of improvements to make the driving experience enjoyable.

Special thanks to Marsha Holland for her research into the story behind the brief mention of Jeanette in a recent issue of the Chicago Tribune.