Thunder Butte

May 01, 2008

Wild Cars of Thunder Butte - Part II

Most modern cars have front wheel drive; this is a given. Long ago, Thunder Butte dwellers learned that cars pulled better than they pushed. When you came to a very steep hill in an old Model "T" Ford, you automatically turned the car around and started to back up the hill. Usually when going in reverse you could manage to climb the steepest hill without a problem.

Long before I acquired the old "T" model from Roger Portney, someone had given me a 1928 Chevrolet. I have mentioned having to replace the connecting rod bavette routinely and a few other idiosyncrasies of the Chevrolet. (See my last post.) One of the more discouraging traits of the `28 Chev was its inability to hold water. The radiator was good for about ten miles before it would start to steam. In a couple of more miles the engine would begin to missfire, and water would have to be added if one was to continue driving.

One of the worst instances of running out of water was sometime in 1934. I would have been 13 or 14 years old at the time. I had just picked up three or four of the Briscoe boys, and probably a couple of other neighbor boys, and we were off to a dance in Usta. About half way to the dance, somewhere in the vicinity of Wedgetent Butte, the Chevy started to steam. In a couple of miles further, she refused to go any further. We turned off the car, sat there in the gathering dusk of evening, and discussed how we were going to get to the dance, or better yet, how we would get home without water, as the nearest water was miles away in either direction. After some long discussion, one of the boys stood up on the front bumper of the car and urinated in the radiator. Without a word, each of the boys lined up and did the same. Again, without a word, we all piled in and drove on to Usta to the dance. After the dance we refilled the 'stink'n' car and drove home without further incident.

Having traded the Chevrolet for the topless Model "T" Ford, and after months of 'fooling' with it, it finally came to life and I was driving back to town when I discovered another problem. In the old Model "T's", the radius rods (steering) were connected together loosely, and if you turned the steering wheel very far in either direction, the rods between the front wheels would flop over and the car would go in the opposite direction from which you steered. Turn left, and the car would suddenly go right. Like I said, this was all new to me, so on the way back to town, and as I was passing the Petrified Wood Park on my right, I jerked the wheel left to avoid hitting a rock in the road, the Ford instantly went right. The throttle was a lever on the steering column. In my haste, as I was racing through monuments of petrified wood at a breakneck pace, I pulled the nearest lever which happened to be the spark advance and that just made the car run faster. Steering like a 14 year old madman, I raced through all of the petrified wood park. Steering left to miss a pylon, the car would race to the right around the pylon and that was the way I navigated the entire acreage of the Petrified Wood Park in Lemmon that day. After much experimentation, I discovered that I could tie strips of inner tube rubber to the radius rods, and that would prevent them from flopping over and the car would steer in straight line.

Lemmon's Pretrified Wood Park in March 2007

One other problem was the throttle lever on the steering column. I never could get used to pulling and pushing that lever. The result was a stick tied over where the hood was meant to be, with a wire connected to the carburetor, and the other end of the stick protruding into the driver's compartment. Although it looked very clumsy, this stick arrangement worked exceptionally well, and I would go racing around town and all over Perkins County and North Lemmon, North Dakota, with my hoodless, topless, sometimes radiator-less Model "T" Ford.

If anyone ever reads this stuff, you may wonder how I survived the legal world. The answer was this—the State of South Dakota did not issue driver's licenses in those days. The local chief of police, Pat Jones, used to chase me a lot. But, as soon as I raced out of town, he would give up the chase. As he said to someone later on, "I would just chase him until he left town, and then realizing he was out of harms way, I would give up the chase."

--John Crowley
Mike Crowley Thursday, May 01, 2008


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