Monday, August 8, 2016

Bridgeport Auto Company

Things Change, but Memories Remain  by
Ridgley Garage in Bridgeport with W, Ridgely in background
John Hamilton (originally written for publication in the Sumner Press)

I can’t remember not knowing Pat Ridgley. He is a bit older than I, as I often remind him, but we went all the way through the Bridgeport school system together. Our parents were friends and did things together. And since we both lived on Church Street, across from Seed School, three doors apart, we did a lot of things together.

We played, shot BB guns, hiked out to the Overhead Bridge, made tiny villages in the sand box using Log Cabin Syrup tins, climbed up the grain elevator, rode scooters and bikes, raised pigeons, tried model trains, and explored the town and whatever else we could find to explore.

One of the places where we spent a certain amount of time was the Bridgeport Auto Company. That was downtown on the west side of Washington Street, between Olive and Chestnut Streets. There was one lone gasoline pump in front along the street, but inside the garage were the city’s fire trucks. More than once Pat and I washed the newer one, the American LaFrance pumper, with Duz detergent. “Duz does everything,” if you remember.

What I didn’t know when I hung out down there was the history of the business, and that turns out to be rather impressive.
Two new Regals all decked out
 for the 1911 July 4th parade in Bridgeport

Pat’s granddad was William E. Ridgley. He was born near Bridgeport in 1872. At some point he moved his family to Thebes, down in southern Illinois along the Mississippi River, to manage a feed store. In 1906 he wrote Emmett Cox in Bridgeport to ask if this oil boom thing was a flash in the pan or was it for real. Mr. Cox encouraged him to return to Bridgeport, telling him how much oil production was going on and that is was, indeed, for real.

So the Ridgley family, which by now included Pat’s father, Lehr, returned to Bridgeport and the elder Mr. Ridgley started an ice cream and candy store on Main Street. Then in 1909 William Ridgley and a Mr. Noonan founded the Bridgeport Auto Company.

Noonan was a machinist and had followed the oil finds from northern Ohio to Bridgeport. He also had an oil field equipment repair business in the building directly on the other side of the street from where the auto company was located. Mr. Noonan returned to Ohio, but that date is uncertain. The front part of the Bridgeport Auto Company was built in 1909, with an addition in about 1913, then a larger shop area that included an oil changing pit was constructed in 1926.

That lone gas pump until about 1946 was a gravity operated gasoline dispenser. A hand lever on the side of the pump forced the gasoline up into a container that measured and held up to 10 gallons of gas. When the correct amount was in the container, gas flowed into the car by gravity through a hose and nozzle.

Bridgeport suffered a devastating fire in 1913 in which most of the downtown business district was destroyed. The city fire chief at the time, Bert Claycomb, gave up that position and William Ridgley took over the job, a position he held until 1947. The city’s fire apparatus was moved to the Bridgeport Auto Company garage and was stationed there for several years.

But the Bridgeport Auto Company was more than just a place to park fire trucks. The business was a Ford Authorized Service Station, meaning it was approved by Ford Motor Company and used genuine Ford parts in the repair of Ford cars. The company was an agent for new Fords and these other makes as well: Auburn, Cord, Duesenburg, Stanley Steamer, and Regal. Another line represented was Marmon Trucks, an early large and specialty truck manufacturer.

As the years passed, agents became dealers and the manufacturer/dealership business model became more refined. By the time I became acquainted with the garage in the 1940s, the business was mainly the service and repair of all kinds of motor vehicles, plus the normal service station service.
William E Ridgley
Pat’s father, Lehr, graduated from Bridgeport Township High School in 1918. For a few years he drove an over-the-road truck, then joined his father in the Bridgeport Auto Company. When William Ridgley relinquished his chief’s position with the volunteer Bridgeport Fire Department in 1947, Lehr accepted the job. He served in that post until 1960, when failing health dictated otherwise.

The auto company had what we called a wrecker, and what today would probably be referred to as a tow truck. It was an older vehicle but also served as a delivery truck when Lehr became the Railway Express Agency Bridgeport agent. Quite often I’d accompany Pat and his dad as they met the morning local train at the B&O station in Bridgeport. Express packages would be unloaded onto a baggage cart, then onto Ridgley’s wrecker for delivery in town.

Lehr Ridgley passed away in 1961. Grandpa Ridgley (that was the name I generally heard him called) continued the garage business until his death in 1966.

And that pretty much was the end of the Bridgeport Auto Company. All three garage buildings, as well as the elder Ridgley’s’ house, are gone. Only the memories remain--with some of us.