Museum will have you wanting the car keys

A 1920s gas pump that was built near Springfield. A 1920s gas pump that was built near Springfield. (David Lyon for The Boston Globe)
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / January 31, 2010

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SPRINGFIELD - Habit makes it easy to misread the decimal point on a colorful “Mobilgas ethyl’’ pump in the Museum of Springfield History. Look closely: It advertises fuel not at $1.59 a gallon but at 15.9 cents. That was a good thing, considering that the 1911 seven-passenger Stevens-Duryea luxury touring car displayed around the corner got only seven miles a gallon.

The new museum opened in October across Edwards Street from the Springfield Quadrangle. While giving Springfield’s social and political history its due, the museum focuses most colorfully on the city’s heyday as a leading manufacturing center.

Already known for the firearms manufactured at the Springfield Armory and Smith & Wesson, Springfield rapidly became an industrial powerhouse in the decades following the Civil War, when more than 100 factories opened in or near the city. The output wasn’t all stovepipes and machine tools; Springfield companies created iconic consumer goods, from Milton Bradley’s board games to a legion of cool automobiles to the beloved Indian motorcycles. The museum is an ideal place to take any child (or former child) who ever wanted a truck for Christmas.

The museum’s piece de resistance is undoubtedly a 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom built in Springfield and acquired by M. Allen Swift of West Hartford, Conn., on his 26th birthday. He owned the two-tone green car for the next 77 years, racking up 172,000 miles and performing most of the maintenance himself, before presenting it to the museum shortly before his death in 2005 at 102. Swift also donated $1 million to purchase the former Verizon building that the Springfield Museums transformed into the new history museum with a dramatic, three-story, barrel-vaulted addition.

The 1921-31 saga of Rolls-Royce manufacturing in Springfield (where 1,702 cars were built) was hardly the city’s first foray into automotive manufacturing. While few have quite the provenance of Swift’s massive Rolls, the museum displays stunningly restored examples of the city’s entries into the heady early days of car production.

The first successful American gasoline auto, the Duryea, was launched here when bicycle mechanics Frank and Charles Duryea took their horseless carriage for a spin on Sept. 21, 1893. Starting in 1901, Stevens-Duryea would manufacture motorcars here until 1927, and the museum has some of their most impressive touring cars.

Inventor-entrepreneur Henry Knox developed his three-wheel runabout in 1899 (an example is on display) and founded the Knox Automobile Co., which produced cars, trucks, and farm tractors until 1924. Knox left his company to found Atlas Motor Car in 1907, manufacturing technologically advanced autos until price competition with Ford put him out of business in 1913.

While the collection of Springfield vehicles is hardly encyclopedic, the first-floor auto gallery is a showroom of touchstones from American automotive history.

Knox also produced the first motorized firefighting equipment in 1906. Springfield’s fire department was the first in the country to convert to motor-powered vehicles. The city’s police force, an early adopter of motorcycles, purchased its first in 1909. That was a natural, given that the Indian Manufacturing Co. set up shop in the Indian Orchard neighborhood in 1901. The vehicles were little more than motorized bicycles, not surprising since co-founder Carl Oscar Hedstrom was a bicycle racer and mechanic.

The company flourished in the years before World War II. The “Wigwam,’’ as Hedstrom and partner George M. Hendee called their factory, was cranking out more than 32,000 motorcycles per year by 1913. Although Indian competed fiercely with Harley-Davidson for a half century, the company failed in 1953. Indian may be gone, but it is hardly forgotten: Two dozen of its legendary models fill a second-floor gallery. They were donated by Esta Manthos, founder and curator of the Indian Motocyle Museum, which closed in 2006.

Transportation is definitely a theme at the history museum, with an extensive exhibit on the development of the city’s street railway system, which began in 1870 with four trolley cars and 24 horses, was electrified in 1890, and reached 98 miles of track by 1900. There’s also a charming set piece about Peter Pan Bus Co., founded in Springfield in 1933 for $4,500 and now the largest family-owned bus company in the country.

And just when you thought every mode of transit was covered, you can look up in the atrium and behold two Gee Bee (Granville Brothers) racing planes.

One thing the museum makes clear is that Springfield was a city on the go.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@

If You Go

Museum of Springfield History

Museum Welcome Center

21 Edwards St.


Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

Admission to all four Springfield Museums $12.50, seniors and college students $9, ages 3-17 $6.50.