In an era when many parents are uncomfortable at the thought of their children walking to their elementary school just two blocks away, it might shock you that in 1910, John “Jack” Abernathy let his two boys, Louis, known as Bud, age 9, and Temple, age 6, drive a Brush Runabout automobile from New York City to their hometown of Frederick, Oklahoma.
Jack was the United States marshal in Tillman County, Oklahoma, the youngest ever in the entire country until that point, personally appointed to the position by President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1905, after Roosevelt had heard of Jack's supposed ability to catch wolves alive with his bare hands, the 26th president visited the Oklahoma Territory, in part to see if the tales told about Abernathy were true. Jack took the commander-in-chief on a hunt where Abernathy indeed caught a wolf alive with his bare hands, impressing the outdoors-loving president so much that he made him a federal lawman.
Growing up in a remote part of what was the Oklahoma Territory until it became a state in 1907 couldn't have been easy. The boys’ mother died that same year. Still, Jack “Catch-'em alive” Abernathy thought they needed some toughening up, so in 1909 he sent his two sons, by themselves, riding their two horses to Santa Fe, New Mexico and back. Perhaps that got some help from a cadre of little green space aliens as they passed through Roswell, but the boys did complete the 1300-mile round trip.
Nurturing a love of horsepower
The trip was so successful that the following year, the senior Abernathy sent his sons on an even longer equestrian trip, this time to New York City, 2000 miles away, to welcome Teddy Roosevelt back to America following a European trip and African safari (after TR left the White House in 1909). Roosevelt got a ticker-tape parade in NYC, and the boys, who had become celebrities on their way to the Big Apple, were given a place of honor, riding their steeds Sam and Wylie just behind Roosevelt's carriage, ahead of his Rough Riders, reunited and mounted up on their own horses for the event.
After 3300 miles in the saddle, Bud and Temple were ready for a change, and their horses probably could have used a break, too. They shipped the horses via railroad back to Oklahoma, and resolved to find a motorcar to drive back home instead. They wanted to be back in Tillman County in time for the school year.
The way the story is told, they went out shopping for a new car in Manhattan, only to find that most were well beyond their means. The boys had made some money on the trip to New York, but had spent much of it in the city. Fortunately, they came upon a Brush dealer, whose Model D runabout was both simple to operate and cost just $485 to purchase. Brush was one of the main competitors to Henry Ford's Model T, which in 1910 was priced at $900, though that would quickly drop to $345 by 1916.
There's probably reason for some skepticism as to whether they actually bought the Brush runabout. It's quite possible that the little car was supplied by Brush, as it flew Brush banners from flag poles mounted to the car for the duration of their trip.
Unlike their horseback trips, they were accompanied out of New York by their father, who had acquired a Maxwell automobile, big enough for the entire Abernathy family back home, and hired a driver/mechanic to pilot it, as Jack, an expert horseman, had yet to learn how to drive.
In 1910, drivers' licenses were off some time in the future, so nobody was concerned that a couple of preteens taught themselves how to drive in Times Square. As it happened, Temple's legs were too short to reach the pedals, so Bud would end up doing the driving, but Temple had the important (and dangerous) responsibility of crank-starting the Brush.
On the road again
As soon as they were confident that they could pilot the Brush safety, on July 6, 1910 they left New York City, followed by their father and his chauffeur in his Maxwell. Once on their way, they headed north to the state capital in Albany, then on to Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
As the caravan was driving through Poughkeepsie, New York, Temple was riding in the Maxwell with his father, while Bud followed behind in the Brush. As Jack slowed the Maxwell to a stop, Temple jumped from the car, without looking, directly into the path of the Brush with Bud at the wheel. The Brush knocked Temple down, literally running right over him, which was fortunate, as he was missed by all four of the wheels and was only bruised.
Large crowds and important personages greeted the boys in each town and city they visited. In Cleveland, they were warmly greeted and welcomed to the city by the local sheriff and his deputies. That's not the kind of reception nine-year-old drivers get from Ohio police these days. Driving along the muddy roads between Cleveland and Detroit, the boys often led the way, as the lightweight Brush did not get bogged down in the muck as easily as the much heavier and more luxurious Maxwell.
Getting back to how they got their Brush automobile, whether the deal was cut before or after their trip, the Abernathy Kids, as they were known, became a fixture in Brush advertisements touting that Brush automobiles were simple enough to operate that even a child could drive them. Also, instead of taking the more direct southern route back home, they detoured to Detroit, where they were welcomed by the mayor and given a VIP tour of the Brush factory. Their runabout was also serviced and tuned up by Brush technicians and engineers during their stay in the nascent Motor City.
The boys' motorcar trip received national press coverage for its duration, though interestingly, the Detroit Free Press' coverage of their visit to Brush's hometown mentions that they had the run of the city but fails to mention the Brush that they drove. The Free Press did mention Jack Abernathy's Maxwell, which he was planning on taking only as far as Chicago. Jack told the newspaper that local Oklahoma “politics” required his urgent return, but one source says the U.S. marshal was actually needed to accompany a group of convicted prisoners to the penitentiary. Whatever reason he had, Abernathy took a train back home and had his driver follow the boys on the remaining legs of their trip. That's more supervision than they usually got on their jaunts.
From 1904 to 1913, Jasper Glidden, a wealthy banker and telephone company executive, sponsored what became known as the Glidden Tours, to test the reliability of the then-new automobiles and also encourage the construction of more and better roads. Part of the 1910 Glidden tour took a route from Dallas to Chicago, so knowing there was a reliable network of roads they could use, the Abernathy boys reversed the Glidden route, first going west to Omaha, Nebraska, and then south through Kansas City, Missouri and Wichita, Kansas.
Their trip through the Sunflower State was eventful. While in Kansas, the Maxwell caught on fire, destroying their possessions, including the boys' clothing and their irreplaceable souvenirs from the trip. The Maxwell, though, was able to continue on the journey, albeit with blackened and blistered panels. Also while in Kansas, a washed-out bridge almost stopped them in their tracks until construction workers laid narrow timbers to use as a makeshift crossing.
Safe and sound… somehow
Louis and Temple Abernathy arrived in Oklahoma City 23 days after they left New York City, greeted by a throng of well-wishers, including a group of Brush Runabout owners. The odometer on the boys' Brush read 2512.2 miles. That's an average of over 100 miles a day—pretty impressive when you consider what roads were like in 1910 and how unreliable cars were over a century ago. That it was literally accomplished by children is almost mind-boggling.
By the time the Abernathy boys made it home to Frederick, another 295 miles from Oklahoma City, they were famous. Pathé made a silent movie about them, with Bud and Temple starring as themselves, the following year. Their fans included the likes of Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Orville Wright, and hundreds of adult women infatuated by the young boys on their trips. Undoubtedly a self-promoter and proud father, Jack Abernathy could probably have taught LaVar Ball a thing or two about publicizing, and raising, talented and capable children.
In addition to the silent film made by Pathé, Louis and Temple have also been featured in a 2007 short film titled The Grand Ride of the Abernathy Boys, coincidentally starring two real-life brothers, Edward and William Cohn.
There is a life-size bronze statue commemorating the Abernathy brothers as they looked in 1910, standing near the entrance to the Pioneer Townsite Museum on the Tillman County Courthouse Square, in Frederick, Oklahoma. Every year, on the first Saturday in June, Frederick celebrates the boys and their father with an Abernathy Day Celebration.
Growing up in a small town in southwest Oklahoma, the Abernathy boys must have liked New York. In 1913, after Jack remarried, Bud and Temple used some of the money they'd made from their celebrity to buy an Indian motorcycle, which they rode to New York City with their new step-brother Anton—but that's another story for another time.