Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Oatsmobile

by Anita Mae Draper

This past May I took a trip up to the Western Development Museum (WDM) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan for research purposes and while I was there, I had my first encounter with a Bennett Buggy. But before I get to the good stuff, let me lay the groundwork...

If you think we're having extreme weather now, look what they had to contend with in the 1930's or Dirty Thirties as they are commonly called. And my apologies to anyone who lives in dry, desert areas who see dust storms like this in the normal course of the year.

Dust storm at Harry Thomson's farm near Okotoks, Alberta, Canada, July 1933. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the Glenbow Archives.

Dust storms like the one above are caused by a lack of rain which dries the topsoil. Without water, plants can't grow leaving the topsoil loose (unanchored) so that a stiff wind can set it swirling. Once in the air, it's carried by the wind across the prairie, gathering more soil as travels along. Nothing stops a dust storms until it runs out of wind. And nothing stops the dust from sneaking over, under and around windows, doors, cracks and crevices until there is so much dust in the house you're crunching it with every bite of food. 

Back in the 30's, they didn't have much food. Without rain... without topsoil... there were no gardens... no fresh vegetables. Hungry people. Hungry livestock. What plants could grow were soon eaten by hoards of grasshoppers - a plague of insects that munched mercilessly on whatever bit of green they could find.

The hardest part in all this was that the 20's had been a period of prosperity. It lulled people into thinking the good times would go on forever. Farm families who never had much to start with joined the rest of the modern world and bought automobiles instead of relying on the original horsepower. 

But as wheat prices fell in the 30's, gasoline costs rose. Farm families who'd spent so much money on a new automobile during the good times, now had a vehicle without the means to make it go. 

As resilient as farmers are, they did the only thing they could... they reverted back to horse power - the "oatsmobile" kind. 

Doctor Bridge and Laura Allyn of Alberta, Canada riding in a "Bennett buggy" c1936. Courtesy Glenbow Archives

By removing the engine from their automobile to make it lighter, and hooking up a pole and doubletrees, the farmer could harness his horses or oxen to his vehicle and head off without a drop of gasoline.

In Canada, they were called Bennett Buggies in honor of Richard Bennett, Canada's Prime Minister from 1930 to 1935.  Since he was the man in charge, he was the man blamed for the lack of ... everything.

In the United States, these horse-pulled vehicles were known as Hoover Wagons in honor of President Herbert Hoover - and probably for the same reason.

Bennett buggy, Courtesy of Wikipedia

As the depression wore on, Bennett Buggies weren't only for farm families as everyone felt the pinch from the high price of gasoline which apparently was a boon to governments looking for a way to make cash.

Bennett Buggies were also used in campaigns by wily politicians who were looking for any advantage in upcoming elections. The following photograph shows Canada's opposition leader, William Lyon Mackenzie King driving a Bennett buggy in Sturgeon Valley, Saskatchewan. 

 W.L. Mackenzie King driving the Bennett buggy in Sturgeon Valley, SK. Library and Archives Canada/C-000623 

The Western Development Museum in Saskatoon has a Bennett Buggy on display and although it isn't harnessed to live animals, it's set up with a movie screen which runs a sort film to give you the illusion of what it was like driving in one. 

The Bennett Buggy Demonstration 2013 at WDM Saskatoon, SK

The most common autos to be used as Bennett Buggies in Canada were the Model T Ford, the McLaughlin-Buick, and the one you see here - the Essex touring car. 

The Bennett Buggy Demonstration 2013 at WDM Saskatoon, SK. 

I took a ride in this demonstration car and I have to say that the seat was deep, low, and very comfortable. I could see myself travelling long distances and staying comfortable in this beauty.

If the video doesn't work here, you can see it on my YouTube Channel at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlIRk2I3IsU&feature=youtu.be.

I was sitting on a bench making Bennett Buggy research notes when some tourists approached and went for a ride. Except I hadn't realized there were 2 choices, one being fast and one slower. I hadn't touched the reins because I'd been filming, but the tourists tugged the reins when they came to the fork in the road, and their ride is much faster, and bumpier than mine. By the way, the screaming you hear in the video is coming from the film itself as it gives you the impression of how scary the ride was when you were a child without anything to strap you in the vehicle - or even in a wagon or buggy for that matter.

Do you take advantage of demonstrations at museum and live history events? Are you a participant or would you rather stand and watch others have the experience?


Anita Mae Draper is retired from the Canadian Armed Forces and lives on the prairie of southeast Saskatchewan, Canada with her hubby of 30 plus years and 2 of their 4 kids. She writes stories set on the prairies of Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Anita Mae has semi-finaled in the ACFW's 2011 Genesis contest, and finaled in the Daphne du Maurier, Fool for Love, Duel on the Delta and the Linda Howard Award of Excellence contests.  Anita Mae's short story, "Riding on a Christmas Wish" will appear in A Christmas Cup of Cheer, Guideposts Books, October 2013.  Anita Mae is represented by Mary Keeley of Books & Such Literary Agency. You can find Anita at   http://www.anitamaedraper.com/


  1. That Bennett Buggy demonstration is quite the thing! I think I am a "hands-on" person as I enjoy museums where you can try things!

  2. Hey Elaine, I didn't know about the BB demo before then as it was my 1st trip to the WDM is Saskatoon, but since you live in Saskatoon, have you ever gone for a spin in it?

    Or maybe you've been in a real BB with live horses on a bumpy prairie road?

  3. All new to me, Anita Mae! how cool!
    I didn't think much about the difference from prosperity to such wide spread shortages in that decade.

    My only similar story is when I was young and went on a farm wagon ride at an Amish Farm Museum in Lancaster. I climbed up on this cute little seat near the front and when it was time to go, the driver said I was sitting in the driver seat, so he handed me the reins. I might be a bit of a recluse but not terribly shy--not enough to turn down an opportunity like that so I 'drove the wagon'. NOT THAT those poor horse couldn't do it in their sleep! but it was fun.

    I'm going to watch those videos when I'm home later and can enjoy the sound effects!
    Thanks for a great post, Anita. I know you and I are alike in the fact we'd both be volunteering to trying anything first hand to learn about it.

  4. Yes, I've sat in the Bennett Buggy at the WDM but have not experienced the real thing.

  5. Oh, that's funny, Deb. I can see you gripping those reins and challenging the driver with your determined expression. I'm glad he handed them over to you, too.

    And yes, it counts because a museum is a museum whether the people are real or mannequins.

    Thanks for sharing that tidbit. :)

  6. Elaine, after I hit the send button on my comment, the thought occurred to me that an unknowing person might think I was referring to your age and that maybe you were around in the 30's to experience the real thing.

    LOL - so sorry. It's just that I thought you mentioned you were a Sask farm girl and sometimes the people who lived through that time like to show the young people how it was done. So yes, I envisioned you sitting in your grandpa's Bennett Buggy while he drove you down the road for the experience of it all.

    It's nice to know you tried out the WDM one, too. :)

  7. Oh, that's funny, Deb. I can see you gripping those reins and challenging the driver with your determined expression. I'm glad he handed them over to you, too.

    And yes, it counts because a museum is a museum whether the people are real or mannequins.

    Thanks for sharing that tidbit. :)

  8. haha! I never took it as an age thing at all! No rides with Grandpa in a Bennett Buggy!

    In the late 1980s though, I did experience a dust storm though. My apartment was thick with dust/dirt regardless, as you say, of the closed windows!

  9. Very cook, Anita! I love museums and research. Thank you for sharing this. I honestly don't remember learning about eight a BB or an HW. And, as a matter of fact, I've never hear the term oatsmobile. Cute.

  10. If you've read any of Linda Ford's Love Inspired books, you'll relate to the dust squeezing through closed windows. She lives in Alberta and most of her books are set during the Depression years. she writes with such realism, I feel like then I've sat there as the storm raged outside.

    My only experience with a dust storm is when we lived in Moose Jaw in the 80's and it rained mud for about 15 minutes one evening. You should have seen the lines at the car washes after that unique event! And yes, the gritty rain stung when it hit our skin.

  11. The term Oatsmobile is on a sign beside the BB at the WDM display. I don't know if it is their gimmicky nickname, or one that was in common use except that I didn't run across it anywhere else in my BB research.

    Thanks for dropping by, Suzie.

  12. Anita! You always find the most interesting topics, and usually things I had never heard of before.

    Fascinating stuff.

    And, yes, I'm a hands on person. I always like going to the science museums where you can play with all the exhibits. :)

  13. Deanna, I know what you mean because the rest of the Inkies come up with things I haven't heard of either! LOL

    It keeps us on our toes. :)

    Science museums? Good for you! Some of those exhibits scare me. I'm all for adventure... as long as it's safe. Heh.

  14. i'm a kid at heart, Anita. i always want to push buttons or make things move in exhibits. love museums with demo stuff.

    seeing how my mom grew up in North Dakota, i've had exposure to some of what you shared via conversations with Grandma and Grandpa Mitzel. no real experience though.

    you always have such interesting posts. i could tell it was an "Anita post" by the pictures even before seeing the by line.

  15. Interesting post, Anita Mae! Great pics, too, as usual.

    I hadn't heard of an oatsmobile, either.

    I've been in small dust storms. I don't care for them much, and they're smaller than what you've described.

  16. Hey DebH - you're the kind of mom little boys love to take to the science museums. I hope you and Guppy have many fun days experiencing new things together.

    You'd love Linda Ford's books then because she's set several in Minnesota and South Dakota. They'll bring your grandma's memories to life.

    Thanks for such nice words about my posts. I really appreciate you saying it. And thanks for sharing. :)

  17. You know Susie, when it comes to dust storms, even a small one is memorable.

    Thanks, Susie. :)

  18. SO COOL !! Thanks for the experience :)
    And the gal in the straw hat in the buggy gave it all some authenticity ! Thanx for sharing your knowledge and your experiences :)


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