THE COURTSHIP OF WARD PACKARD AND ELIZABETH GILLMER & TESTING THE 1901 PACKARD
The National Packard Museum is the repository of Packard historical documents and artifacts. In addition to preservation, much of our work is interpretation and telling the stories of the items we hold in public trust.
Recently we came upon this story from Elizabeth Gillmer Packard’s diary that illustrates the progressiveness of the Packard family. At a time in history when women still had few rights in the community, J.W. Packard was busy getting a woman’s perspective about the automobile he was building. (His may also have been trying to impress his lady friend.)
“Bess” as she was known to friends was very much an intellectual companion for James Ward Packard. Growing up in Warren, she was educated at Rockford College in Illinois and Vassar College, in New York and attended Northwestern Women’s Medical College in Chicago for two years. Hence, she was able to converse on many topics of the day. Conceivably her intelligence made her a prime candidate for testing of the automobile and Ward’s affections. After all, the “horseless carriage” would have to be accepted by women if it were to be successful and be accepted as a mode of transportation.
The first notation comes on January 5, 1901, when thirty-year-old Bess writes: “J.W. called for me…It was such a heavenly moonlit night that we went for a walk …When we came home, we studied some meteorology and the barometer. I produced one of my (text) books on physics just to prove that I once did know quite a little. J.W. announced that girls weren’t generally supposed to be bright enough to understand natural philosophy. He was quite overpowered when I produced my notebook with all the drawings of various instruments, vacuum pumps, etc. That notebook represents many hours of agony and hard work…” (This encounter is very early in their courtship and they both seemed intent on impressing the other.)
Later that month, Bess had this to say: “This evening J.W. and I had intended to take a ride in the auto but the gods were good to me and sent a man from Cleveland so Ward couldn’t leave. I’ve been dreading that ride all winter for I suffered with the cold while riding in November what will it be in January? Nevertheless, Ward is bent on proving to me that riding in the winter does not make one very cold.”
The next evening, she writes: “Well I’ve had that ride in the auto and am obliged to confess that I was agreeably disappointed. We went to Niles and back (about 7 miles) and I was hardly cold at all. This (the Packard Model F) is the best machine that they have turned out yet and it runs so smoothly. Part of the way the roads were abominable- all rough and rutty. With anyone but Ward I should have been very worried as to where we should end up. It is the same with autos as with horses. One does not entrust oneself into the hands of an unskilled driver. On the whole, I must confess that I enjoyed the ride and hope the weather will continue fine so that we may go again soon. A week of good weather would put the roads in first rate condition. Any auto that will withstand the jarring we gave this one today must be pretty substantial and well-built.”
In five days, Bess’s hope for a second ride was granted. She writes: “This afternoon I went for a ride in the auto with Ward. The thermometer was hanging around twenty, but I did not get cold. We went north on Mahoning (Avenue) for eight miles and a half. (This route would have taken them past the location where the museum is now located.) The road was pretty good, and we fled along merrily. It wasn’t what most people call a sociable ride, but we enjoyed it. Ward and I do not need to talk to be sociable. Talking would have been hard work and spoiled the ride as we were so bundled up that it was an effort to hear or make oneself heard, so we rode most of the way in silence and enjoyed it……”
Another five days went by, and Bess wrote: “About three, Ward came out with the auto, and we started for a ride…We went up within about a mile of Bloomfield and should have gone on, but at that time an accident befell us. (This trip took them about 20 miles north of Warren to what is considered today as the beginning of the snow belt.) The roads had been fine up to this point, but the snow had drifted very badly and was deep. In turning out to let a horse pass, we went too near the edge, the wheels slipped, and there we were in the ditch. The old man who was driving jumped out to lead his horse by, and he and his wife were so intent on grumbling because we were there that he didn’t notice how deep the drift was. (During this time in history automobiles were considered a nuisance on the roads and not easily tolerated.) As he started the horse, up over went the sleigh, and spilled my lady out and stopped her fussing!”
Bess further notes; “Auto riding has certainly spoiled driving for me, and it really is surprising that one doesn’t get colder. We drove about thirty-eight miles, were gone about two hours and I had to stand around in the snow while the carriage was being pulled up, and still I was not uncomfortably cold at all and after I had been in the house half an hour, I wouldn’t have known that I had been cold at all.”
It would be two months before Bess would note another ride in the Packard. During this time, the brothers were working on refinements as is indicated in this notation. In April of 1901 Bess writes: “About noon I went to the bank. Just as we were going in, Ward drove up in the auto and offered to take us home. Joe (Bess’s English bulldog) promptly jumped in hardly waiting for an invitation. When I came out of the bank, the carriage was surrounded by a crowd of men and boys admiring Joe. We went over as far as the hill on the River Road (This road is believed to be known as Lovers Lane in Warren today.) and Ward showed me how much better this gears carriage is. (Ward had introduced the three-speed transmission.) He stopped it on the hill and let it run back, then started it up again and it climbed as easily as when coming at the hill at first. Coming back, he stopped on the hill and backed up the hill. I doubt if there are any other carriages that will do that.” (During late winter of 1901 Ward and Wil worked on developing a three-speed transmission for the automobile and he was out to test their new design. Clearly it impressed his lady friend and performed as he hoped, and it would also go on to impress Packard automobile owners of the day.)
A year later Bess and Ward would part company. She took a job as a teacher in Phoenix, Arizona and he continued to attend to businesses here in Warren. In their two years apart, the Packard brothers sold their lamp and automobile businesses. Bess returned to Warren in 1904 to marry James Ward—a union that surprised even his brother and their closest friends.
We hope you enjoy this snippet of history and peek inside the personal lives and courtship of James Ward Packard and Elizabeth Gillmer. Your support makes these discoveries possible—if you would like to continue to see these stories unfold, please visit, and support the National Packard Museum. The museum is open 12-5 PM Tuesday-Saturday and 1-5 PM on Sunday
For more information visit: www.packardmuseum.org
Mary Ann Porinchak, Executive Director