Over the last dozen years I've presented stories about how Derry was once America's leading linen cloth manufacture, how our town made shoes were sold on five continents, how our cigars were smoked by at least one American president, and that Derry-made clocks are very sought after by antique collectors. Did you know that once, a century ago, automobiles were being manufactured here?
The story begins in 1871 with the birth of William F. Meserve in Wakefield, New Hampshire. As a child, Will moved to Windham where his father bought a lumber, cider, and grist mill on Beaver Brook. Will excelled in the district school and at Pinkerton Academy but had to drop out in 1888 when his father took ill and he had to take over running the mill. The next year he attended the Mechanic's Fair in Boston. There he saw his first electric light and decided to make a study of this new power source. He bought a "how to" book at the fair and set to work in Windham to solve the mysteries of electricity. By 1891 he had linked a dynamo to a water-turned wheel that generated enough power to light his parents' home. Soon afterward, the mill, two more houses and the nearby witch hazel factory were all electrically illuminated.
In 1893, Will married Abbie Chase of Derry and within a few years they became the parents of three children. Soon Will turned his creative mind to building an automobile. In 1896, onto the base of a wagon he mounted a two-cylinder steam motorboat engine to power the vehicle. He persuaded a bicycle tire manufacture in Indiana to manufacture a special order of 3-inch tires, possibly the first pneumatic automobile tires ever used in America.
A ride in Meserve's first automobile was a jarring experience because of the rough condition of local roads and the lack of shock absorbers. Whenever he traveled he would always attract a crowd of the curious and credulous. One story has a boy coming up to him to ask "which way he was heading. Then he explained that he and his mother were going out and wanted to be sure to go in the opposite direction."
On June 18, 1899, Mr. and Mrs. Will Meserve drove this automobile to the graduation exercises at Pinkerton Academy. The Derry News reported, "As this was the first automobile vehicle ever seen in this vicinity it attracted considerable attention. While in this village several were given a ride upon the wonderful carriage." Harry Wilson, a Derry grocer, eventually obtained this car to make local deliveries.
In 1901, Will manufactured a two-ton delivery truck for the Pemberton Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts. A picture of the steam-powered vehicle appeared in the nationally distributed Horseless Age magazine. The truck was more than 14 feet in length with a 10-foot wheel base and had 36-inch solid rubber tires. Its gasoline-heated boiler sat rather dangerously just behind the driver's seat. Its top speed was 8 mph. This truck remained in operation at the mill until about 1924. The Meserve Auto Truck Company was founded in Windham in 1902 but no vehicles seem to have been built by the company.
In the autumn of 1903, Will and family moved from Windham to Mt. Washington Street in Derry and opened a "bicycle and machine shop" at the site of the former ax handle factory by Horne's Pond on Maple Street. He would later move his operations several times: Broadway and Fordway; to where Dunkin' Donuts is now on Crystal Avenue; and to the Bartlett Building at 5 Broadway and Franklin Street. He also was employed by the H. P. Hood farm to operate their corn-silage grinding machine and the motor that operated the conveyer belt that hauled blocks of ice from Hood Pond to the icehouse where the court house is today. He was also hired by the town to assemble the mail-order jail cells the selectmen had bought for the police station at the Adams Memorial Building.
In 1904, he built what was his fifth and probably, last, motorized vehicle. This was on special order for Judge Benjamin T. Bartlett of Derry. The Horseless Age said it was the "first vehicle of large power ever constructed in this country propelled by a two cycle engine." This massive wooden-framed machine was 13 feet long with a 108-inch wheel base. Its radiator had more than a quarter-mile of copper tubing. It had a three-speed transmission and a "compressed air self-starter." The engine could generate 50 horsepower to propel the 3,300-pound automobile to speeds up to 40 mph, while carrying eight passengers on its 4 1/2 inch solid rubber tires.. In June 1904, Bartlett with two passengers tested the car out by driving to Manchester. It took 40 minutes to reach Elm Street in the Queen City and just 37 to return to Derry. Not bad time considering this was done on narrow, rutted dirt roads.
According to one story, Will was overcome with carbon monoxide fumes while building the Bartlett car. His long recovery made it impossible to accept an offer to be head engineer at the Packard Motor Co. Shortly after building the Bartlett car, Will and his family moved out of Derry to operate the family's lumber mill. In 1911, he moved to Salem Depot where he ran an automobile repair shop. In 1924, he built a rotary snow remover to use on the streets of Lawrence.
Shortly afterward, he developed a heart condition that may have kept him from building any more automobiles or trucks. He died in March 1933 and was survived by Abbie, his wife of 40 years, and their children.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.