Reprinted with permission from The Chrysler Canada Story, copyright © 2001 James Mays
Good stories often start in Canada. Walter P. Chrysler’s father was born in Chatham, Ontario. The Chrysler family was counted among the town’s founders which reached as far back to the first land grant in 1798. Of good German stock, the family name had been spelled Greisler in the old country. No doubt it was the desire for tillable land that caused young Henry Chrysler’s family to leave behind western Ontario for Kansas, where soils were rich and aching to be farmed.
Henry was twelve when he ran away from home to join the army. Against his father’s wishes he enlisted as a drummer in the 12th Kansas Regiment. He would do his part to win the War of Succession. When the war ended in 1865, young Henry went to work in the railroad shops in Armourdale, Kansas. From fireman to engineer he was promoted.
Henry Chrysler’s train carried track and ties to the end of the line as the Kansas Pacific (later Union Pacific) Railway punched its way across the flat plains. Neither angry Indians nor immense herds of bison would stop its construction as it marched relentlessly to the Pacific Ocean.
Born in Wamego, Kansas in 1881, as the third of four children (one died in infancy before his birth), young Walter Chrysler was occasionally allowed to ride with his father on the train. He was fascinated with the idea that his Dad was the master of the steaming iron monster. The ride was glorious, sweeping across the vast prairie to Fort Hays and beyond.
Walt was a typical kid, playing marbles, taking piano, tuba and drum lessons, going to the Methodist church on Sunday and attending school when it was in session. He marched in parades on Independence Day and Decoration Day.
Walter was also a bit of a huckster, selling calling cards and silverware to the ladies in town. His mother insisted he do something a little more useful, and put him to work selling milk from door to door. He carried milk in a big bucket and measured it at each household for the sum of 5¢ a quart. On payday, he collected from the neighbours and gave his mother four cents four each quart sold. Thrift was ingrained; Walt made his own ice skates and his own shotgun rather than buying.
Life was good in Ellis, Kansas. Paved roads and sidewalks came, along with a bank and post office. Folks eagerly read catalogues from New York, Philadelphia, and Boston to know what the fashions and latest trends were. The Chrysler home was a two-storey affair in 1899 with a picket fence, lilac bushes and maple trees in the yard. Henry Chrysler put up a windmill so his wife could have running water. Later he built a bathtub of his own design out of copper and placed it in a special room off the kitchen so the family could have baths in privacy. It was the talk of the town when finished.
In twelfth grade, Walter delivered groceries for the general store owner, but what the young man wanted to do was apprentice as a machinist at the railroad yards. His dad flatly refused. Stubbornly, Walt got a job as a janitor for $1 a day and watched the mechanics carefully. After six months he asked his boss to recommend him to be an apprentice. His boss in turn recommended to Walt’s father that the young man be allowed to enter the programme. His father finally consented. Walt would earn 5¢ an hour. He was thrilled to have his dream come true.
After a three-year apprenticeship, he gambled that there was a whole world awaiting beyond the edges of Ellis, and with a basket of food packed by his mother, the 22-year old Walter Chrysler left home to seek his fortune. Wellington, Kansas, Denver, Colorado, and Cheyenne, Wyoming failed to satisfy his wanderlust. He hopped freight cars to even further destinations, Utah and Idaho.
After four years away, Walter bought a train ticket home to Ellis to get married. Della Forker was his childhood sweetheart, and they were wed in the Methodist church. Then they struck out together for Salt Lake City, where Walt had been working as a railroad mechanic. They rented a small house and moved in with $170 worth of furniture that they bought on credit. The couple moved numerous times as promotions came Walter’s way. Walt read scientific journals and subscribed to the latest technical magazines to keep in the forefront of all things mechanical. In 1908, he travelled to Chicago on railroad business, and while there attended the automobile show.
He fell in love with a creamy white Locomobile that had a $5000 price tag. It was the first American-built car to feature a gasoline-powered, water-cooled, four-cylinder engine. He had to have it, had to take it apart and understand the technology behind the machine. Walt had $700 in the bank and made $350 a month, but that Locomobile was burning a hole in his psyche. He got a co-signer to underwrite the deal and had it shipped to his home in Oelwein, Iowa; he didn’t drive. He spent three months taking the engine apart and studying it before he was ready to show off the car with his wife and three children.
Walter was sensitive and had quite a temper. He quit his job in a huff one day and got another building locomotives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Going to the American Locomotive Company was a good move, and the Locomobile was swapped for a big six-cylinder Stevens-Duryea.
Things went well in Pittsburgh. The locomotive works began to make money. The Chrysler’s fourth child was born there. Mrs. Chrysler had hired help to clean and do the washing. Then one day in 1912 he got a telegram summoning him to New York City to meet Mr. James Storrow, who sat on the company’s board of directors. Storrow did not have locomotives in mind when Walter stepped into his office. He wanted the 41-year old railroad man to meet Charles Nash, president of the Buick Motor Company in Flint, Michigan. Walter Chrysler’s life was about to change direction forever.
James C. Mays’ writing can also be seen on the OldCarsCanada site. Also see: Chrysler Canada summary • Canada at Valiant.org • Fargo Trucks
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