-by Greg Hoots-
In the 1910s, a wave from the future swept across America. The automobile arrived in the cities and small towns, alike. Ten years earlier, most people had never seen an automobile, especially people in rural Kansas. Ten years later, almost everyone owned one.
The coming of the automobile heralded the disappearance of an institution which was a standard in every town in America, the livery stable. By the mid-1910s, many of the livery stables had changed their names to Auto-Livery, a sign of the coming times. While many auto livery businesses rented cars or autos equipped with drivers, soon, another new business arrived in American towns, the garage. With the popularity of automobiles, the need for mechanics to service and maintain cars and trucks created new business opportunities.
One such business in Wabaunsee County was the Steinmeyer Bros. garage in Alma, Kansas, a local business owned by brothers, Herbert and Elmer Steinmeyer. The Steinmeyer brothers’ roots ran deep in Wabaunseee County. The brothers were raised on the family farm, first settled by their grandparents, Fredrich and Fredericka Steinmeyer, German immigrants who staked a claim on the south branch of Mill Creek in 1856. The Steinmeyers had eight children who grew up on the farm, including a son, Fred, who operated the family farm after his father’s passing. The younger Fred Steinmeyer and his wife, Marie Anna Strasen, had six children, including Herbert, Elmer, Selma, Harold, Arnold, and Erwin. The Steinmeyers were quite successful at farming and ranching, and the five Steinmeyer boys all worked on the family farm in their youth.
Like many young men raised on farms, Herb and Elmer Steinmeyer learned the trade of a mechanic at an early age, honing their skills on farm equipment and machinery. In the early 1920s, Elmer decided to open his own garage in Alma, a town of about 800 people located five miles north of the Steinmeyer farm.
The earliest advertisement for Steinmeyer’s garage appeared in the June 2, 1922 edition of The Alma Enterprise in the form of an ad for U. S. Tires which listed eight dealers for the tire brand in neighboring towns.
A second newspaper ad, dated July 21, 1922 lists the name of the garage as, “The Alma Tire Shop, E. F. Steinmeyer, Prop.” An advertisement in the November 30, 1922 edition of The Alma Signal, shows a slight change in the name of the business, listing it as, “Alma Tire and Vulcanizing Shop, E. F. Steinmeyer, Prop.”
On October 21, 1923, Elmer Steinmeyer married Esther Steinkamp, the youngest daughter of Professor and Mrs. W. H. Steinkamp of Topeka. The announcement of their marriage which appeared in The Alma Enterprise of October 26, 1923 noted, “Mr. and Mrs. Steinmeyer will be at home after Nov. 1 in the rooms over the tire and battery shop. For the present they are at the Fred Steinmeyer home south of town. The groom is associated with his brother Herbert in the Alma Tire & Battery Shop and is well known here…The bride has made many friends on her visits to Alma.”
By mid-summer of 1923, Elmer’s older brother, Herbert, joined the business. Their father, Fred, had purchased the former Palenske building, located at 204-206 Missouri Street in Alma. In addition to the limestone two-story double storefront, the property also included at least two additional buildings behind the main structure which faced Missouri Street.
The June 22, 1923 edition of The Alma Enterprise took note of the expanding business at the Steinmeyers’ garage. “Steinmeyer Bros. of the Alma Tire and Battery shop are having a gasoline pump installed. They are constantly making improvements and trying to better serve their customers.”
When Herbert joined the business, the brothers changed the name of the enterprise to “Alma Tire & Battery Shop, Steinmeyer Bros., Prop.” A newspaper advertisement in the Alma Signal, dated March 27, 1924, officially announces, “NEW GARAGE”. The advertisement proclaims, “In addition to our Tire and Battery repairing, sales and service, we are opening a new fully equipped Garage. We will be able to take care of any make of car. Ford is a specialty.”
In the late summer of 1924, the Steinmeyer brothers expanded their automotive business venture, becoming a dealer for Durant, Star, and Flint automobiles. The September 11, 1924 edition of The Alma Signal invites the public to “see the 1925 models we have in stock.”
Durant Motors was an automobile company founded by former General Motors CEO, Billy Durant in 1921. Durant, who had been ousted from the leadership of GM, purchased the factory and equipment of the Locomobile Company of America in 1922, and established his headquarters at Lansing, Michigan. Durant designed his cars to compete directly with General Motors products with his Durant, Flint, and Star brands competing in price with the Buick, Oldsmobile, and Chevrolet cars.
In the summer of 1925, the Steinmeyer Bros. Star car dealership held a well-promoted event in which a Star car was driven or idled for 100-hours, non-stop, in a grueling test of endurance which began on June 2nd at high-noon and ended on June 6th at 4:00 pm. An advertisement for the event declares, “100-Hour Test Now Complete”. The advertisement continues, “This car traveled through about twelve or fifteen counties and averaged nearly 650 miles per day, of which 186 miles were in mud, besides fighting a strong wind. Average miles per gallon of gas—21.491. Amount of oil used during the entire trip—8 1/3 quarts. Amount of water used during the entire trip—3 pints. During the entire drive they had 16 punctures and made 16 stops for fuel. Total time the motor was running idle, taking gas and fixing punctures, was about six hours. The same Car was put on a speed test and made a mile in 57-seconds.”
There were numerous automobile dealers in Alma in the late 1910s and 1920s. While the Steinmeyer Bros. operated their Durant-Star dealership in the 200 block of Missouri, John Noller sold Chevrolet cars at his dealership in the 500 block of Missouri Street. The Ford dealership was located at 123 West Main (West 3rd Street, today) and was owned by George Miller. W. Wertzberger was the dealer for Overland cars at Noller’s garage.
In addition to selling new cars, the Steinmeyer Bros. dealership also offered a variety of used cars for sale in their Alma newspaper advertisements.
While the economic expansion of the 1920s offered excellent opportunities for numerous automotive dealers and repair shops, the boom of 20s was met with a resounding crash as the Great Depression struck every facet of American life. If there was a bellwether for the Steinmeyer Bros. garage, it was the ending of the Star and Flint automobile lines in 1928. Two of the three leading Durant products were discontinued, and three years later, the Durant Motor Company closed its doors permanently. The entire American automotive industry was leveled by the depression with only the largest manufacturers surviving the economic onslaught.
The Great Depression left no one unaffected. People stopped buying cars, and they also stopped having their cars repaired at a shop. The extreme weather which combined periods of extreme drought with spikes of destructive flooding, left many farmers with no crops to sell and no money to spend with local merchants. By the mid-1930s, the Steinmeyers closed their garage. Elmer got a job with Mutual of Omaha insurance, and he, Esther, and their daughter, Devota moved to Omaha, Nebraska. Herbert Steinmeyer opened a freight trucking company which he operated throughout the 1930s and ultimately sold to the Rock Island Railway before moving to Topeka in 1941 where he continued to manage the trucking firm for the CRIP.
Finally, the Steinmeyer building sold to neighboring merchant, Merrill Fritz who owned the gas station which bordered the Steinmeyer property on the south, and the Steinmeyer Bros. garage was no more.
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