Not Your Average Rhode Islander

“Keep Away From the Fellow Who Owns an Automobile” is a song written in 1909 by Cole Porter. The chorus of the song goes like this:

‘Keep away from the fellow who owns an automobile

He’ll take you far in his motor car

Too darn far from your Pa and Ma

If his forty horsepower goes sixty miles an hour say

Goodbye forever, goodbye forever’

America was a different place in the early 1900’s in case you may not have been aware. If you lived in a city, it was a dirty, smelly place and you generally walked everywhere unless there was an accessible streetcar. Unless you lived on a farm, it was often difficult to consistently eat substantial meals.  Standard bicycles cost around $12 if you needed affordable transportation, which was comparable to a week’s pay if you worked in the state government, for example. In 1915, there was roughly one car for every 50 people, with about 2 million cars on the road for 100 million U.S citizens. If you had a car, you most likely made a substantial amount of money and had one car for your entire family.

Meet Gerald Hanley.

Mr. Hanley was not familiar with this lifestyle as Mr. Hanley grew up with money. And toys. A lot of each as a matter of fact. As the son of a wealthy owner of numerous breweries around the state of Rhode Island, it’s a bit of an understatement to say he lived a comfortable life from beginning to end. Born in 1884, Mr. Hanley was 22 in 1906 when he received a Locomobile as a gift from his father. Housed in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Locomobile has just began developing an internal combustion engine for all their cars. A $4500 car when it was new (~$129,000 in 2018), a Locomobile placed 3rd in the 1905 Gordon Bennett cup.

In 1907, Hanley’s father gifted him an Oldsmobile. Hanley was photographed in this car numerous times, perhaps suggesting he favored this car over others he drove at that time.

Mr. Hanley’s Oldsmobile photographed at the family’s summer house at Indian Rocks in Narragansett. The family yacht is pictured above.

1910 came around and Hanley was gifted an American Underslung. The Underslung was renowned for its sports car philosophy – the chassis was ‘slung under’ the axles giving the car a lower center of gravity and sleeker appearance. A magnificent car of its time, it cost around $150,000 in today’s money when the majority of people didn’t own stoves or radios. Not only was it one of the best sports cars you could buy early in the 19th century, it was also stunning to admire. Its low look, painted wood wheels and massive amounts of brass made it one of the most elegant automobiles of the period, and well preserved examples of the Underslung have sold for over a million dollars recently.

American’s marketing slogan for their Underslung was, “The Car For The Discriminating Few.” Mr. Hanley’s Underslung is shown here, with family photos below. Hanley and his father are seen at bottom right.

Mr. Hanley lived a very lucky life. Besides automobiles, he was also quite enthused by horses. He would compete in horse shows around Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts, and often had articles written in the Providence Journal about his successes.

By 1913 automobiles has become a bit more mainstream as cars like the Ford Model T became an accessible form of transportation for a larger amount of people in the country. While many people saved up $525 to buy a Model T, Mr. Hanley and his father had other ideas.

Mr. Hanley was gifted a Curtiss hydro-aeroplane in 1913. A 29 year old man had a flying boat as a toy 10 years after the Wright brothers first flew. Hanley had little knowledge about flying, so his father hired a flight instructor to come to Providence and teach his son how to fly for three months with all expenses covered.

Images of Mr. Hanley in his Curtiss Hydro-aeroplane. Hanley was featured in multiple Providence Journal articles which highlighted hydro-aeroplane races he participated in.

When Mr. Hanley had learned to fly, he used his plane to give basic flying instructions to members of his Battery A, Coast Artillery within the R.I. state militia. Hanley was one of the first Rhode Islanders who was truly proficient in flying. He bought another plane after WWI and had it shipped to the Gallaudet factory in East Greenwich, where it was prepared for flight. Lt. Hanley was inducted into the Rhode Island Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006 for his efforts.

The old Gallaudet airplane factory in East Greenwich, with Goddard Park in the background.

It must’ve been nice to live like Mr. Hanley during that time period, but comparatively speaking, it helps put things into perspective today. If you’re reading this, you likely have a refrigerator, stove and a working car like millions of other Americans today, meaning many of us live more similarly to Mr. Hanley today than the majority of Americans in the early 1900’s. To those somber, dirty days of the early 20th century, we chant, ‘Goodbye forever, goodbye forever.’

Thanks to one of our docents for showing us images and sharing the story of his late grandfather Mr. Hanley.