A new technology for transportation swept through the United States in the first two decades of the twentieth century – the automobile. And this brought with it a wave of associated local businesses, including car dealers, filling stations, repair shops and the like. Norcross participated in this business boom, and in this article we will look back on some of this activity - the early car dealers established here. (In a later installment we will look at some of the other automobile-related businesses active in our early days.)
The first documented sightings of automobiles passing through Norcross were around 1906, and by 1909 Amos Martin of Norcross was one of the first of our local residents to own a car.
In the early 1900s there were many companies making automobiles – the names of some, like Ford, are still recognized today, but most have faded away over time - or even fizzled before they got anywhere at all. One of the latter set is associated with Norcross.
In 1907 New York stock market millionaire Edward Buchanan (who had been raised in Norcross) started a business in Norcross to assemble a car under the Nor-X brand. In December of that year a local newspaper reported that the first model assembled in Norcross was almost complete. However, Buchanan’s fortune collapsed the next year when he participated in a stock trading scheme that went bad, and the idea of assembling autos in Norcross evidently also went down the drain at that time. There are no known Nor-X autos in existence today - if any were actually finished. About all we have today is an advertisement from the early 1900s that promised a car that was “First Class in Every Detail”. See below.
Most of the US car manufacturers in the early 1900s were headquartered in the Northeastern and Midwestern USA (Detroit earned its “Motor City” moniker in those days), and they sold through franchise dealers in local markets. Norcross and other towns in Gwinnett had such dealers as early as March of 1916, when one of the Lawrenceville newspapers reported in their Norcross News column that
Simpson and Barnwell are fixing a place to show Overlands, the car they are agents for.
The persons referred to here were evidently local residents Ollie Simpson and Oscar Barnwell, and the car line that they were selling was manufactured by the Willys-Overland Company, owned by early automobile magnate John North Willys. Willys had started his transportation career in the late 1800s by manufacturing bicycles, and had moved on to automobiles by 1907. A Lawrenceville newspaper story later that year reported that Ollie Simpson had made a trip to Toledo, Ohio to visit the company’s production facility there.
The Overland logo and a photo of the Overland Model 83, made in 1915 and 1916, are shown below.
In those days a local person purchasing a new automobile was evidently an event worthy of mention in the newspaper, and several prominent Norcross families were reported as purchasing Overland models in that era, including members of the Nesbit, Johnson and Davenport families.
Willys’ automotive empire collapsed with the onset of the great depression in the 1930s. It is not clear from available documentation how long Simpson and Barnwell were in business together.
Sometimes Norcross-area families had split loyalties in their automobile purchasing - the Lawrenceville newspaper reported in 1916 in the Norcross News column that
Mr. Charley Cofer has bought a Ford and Mr. Henry Cofer bought a Dodge.
Dr. Ben Clement, a dentist working in Norcross in the early 1900s, obtained a franchise to sell Ford automobiles in Norcross and the surrounding area, and a 1917 article in the News Herald newspaper in Lawrenceville reported that he was at work building a Ford facility in Norcross, evidently in the building immediately south of the 45 South Café on South Peachtree Street today. Here is text of the article:
The New Ford Service Station at Norcross
Progress is rapidly being made on the new Ford Service Station at Norcross.
Dr. Ben Clement, the agent for several surrounding districts, has recently purchased a concrete house 40 x 130 feet and is overhauling it. The show room, office, service and repairing will then be cut off and with the improvements being made it will be one of the best in the country.
Dr. Clement is a hustler and is meeting with much success in the new venture although he still finds time to serve the people in his dental office.
The ad below for Clement’s dealership appeared in local newspapers the spring of 1918, touting the availability of several Ford styles at different price points ranging from $435 to $650. All of these were built using the famous Ford “Model T” chassis.
Clement, who lived on North Peachtree Street and served a term as mayor of Norcross, is shown at work in his dental office in the photo below.
W M “Myrt” Dodd, born in Buford, worked as a salesman for the Clement car dealership in the 1920s. Dodd had served briefly in the United States military during World War I and lived in Norcross afterwards. He must have been successful in his sales role, since a newspaper report in 1923 noted that Clement allowed him to buy stock in the company, and John Adams reports in his contribution to the book Norcross by Martha Adams and Irene Crapo that Dodd eventually took over the business from Dr. Clement. Dodd served as mayor of Norcross during the late 1930s.
Dodd worked for the Civil Service during World War II, and worked in automobile sales with Mitchell Motors of Atlanta after the war, with a long career there. The photo below shows Myrt Dodd.
Clement sold the building in Norcross in 1928 to W H (Henry) Meadows, who established a Chevrolet dealership there. It was run as a family business for a number of years – Henry and his wife Maggie Meadows handled sales and front office work, while sons Ross and Herbert were active in servicing and repairs. See below for a newspaper ad for the Meadows business around this time.
W H Meadows placed the ad shown below in the Norcross history book written by A P Francis in the mid-1960s remembering the business.
John Adams, writing in the book Norcross by Martha Adams and Irene Crapo, reported that Brooks and Lamb took over the Chevrolet agency later in the 1930s. Evidently that agency discontinued operations during the WWII period.
A new dealership, Camp Chevrolet, was organized by Rufus Camp in the late 1940s and was located in downtown Norcross until 1957. Camp had earned a law degree from Emory University and then had worked for GM, and as the automobile business expanded after the end of World War II the company offered him a franchise for selling Chevrolet vehicles in the Norcross area. He convinced his brother William and several trusted friends to join him in his venture, and it proved to be a great success for a number of years.
Camp Chevrolet opened its first facility downtown on South Peachtree (on the south side of the Masonic Lodge, in a building currently occupied by Taste of Britain) and then in the mid-1950s added a second space in Norcross, constructing a new building on the other side of the Masonic Lodge. But soon the company needed even more space, and moved to a location in Chamblee in preparation for the arrival of the 1958 model cars. See the photo below of their showroom in Norcross (the second building mentioned above) with a 1957 Chevy in the window.
In the mid-1960s Camp Chevrolet placed the ad shown below in the Norcross history book written by A P Francis, showing their location and phone number at that point, and the dates when they had operated in downtown Norcross.
Many thanks to Geoff Hammett, Mike Camp, Harriett Ann and Jim Nicholls, Bud Norman, the Davenport family, John Adams and many others for their help with this article. Other sources included the archives of the Gwinnett Historical Society, Wikipedia.org, Newspapers.com and Ancestry.com