Looking Back: Motor vehicles add to courthouse work

September 29, 2003|RICHARD C. BROWN

What 20th-century innovation has added most to the workload in Kentucky's county courthouses? Ask that question in Boyle's courthouse and some workers are likely to answer, "Computers!" Of course, computers are a 20th-century innovation, but they are supposed to lessen work, not add to it.

"Motor vehicles" would be a more thoughtful answer to the workload question. They existed in the United States from the beginning of the 20th century.

Moreover, their explosive growth in numbers demanded licensing them and their drivers - demands that put an added burden on county courthouses.

The numbers of motor vehicles in the early years of the century are incomplete, largely because few states required their registration. Nevertheless, the American Automobile Manufacturing Association reported 8,000 passenger cars in the United States in 1900.


Owning an automobile was a newsworthy fact at that time, and Col. Dodd of Danville was reported as owning one in 1900. However, it was far from being a motor vehicle as it required pedals and pumping power for propulsion. Two years later, Thomas B. Dewhurst owned a true motor vehicle, one that he had built himself in Danville.

W.H. Chambers of East Main Street in Danville, a self-declared "mechanical genius," twice announced he had built an automobile by himself. He reported the first built in 1903 and the second in 1908. It was noteworthy because it had an eight-horsepower engine.

In November 1910, Leonard B. Kranz advertised he was opening an auto school in Danville. Kranz called himself "the Buick man," showing that automobile brand names had reached Danville during the first 10 years of the century. Kranz's school offered "a complete course in driving and mechanicals - everything from repairing a punctured tire to

Massachusetts in 1903 became the first state to require automobile registration and to issue metal license plates. Other states soon followed Massachusetts, with Kentucky issuing its first license plates in 1910. By 1921 all the United States had adopted some form of motor vehicle registration.

Between 1900 and 1925, the number of passenger cars registered in the United States grew from 8,000 to 3,735,171. Accompanying that growth was an increase in types of motor vehicles required to register. Kentucky at one time or another has required the registration of passenger cars, motor vehicles hired to carry passengers, trucks, and motorcycles.

In 1983 the Boyle County Clerk reported the registration of 12,285 passenger cars, 4,044 commercial trucks and 1,079 farm trucks. Boyle led all the counties surrounding it in number of licensed passenger cars and commercial trucks. However, in keeping with their more rural character, other counties surpassed Boyle in numbers of registered farm trucks. The numbers were: Garrard, 1,112; Lincoln, 1,537; and Mercer, 1,588.

John B. Nichols served as Boyle County clerk in the 1980s and on into the 1990s before his retirement. He first held that position in 1966 had worked in the clerk's office for several years before that. Nevertheless, when Kentucky began requiring drivers' licenses, another office was authorized to issue them.

Licensing began in 1934

A 1934 act of the General Assembly authorized the regulation of motor vehicle operators in Kentucky by means of a licensing system. Because improper driving might involve judicial action, circuit court clerks throughout the state were authorized to accept applications, issue licenses and collect fees for these services. Hundreds of motor vehicle operators already functioning in Kentucky were grandfathered in as licensed operators during a good faith period.

After serving as deputy to John S. Baughman in Danville, Lucille Bruce became circuit court clerk when he died in 1947. It would be more than 40 years before she lost an election to that position. During that time major changes came about in the duties of the circuit court clerk but issuing operators' licenses stayed as a responsibility of that office.

Subtle changes in the issuance of motor vehicle licenses began after 1937. In that year, Connecticut issued what became known as "vanity plates." These were plates specially designed to satisfy the desire of owners to make their vehicles and themselves, different from the masses.

Other states, began to issue these special plates when they realized how much money could be made from them. As years passed, charity or donor plates seemed a more fitting name than vanity plates. Now in the year 2003 Kentucky has 24 of the charity or donor licenses plates plus the unpopular smiley face, the standard plate issued for this year.

The 24 range in cost, from $20 to $50, a portion of which goes to the sponsors of the plates. "I Care About Kids," a $50 plate, is one of the most popular. The Masonic Order, University of Kentucky, Centre College and Former P 0 W are others in this category.

Denise Curtsinger now holds the Boyle County clerk's position filled in the past by John B. Nichols. Trudy Stevens is now a successor to Lucille Bruce as district court clerk. These two now supervise activities that fill two large rooms in the Boyle County Courthouse, 113 and 123. It's not far wrong to say that motor vehicles are responsible for filling them.

Richard C. Brown, a retired history professor, lives in Danville.

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