I love checking out the story behind historical markers and finding connections among different Midwestern states. Visiting the R. E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, Michigan, gave me a chance to do both of those things at once.
We discovered a marker in Geneva, Ohio, at the birthplace of automotive pioneer Ransom Eli Olds several years ago, and I loved visiting the museum in Lansing to learn more about his life in Michigan.
Ransom was born in Geneva in 1864, where his blacksmith father, Pliny, owned a small machine shop. The Olds family moved to Cleveland in 1870 and to a small farm nearby in 1873.
Young Ransom showed a real aptitude for mechanics, but while on the farm, he learned he disliked relying on horses for basic transportation. He wondered if a steam-powered carriage might be a more reliable, predictable, economical and less smelly way to get around.
The family moved to Lansing in 1880, when Lansing was a depot town of 8,000 residents and home to the then-new Michigan State Capitol Building,
The young R.E. apprenticed at his father's new machine shop in Lansing, eventually bought into the business and began experimenting with building steam engine vehicles.
In 1887, R.E. developed a three-wheeled steam vehicle. He continued tinkering with his vehicles, moving on to developing gas-powered engines in the 1890s after seeing the newest engine technology on display at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Olds had many ideas, but he needed to expand again in order to make his ideas a reality. He sold his business to lumber and copper magnate Samuel L. Smith in 1899 and stayed on as the company vice president and general manager.
The Detroit plant burned to the ground in 1901, and Olds converted an undamaged foundry building into a temporary assembly factory and made 425 cars there.
People often credit Henry Ford with creating the assembly line, but it was R. E. Olds who first came up with the idea of moving parts around the plant floor on wheeled carts for a progressive car assembly system in 1901 in order to meet demand for his $650 Oldsmobiles. Ford later improved the idea by putting the whole concept on conveyor belts.
Olds left Olds Motor Works in 1904 over disagreements with the Smith family and Olds' deep desire to make affordable and easy-to-operate cars for the masses. The Smiths ended up selling the original Olds company to W.C. Durant and the then-fledgling General Motors in 1908.
In Lansing, Olds continued to develop Oldsmobiles, REO automobiles and a line of trucks that included the first real pick-up truck in 1915 called the REO Speedwagon.
REO Speedwagon? Yup, the popular 1970s and 1980s band got its name from a truck that band member Neal Doughty studied in a transportation history class as an engineering student.
R.E. Olds phased out of the REO company in the 1920s and 1930s. REO continued as a truck maker through 1975 and Oldsmobile continued as an automotive company until the early 2000s.
R.E. left an imprint on Lansing throughout the years. He helped finance buildings like the Olds Hotel, which today houses the office of the state's governor. He also financed the building of Olds Hall at Michigan State University with a $100,000 donation after its Engineering Building burned to the ground in 1916.
Olds also purchased over 37,000 acres of land in Florida to develop a community for working families in 1913. He lost nearly $3,000,000 in trying to develop the area before liquidating his holdings there in the 1920s and 1930s, but the town of Oldsmar still exists today as an example of quiet "old Florida" in densely populated Pinellas County between Tampa and St. Petersburg.
R.E. Olds had many philanthropic interests, and he established the REOlds Foundation in 1914. The organization still continues to support community-based education, family, health care, animal welfare, environmental and other causes in the Greater Lansing area.
The museum's collection includes more than 50 vehicles ranging from the 1880s through the earliest years of the twenty-first century as well as engines, lawn mowers, bicycles, signs, and other artifacts related to Olds and his life.
The museum is open 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday year round. It is also open from noon until 5 p.m. on Sundays from April through October. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for students and seniors or $12 per family.
Want to learn more about R.E. Olds and Lansing? Check out R.E. Olds and Industrial Lansing by Michael Rodriquez or Ransom E. Olds: America's First Automotive Pioneer by Daniel Alef.
Thanks to the Greater Lansing Michigan Convention and Visitors Bureau for sponsoring my visit to Lansing, providing lodging, meals and a tour of Lansing area attractions for my review during my recent visit there, with no further compensation. I was free to express my own opinions about the stay and experiences, and the opinions expressed here are mine.
© Dominique King 2013 All rights reserved