A Passing Institution:

When The Buggy Ruled Kentucky's Roads

By Dr. Gordon Wilson - 1940

The modern car, with its accessories, all stream-lined and chromium-plated, is good enough in its way; not even the most expensive one, though, can bring the distinction that was once brought by the latest model of buggy. Buggies ranged in style from the lowliest ones used by the family to the most ritzy ones that were the property of the young bucks. The horses attached to the vehicles were of an equal number of kinds, from the old family nag with colt following to the high-reined, prancing young gaited animal hitched to the rubber-tired buggy. Style can always find a way, even though people of later times fail to be impressed with the greatness of the bygone styles. Wouldn't it sound queer now to hear someone bragging about having had the first rubber-tired buggy in the neighborhood?

We had better start with the whip in a discussion of accessories. The whip was a necessary instrument of torture to keep the horse going, but it often had plenty of style, too. Sometimes a bow of bright ribbon decorated it; the cracker was likely to be bright and long if it were new, but of a telltale lack of color and length if it were old. So valuable were buggy whips that they were sought after by thieves; at the country church there were often seen whole stacks of whips that had been brought in by their owners and left in a corner for protection. The world, the flesh, and the devil, as personified by the bad boys, were always present at the country church.

Lap robes had great style, too. For summer use there were light, flimsy things, about the same consistency as the cover for the organ. Usually, one such came with the buggy, I believe. For winter use there were heavy ones, rug-like in thickness and heaviness. Some of these had the figure of a dog woven into the fabric, and with glass eyes added. In case of rain either type of lap robe could be supplemented with the waterproof contraption that came with the buggy. This hooked onto the top and went over the dashboard, leaving an opening for the lines. Driving in very rainy weather, one showed only his face to the passersby.

A plain top was good enough for most people. But fancy tops intrigued the young bucks. Sometimes these took the form in summer, of gigantic umbrellas, with dangling fringe. The very swanky buggies often lacked a top completely. This necessitated holding an umbrella over one's heart's desire. Girls in those days were delicate creatures in public. If a ray of sunshine had struck them, they would have fainted on the spot. When you jumped a girl out of the buggy and walked her into the church, you had to hold the umbrella over her until she got safely inside the door. How boorish it would have been to escort her through the crowd without so much as trying to shield her lily-white features?

There are enough leather straps on a typical set of harness, but the young gallant had still more for his steed. A brilliant tassel attached to the bridle served to shoo away a few flies and to strike envy into the hearts of the other owners of horses and buggies. Shafts with devices to stop the squeaks soon developed as many sounded as squeaky as a pair of new shoes. There used to be a queer kind of spring that could be inserted at the shafts where they are attached to the front axle that would stop some of this unnecessary noise. One such device would also hold the shafts very firmly up off the ground when the horse had been removed. Makers of doo-dads and thing-um-bobs had plenty of trade in those days, as they still do.

Dr. Gordon Wilson once taught at Western Kentucky Teachers College (now WKU) in Bowling Green. He wrote hundreds of newspaper columns on Kentucky life in the 1930s and 1940s.

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