Friday, June 14, 2019

Man and Machine

Gilbert Waters and his Buggymobile

Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert S. Waters and the Buggymobile,
800 block, Broad Street, south side, c. 1939

by John B. Green III

New Bern, like most towns, has had its share of beloved characters and legendary contraptions.  Gilbert S. Waters and his Buggymobile more than fit the bill in both categories.

Gilbert Stanley Waters (1868-1950) came to New Bern with his family about 1890 and was employed at the buggy and carriage factory of James W. Stewart on Broad Street.  By March 1891 Gilbert Waters and his father G.H. Waters had purchased the factory from Stewart and renamed it the G.H. Waters & Son Buggy and Carriage Factory.  The Waters factory proved to be a successful business where Gilbert displayed his talent in designing and constructing horse-drawn vehicles of all types.

G.H. Waters & Son Buggy and Carriage Factory,
400 Block Broad Street, north side, c.1900
Photo courtesy of the New Bern Firemen's Museum

The legend of the Buggymobile begins in the year 1899 when Gilbert visited the big city of Baltimore, Maryland and first saw automobiles on the streets.  Returning to New Bern he began to tinker with the idea of building a horseless carriage of his own design. Some accounts state that he had completed a working vehicle by 1900.  Other versions of his automobile appeared on the streets of New Bern in 1903 and 1907.  Failing to acquire financial backing for the large-scale production of his vehicle, he returned his focus to the buggy and carriage works.  Renamed G.S. Waters & Sons upon the retirement of his father in 1904, the factory continued to prosper and in 1917 was moved to a new and larger facility in the 800 block of Broad Street near Bern Street.  The business changed with the times adding the sale of automobile tires along with auto repainting, recovering of car tops, and reupholstering auto interiors.

Gilbert Waters and the Buggymobile, Broad Street, c.1939.
Photo courtesy of the North Carolina State Archives

Waters retained the 1903 model of his vehicle and named it the Buggymobile.  As the years passed Waters and the Buggymobile made occasional appearances on the streets and in the local press.  By the 1930s, however, Gilbert Waters was regularly driving the vehicle about town and the local interest in the Buggymobile soon grew to state and then national publicity.  Congressman Graham A. Barden tried in 1936 to get the Smithsonian Institution to exhibit the early vehicle.  New Bern's indefatigable historian and newspaper reporter, Gertrude Carraway, published an illustrated article in The State magazine for October 16, 1937 entitled "First Car in the State."  The North Carolina Hall of History (now the North Carolina Museum of History) attempted to acquire the Buggymobile for exhibition in Raleigh.  The climax arrived in March of 1939 when Waters was invited to bring the Buggymobile to New York City and appear as a guest on the popular CBS radio program "We the People."  Mr. Waters was interviewed and then, to the wonder of the nation-wide listening audience, Waters cranked the Buggymobile and the engine roared to life.  The show paid all of Waters' and his son Robert's expenses while in New York including rooms at the Hotel Commodore.  The Buggymobile appeared in at least two nationally syndicated cartoon features - Strange as it Seems and Globe Trotting.

Nationally-syndicated newspaper column Globe Totting --by Melville, 
featuring Gilbert Waters and the Buggymobile, 1939.

Waters continued to drive the Buggymobile until 1948 when he donated the 1903 vehicle to the North Carolina Museum of History.  It remains on display to this day.  Its creator, Gilbert Stanley Waters, passed away on February 15, 1950 and was buried beside his wife in Cedar Grove Cemetery two days later.