This was then: Mrs. Cottle’s fast ride

The pedal to the metal at 100 years old.

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Mrs. Hepsa Cottle as she appeared in the March 13, 1909 New York Tribune on the occasion of her 100th birthday. — Courtesy Chris Baer

A few doors up from the old Mansion House — not far from where Mocha Mott’s is today — once stood the carpentry workshop of Franklin Cottle. He erected it before 1846 on a narrow, 16-foot-wide lot he purchased in the center of town. With his partner Presbury Norton, Mr. Cottle became one of the island’s earliest patentees in 1849 for a “Machine for Sharpening Saws” (U.S. patent No. 6015.) Their invention earned a mention in Scientific American magazine, and has been formally cited in modern patents in the design of everything from inkjet printers to insecticide powder guns, including a 2012 patent for a driving-aptitude testing apparatus for the elderly. But it probably earned little, if any, hard cash for Mr. Cottle at the time.

In 1850, Mr. Cottle married Hepsa (Daggett) Andrews, a widow whose first husband had died on Wallis Island, off the coast of Samoa, during a whaling voyage. Shortly after their marriage, Mr. Cottle left the Vineyard for San Francisco to seek his fortune in the 1849 gold rush. As a housewright and contractor, he helped erect some of the earliest permanent buildings in that city, including the famous Cliff House at Lands End. Hepsa followed him in 1852, crossing the isthmus of Panama on foot. They lodged in a room next door to a Nantucket couple. Mr. Cottle eventually became involved in a number of successful California ventures, including a street-paving company, a Fresno newspaper, and a wool-producing sheep ranch.

After Mr. Cottle’s death, Hepsa moved in with her daughter in the Nob Hill section of San Francisco. The infamous 1906 earthquake and its subsequent fires burned down their home “almost about my ears,” she would later recall. “I lost everything except the nightgown I wore and one old dress my daughter caught up as we ran out of the house.” Hepsa had become homeless at the age of 97. So they moved to New York City.

It was here she discovered automobiles. She “surprised her friends by taking a great fancy to automobiling — not to conservative automobiling, but good, fast driving,” a newspaper would report. In an era when driving was not a pursuit of the faint of heart, Mrs. Cottle elected to drive from New York to Boston with her daughter and grandchildren. A 97-year-old driving nearly 250 miles as an automobile passenger may not seem unusual today, but in a 1906 horseless carriage wobbling over turn-of-the-century wagon trails, it was highly notable. Newspapers from the Washington Post (“Women Laugh at Father Time”) to the Oakland Tribune (“One Hundred Years Old, She Races in an Auto”) covered the event. “Covered with dust and attired in the gear affected by auto enthusiasts, Mrs. Franklin D. Cottle alighted from a big auto in front of the [Hotel] Touraine last evening at the conclusion of a run from New York,” reported the Washington Post. “It was simply great,” declared Mrs. Cottle.

Hepsa spent her final days in New York City, and while she evidently never returned to her native Island, she did reflect upon her Vineyard youth to a New York Tribune reporter. Commenting on the need for a woman to have an escort while out in the city at night, she fondly recalled her Holmes Hole childhood: “We had a good time there. We could go out without stopping to pin a bonnet on, as you must here.” As to her remarkable longevity, she explained, “I never lived by rule. I ate what I liked, wore what I liked.”

Upon her 100th birthday she took another long — and fast — joy ride down Riverside Drive and around Central Park. Her driver was a famous automobile racer, Harry Kobe. Interviewed for the newspapers afterward, she reportedly remarked, “That’s the kind of a driver I like, a man who can drive fast and knows how not to get arrested.” But when her grandson suggested, “You’ll be riding in an airship in a year or two,” she ruled that out — “No, no airships.”

 

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.

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