The courtship of J.W. Packard, Bess Gillmer

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a new weekly series on our region’s history offered in a collaborative effort by local historical societies.

The National Packard Museum is the repository of Packard historical documents and artifacts. In addition to preservation, much of our work is interpretation and telling the stories of the items we hold in public trust.

Recently we came upon this story from Elizabeth Gillmer Packard’s diary that illustrates the progressiveness of the Packard family. At a time in history when women still had few rights in the community, Ward Packard was busy getting a woman’s perspective about the automobile he was building. (He may also have been trying to impress his lady friend.)

“Bess,” as she was known to friends, was very much an intellectual companion for James Ward Packard. Growing up in Warren, she was educated at Rockford College in Illinois and Vassar College in New York and attended Northwestern Women’s Medical College in Chicago for two years. Hence, she was able to converse on many topics of the day. Conceivably her intelligence made her a prime candidate for testing of the automobile and Ward’s affections. After all, the “horseless carriage” would have to be accepted by women if it were to succeed as an accepted mode of transportation.

The first notation comes on January 5, 1901, when 30-year-old Bess writes: “J.W. called for me … It was such a heavenly moonlit night that we went for a walk …When we came home, we studied some meteorology and the barometer. I produced one of my (text) books on physics just to prove that I once did know quite a little. J.W. announced that girls weren’t generally supposed to be bright enough to understand natural philosophy. He was quite overpowered when I produced my notebook with all the drawings of various instruments, vacuum pumps, etc. That notebook represents many hours of agony and hard work…” (This encounter is very early in their courtship and they both seemed intent on impressing the other.)

Over the next several months, Bess would have many adventures in the 1901 Model C as J.W. continued to improve the vehicle and attempt to win his lady friend’s affection while demonstrating the benefits of the automobile. Bess’s comments went from dreading the cold drives to admitting that she did not get cold at all. At one point she confesses that “auto riding has spoiled driving” for her. Their drives took them from Niles on badly rutted roads in which she praises Ward’s driving abilities to Bloomfield and the beginning of the snow belt where they got stuck in a snow drift while maneuvering to let a carriage pass. On this drive they were forced to endure the contempt of the carriage driver — a common sentiment of the day.

In April of 1901 Bess writes: “About noon I went to the bank. Just as we were going in, Ward drove up in the auto and offered to take us home. We went over as far as the hill on the River Road, and Ward showed me how much better this gears carriage is. (Ward had introduced the three-speed transmission.)

“He stopped it on the hill and let it run back, then started it up again and it climbed as easily as when coming at the hill at first. Coming back, he stopped on the hill and backed up the hill. I doubt if there are any other carriages that will do that.”

During late winter of 1901, Ward worked on developing a three-speed transmission for the automobile, and he was out to test the new design. Clearly it impressed Bess and performed as he hoped — it would go on to impress Packard automobile owners of the day.

A year later, Bess and Ward parted company. She took a job as a teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, and he continued to attend to businesses here in Warren. In their two years apart, the Packard brothers sold their lamp and automobile businesses. Bess returned in 1904 to marry James Ward — a union that surprised even his brother and their closest friends.

We hope you enjoy this snippet of history and peek inside the personal lives and courtship of James Ward Packard and Elizabeth Gillmer. If you would like to read the full account of test driving the 1901, visit our website at www.packardmuseum.org.

Your support makes these discoveries possible. If you would like to continue to see these stories unfold, visit and support the National Packard Museum. The museum is open noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday

For more information, visit www.packardmuseum.org.


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