Omaha, A Stop on the Great Race of 1908

The Thomas car that won the 1908 New York to Paris Race, on display in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.

On March 5, 1908, a Thomas automobile, the American entry in a celebrated around-the-world auto race, reached Omaha. Other entries-French teams in De Dion and Motobloc automobiles, an Italian Zust, and a German Protos-were trailing. The course led from New York City across the North American continent to San Francisco, where the cars were to be shipped to Alaska to race 1,200 miles to the Bering Strait, then through Russia and Europe to finish in Paris.

As the American entry and the first car into Omaha, the Thomas auto, driven by Montague Roberts, received a royal welcome. The occasion offered not only a chance to display patriotic enthusiasm but a unique advertising opportunity for local merchants. “The American Car is in the Lead[,] Its Riders Wear ‘Ideal’ Garments,” crowed an ad by M. E. Smith and Company, an Omaha dry goods concern. Published in the Omaha Trade Exhibit on March 14, 1908, the ad told the public that each member of the American team had received from the company “a sheep lined heavy coat with genuine wombat collar, a heavy woolen shirt and a pair of corduroy pants. All these articles were the ‘Ideal’ brand goods made in the company’s factory.” The racers promised to wear the garments to Paris and then return them to Omaha in exchange for new outfits.

“Omaha is playing a greater part in the New York to Paris automobile endurance race than most of the people realize,” said the Trade Exhibit. “The occupants of the American car, which is far in the lead at this writing are clothed from head to foot in Omaha made garments. As their clothing is one of the most important requirements, Omaha’s part in the most famous race ever undertaken is not small.”

When the French De Deon and its team headed by G. Bourcier St. Chaffray entered Omaha, they benefited from a similar advertising overture. According to the March 21, 1908, issue of the Trade Review, they were greeted by “a company of Omaha Frenchmen, headed by Professor Louis Verrett, who is in charge of the Byrne & Hammer Dry Goods company sample room . . . they were clothed from head to foot in the Byrne & Hammer Dry Goods company’s celebrated ‘Oak’ brand of clothing. Over this, each member of the company put on one of the Byrne & Hammer fur lined duck coats, after which they were ready for the climate of the Arctic regions.” Before leaving, St. Chaffray assured the donor company that this clothing would be worn to Paris.

On July 26, 1908, the German Protos was the first car to cross the finish line in Paris but was penalized thirty days for infraction of rules. The Thomas auto arrived four days later and was declared the winner. For more information on the race see “Bad Roads and Big Hearts: Nebraska and the Great Race of 1908,” by Carol Ahlgren and David Anthone in the Spring 1992 issue of Nebraska History.

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