There was quite a bit of grumbling among the regulars who frequented his service station when Illinois passed a law requiring citizens to purchase a driver’s license in 1939, Hons Shafer recalled.
He and his brother Fritz had opened their Gulf service station at the corner of Main and Logan streets in Danville in February of that year. Their given names were Herman and Frederick, but they were Hons and Fritz to their thousands of customers over the decades.
Hons began his career in the business in 1931 at a Standard Oil service station on College Street.
The cost of the license drivers were offended by was 50 cents for those 18 years of age and older and 25 cents for younger drivers. Illinois legislators had held off about as long as they could before passing the law. The Land of Lincoln was one of the last states in the nation to require drivers to be licensed.
Hons observed the majority of people opposed buying a license. It seems they felt it was a basic right to drive.
He also recalled some of his male customers held out the hope women would not be eligible for a license, but the new law dashed those hopes because it was all inclusive. “Not all the men were critical of women drivers, but there were many who were,” he noted.
He recalled in the early years when there was a man and woman in a car, the man was behind the wheel about 100 percent of the time.
“Back then, it was a news item if a couple pulled in and the woman was driving,” he said.
He noted he and his brother thought the women customers who came to their station were more careful drivers than their male counterparts.
“Perhaps, in the early years, they felt everyone was waiting for them to make a mistake. But I would say even later, over the years, they were more careful. But I doubt if any of the old-timers would agree with that.”
Men who wanted to maintain their grasp on the world were definitely feeling it slip in 1939. Lottie O’Neill had been elected the first female state legislator in Illinois in 1922. She would serve in the legislature for 40 years. She introduced a bill in 1923 to allow women to sit on juries. Sixteen years later, in 1939, the law passed allowing women to serve.
My Aunt Nellie was born in 1890 and began driving a Ford when it had to be cranked to start the motor. By 1939 she had graduated to her own 1938 Hupmobile. She was among the first women drivers in her community and was also among the early women telegraphers on the railroad.
One of her brothers-in-law remarked to her husband, Walter, she was a bit “head strong.” Walter turned an old plow horse idiom to define his wife. He replied to his brother, “There isn’t any 'Whoa' in my Nellie.”
In 1939, an increasing number of Nellies were beginning to be heard.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.