Harmon’s Histories: Honking cars once the bane of small-town Montana streets
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
I grew up in the 1950s and early '60s – the period immortalized in the film “American Graffiti,” with Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard and DJ “Wolfman Jack.”
I happened to work in radio in Petaluma, California, at the time many of the street cruisin’ scenes in the film were shot there.
So I read with interest a recent article by Jonathan Edwards, in The Washington Post, about the “siren battles” going on in New Zealand.
Apparently, young people are now attaching high-powered speaker systems (like the ones atop warning towers or police cars) to their vehicles, even bicycles – then gathering in public places “in the dead of night” to do battle for which one can be the loudest, but also the clearest, and become the “siren king.”
For the participants, it’s a way “to celebrate, enjoy music and create community.” For people trying to have a good night’s sleep, it’s a nightmare.
Flashback to 1934, when The Washington (D.C.) Star newspaper reported the American Automobile Association (AAA) had called on “city authorities throughout the country to outlaw raucous automobile horns in a campaign of noise disarmament.”
The AAA president, Thomas P. Henry, said: “In addition to bringing about a new era of quiet on the streets of American cities, particularly in residential areas, a ban on the loud and continuous blowing of automobile horns also would contribute to safer motoring conditions."
Henry declared, "The horn is intended as a warning signal to cars ahead and behind, but not one out of every hundred blasts carries any such significance today."
Even earlier, in 1925, Beatrice Burton wrote in her novel, “Footloose,” (serialized in newspapers including the Missoula Sentinel) that “Troubadours no longer stood below ivy-hung balconies to serenade their sweethearts. Today knights of the whiskey flask and the Ford car honked their horns loudly to call their cuties forth to drive to the nearest Cabaret.”
The chief of police in Wolf Point, Montana, took out an ad in the local paper, The Herald, in 1936, giving “fair warning to car drivers that the streets are not a playground and that automobiles are not toys.”
“The practice by certain drivers (most of them young folks) of chasing other cars, and of needless tooting of loud horns, is an increasing nuisance that must be controlled.”
“Horns on cars are intended to be used only as safety warnings. The excessive and loud sounding of horns is annoying and confusing and maybe the source of danger in place of safety.”
“Drivers, addicted to reckless chasing, or running away from other cars, or to needless honking of the horn, will be arrested and turned over to the court by the police or the patrolman without any further warning.” Signed: C. W. Hamblin, Chief of Police.
Of course, some horn honking was quite acceptable to the movers and shakers of society.
In 1941, the Judith Basin County Press in Stanford, Montana, reported, “Mr. and Mrs. Eddie Neill opened their home Monday evening to the No Worry Club for a surprise party for Mr. and Mrs. John Neal, the occasion being their wedding anniversary. Loud honking of car horns took the Neills entirely by surprise.”
Now, as I settle in for a wonderful night’s sleep, I hope none of today’s topic will cause any intrusion or disquietude – at least until 3 a.m., when I and others of a certain age are doomed to be awakened by another force of nature.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.