Abbie Perry of Oneonta might have been amused with the Jan and Dean song that hit the pop music charts in June 1964 called “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena,” a song based on an aging woman driving fast cars. In September 1958, The Oneonta Star featured Abbie in an article calling her “Otsego’s First Lady of the Road,” and told of how she was no stranger to driving stock cars as she approached the age of 70, among other highly respectable achievements in her time behind the wheel.
“Mrs. Abbie M. Perry is the first woman to get a chauffer license in Otsego County,” readers learned on Monday, Sept. 22, 1958. “That was in 1916, and she’s still going strong. She has driven more than 2,000,000 miles, never had an accident and never got a traffic ticket.” In fact, if you purchased a new car at Oneonta Ford Sales Co. in 1929, then found on Market Street at the corner of South Main Street, Abbie probably taught you how to drive it.
Abbie’s career as a professional driver began when she and her husband, James Perry, lived in the town of Maryland. There was no bus to Oneonta, although there were a few trains per day. People apparently wanted their conveniences back then, and one was transportation more fitting to their schedules.
“I had a model T Ford which we bought from Stanley Chase in Schenevus,” Abbie said. “People would say, ‘Take me to Oneonta.’ I thought to myself, gracious, I could do better at this than taking in washing,” for additional income. “So I got a chauffer’s license and began taking them to Oneonta. I could carry five besides myself and I charged $3 a load. It was up to them to split the cost.”
Mrs. Perry and 19 male applicants were verbally examined at the Oneonta Hotel by a state inspector, and then given road tests.
Among her regular customers were Leona Penner and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Maddalone, all of Schenevus. The Italian-American community seemed to treat Abbie in a most friendly way, as she had her first Italian dinner at the Peter Tessitore home in Schenevus.
“They wouldn’t take any food until I tasted it,” she said. “They waited to see if I liked it.”
In 1923 the Perrys moved to Franklin Street in Oneonta. Abbie left her business cards at the Chamber of Commerce and Oneonta Country Club. She established a good business and reputation as a driver. Some suggested that she teach people to drive. One day she spoke with Beatrice Blanding, daughter of Riley Warren, owner of the Oneonta Sales Co.
“Beatrice called me to ask if I was really serious about teaching,” she said. “I told her I was, and I worked full time for one year … and two more years part time. When they had a car to demonstrate or someone to teach they called me.”
Only once did Abbie come close to getting a ticket. She was employed in 1954 by Mrs. Thomas James, proprietor of The Coffee Shop in Morris, for a trip to Canada.
The women were talking and suddenly Abbie was flagged down by a Canadian speed patrolman while she was doing 75-80 m.p.h. (This was at a time when speeds were posted in miles per hour in Canada, as they were switched to kilometers in 1977.)
The dialogue was described by Abbie this way:
Patrolman—“Going some place?
Mrs. Perry—“I hope to get to Montreal.”
Patrolman—“In one piece?”
Mrs. Perry—“I hope so.”
Patrolman—“I could charge you $16 but my wife and I have a date tonight, and if I take you in I couldn’t make it. By the way, aren’t you a little old to be driving so fast?”
Mrs. Perry—“I’ve gone faster than this.”
Mrs. James—“She drove in stock car races back home.”
The patrolman let the two go, more amused than concerned. Mrs. James told the truth, as Abbie had competed in stock car races at the Otsego County Fair in Morris in 1953.
When not on assignment, Abbie Perry loved to drive and see the countryside. She had plans to keep driving for as long as she could.
“Yes,” she said cheerfully, “the good Lord and the law (willing).”
This weekend: High school graduation “wisdom” passed to graduates of 1923.
City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.