The Hight family is celebrating 100 years of selling cars in central Maine this year. They were here before the two world wars, sound motion pictures, and the discovery of penicillin and insulin. They were here even before L.L. Bean! Stop in at one of the Hight family dealerships and find out why they have been in business for 100 years.
In 1911, Walter Hight took on the Ford Agency in Skowhegan. Cars did not show up on carriers back then, drivers had to go get them. On one occasion, ten men went to Lewiston, ME and started back to Skowhegan with ten Fords. The crew blew 8 tires on the way home and Walter’s car continued to stall. He had to borrow a screwdriver from a Lewiston-area lady’s sewing machine and had to clean the timer of lint several times on the way home. All ten cars finally made it to Skowhegan. The Hight family still works hard to get the job done.
In 1911, Fords were shipped in a box car, completely knocked down, six in a car. Mechanics had to assemble them before they were ready to run. How times have changed as now car carriers drop several cars off at a time, ready to go!
You could really sell a man or woman a car if he or she could get over Waterville Hill in Norridgewock in high gear or Magnetic Hill in Bingham. If the car wouldn’t go over those hills in high gear, the salesman might as well go home, no sale. Customers today have different demands, but customers remain our focus.
During the first World War, Fords were assembled in New York. Walter Hight sent men to NY and they would drive one car home and tow another. He kept a crew on the road all the time delivering them.
Everybody had to be taught to drive before a sale could be finally closed. In most cases, it was harder to teach a person to drive than it was to make a sale. Talk of the patience of Job, we earned it all right. For the first few years, the Model T’s had no self starter. Think of teaching a person to drive a car when every time they stalled the engine you had to get out and crank it. Customer care has been important since the beginning.
Grandfather Walter wrote this story: A woman I was teaching to drive tried to crank the car. It back fired, her mouth hit the radiator and knocked out a front tooth. After paying the dentist bill, I still made the sale. The first few years, it was an uphill business to convert the public to the horseless carriage. The old gray mare was good enough for them. Great care was taken to introduce horses to the new cars. The customer has remained our focus.
In the early years, a woman from Anson bought a car and Walter had to teach her how to drive. She got in the car and drove right into a stone wall and knocked her tooth out. Walter took her to the dentist and had a gold tooth put in. Then she bought another car. But, she still hated to drive where there was traffic, so when she came to town she would park just on the outskirts and call a taxi so that she could get her errands run. Customers have been our focus.
The winters were tough in central Maine. From November through June, we made plenty of sales, but we could not deliver a car. We stored cars in every stable, farm, and shed around town to be ready for spring delivery. We often had 75 or more cars in storage.
The snowy roads in Skowhegan were rolled with 3 tons of horses hooked to a big roller. Gilman did the rolling. Since it was impossible to run a car, people made snowmobiles out of Model T Fords and a few Buicks. These machines had skis on the front and lags on the rear. People were, and continue to be, creative.
People of central Maine were skeptical of progress. Some women wouldn’t ride in a 4 door sedan because it was too much like a hearse. When hydraulic brakes and steering were introduced, people were afraid that they wouldn’t work. People were nervous when the self starter replaced the hand crank. Progress continues.
Skowhegan has always supported its football teams and many players today drive to practice in pick up trucks. Long ago, David Hawes was the quarterback of the Skowhegan football team and the night before the game with Madison, he cranked his Model T Ford and broke his wrist. That didn’t please Coach Arthur Dostie.
In the early 20s, the Model Ts wouldn’t run in the winters because the oil wouldn’t flow. So, drivers would jack up the cars at night and drain the oil out of them and put the oil on the wood stove at night to keep it warm. Then they’d add the warm oil in the morning and start the cars. How times have changed!
From 1924 until 1927, in order to get a Ford car to sell, Hight had to take a Fordson tractor. These tractors were hard to sell as they cost about $1,050 for the tractor, plow, and harrow, too much for most farmers. Kirby tells this story:
“We went up to the hill in Norridgewock to see if we could sell Gerald Marble a Fordson Tractor. He wanted to get his granite off the mountain. The tractor worked fairly well on the level, but you couldn’t hold the load with chains around the skis. We started down the mountain and the load came forward. The tractor driver jumped off and the whole load went down the mountain with no assistance. We found that was a good way to get rid of a surplus of Fordson tractors!”
Under the circumstances, Hight finally dropped Ford and took on Chevrolet.
Kirby Hight sold cars while he was at Bowdoin College. One of his fraternity brothers wanted to buy a Buick convertible sedan. They were about as long as a ton truck, and cost about $2800. Kirby had to order the car. It was black with white upholstery and a white top. Walter was afraid that if the fraternity brother didn’t buy it, there wasn’t a person in central Maine who would buy it. But, when the car came in, the fraternity brother paid for the car with a check. The profit covered Kirby’s tuition for a semester.
Times were tough during the depression. When Kirby Hight graduated from Bowdoin in 1938, they owed a lot of money and the bank was hungry. But everyone worked together and both the bank and the dealerships are still here.
No cars were manufactured after 1941 as the GM effort went into war materials. The Hights still ran the shop and bought used cars and trucks. They bought cars and trucks from men going off to war and stored them in every barn in the area. Kirby was the commander of a destroyer in the North Atlantic and his father kept the business alive.
When the war was over, dealers were put on a manufacturing schedule that was created in proportion to the number of cars and trucks that they had sold during the good years of 1940 and 1941. Hight Chevrolet sold new cars and trucks as fast as they could get them. It was hard to obtain used cars and they looked for them everywhere. Kirby and a friend stopped a guy driving a used Chevrolet with a canoe strapped to the top. The guy didn’t want to sell the car because he had no way to haul his canoe around. So Kirby bought the car and canoe and everyone was happy.
After WWII, dealers had to take possession of cars at the factory or assembling plants and get them home the best way we could. One spring, Hight Chevrolet Buick employees went out to the Buick factory at Flint, Michigan and drove back 13 Buicks. As Grandfather Walter describes:
“We paid for new cars when they left the factory but I wish you could have seen them when they landed in Skowhegan. They got stuck in the mud in New York, some even burned out the clutches. What a mess of second-hand cars we had on our hands! The cars were all sold before we went after them and about every one of those customers said that they were now second hand. We locked the cars into a building, kept the lookers out, put on a crew of men and cleaned and polished the cars. Finally, we delivered them to our customers.”
The car business became very competitive in Skowhegan during the 1950s and has remained so ever since. During the early 60s, we moved the Buick and Chevrolet agencies together on Madison Avenue, where we are now located.