Tuesday, December 11, 2012

W. L. Edison at Greenbank

From The Sunday Star May 12, 1907
This is a bit of an odd post, only because I don't really have too much of substance say about it (although to be fair, that's never stopped me in the past). It's honestly not much more than somewhere between a padded-out blurb and a long, "Huh? How about that." It was something that caught my eye as I was looking for other things in the scanned copies of the Wilmington Sunday Morning Star that Google has online. I could get lost for hours just browsing through them. Come to think of it, I have.

What specifically caught my eye this time is the advertisement seen to the right. It appeared in the May 12, 1907 edition, and ran the following week as well. As you can see, it's an ad (almost a short article, really) for Premier* cars, one of the myriad of car manufacturers that popped up in the early days of the automobile, in what is now called the Brass Car Era. What initially jumped out at me and made me take notice of the ad was the address of Greenbank, Del. Since cars were still relatively new and expensive, most dealerships were in the city. Seeing one listed as Greenbank made me curious.

* The Premier Motor Manufacturing Company was founded in Indianapolis in 1903, and lasted until 1926. It changed hands numerous times in its final decade, and in the end made only taxis.

The next thing I did was to try to find any information about the name in the ad, W. L Edison. I was unable to find him in the 1900 or 1910 Census for Delaware, so I started looking more generally. The problem was, whenever I looked, all I kept finding were references to William Leslie Edison, the son of inventor Thomas Edison. I knew this couldn't be the right guy selling cars in Greenbank, so I kept looking.

Eventually, I came across a fact I never knew before -- W. L. Edison (1878-1937), Thomas Edison's son, actually did live in Delaware! For about the last decade of his life, Edison resided in a home in Westover Hills, and died there in 1937. He's buried at Lower Brandywine Presbyterian Church near Centerville. The younger Edison had a strained relationship with his famous father, and seems to have moved around quite a bit. He did many things, including inventing like his father. Below is a picture of him at work in his Wilmington lab, from what has to have been the 1930's.

W. L. Edison at work at his Wilmington lab

But more pertinent to our topic, he did also dabble in car sales, too. Unfortunately, apart from the newspaper ads, I've been unable to find any other references to Edison selling Premiers in Delaware. However, in July 1907, just a few months after our ads, it was announced that he would be selling another brand of car in Philadelphia. In the Quaker City he was selling Colt Runabouts, a car company from Yonkers, New York. That, for the most part, is as much as I know.

The ad at the top of the post ran in the Sunday Morning Star two consecutive weeks, followed by two appearances of the shorter ad below. After that, I can find no other mentions of Edison or Premier cars (although to fair, I was looking for ads and did not read every paper in its entirety). He may have continued to sell Premiers in Delaware, or he may have left here to sell Colts in Philadelphia. I'd love to find out which was the case, and if he did leave, did someone else take over as the Premier agent in Delaware.

From the Sunday Morning Star, May 26, 1907

The other big question is, of course, where was the Premier dealership at Greenbank? I admit to not knowing much about the auto industry at the time, so I don't know whether dealers would have had actual lots like today, or maybe just one or two models and a small office (or at home). And did Edison live near Greenbank, or was the business there and he commuted from Wilmington? My hope is that someday, someone will stumble across this post and have more information about this. In the mean time, I just thought I'd share a little something that struck me as interesting.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • Hagley has, online, a copy of a letter sent by John J. Raskob to Premier about securing repairs for his own car. Raskob was an executive with DuPont, and owned the estate that later became Archmere Academy. I don't know if there were any other Premier dealers, but he may have purchased his car from Edison.
  • If you try to look up W. L. Edison and Wilmington, most of the mentions you'll find are from 1931 and 1932. He was in the news then, because for a time he contested his father's will.


  1. I wonder if Edison had some partnership with the Marshall family. This would explain the location of his shop on Greenbank Road, near the Marshall factories.

  2. Well, I think the branch of the Marshalls that built the mill at Marshallton were gone by then. If Edison was up closer to Yorklyn, I'd be inclined to look for a link to the Marshalls up there. They're the ones who were in the car business, especially steam cars. Tom Marshall's (the man who recently gave Auburn Heights to the state) father had dealerships. We should ask Mr. Marshall -- the way his memory is, if he ever knew anything about WL Edison, he still does.

  3. I'm probably raising more of a question than a point, but between the brass car era and the existence of Kirkwood Hwy (& the many dealerships along that road), the only historic dealership that I'm aware of in the Greenbank area is the Michener Chevrolet agency that existed in pre-WWII times, per my late father-in-law. It was at the intersection of Old Capital Trail and Newport-Gap Pike (the brick building still stands). I only remember seeing it in the 1950s as a GM parts store and still owned by Mr. Michener.kc.

    1. I have a great picture when that burned in the 50's.

  4. In my 1907 Wilmington phone book there is a Wiliam L Edison listed in Greenbank. Phone number was 2773A listed as "r" resedence.

    1. Thanks for the confirmation, Ray. I should have known you'd have something relating to it. I still have a feeling he may have only been here for about a year. At least the phone book seems to indicate he did actually live out here.

  5. Thanks for telling us about the digitized online editions of the Wilmington Sunday Morning Star (which I delivered as a boy until it stopped publishing). I've been purusing it too and found some good genealogical inofrmation about my family.

    Ken Shelin