Marshfield, December 1917: Driven to thievery
A pair of Ford automobiles go missing as part of a string of burglaries
By Kris Leonhardt
Henry Ford was an employee of Thomas Edison’s Detroit “Edison Illuminating Company” when he built his first gas-powered vehicle at his home. By 1913 Ford’s Model T was dominating the American automobile market as Ford developed mass production methods to keep up with demands.
Though car ownership was increasing throughout the country, the majority of U.S. residents still ranked the possession as a luxury, like electricity and indoor plumbing.
In 1917 many viewed automobiles as a status symbol and not necessary for everyday living. In most communities only the affluent found a spot in their garages for Ford’s latest production.
In Marshfield businessman George Welton and popular local barber Otto Warnecke were two locals lucky enough to own five-passenger Fords. Both vehicles were brand new that year with Welton’s sporting some of the best options of the time, including a lock, which was not standard then.
As winter drew near, Warnecke shut the gas off in his vehicle, drained the radiator, and stored it in his garage. Likewise, Welton’s “Henry” was retired to the safe confines of his garage. Winter roads would not allow for much traveling in the upcoming months.
In the early morning hours the first Sunday of December, Warnecke awoke to find his car taken from his locked garage. Experienced and prepared thieves had knocked the window in, used a chisel to pry the putty away, and pried the window open.
Later that day Welton’s neighbor alerted him to his open and empty garage. When word came from Wausau that a third car was missing, the Marshfield and Wausau police both got involved.
The thefts came on the heels of the Rose Brothers store robbery that had occurred earlier that week, which left residents wondering if there were pillagers living in their midst.
The Wausau and Marshfield police departments spent the upcoming holiday season searching for leads. It was not until mid-January in 1918 that Marshfield police would get answers when they were contacted by the Wausau department.
Wausau had apprehended a man from Iowa who was in possession of many of the same goods taken from the Marshfield Rose Brothers store. Also in his possession were four cars traced back to previous Chicago thefts.
The Iowa man was part of a small gang of men and women circling the country, plundering as they went. When authorities discovered that the man was wanted in Des Moines, he was delivered to authorities there.
There is no record that the cars belonging to the Marshfield men were ever recovered.