The Great American Dream Factory

Between the old tires and the broken chain saw

lies an idea that will change the world.

It’S 2 AM. ON JUNE 4, 1896, in Detroit, and the sound of steel striking brick has drawn you out of bed and into the night. The noise and puffs of powdered mortar are coming from the coal shed behind 58 Bagley Avenue. Bricks from its outer wall tumble to the ground, and through the opening comes a fragile looking vehicle with four bicycle tires, a doorbell for a horn and a tiller for steering.

You have just gotten a glimpse of Henry Ford’s first automobile. You have also witnessed the birth of something just as magical: the American garage. Earlier there were carriage houses, sheds and barns, but the garage as we know it came with the automobile. In America, however, the garage was not just a place for the car. It became a laboratory, a stage, a studio where dreamers have changed the world.


 Before the garage, Henry Ford did his experimenting in his kitchen sink. With his wife, Clara, regulating the gas flow, he fired up a primitive gasoline engine. Neighbors complained about the industrial-sized racket. But not Felix Julien, who shared a nearby coal shed with Ford. He cleared out his side of their shed to give his friend room to work on a larger two-cylinder engine. When Ford knocked down part of the shed wall to free his horseless carriage, land-lord William Wreford was furious. Then he laid eyes on the new automobile. Delighted, Wreford insisted on enlarging the opening at his own expense. It was the first garage.


His Kansas City, Mo., animation business had gone under, and he thought he’d try California. So in 1923, 22-year-old Walt Disney moved in with his uncle Robert, who had a little house on Kingswell Avenue in Hollywood. Disney promised to pay $5 a week for room and board but soon ran out of money. Just as his uncle’s patience thinned, a vaudeville-house operator agreed to sponsor a cartoon series. Constructing a simple camera stand from wooden boxes, Walt produced the reels in Uncle Robert’s garage. The cartoons were just stick figures delivering jokes printed in comic-strip balloons. But that was the start of the Walt Disney Company, which now reaps annual revenues of $22 .5 billion.


As a child, C. E. Woolman once requisitioned all the clothesline in his neighbor-hood so he could build a giant “passenger” kite. In college he studied insects. His two passions came together in the 1920s when, wearing goggles and flying an old Army Jenny, he began buzzing Louisiana cotton fields as a cropduster. Soon he became the field manager for a cropdusting service, which he ran out of a rented gas-station garage in Monroe, La. Two years later he bought the garage. As the new owner, Woolman gussied up his garage with a ticket counter, a bench for passengers and green-and-white awnings. He named his company Delta Air Service Today the garage is in ruins, but Delta Air Lines now carries more passen-gers than any airline in the world.


California has many historical landmarks, but only one is a garage an unassuming Palo Alto building with morning glories running down its roof line. Out front is a plaque declaring it the birthplace of America’s leading hotbed of high technology. In that garage in 1938 two young men popped a series of newly painted instrument parts into an old kitchen oven and turned up the heat. When the paint had cured and the parts came together, David Packard and William R Hewlett had produced their first commercial audio oscillator—a kind of electronic pitch pipe, used for tuning musical instruments or anything else that must vibrate at precise frequencies.

They named it Model 200A, to make it seem they’d been in business for some time, and priced it at $54.40 after the old slogan “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!” Their nearest competitor was selling oscillators for $400. To the entrepreneurs amaze-ment, orders began arriving—accompanied by checks. The two inventors flipped a coin to see whose name would lead the new partnership. When it landed, Hewlett- Packard was born. Today the company has annual revenues of $43 billion.


This is a tale of two garages. Ruth Handler was a stenographer at Paramount Pictures in California. Her husband, Elliot, worked for a lighting-fixtures manufacturer while he studied industrial design. One day in 1939 or 1940, Ruth recalls, he came home to their small Hollywood apartment and told her about a new wonder plastic called Lucite. “I got so excited,” Ruth says, “that I said, ‘Let’s buy some equipment and set it up in the garage!” They purchased a drill press, sander, band saw and polisher on credit and began fabricating Lucite into hand mirrors and bookends. But when a neighbor complained about the noise and mess, the landlord kicked the Handlers out.

Meanwhile, the Handlers’ friend Harold “Matt” Matson was making picture frames based on Elliot’s designs in his garage. When Ruth and Elliot visited him one day, they had an idea. Combining the names Matt and El, they started a company to make picture frames. Next they started building dollhouse furniture and, later, toys. In 1951 Ruth dreamed up Barbie, the megababe of toyland. Today there are more Barbies in the United States than there are people, and Mattel has grown to become a corporation with $4.8 billion in revenues.


On clear nights in the 1950s in Lubbock, Texas, you could pick up the faint signal of rhythm and blues on station KWKH from Shreveport, La. Buddy Holly and his friend Jerry Allison would cruise around town with the radio on, dreaming of having a band someday. “Buddy and I flipped over a group called the Spiders,” says Allison. “We wanted to name our group after an insect.” They got out an encyclopedia, scooted past “beetle” and finally hit on “cricket.” Rehearsing in Holly’s garage, the band blended the blues of the Spiders with the country music of Hank Williams. In February 1957 Buddy Holly and the Crickets recorded “That’ll Be the Day,” and by late September it was one of the nation’s biggest hits. Other songs followed quickly—”Peggy Sue” and “Oh Boy!” before Holly died, at age 22, in a plane crash.


The most elegant garage ever to hold a great American institution might be the one in which DeWitt and Lila Wallace nurtured Reader’s Digest. Wallace had dropped out of school, worked in Montana hayfields, fought in World War I and was wounded, Later when he tried his hand at copy writing, he got fired. But an idea kept gnawing at him: there was too much out there to read. Why not select the best articles and condense them in one magazine? Wallace took the idea to several New York publishers and was rejected by all.

So in 1921 he borrowed money from his family and with his wife, Lila, started a magazine in a room beneath a speak-easy in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Soon they moved the operation to a garage apartment in Pleasantville, N.Y.   Seventy-six years later, Readers Digest sells nearly 28 million copies a month worldwide.

SOMEWHERE, IN SOME GARAGE, another youngster is picking out a song that will go platinum. Somewhere,between a lawn mower and a clothes washer, another teenager is creating a new technology. Somewhere, a young couple is starting a billion-dollar industry. It’s America’s secret weapon—the family garage.


FORTUNE (March 4, ‘96),

Copyright @ 1996 by TIME Magazine, Inc.


New York, N.Y. 10020

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