Molly Butterworth will tell you that her first love is history, but start her talking about cars and you will realize her passion for the automobile runs deep.
The Ohio native, who has lived in Villa Ridge for the last 15 years, is the type of car enthusiast who names her vehicles — Frank the Ford truck, Bruno the BMW . . .
Butterworth comes by her love for automobiles naturally. She grew up the daughter of two serious car enthusiasts from opposite sides of the spectrum.
“Mom really turned on my love of German automobiles . . . and Dad was a big Chevy guy,” she said, recalling how he taught her to drive a stick shift by taking her out to the country in a 3/4-ton truck with a four speed and a granny gear and saying, “OK, get us home.”
Growing up in the small town of Versailles, Ohio, on the western edge of the state, Butterworth learned early on that cars didn’t just provide driving thrills — they provided her opportunity.
With a population of around 2,400 in the ’70s and ’80s, Versailles was limited in what it had to offer, said Butterworth, but vehicles made it possible to get around easily and fairly quickly.
Cars and trucks enabled her to show horses and for the family to take vacations.
“Cars both open and shrink the world,” she commented. “Suddenly there’s this whole world out there, much more than we have here in our little town of 2,000 people, but also suddenly the world is smaller, because it only takes an hour or so to see new things.”
Moving to Franklin County in Missouri as an adult felt a lot like coming home for Butterworth. The area reminds her very much of Versailles.
“There’s great pride in community, wonderful people, fantastic school systems, both academically and athletically . . . it feels like a second home,” she remarked.
Versailles is famous for chickens, and every June the town holds a Poultry Days celebration where they crown a Miss Chick, similar to the many fair queens crowned around Franklin County.
Curator at Museum of Transportation
Butterworth was in college volunteering at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, when she fell in love with museum work. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history and English literature, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in public history through Wright State University, which had founded the museum studies program nationwide back in the ’70s.
“It was fantastic getting my master’s there, because not only did I have some advanced American history, but I also had great curatorial, archival, museum management and those types of classes,” said Butterworth. “We did everything from hands-on work conserving artifacts to designing exhibits.”
She came to Missouri in the mid-90s for an archival internship at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis and then accepted a job as curator of collections at the National Museum of Transportation in Kirkwood.
It was a dream job that combined two of her top interests — history and automobiles.
Butterworth served as curator from 1997 to 2008 and then director from 2008 to 2016.
Today, she is the historic building preservationist at Faust Park in Chesterfield.
‘They Will Run’
Butterworth wasn’t looking to write a book about St. Louis’ automotive history until Reedy Press in St. Louis approached her with the idea. She signed up to work with Tom Eyssell as a co-author.
Eyssell has been a professor of finance and legal studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis for more than 30 years and a car guy for nearly 50. His love of automobiles began with his work as a mechanic in the early 1970s, and continues to this day.
He currently has four 1960s muscle cars in his garage and is always looking to add to the “fleet.”
Butterworth and Eyssell spent about 11 months researching, writing, editing and collecting photographs for the book.
“They Will Run, The Golden Age of the Automobile in St. Louis” was released last month.
“Most everyone knows St. Louis was once described as ‘first in brews, first in shoes,’ and that Lewis and Clark started their famous trek from St. Louis,” the authors write in the introduction. “But how many people know that St. Louis was home to some of the earliest creators of the automobile?
“Or that St. Louis was at one point second only to Detroit in the manufacture of American automobiles? That St. Louis was the home of the first gasoline station dedicated to serving motorists? Or that St. Louis was the home of the first automobile parts supply house?”
Butterworth said it was her work at the Museum of Transportation that both sparked her interest in writing “They Will Run” and provided her the foundation to access the information she needed.
“I realized there are still St. Louis auto building family descendants here (the Dorrises of the Dorris Motor Car Company and the Bursts of the Moon Motor Car Company),” she said. “They have cars that their grandparents built, and they have family archival collections, small object collections . . . ”
George Dorris III, who served on the board of directors for the Museum of Transportation, helped her track down the information she was seeking and also opened his family’s collection to her.
Many of the images seen in the book came from the Missouri Historical Society, the Detroit Public Library and George Dorris, who opened the family archives.
Butterworth also took some of the photos herself. As she was taking photos — riding around on her red BMW motorcycle — she attracted attention from the people who lived in the area, and they struck up conversations. One mail carrier offered to give her a walking tour of a neighborhood.
“They knew the history of every building,” she remarked. “They knew exactly which companies had been there and which years. It was fun seeing people perceptively get excited talking about history of their neighborhood.”
Butterworth noted that initially the only interview she planned for the book was with George Dorris. But as more and more people approached her to share their stories and offer information, she gained a new perspective.
“People were curious, but also incredibly helpful and excited about the book coming out,” she said.
‘Nipping at the Heels of Detroit’
“St. Louis was, before the Depression, kind of nipping at the heels of Detroit,” said Butterworth. “It was that big in terms of being an automotive city.
“But we built on a different scale here in St. Louis. We were not really assembly line-, Henry Ford-minded here, especially the premier builders — Dorris, Gardner, Moon — they wanted to know personally each of their customers and build exactly what they wanted.”
In short, they customized cars.
“Each car in some ways was almost a little one-off, and almost everything was built in house,” said Butterworth.
That was a big part of why, not just here in St. Louis, but all across the country, so many of the small builders came crashing down during the Depression, Butterworth said.
“St. Louis was right up there, but always building quality over quantity, but the quantity was pretty big too,” she said.
“Many of the first in-automotive design engineering were born here in St. Louis, or if they weren’t born here, they were really further developed here. Things as simple as the float in carburetors, front-wheel drive, and there’s a fun picture of the Auto Front-Drive Manufacturing Company (Page 31) where back in the chain-driven days, a chain was driving the front axle instead of the rear.”
Butterworth said her favorite chapters to write were Chapter Four about the “automobile rows” on Delmar, Locust and South Kingshighway, Chapter Five about the war years and Chapter Six about the post-war boom and bust.
The last chapter goes into St. Louis’ current status as a car city, including the closing of the Chrysler and Ford plants.
“I don’t think St. Louis will ever reach the manufacturing levels of automobiles that it once had . . . So much of the future automobile world will be IT (information technology) related, and with strong IT cores here in St. Louis, the city will play a role that way,” said Butterworth, noting one of the most active IT centers, CIC@CET, is located in the one of the old Dorris buildings.
“It’s funny because you can still see the Dorris Motor Car Company across the top of the building,” she commented.
She sees St. Louis playing a role in the automobile industry, not with wrenches, as it has in the past, but with keyboards.
At Riechers November 16
If you would like to talk cars with Butterworth and pick up a copy of “They Will Run,” she will be at Riechers Tire and Auto, 4710 South Point Road, in Washington for a booksigning Saturday, Nov. 16, beginning at 7:30 a.m. until she sells out of copies of the book.
Copies also are available at Neighborhood Reads bookstore, 401 Lafayette St.
Other Upcoming Events
Other upcoming events for “They Will Run” include:
Nov. 18 from 7 to 9 p.m. at St. Charles City-County Library, Winghaven, 7435 Village Center Drive, O’Fallon;
Nov. 21 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand, St. Louis;
Nov. 23 from noon to 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, West County Center, 80 W. County Center Dr., Des Peres; and
Dec. 3 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Missouri History Museum, Forest Park, St. Louis.