Behind the wheel of a stripped-down Ford Model T sits a daring race driver with wind-tousled hair, posed in front of a crowd of young spectators, eager to be captured by the photographer. This engaging image from the early years of car racing is part of a large group of unidentified photographs in the papers of the Gravely family from Henry County, Virginia. My efforts to find out more about this photograph opened up a world of automobiles, racing, and road development in Virginia. Just as cars made it easier to venture far and wide, so this story expanded beyond the state to reveal a vibrant moment in the industrial development of the nation.
A quick search of newspapers on virginiachronicle.com placed the driver, D.P. (Dennis Pender) Weeks, in Petersburg, Virginia, around 1911. That year he became the manager and vice president of a newly incorporated car dealership, the Overland Car Company. Automobile production and sales were booming at that time, with American car ownership growing exponentially every year. There were 468,497 vehicles registered in the country in 1910; by 1915, that number would climb to 2,445,666, more than five times the number five years earlier. Throughout the country, people were looking for opportunities in this market. In Petersburg, there had been no car dealerships in 1909; by 1911, there were five.1
Selling Overland model cars seemed a promising venture, particularly since Overland was the second most popular car maker in the U.S. in the 1910s. Also, in establishing this business, D.P. Weeks followed the lead of his father, George C. Weeks, who had recently opened an Overland dealership in Scotland Neck, North Carolina. For D.P. Weeks, like many entrepreneurs, the automobile business in those early years proved volatile and risky. His Overland dealership lasted less than two years, and by the fall of 1913, D. P. Weeks had moved to Richmond and filed for personal bankruptcy in federal court.
Much of the market volatility was caused by the car model featured in the photograph. When the Ford Model T was introduced in October 1908, it revolutionized the car industry. By producing a reliable vehicle priced within reach of many middle-class families, Ford quickly grabbed the lion’s share of the market, selling 19,051 vehicles in 1910, increasing to 283,161 in 1915 and to 1,074,336 in 1920. Other car manufacturers struggled to compete with Ford’s price and mass-production methods. When the Model T debuted, there were 253 active automobile manufacturers. Only 44 remained by the late 1920s, with the market dominated by Ford, Chrysler, and Chevrolet. The Willys-Overland company survived, but debts garnered from expansion led it to the verge of bankruptcy in the 1920s and again in the 1930s. When the company began making Jeeps during World War II, it briefly prospered again, and was eventually acquired by the Ford Corporation.
Car racing followed the advent of automobiles in the 1890s, but the sport took off as cars became more affordable and popular. In August 1909, the first race was held at the Indianapolis Speedway, inaugurating what would become the nation’s most famous racecourse. The following month, racers from around the country came to Richmond to compete in several races sanctioned by the American Automobile Association (AAA) that took place on the horse track at the Richmond State fairgrounds (where the Diamond ballpark now sits). In 1912, the AAA again sanctioned races at that venue. Several Fords, likely Model Ts, competed in the 1912 races, but D. P. Weeks was not among the drivers.
By hosting automobile races in Richmond, local leaders hoped to bring attention to the city, highlighting the city and the state’s modern business potential. Another type of automobile competition brought far more national attention to the state, although it was not entirely flattering. The AAA and other organizations began sponsoring long-distance cross-country competitions in 1904. In these “tours,” the cars and drivers were judged not on their speed, but on their ability to complete the course in a set time without major repairs. While these races tested a driver’s skill and a car’s reliability, one underlying purpose was to highlight the need for road improvements. The first such competition to come through Virginia was the Good Roads Tour in October 1909. The 61 competing cars travelled from New York City to Atlanta, following a route near what is now Interstate 81 in Virginia. Crowds gathered all along the course to watch the parade of cars go by. An extra draw was that one of the cars was driven by the baseball star Ty Cobb.
In 1910, the Good Road Tour came through Virginia again, reversing the route taken the year before. This trip did not go as smoothly. “Automobile history will long record the experience of the good roads tour between Roanoke and Staunton,” reported the Roanoke Evening News. “To those who took part in it the memory of the drive will be like a fearful dream in which mountains of mud, torrents of rains and skidding wheels will stand forth in terrible vividness.” Travelling the same stretch of road a year later, the prestigious AAA Glidden Tour met the same fate, leading the New York Times to advise “automobilists contemplating a tour south… to get an aeroplane at Natural Bridge and stay in the air until the North Carolina line is reached…. Nothing has approached in vileness the condition of roads in Virginia.”2
The state of Virginia had long left road construction and repair to the local authorities and a few turnpike companies. With little financing or supervision, the roads deteriorated. The 1910 and 1911 auto tours brought the state’s notoriously poor road infrastructure to the forefront as the dreadful publicity put Virginia’s readiness for modernity into question. Not surprisingly, the local headlines and political discussion began to focus more and more on road construction and repair. The situation began to change in 1906 when the General Assembly approved the appointment of a highway commission with a civil engineer as the commissioner. The commissioner had responsibility for overseeing the construction and repair of main roads and could guide the roadwork done by local authorities.
The General Assembly initially did not provide any state funding for road construction and maintenance, but instead authorized the use of convict road crews from the state penitentiary and the local jails. The state eventually started budgeting funds for roads, but still expected the localities to pay most of the costs. Because of the lack of state support, local associations sometimes raised funds needed for road improvements. In 1911, for example, a Richmond group attempted to raise $10,000 for the construction of a better road between Gordonsville and Newport News. The Overland Sales Company contributed $50 toward the fund.3
After his bankruptcy filing, Dennis Pender Weeks disappeared from Virginia directories and newspapers. My curiosity about the driver and the race in the photograph, however, led me to see if I could find out more about Weeks before and after his time in Virginia. Using digitized newspapers from outside Virginia allowed me to track some of his movements in what turned out to be an intriguing, itinerant career.
Weeks was born in 1884 in Scotland Neck, North Carolina. By 1907, he had settled in Plant City, Florida, where he married. While in Plant City, he was charged with issuing a bad check for the purchase of an automobile (1908) and obtaining money through false pretenses (1909). Both cases were dismissed. In 1910, Weeks appeared in a published list of Plant City’s delinquent tax payers. The large overdue amount suggests that he owned a business or perhaps was involved in land speculation. By the time that list came out, he was no longer living in the area. He had moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he worked as an automobile salesman. This seems to be when he started racing cars. For the Fourth of July celebrations that year, the city held a two-mile car race. Weeks drove an unidentified car to victory.4
After his stay in Virginia, he moved back to Florida in 1914 and again turned to car sales. He also continued to race cars. In January 1915, driving a Ford, he won two races held at Plant Field on the grounds of the Tampa Bay Hotel. Because the hotel was built in a Moorish revival architectural style, like that in the background of the race photograph, I thought this might be where the photograph was taken. However, the current curator of the Henry B. Plant Museum which now occupies the hotel stated that their staff could not identify the photograph location. 5
Weeks’s second automobile sales venture went as poorly as his first. Only months after incorporating and building a grand showroom, his company was taken over by its vice president. While the newspaper announcement made this transfer seem amicable, later lawsuits ensued between the former partners. He then moved to Kentucky where he got into another booming industry driven by the rise of the automobile – the oil drilling business. He became president of the Florida Kentucky Oil Company and then the Trico Oil Company. Within a few years, those operations also failed, and he returned to Florida in 1921. Soon after returning, he became involved in yet another speculative enterprise brought about largely by the automobile. A massive increase in Florida tourism spurred a wild boom in the real estate market with the development of resort communities throughout the state. Weeks became the president of Fisherman’s Paradise, Incorporated and sought investors to build a rustic resort at Lake Apopka outside Orlando, Florida. Following a familiar pattern, this scheme was short-lived as he was removed as its president the following year.6
In the mid-1920s, Florida’s land investment bubble burst, leaving massive indebtedness and a collapsed economy in its wake. After this, Weeks does not show up as often in digitized newspapers, apparently having abandoned his grand financial schemes and speculations. He briefly appears in 1930s as the manager of a travelling show of performing animals, featuring Major, the “Wonder Dog.” When Weeks died in Pasco, Florida, in 1975, at the age of 91, his obituary described his occupation simply as “showman.”7
I shared the race photograph with Weeks’s grandsons who still live in Florida. They did not know about his racing career, and not much about his days as a car salesman and oil developer. One of his grandsons remembered him as unconventional, always moving around, having a variety of jobs, and living in a trailer on a lake. His grandfather, he told me, hosted a radio program and traveled the state playing banjo and other instruments in bands.
He also mentioned that his grandfather worked harvesting sponges in the Gulf of Mexico, and during World War II had been part of a group of civilian boaters who served as submarine spotters.
Although my research into the life of D.P. Weeks failed to uncover where or when the race photograph was taken, the photograph sparked a research journey that revealed how much the automobile transformed the state and the nation within a few years. New economic opportunities opened up, as well as new roads and new entertainments. Most significant of all, cars offered people the possibility of far greater mobility, and that brought with it new opportunities to remake themselves as they moved from place to place. Few people could better represent this early automobile era than D.P. Weeks, who as an entrepreneur, entertainer, and traveler embraced all it had to offer.
 Certificate of Incorporation for the Overland Sales Company, Incorporated, October 10, 1911, State Corporation Commission, Charter Book, vol. 76, 1911-1912, p. 207-208, and Judicial Order Book, vol. 5, 1912-1914, p. 210. Acc. 30666. Library of Virginia.
 “Wrecks of Cars Along the Road,” Roanoke Evening News, 10 June 1910, p. 1. “Glidden Tourists Swamped in Creek,” New York Times, 10 October 1911, p. 10.
 “Workers Hustling to Get That $10,000,” Richmond Times Dispatch, 17 May 1911, p. 9.
 “Was No Criminal Intent,” Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Florida), 31 July 1908, p. 2. “Both Turned Loose,” Tampa Tribune, 20 January 1909, p. 7. “Notice,” Weekly Tribune (Tampa, Florida), 1 September 1910, p. 12. “Glorious Fourth in Fayetteville,” Fayetteville Index, 6 July 1910, p.1. The article identifies the winning driver only by last name; it was likely D.P. Weeks, because the 1910 U.S. Census has him as the only person with that last name in the city. The winning time, however, does not match the one on the race photograph.
 “Medley Program for Tampa Fans,” Tampa Tribune, 2 January 1915, p. 10. “Ford Wins Ten Mile Auto Race,” Tampa Tribune, 3 January 1915, p. 14.
 “F.C. Langfeldt Takes Over Republic Agency,” Tampa Tribune, 12 October 1917, p. 5. “The Trico Oil Company,” Columbia Adair County News (Columbia, KY), 24 September 1919, p. 1. “Rustic Colony for Lake Apopka’s Shores,” Tampa Tribune, 21 July 1921, p. 12.
 “Dog of Unusual Intelligence is Booked for Children’s Show,” Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, W.V.), 10 July 1936, p. 14. Obituary of Denis [sic] Pender Weeks, Tampa Bay Times, 20 Oct 1975, p. 19