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Restored taxi is a fare to remember

August 28, 2005|By TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN


It was an antique car lover's dream.

Literally.

The big yellow taxi, crafted in 1925 by Hagerstown's M.P. Moller Motor Car Co. for service in New York City, finally found its way home - and in grand style.

But it had traveled a circuitous route to get there.

Car buffs gathered under gray skies Saturday morning at the Miller House Carriage Museum in downtown Hagerstown as the family of Richard "Scratcher" Hammond officially donated the last known Astor taxicab to the Washington County Historical Society.

It had been Hammond's dream to restore the car to its original glory since he purchased it in 1965, said his widow, Ruby Hammond of Hagerstown.

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Bright yellow with a red stripe around the middle and a deep green hardtop, the car looked as if it had just rolled off the assembly line. The meter up front measured a total fare of $2.20 ($2 for the fare and the rest for "extras") and an antique suitcase sat next to the meter for effect.

Once the taxis were assembled, "they used to run them on the Sharpsburg Pike" to make sure everything was in working order, Ruby Hammond said.

Walt Ledden, who did restoration work on the Astor's meter, said it even would print up a receipt for passengers - paper for receipts still was in the meter when he started work on it.

But before it reached that point, the cab's original meter had been removed completely. It just wasn't necessary for the cab's second life.

After doing cab duty, the car wound up back in Washington County - minus its roof in the back - serving as a farm vehicle for John Edgar Harbaugh, a county resident who had helped assemble cars for Moller. Harbaugh's grandson, Bill Harbaugh, said his grandfather had the vehicle in the 1930s and that as a youth, he spent a lot of time riding in a fold-down chair, helping his grandfather with chores.

"I only remember it as being a truck," he said. "There was no meter. I don't remember it as a taxi." But he recognized it right away.

"The dashboard looked the same," he said.

John Harbaugh had built a sliding table for the back of the taxi-turned-truck; he used it to saw wood.

"He never licensed it for the road, that I know of," Bill Harbaugh said. "He only drove it in the field."

"To start that thing, he'd do something under the hood, then he'd crank that thing, then he'd do something else, but he got it started. That thing would run all day. He would check the spark plug by holding it in his hand - you could see his veins jump."

The car later was owned by Charles Smith of Boonsboro, on hand at Saturday's dedication ceremony with one of his current possessions -a burgundy 1923 Dagmar, another of the vehicles manufactured by Moller as the car craze began to sweep the country early in the last century. Richard Hammond bought the Astor from Smith, Ruby Hammond said, and the restoration work became a family project.

"He had a dream of restoring it and bringing it back to Hagerstown where it belonged," she said. Years of research - and struggling to find parts - followed.

"Dick would work on it for a while, hit a snag and go work on something else," she said.

After retiring from the Western Maryland Railroad in 1986, "he had another life with old cars," she said. "It was more than a hobby; it became a passion."

Hammond didn't get to see the restoration through. There still was work to be done when he died in 2001.

But others stepped forward to finish the job; most of them were at the Miller House Saturday to see the Astor take its place of honor next to Hagerstown's first taxi, a cobalt blue 1910 Regal Touring Car built in Detroit, according to antique car aficionado Ronnie Ford, and displayed in the carriage house complete with a heavy, furry lap robe - the windowless Regal offered an open-air ride.

The Historical Society helped pay for completion of the Astor's restoration; several volunteers worked on the taxi over an 18-month period in addition to work done by commercial firms.

"It's unreal what they did to that vehicle," Harbaugh said.

Well, maybe not quite unreal.

In remarks toward the end of the ceremony, Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, declared that the Astor "is real history."

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