The Curious Tale of Mrs. Fisher and Mr. Brooks: Around-the-World by Automobile in 1909
In 1909, Harriet White Fisher bought an automobile and set out to travel around the world. She did not go alone. And unlike Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg, it took her more than 80 days. Mrs. Fisher traveled with her chauffeur and personal secretary Harold Brooks, her maid, her butler, and a Boston Bull Terrier named Honk-Honk. It was 13 months before they arrived back in Trenton.
As can be imagined, their journey was full of adventure, and at times, misadventure. The Locomobile touring car in which they traveled was among the best cars of its day and Mrs. Fisher’s account of the journey was published as A Woman’s World Tour in an Automobile in 1911.
An exhibition of the travels of Mrs. Fisher and Mr. Brooks, aptly titled “Trenton Entourage Motors ’Round the World in 1909” and sponsored by AAA Mid-Atlantic, is currently on view at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie in Cadwalader Park. It includes a display of the route, along with artifacts and photographs taken by Mr. Brooks on the trip.
Guest curator Rebecca Urban will present a slide lecture about this remarkable journey on Sunday, September 8, at 2 p.m. Ms. Urban is well-placed to speak on the topic. She is the granddaughter of Mr. Brooks and, along with 12 other grandchildren, she inherited the artifacts, photos, diaries, and other memorabilia of his adventure, most of which is on display.
A retired teacher from Reynolds Middle School in Hamilton Township, Ms. Urban will relate how the four travelers, and Honk Honk, prepared for their historic journey. Financed entirely by Mrs. Fisher, the trip took them across Europe, Africa, India, China, and Japan before they were back in the United State and motoring to Trenton from San Francisco.
In her account of her grandfather’s experiences, Ms. Urban draws upon stories handed down from her parents’ generation as well as an oral history he recorded in 1956 and some 240 of his photographs. Photographs show the entourage arriving at the Place Vendôme in Paris, fording a river in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and being mobbed by curious crowds in Kobe, Japan.
“I am so grateful to my Uncle Fisher [Harold Fisher Brooks II] for saving and preserving this material and for having the foresight to record my grandfather’s reminiscences on tape,” said Ms. Urban. “At the time of his trip, my grandfather was just 22, Mrs. Fisher was 48. Before they left, she spread a rumor that he was her nephew, possibly to avoid speculation as to their relationship by presenting it as respectable and acceptable. The fact that my grandfather’s middle name, by coincidence, was Fisher, made this story seem plausible, but they were not related.”
One effect of Mrs. Fisher’s ruse, however, was that Mr. Brooks was very well received when they stayed in hotels en route, and given first class accommodation on board ship unlike the maid and the butler. “People always ask me if my grandfather and Mrs. Fisher were romantically involved and I can tell you emphatically from reading his journal that they were not.” For those who want a love affair, however, the trip does provide one. On their return, the maid, whose name was Maria, and Albert, the butler, got married and, as far as is known, lived happily ever after.
“Mrs. Fisher was an amazing woman,” said Mr. Urban, “but she was more likely to record details of social gatherings, who they met and where they stayed, than the logistics of the journey. My grandfather on the other hand was in charge of the mechanics of the trip and his journal is full of details. I’m only he sorry that he started it in Italy and not before.”
Mrs. Fisher was a successful Trenton businesswoman in the early 1900s, at time when it was rare for a woman to run a business in the United States, especially a manufacturing business. Known as “The Anvil Queen of America,” she had inherited the Eagle Anvil Works, or Fisher & Norris, from her husband who died in 1902. The company was very successful and supplied all sizes of anvils to companies throughout the world.
Mrs. Fisher died in 1939 and had no children. Mr. Brooks lived until 1962, when his granddaughter was eight years old. Ms. Urban, who remembers visiting him until he went into a nursing home during the last two years of his life, plans to write a book of the automobile tour inspired by her grandfather’s letters home. Her talk and tour of the exhibition will take place Sunday, September 8, at 2 p.m.
“Trenton Entourage Motors ’Round the World in 1909” continues through September 22. Hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. Closed Mondays and municipal holidays. For more information, visit: www.ellarslie.org.