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Jack Matte Wins 1923 Wisconsin State Championship with a Model “T” Ford Racer

This interesting set of images was taken by photographer Roman B.J. Kwasniewski on October 7, 1923, after Jack Matte and his riding mechanic won the 1923 Wisconsin State Dirt Track Racing Championship. The photos apparently were taken in front of a house that he and his family lived in at 840 Grove Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Matte’s racing car chassis and drive train was made up of modified Model “T” Ford parts and components. The front of the frame were modified and a pair of semi-elliptic springs were substituted in place of the single Ford front cross spring. In the rear, the frame was shortened and the cross member moved forward and mounted on Z-shaped brackets; both of the changes lowered the frame about four inches. The primitive Ford planetary gear steering was replaced by a conventional steering gearbox and column.

  • Family and friends gathered around the car, Matte’s riding mechanic appears to be the man standing to the right of the car wearing light colored overalls covered with oil and grease stains.

  • Close up view of the car shows the modified early Model “T” engine equipped with a Frontenac Model “R” overhead valve cylinder head, Delco ignition, and an added deep sump oil pan.

Matte apparently was sponsored by “Dowmetal” Pistons or a distributor (Dow Chemical Co.) which manufactured lightweight magnesium alloy pistons. Matte continued to race until 1927 when he died of injuries sustained by a crash through the wooden guard rail at the Milwaukee State Park Speedway one mile dirt track.

Share with us what you find of interest in the photographs courtesy of Milwalkee Polonia or can add to this post.

Learn more about early Ford Model “T” base racing cars at our earlier series: Model T Ford Speed and Racing Equipment.

  • Side view of the car shows the pin drive wire wheels, and the added Hartford friction shocks.

25 responses to “Jack Matte Wins 1923 Wisconsin State Championship with a Model “T” Ford Racer

  1. Those were indeed interesting time in the history of the American automotive history. Early mechanics used what they could find plus this lucky fellow actually has a sponsor. It would be fun to hear that Frontenac four snarling it’s way around the track. Another high quality photo and certainly a small glimpse at a time long past( 96 years ago). Thanks for sharing.

  2. Grove street is now South 5th Street. The address numbering has also changed but I didn’t find how. The even side of South 5th is now an interstate for much of its length. Where the even side exists is the current 800 block but nothing like the house seen in the group photo is there today best that I can see on street view.

    • The original buildings located in the current 800 block of S. 5th Street date back to the late 1800’s and are more representative of an urban neighborhood. The photos here appear to be more residential, almost rural area. Perhaps this is the area farther south that was turned into I-94.

  3. Hey, hey, a local boy. That name, Milwaukee had a huge Polish population. In the 2nd pic, the guy on the very left is clearly the financial baker, and I wonder in the last pic, if that kid found out that pipe gets incredibly hot,,,

  4. It makes me sad seeing these pictures of old racers, who were later killed, with their families. (Not saying you shouldn’t run them.) There’s one I’ve seen a bunch of times of Marshall Teague with his wife and his Fabulous Hudson Hornet. Teague was killed a couple years after it was taken.

    • At the Brooklands track (GB) in the interwar period it seemed customary that the driver’s fiance attended in her very best clothing almost as going to a funeral.
      Closer to me geograpically, mrs Widegren was so superstions that she wouldn’t dare to look on when her husband raced in early 30s Sweden. It’s captured on film

  5. This is wonderful stuff. I had the good fortune of growing up near the Milwaukee Mile, and saw my first race there in 1947 at the ripe age of 6. My father and I went home afterwards and we caught heck from my mom for having the Mile dirt all over us. It was grand.

    When I was able to navigate myself, I would head to the track any time the sound of a race car pierced the air. The atmosphere was a lot different then, as fans were allowed in the pits after a race and drivers and crew were cordial. (The cordiality was no doubt helped by the open consumption of Milwaukees most famous product at the time.)

    A few of the names I recall with fondness Jimmy Bryan, Jack McGrath, Tony Bettenhausen, Walt Falkner, Chuck Stevensom and Johnny Parsons among others. Bill Vukovich drove there once, for Al Dean in 1954 after Jimmy Bryan got so beat up in the 500 he was not fit for Milwaukee.

    This post is my introduction to Jack Matte. I have to wonder if a y of his descendants are still in the Milwaukee area.

  6. It would be interesting to learn what became of his wife and children after his death.
    Given the times, they may of had a hard time.

    • I share your sentiments, John; wondering, too, what life had in store for Jack Mattis’ family after he died in that crash in what was meant to be his last day of car racing . We know Jack’s daughter, Ruth, died in 1931, when she was ten years-old and was buried beside her father, her name etched into the stone next to her father’s name on what then became their mutual headstone. Jack’s wife, who is also pictured in the group photograph (number 2 above), standing just to the left of the mechanic in white overalls, must have struggled mightily after the death of both her husband and her daughter, to raise her son. To forego the danger that we readily assumed when we were young and didn’t have our own family to provide for is one of the demarcations of becoming an adult; sadly not everyone is able to make the transition. And what, we might ask, is the value of the glory gained in the arena compared to the experience of being at home for one’s children through those tender formative years of their lives?

    • That is the sad side of this story. He left two kids with no father and his wife with no husband. I grew up loving anything automotive and especially race cars. But now as an old man I wonder how many lost there lives for the love of racing. I still love the cars though.

  7. Thank you for a good look at one of “other racing’s” people and their car! So much of history is written about the “official” racing events, cars, drivers, and their records. But there was a whole other side to racing. The local stuff. Fairground circuits, clubs, and crazy risk takers that ran on shoe-string budgets.
    When I was getting into this antique automobile hobby as a kid still in school, the third antique car of mine was a model T speedster. It opened a lot of doors for me. Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a lot of the surviving race drivers from that “other” racing were alive and well. When I went places in my speedster, people came up and told me wonderful stories of their “days of racing”. One, pulled an old photo from his wallet, and showed it to me. Amazingly enough, the car in his photo was almost a dead ringer to mine right down to the 1917 Studebaker gasoline tank which he could identify! One of my mentors had raced model Ts in that era also. I loved hearing the stories, what they built, close calls they survived. I miss the days of talking with people that were THERE.

  8. His name is actually Jack Mattes. He is buried in Saint Adalberts Cemetary in Milwaukee. A photo of his gravestone which can be viewed online shows that a daughter Ruth Mattes (1921-1931) is buried with him.

    Jack Mattes is also mentioned in an article on the Milwaukee Mile in the 1920s for the Harry A. Miller Club (dated Spring 2018 and viewable online). This article mentions that he had been driving a car owned by Grover Horn in 1924. The accident which fatally injured Mr Mattes is also described.

    • No doubt the little girl in the car in the first picture would be Ruth Mattes. Kind of breaks your heart knowing she only made it to 10 and her Daddy wasn’t around. As Dad of a 3 year old at age 57 , I am glad we live in the age now of modern medicine… though of course even that is no guarantee My Grandfather was born in 1900 and my grandmother around 1903. I had a great Aunt ( the prettiest one ) die hitting her head in Los Angeles when she had a seizure and fell, one who drowned in a canal, and one who died after choking on a dry bean and having it become lodged in his airway….

      The good old days were not always “the good old days ” …… Anyway , My Model T Speedster is a 1926 , to drive those cars the way they did , they had to have Iron Balls and a unique outlook on life , my first accident on my dirt bike in the Philippines at age 53 breaking my Proxinal humerus in three places made me sell my street bike in the USA. I figured having been riding since the age of 17 with no accidents, and then having that one, It was time . Two months later my wife was pregnant with our son. Timing is everything…lol…..

  9. From Jacob “Jack” Mattes’ obituary:

    Jacob “Jack” Mattes
    BIRTH 1896
    DEATH 30 Aug 1927 (aged 30–31)
    Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, USA
    Saint Adalberts Cemetery
    Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, USA
    PLOT Section 13 Block 3 Lot 19SW
    MEMORIAL ID 47446714 · View Source

    Jack Mattes Milwaukee automobile racer. was killed Tuesday afternoon and Patrolman William Tetzlaff was seriously injured when the big car driven by Mattes crashed through the fence during the races at State Fair park.
    Mattes was driving a Fronty Ford equipped with a super charger to increase the speed. He was coming out of the turn at the north end of the track on the last lap of a 10-mile race when the accident happened. Mattes was in third place.
    As he came out of the turn, the spectators saw the car leave the road in a cloud of dust and tear into the fence, knocking the policeman to the ground.
    Mattes who was driving a new car Tuesday, generally carried a pair of baby shoes on the front springs of his car as a luck charm. In Tuesday’s race these shoes were not attached.
    Mattes was employed by an automobile sales company and had left home Tuesday morning declaring it was to be his “last race” that he would retire from the auto racing career that has made him a familiar figure to thousands of Wisconsin residents.”

    …..I suppose some of us will always wonder which of his children’s baby shoes Jack tied to his car for good luck and what became of his wife and the little boy we see in the photo, sitting next to his father in his dad’s race car.

  10. Not much comfort for Jack and the co-driver – I can’t see any seat cushions. Love his collared shirt and tie as well!

    • Given that in the last photo there’s barely room for his son, it must’ve been really cozy with the mechanic aboard altho the seats are offset somewhat. No seat cushions and no seat back to speak of plus with your legs essentially out straight like you were sitting on the floor must’ve made steering the car difficult while trying to hang on at the same time. There’s a grab handle for the mechanic’s right hand on the cowl, presumably there’s another on the left as well. Likely the mechanic’s left arm wrapping around the drivers back helped keep the driver in place.

      Perhaps the tie is so you can tell which is the driver.

  11. Great history. Dad was friends with many Staff people of the Dowmetal Division. Dow bought 2 Stanley Steamers in this era to see what parts could be made of Dowmetal vs aluminum. They were in a plant warehouse until about 1955 and sold the Dow Chemical
    Power House manager. He also bought a near mint 1931 AA Ford dump truck.

  12. I concur with “Tin Indian” that the last name should be “Mattes.” His full name was actually Joseph John Mattes, and he went by both John and Jack. I was able to find his correct first name in both the 1900 U.S. Census.

    Mattes was born in Wisconsin to John G. and Elizabeth Mattes in July 10, 1892. Circa 1901 the family moved to Hot Springs, South Dakota where his father owned a lumber yard. His mother died in 1905. In 1910 he was 17, and he was still attending school. What Mattes did between completing school and 1914 is unclear. Perhaps he want to college? His father and one of his sisters moved back to Milwaukee about 1913, but Jack is not with them there. He next shows up in Chicago where he worked for Morand Brothers, which was a liquor distributor, as a bookkeeper from at least 1914 to 1917.

    Whether Mattes volunteer or was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1917 is unclear. He served as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 315th Ammunition Train which was part of the 90th Division. Mattes sailed for France on Christmas Eve 1917, he served in France, and he returned to the United States in mid 1919. The ammunition trains were responsible for bringing ammunition to the front line units via primarily trucks and wagons.

    After the war Mattes moved back to Milwaukee where by 1922 he was a machinist or mechanic, and he appears to have jobs around the automobile industry until his death. He and his wife had four children. In the photo above are his wife Margaret, his son Howard, and his daughter Ruth. They couple later had another son Jerome, and another daughter Bernadine.

    After Mattes’ death, his wife remained at their home until 1934. I was unable to quickly find out whether she remarried or simply moved elsewhere. I think it is likely that she remarried as her youngest child was only four years old in that year. It appears that their oldest son served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWII, and he later served in the U.S. Air Force. Their other son served in the U.S. Navy during WWII, and he was later a salesman and a mechanic. Their youngest daughter was a clerk. All three of the surviving children lived in the Milwaukee area for many years.

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