In 1908 (or 1909, or 1910… accounts differ) J.C. Clay had an epiphany. He was fascinated with automobiles and decided to bet his future on them. Already in his 50s, it wouldn’t seem like a time to start a new venture, but he did. No one knows exactly when people started calling him “Dad” Clay, but he solidified that moniker by building Dad Clay’s Garage. It was the first automobile service center in the state. It grew to include car dealerships for a time and a taxi company. Proving that he was a man way ahead of his time, he built an underground parking area beneath the garage.
Dad Clay was elected the “good roads” chairman of the Idaho State Automobile Association. He took that job seriously. He began marking roads, much as Charlie Sampson did in the Boise area. Sampson started out painting advertising signs about his music business. Clay erected hundreds of black and orange signs all over Southeastern Idaho giving the mileage to his Idaho Falls garage. In 1914, Dad Clay published the first guide to Idaho’s 5,500 miles of roads. It was a big hit with auto enthusiasts, though at least one resident of Pocatello accused him of discriminating against the Gate City by routing travelers around it.
Running Idaho’s first garage wasn’t enough to keep Dad Clay busy, though. He was involved in real estate development, a coal mine, Teton Light and Power, a security firm, and managed the Idaho Falls baseball team, the Sunnylanders. Clay was also a well-known golfer locally. He once famously bet his false teeth on the outcome of a match.
Dad Clay’s love for automobiles got him in trouble at least a couple of times. He was carjacked once, turning the tables on the bad guys. Here’s a link to that story. He was well known for driving full speed wherever he went. That was to his detriment in April of 1914 when he caused a three-car collision on the outskirts of Firth. A Studebaker was dawdling along in front of Dad Clay, who was driving his Hupmobile. A Ford was coming the other direction, but Clay was sure he could make it, so he swung around the Studebaker. What caused the wreck wasn’t exactly clear, but Clay hit the Studebaker, then the Ford, throwing the eight passengers in the three cars all over the road. Clay received a broken arm and everyone else had cuts and bruises. A judge determined that the accident was Dad Clay’s fault. The occupants of the other cars vowed to sue him. The results of that lawsuit, if one did come about, are unknown.
At age 87, Clay sold his garage to a nephew. He passed away the next year on a trip to California at age 88.