“The best commentary on the road between Santa Fe and Albuquerque is that it took us less than three hours to make the sixty-six miles, whereas the seventy-three miles from Las Vegas to Santa Fe took us nearly six.” Emily Post, By Motor to The Golden Gate, 1916. The first coast to coast trip by automobile occurred in 1903. In 1909 factories in America manufactured more than 825,000 horse drawn vehicles compared to 125,000 automobiles. And yet in 1915, the year that Emily Post and Edsel Ford followed the National Old Trails Road to see the scenic wonders of the southwest on their journey to the west coast, more than 20,000 people from outside the state of California arrived at the Panama Pacific Exposition by automobile. Needless to say, it was an era of rapid transition.
For a number of years I have been gathering information on the infancy of the American auto industry, the rise of the Good Roads movement and the named highways with the intention being the writing of a book about this period of dramatic societal evolution. That was the subject of a presentation made last October at the site of what I had been led to believe would become the Hackett Auto Museum in Jackson, Michigan. And as Jackson and the surrounding area was at the heart of an industrial boom that included more than 25 automobile manufacturers during the first decades of the 20th century, the trip was also about research.
One of the contacts made during this trip was Russell Rein who has been documenting the history of the named highways for many, many years. He is also a passionate student of the history of a leading manufacturer in Jackson, Sparks-Wirthington. This company was the largest manufacturer of automobile horns in the world during the teens, and later became a leading producer of radios and pioneer in television development as well as manufacturing. In 1915, Clifford and Harry Sparks, sons of one of the company founders, set out from Chicago to San Francisco in a new Ford truck putting up road signs that were a public service as well as an advertising campaign. The signs read, “Safety First – Sound Sparton.”
Fast forward to this past Friday. For several years I have been in discussion with Don Gray, a fellow with an interesting family history. The chapter of that history that spans the period 1910 to 1930 is chronicled in an extensive collection of family photos. Yesterday we finally had the opportunity to meet and to peruse his collection during a visit with Andy Sansom, the archivist at the Mohave Museum of History & Arts in Kingman, Arizona.
All of the materials in his collection were fascinating. As an example, one photo was of his grandfather, on a Michaelson motorcycle at the Padre Canyon Bridge that was under construction at the time. That would be 1914. And then we came to a photo taken on the National Old Trails Road between Ash Fork and Williams, Arizona. One lady in the photograph was standing next to a Sparton sign!
Needless to say the new presentation about the National Trails Road developed for spring and summer 2020 will be revised before its debut in Needles, California on February 7. And it looks like a new chapter in the 5 Minutes With Jim audio podcast series about the National Old Trails Road has been added.
Meanwhile the search continues. I will be meeting with Don Gray again son. And I will be returning to Jackson this year for more research and a series of presentations that is in development.
Before I40, before Route 66, people got their kicks on the National Old Trails Road in the southwest. That is a story that needs to be told. It has adventure. It has adventurers like Edsel Ford, Emily Post and Ezra Meeker. It has famous and colorful people like Buffalo Bill Cody, Harry Truman and Louis Chevrolet. It has auto racing, serial killers and pioneering automobile manufacturers giving their vehicles a bit of real world testing.