Tales of campgrounds and one dollar soup in Denny Gibson‘s new book Tracing a T to Tampa are richly illustrated snapshots of a road trip in 1920. But this book is also the story of one mans quest for a family connection. It piqued my interest, and provided a bit of road trip inspiration.
The Great American Road Trip
I met Denny Gibson more years ago than I care to count during a Route 66 adventure. As it turned out, aside from a fascination with the many facets of iconic Route 66, we also shared an interest in the pioneers that traveled the country when the automobile was on the cusp of putting old Dobbins out to pasture for good.
For the first time in history, people were free of railroad time tables and schedules. Sure, an automobile owner may have had to contend with breakdowns and flat tires while traveling. But unlike the horse, when not in use the automobile cost nothing. That was one of the advantages noted by Ransom E. Olds in an 1892 interview.
The travels of pioneering “automobilists” appear epic to the modern driver on a cross country trip. Available services before 1915 were minimal at best. Popular guide books listed pages of suggested equipment that should be carried including a pistol and chicken wire to use in sand. And what passed for “highways” in rural areas were little changed from the era of the Oregon Trail.
As an example here this is a reprint of a letter written in 1920 from Denny’s book. “We are now fifty miles from Nashville. Frank is so cold he had to stop and warm. It was 18 degrees above this morning. We decided as it was 11 o’clock we would stop and eat dinner. We ate two bowls of soup each and it cost us $1.00. We aready to start if we can decide which way to go.”
Imagine that. Eighteen degrees and a Model T touring car with no windows aside from the windshield, and no heater. No uniform signage, just arrows and occasionally stripes painted on a telegraph pole indicating Dixie Highway, Jefferson HIghway or another named road.
Dawn of A New Era
Counted among the many things that fascinate me about this era is the speed with which the automobile was adapted. In 1903, Dr. Jackson became the first person to drive an automobile from coast to coast. It took him 62 days.
In 1893, the Duryea brothers of Springfield, Massachusetts launched the first automobile manufacturing company in the United States. Three years later a Duryea Motor Wagon was given top billing as a curiosity at the Barnum & Bailey Circus. But in 1900 the first automobile show in the country was held in New York City, and vehicles from 35 manufacturers were on display.
A steam powered car built by the Stanley brother’s was driven to a speed record of nearly 150 miles per hour in 1906.Leading carriage and wagon builders such as Studebaker began to transition into the production of automobiles.
And with the passing of each year, the number of automobilists grew. In 1915, Edsel Ford and Emily Post were just two of the more than 20,000 that drove to the Panama Pacific Exposition in California.
Blurring The Line
For the early road tripping motorists the line was blurred between past and present. But we must remember, a forty year old man that took to the road in 1920, was born in 1880. That was just a few years after the Battle of the Little Big Horn. And it was six years before Geronimo surrendered.
So, camping was simply a part of the traveling experience. As Gibson’s book illustrates, travelers camped and to capitalize on the growing number of travelers city’s often established municipal campgrounds.
“It was so cold. We are hunting a place to camp. Will put up for the nights as soon as we can and try to warm up. We found a school house and they let us in. We had good coal fire. Had a rabbit we shot for dinner and say we did warm ourselves good. Carrys slept in the school house, but we slept in the machine. We were good and warm.”
I can highly recommend Denny’s book if you have an interest in the pioneering motorist. And if you are a fan of road trips, and need a bit of inspiration, it will be a welcome addition to the library.