By Bob Blake
Before the automobile, the “universe” of most Americans extended only twenty-five miles. Mountain folks rarely ventured beyond the next hollow and few Piedmont Carolina textile workers ever saw the ocean. A display in a Blowing Rock, N.C. hotel describes the twenty mile trek from nearby Lenoir as a day’s journey!
American society creaked and groaned as the automobile stretched the travel boundaries. The 17 million automobiles that rolled off the lines in 2015 expanded it further. Travel time from Lenoir to Blowing Rock is now a half hour!
As men and women began to drive… and park together, some ministers preached the automobile as the decay of moral society. The watchful eyes and ears of the father hovering in the next room were gone!
Roads were a limiting factor. Some 90% of the U.S. roads were dirt before 1905 and only spotty pavement existed for another ten years. The First World War awakened congress to a strong transportation network and it placed major routes under a federal highway system.
Camping in a tent was a necessity in the early days…now it is a popular option! The difference: no motels a hundred years ago! More ingenious motorists adapted their car for sleeping and eating, as their ancestors did with the covered wagon. As America flocked to the great outdoors, the National Park Service was created in 1916.
Americans slowly began to cut their strings to small towns and villages. A few stout souls blazed an automotive trail across the country, changing tire after tire, replacing clutch after clutch and humming “In my Merry Oldsmobile” all the way. A fearless man drove a 1901 Olds from the Detroit factory to New York for the nation’s first auto show. In 1903, a Vermont doctor, H. Nelson Jackson, spent two months crossing the United States in a Winton. I suspect he yelled to his partner, “I’m just going out to make a few house calls!”
Despite this federal mandate and dollars, it took years to complete the first paved links across America. The Lincoln Highway between New York and San Francisco was completed in 1927 and Route 66 (Chicago to Los Angeles) in 1932. The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940.
Florida’s warm sunshine and white sand beaches beckoned travelers. Many visited in “homebuilt” trailers with plywood sides and canvas tops. By 1919, a loosely organized group had gathered at Tampa’s De Sota Park and became known as the “Tin Can Tourists”. The name was not derived from the metal trailers but referred to their food…much of it from tin cans. These containers packed well and were swapped or bartered among the residents. The president of the club was the Royal Can Opener!
Next issue…the advent of motels and interstates!