by Bob Blake

Summer…that mystical time for vacations, 4th of July picnics, and travel! (Somehow we forget the crawly bugs and pesky mosquitoes!)  Before the automobile, the “universe” of most Americans extended only twenty-five miles from home. Mountain folks rarely ventured beyond the next hollow and few Piedmont Carolina textile workers ever saw the ocean.

American society creaked and groaned as the automobile stretched the travel boundaries. A display in a Blowing Rock, N.C. hotel describes the twenty mile trek up the mountain from nearby Lenoir as a day’s journey in 1910! Now it takes less than 40 minutes over smooth roads!

As men and women began to drive… and park together… ministers preached the automobile as the “the decay of moral society!” Gone were the watchful eyes and ears of the father hovering in the next room!

Historic/Visitor/Camping 1920’s Car Camping

Roads limited travel. A hundred years ago, 90% were primarily dirt. Only disjointed segments of rough pavement existed for another decade.  The First World War shook our nation into the necessity of a strong and reliable transportation network. Gradually the federal government laced major routes into a nationwide highway system.

Camping in a tent was a necessity in the early days…and now it is a popular option! The difference: motels did not exist!  Ingenious motorists adapted their car for sleeping and eating, much like their ancestors did with the covered wagon. As America flocked to the great outdoors, the National Park Service was created in 1916.

Between 1915 and 1924, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs adopted the name Four Vagabonds, and began a series of summer automobile camping trips. They visited Florida and the wild Everglades on their first journey. 

As automobiles became more reliable, Americans cut their strings to small towns and villages. A few stout souls blazed automobile trails 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 alone in a creaky Winton. History doesn’t tell us how he got home.

North Carolina roads vastly improved in the 1920s under the administration of Governor Cameron Morrison. His foresight for reliable routes gained him the nickname of the “Good Roads Governor.”

Despite federal mandates and dollars, years passed before America had a paved link coast to coast. The Lincoln Highway, connectingNew York and San Francisco, was finished in 1927 and Route 66 (Chicago to Los Angeles) in 1932. The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940.

President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation in 1956 to begin our interstate highway system. His memoirs reflect this network as one of his most important achievements. This interlacing web of concrete roads continues to expand as major state roads are brought up to federal standards.

Despite the gas prices and crowded roads, two-thirds of Americans drive on their vacation. The flirtatious love affair with the automobile continues – America bought 17 million of them last year!