The very first Model "T" automobile rolled off Henry Ford's assemblyline in Michigan on September 17, 1908. I rolled off the assemblyline just about 25 years later on December 13, 1932. In that quarter-century, auto travel took America by storm. Although progress in auto travel came very quickly, a trip by car was still quite an adventure when I was little.
Several times, in the preceding pages, I have mentioned trips I made with Mom and Dad. Let's talk about a typical journey to Iowa where my Mom's relatives lived.
In our family, at least, such a trip would begin long before daybreak since we had a long way to go. Despite the "crack of dawn" getaway, it still took almost two full days to reach Uncle Raymond's farm in eastern Iowa. By today's standards, highway travel in the 1930's was slow. There were no freeways or interstates. We traveled on U.S. Route 40 --- a mostly two-lane road that went through the heart of every town and village along the way. And out in the country, if we got behind a slow-moving truck, our speed slowed to a crawl until Dad could find a safe place to pass.
Mom and Dad made the same trip every summer. They had worked out the routine completely. They knew where the better roadside diners were. And they generally spent the night in the same town somewhere in Indiana in a "tourist home."
There were some features along the way that have long since vanished from the American scene. On the farms, for instance, a frequent sight would be a nicely painted red barn. They were painted by the Mail Pouch Tobacco company ... a purveyor of chewing tobacco. In return for painting the barn, the company got the right to decorate the side that faced the highway with a huge sign that read "Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco." It was a good deal for the farmer and for the Mail Pouch people.
By far the cleverest roadside advertising gimmick was devised by Burma Shave, the shaving cream people. Burma Shave signs first appeared in 1925. So, by the time I was old enough to be aware of them in the 1930's, their signs were a very commonplace roadside feature. A series of five signs were planted beside the road --- spaced about 100 feet or so apart. Burma Shave signs were everywhere and always similar: a little 4-line poem or saying of some sort with the fifth sign simply saying "Burma Shave" in fancy script letters. The example here is an actual rhyme. Believe it or not, those signs catapulted an obscure company into national prominence. Only after super-highways were built in the 1960's did the Burma Shave sign fade into history.
Eating on the trip was done at locally owned restaurants and
diners along the way. National restaurant chains ... Howard Johnson's, McDonald's, Burger King, and so on ... simply didn't exist yet. So meals for the auto traveler were a chancy proposition --- sometimes the food and service were great; sometimes awful; frequently, somewhere in between. Seasoned travelers had their favorite places to stop to eat. In a strange town, Mom and Dad would drive slowly down the main street and if they spotted something promising, they'd park and give the place a closer look. If Mom and Dad thought the "place looked okay" that's where we ate. Otherwise, it was back in the car to look some more.
There weren't any "motels" either. Not by that name, at least. There were "tourist cabins" and "tourist homes." Larger towns had hotels but they charged prices Mom and Dad couldn't afford. My folks, as I said, had a favorite tourist home somewhere in Indiana and that's where we stayed for the night. Next morning, it was up before daybreak again and on to Keosauqua, Iowa where my Uncle Raymond and Aunt Grace lived.
Getting gasoline was a little different than it is today, too. That was especially the case in small towns along the way. Gasoline pumps were exactly that ... pumps with a handle. The gas station attendant would pump the handle up and down until a glass container on the top had the amount of fuel the customer wanted. Then he put the hose in the car's gas tank, opened a valve and let the gas pour in. The service station attendant really gave you service. He would check the water in your radiator, wash your windshield and check the oil in the engine --- all for free. And all that service was important, too. Cars weren't as well made as they are today. The engines burned oil and radiator water evaporated and needed refilling from time to time. And, he would check the tire pressure. The tourist's biggest worry were the tires. Nowadays, tires are so well made that they seldom go bad. But, in the mid-30's if we made the trip to Iowa and back without a flat tire, we counted our blessings.
Some travel, of course, didn't involve such a great distance. Now
and then, we would just "go for a Sunday drive." Silver Spring isn't that far from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. And a popular one-day trip involved travel along a stretch of road called "Skyline Drive" which overlooks the Shenandoah Valley. In the Fall, when the leaves on the mountain trees begin to turn yellow and red, the Skyline Drive was very popular. Mr. and Mrs. Jones and their son Jimmy lived around the corner from us in Silver Spring. They would sometimes make the outing with us.
Jimmy's parents always bought Chevrolets ... Mom and Dad were partial to Fords. So Jimmy and I would occasionally argue over which car was better. It was a debate we never settled, especially since neither one of us had the slightest idea what we were talking about. (Actually, Packards and Cadillacs were a whole lot better than either Fords or Chevvies. But they were way out of our price range so we never debated their merits at all.)
There is one more thought about car trips I need to talk about. What did a 6-year-old boy do for amusement on a long journey? Simple. He used his eyes to watch the scenery as it passed by. And his ears to listen to what his Mom and Dad would talk about. You learned a lot that way.
Through the car window, we would see corn crops growing in rich, black dirt in the Midwest, or streets paved with ancient brick in Cumberland, Maryland. In Indianapolis, Indiana I marveled at electric "trolley busses" --- sort of a cross between a bus and streetcar. Ohio had lots of road construction and detours everywhere it seemed --- that state in the 30's was building roads with Federal money under the WPA program.
Railroad tracks ran beside Route 40 in many places so this little boy would scan the horizon in search of a train that might pass by. And, of course, there were always the Burma Shave signs to read. We didn't have Walkmans or portable TV sets. We didn't even have a car radio. But boring to a child? Not a chance!
As I said, car travel was an adventure.