Auto Mania: Touring and Camping

By the early part of the 20th century, Americans were putting their horses out to pasture and hitting the open road in their shiny automobiles. In 1909, a Mrs. Ramsey and three female companions rolled into Santa Barbara after a 4,800-mile road trip from Hackensack, New Jersey. She became the first woman to pilot a car across the continent without the aid of a man as driver or mechanic. It might have been more impressive, however, if the quartet hadn’t been towed into town; their Maxwell touring car having collapsed on a particularly rough patch of road near Naples. Nevertheless, the intrepid foursome conquered many perilous roads on their way west and reached San Francisco in 40 days.

Muddy roads and river crossings weren’t the only hazards of motor travel. Though travel by stagecoach was a thing of the past, highway robbery was not. In July 1920, four automobile stages headed for Yosemite Valley were held up by a bandit wearing overalls, a miner’s shirt, and a flour sack over his head. The outlaw had thrown a log across the road and hidden in the bushes. When the four caravanning auto stages stopped at the barrier, he emerged brandishing a rifle and demanding wallets. The bandit’s code of honor, however, prevented him from robbing two of the stages, which he found were filled with Boy Scouts from New York.

Closer to home, autoists traveling over a particularly bad stretch of road near Las Cruces cried “highway robbery” at the rates a local rancher charged to assist them in crossing the river where the bridge had washed out. Apparently, he was charging as much as $20 to extricate the stalled cars from the river. The Morning Press reported, “So lucrative has the traffic become that he has kept a man and a team of horses at the bridge daily, waiting for unlucky tourists.”

Promotion of Touring and Camping

Sunset magazine, created by the Southern Pacific Railroad to entice easterners west, recognized the potential of automobile traffic early on. In 1903, the magazine recommended a four-day trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles. In 1913, they published a series called “Autobirds of Passage” which was the record of a motor trip from Mexico to Alaska. In 1916, they offered “Practical Hints for the Motor Camping.”

The Automobile Club of America started providing maps in 1906 and publishing a magazine, Touring Topics, in 1909. Touring Topics (today’s Westways) not only gave autoists ideas for excursions but also promoted auto camping and products through informative articles with titles like “For Nomads of the Open Road” and “Togs and Things for Campers.”

An American humorist cited in the magazine claimed one could acquire all the sensations of camping merely by “sitting comfortably attired in one’s own house with all the screens open, a willing prey to flies and mosquitoes, partaking of canned beans and coffee diluted with canned milk.” Camping enthusiasts, however, couldn’t wait to go “gypsying” and were on the hunt for the perfect camping accessories. American inventors and manufacturers were happy to oblige.

In a 1929 edition of Touring Topics, Opal Haynes recommended the “Dickeybird” tent, which would “prove impenetrable to the most enterprising mosquito. Flies and insects of all sorts might as well not attempt to ‘crash the gate’ of this tent, for the netting door which slides on a rope cable and the six-inch sill are most discouraging to such intruders.” The door even sprang shut automatically.

Tent furnishing ranged from 40-lb. spring beds to 18-lb. steel cots to down sleeping bags with detachable wool blankets. The latter was the choice of the seasoned camper who sometimes augmented the bag with a four-lb. silk air mattress. A radical alternative to the whole tent system was a Pullman conversion of the car that allowed the seats to fold back into a bed.

No camp setup was complete without a folding bathtub and table and chairs. For cooking essentials, Auto Kitchenettes included a two-burner stove, oven, insulated icebox, water bucket, gasoline tank, and cabinet for foodstuffs as well as a separate egg container. The whole kit packed up into a 12”x23”x35” rectangle and the opened door formed a table for four. For those who preferred individual pieces, the Stonebridge Folding Baker or Auto Cook Oven folded into small packages and guaranteed the camper hot biscuits, corn bread, baked potatoes and even broiled meats. For cold water, a device called the Zeronator claimed it would cool water instantly without ice; it looked suspiciously like a cocktail shaker.

Folding chairs, folding canvas buckets, folding candle lanterns, folding pans, folding cots – they all were designed to stow neatly on the running boards of the camper’s car.

The names of early manufacturers of camping equipment have mostly faded from our memories, but the Coleman Company is still going strong after more than one hundred years. Founded by W.C. Coleman in 1901, the company originally sold lanterns to rural areas where electricity was unavailable or unreliable. Though Coleman did not invent the Efficient Lamp, which operated by pressurized gas and used mantles instead of wicks, he bought the patent and improved it. He came out with a portable table lamp version in 1909, and when the car camping craze took off in the late 1910s and early 1920s, sales soared.

In 1923, Coleman invented the fold-up camp stove, the grandfather of the self-lighting, propane-fueled version of today. The Coleman Company actively promoted camping by providing a 64 page “Coleman Motor Camping Manual” by Frank Brimmer.

The manual sold for 25¢ and was filled with advice on what to bring along, how to select a campsite, etc. As time passed, the Coleman Company continued to add products to its camping line.

Camping in an Empire 6

Despite hundreds of devices to make it easier, car camping was no picnic. For one thing, the roads into the wilderness were extremely primitive.

When Albert Schuler, general manager of Santa Barbara’s Home Telephone and Telegraph Company, loaded his new Empire 6 roadster with 300 pounds of camping and fishing gear in May 1916 and took off for San Marcos Pass, he had high hopes that the powerful car would conquer all obstacles. With him were Carl Geiser, Oscar W. Smith, a reporter for the Morning Press, and Smith’s son, Dale. That evening the muscular car negotiated the tortuous San Marcos Road to reach the summit in 42 minutes, a new record. Smith later wrote that he was astonished at the “ease with which the big car rounded the difficult turns and took the steep grades.”

The party was headed for a fishing trip on the north side of the San Rafael range behind Los Olivos. By the time they reached the road up Zaca Creek, however, it was dark and the road difficult to find. The fact that a farmer had planted barley over a section of the road didn’t help. After several false turns in barley high enough to cover the hood of the car, they found the road again only to become mired in mud father up the canyon due to a broken irrigation pipe.

Extricating themselves from the mud, they next had to find the nearly invisible road up the ridge east of Zaca Peak. Smith reported, “In places the road ran alongside the hill at such an angle that it was necessary for the three passengers to lean out on the inside running board to keep it from rolling down the bank.

Eventually they reached a pine forest not far from the summit and pitched camp about three miles from Ranger’s Peak in the Santa Barbara (today Los Padres) National Forest.

The next morning the fishermen continued on foot to Fir Canyon and Davy Brown Creek and caught their limit of rainbow trout. Returning to the mighty Empire 6 at dusk, they loaded up the car and headed back for Santa Barbara, racing a jackrabbit half way down the trail. In his report Oscar Smith enthused, “The country is one of the most ideal camping grounds in the southern part of the state …. (and) the Empire 6 was really marvelous.”

Sources: (contemporary news articles, Coleman Company website)