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The Risks of Recreational Travel (USA, 1904)

Mr. and Mrs. J. F. Miller (source Technical World magazine, Oct 1914)

When writing Recreational Vehicles: A World History, I often wondered why America, at the start of the twentieth century, with its long history of 'houses on wheels', its strength in innovation, its beautiful scenery and its affluence, was relatively slow (compared to the UK and France) to adopt the motorized RV. Although there are records of US 'hunting cars' from about 1904 and touring limousines from 1909, the motorized RV movement did not really take off until tent trailers became widely available in the mid 1910s.

Below is an edited extract from Technical World Magazine of October 1904 where the experiences of Mr. and Mrs. J.F. Miller offer some answers. Although Mr. and Mrs. Miller traveled 2,000 miles in a standard automobile rather than an RV, their story sheds some light on why few others would be unlikely to risk following their example in 1904.

Hindrances to Cross-Country Auto Tours

"What are the principal hindrances to the enjoyment of a cross-country automobile tour taken purely as a pleasure pursuit under existing conditions in America?

"To answer this question, Mr. J.F. Miller of the American School of Correspondence at Armour Institute of Technology, made a 2,000-mile trip from Chicago to Syracuse, N.Y. and return. Mr. Miller took with him a lady companion – his wife – and their joint opinions on the subject will doubtless be interesting to America's growing army of women automobile enthusiasts, as well as to the men.

"Following is a summary of the objectionable conditions mentioned by them, arranged in order of their importance:

FIRST – The animosity of the rural and urban populace toward automobiles and automobilists, resulting from vituperative newspaper comments, which are ever taken seriously by the countryman.

SECOND – The unjust, partial, and prejudicial laws of many States, counties and towns, attributable solely to the ignorance of the lawmakers regarding the automobile, its perfect control, and its great benefits to the people in general.

THIRD – Bad roads and bridges, and poor laws that prevent the building and maintenance of better ones.

FOURTH – Difficulties, in sparsely settled districts, of obtaining supplies, and the inferior grades of those that are obtainable.

FIFTH – Parsimony of automobile agents, repair men, and supply houses, manifested in their charging exorbitant prices to automobilists on tour.

SIXTH – Ignorance of rural residents regarding automobiles and the persons who operate them, caused by the scarcity of automobiles owned by persons outside of the cities.

SEVENTH – Improper provision for long trips by the tourist in not selecting a car best adapted to his needs, and in not providing the necessary supplies and provisions before starting.

"Threats of being shot; their way blocked; many times impeded by obstructions wilfully placed in their road; insulted and uncivilly treated in innumerable instances – these were occurrences of the trip that go to prove an unfriendliness towards the automobilist on the part of the traditionally kind-hearted farmer.

Hunting Automobilists

"In their tour in a 16hp Rambler, Mr. and Mrs. Miller had an opportunity of experiencing the conditions in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. They found those of New York and Illinois the worst, as regards the unfriendly laws, bad roads, and uncivil treatment. Just as they were entering New York State, the automobilists accidentally turned into a side road. There they encountered a farmer with a shotgun who told them that if they did not immediately turn round and go back he would shoot, as they were traversing a private thoroughfare. The tourists obeyed.

"In Illinois the automobile was stoned by hoodlums near the Indiana state line, and a missile fell in the machine at Mrs. Millers feet. Along a seldom traveled road in Pennsylvania, news of the tourists' progress was telephoned ahead, and some farmer youths further on placed a mound of obstructions in the road, in the hope of halting the machine, possibly for the purpose of inspecting it more closely. Mr. Miller climbed over the obstructions with his machine, and from the underbrush a dozen heads bobbed up in bewilderment. The couple stopped for lunch at a farm house beyond. While they were dining, another hill of timbers and trees was thrown across the road, which forced the occupants to alight while Mr. Miller cleared the way. In passing through small towns, vile epithets were often hurled at the travelers when they chanced to pass drivers of horses, without recognition of the care manifested by Mr. Miller to prevent scaring the animals.

"Mrs. Miller said: "In many sections we traversed, the people seemed to look upon us as some horrid monsters whom all should hate. We could not get a civil response to our questions, and in one district in Pennsylvania the people began to sound the alarm of our coming as if the territory had been invaded by a real dragon or by outlaws. They gathered about the car, intercepted our progress by various methods, and really for a time we considered ourselves in peril."

"Mr. Miller attributes the greater part of the unfriendly disposition of the people encountered, to the newspapers, but a large amount of it to the politicians. A judge's advice to shoot automobilists has gained wide circulation in many sections of the country traversed; and from this and other such inflammable printed and oral utterances, the pliable-minded ruralist has come to regard the automobilist as something inhuman or an outlaw. In some places along the route he was told that the farmers had organized to hunt with shotguns for automobilists.

Rope Blockades

"The next most serious hindrance enumerated by Mr. and Mrs. Miller is the unjust laws. They are as freakish as they are varied, and outside of Missouri, those of Illinois and New York probably lead the United States in point of capriciousness. In Illinois the speed limit is 15 miles an hour unless otherwise provided by local ordinance. Drivers must come to a full stop on request of persons driving horses. The maximum fine is $200 or three months imprisonment, or both. The provisions of local ordinances always require a lower speed, as they are such as to form a network of the queerest complications to be found in any civilized land.

"Some of the suburbs around Chicago, when they need money to build a new sidewalk, stretch a rope across a thoroughfare, and arrest every automobilist that passes through, regardless of the speed he is making, fining each an amount necessary to make up the required sum.

One Mile in Three Minutes Speed Limit

"In Pennsylvania, the rate of speed is limited to one mile in three minutes in the country districts, and eight miles and hour in the cities. Of course when a tourist is anxious to make any speed of consequence he is put to considerable inconvenience in a transcontinental trip by bumping into the different laws of the various States and counties and towns. In most of the States that have laws, the chauffeur is required to come to a stop when any person driving a team (of horses) holds up his hand. This would be a good law, probably, but for the mean advantage many persons take of it. Often a bumpkin will hold up his hand, require the car to stop, and then laugh as if he had performed a remarkably funny joke.

No Good Roads in America

"As to the roads it may be said that there are no good ones in America. This country scarcely knows the meaning of the word. That is an important reason as to why cross-country touring cannot be expected for a long time to attain the prominence here it has in Europe. Probably the best roads encountered on the trip were between Elkhart, Ind., and Wauseon, O. They are in many places unusual, being turnpiked, so that the center of the road is considerably higher than the sides. They are smoothly graded and covered with a coating of fine red gravel, making them almost equal to our city boulevards. The trip through the good roads of Ohio and Indiana was exceedingly enjoyable.

"Everywhere I found the automobile owners and automobile clubs actively engaged in movements for good roads. Did they but have the friendship and co-operation of the farmers and general public instead of their blind animosity, good roads and good streets would soon be universal in our country. At Columbus, O., the Automobile Club, a very influential body, recently passed resolutions condemning the city officers for the deplorable conditions of the streets. This condition, which is a great menace to automobilists, is due to the action of the street car companies and gas companies in cutting deep trenches in the streets and failing to fill them properly.

Gasoline Straining

"Mr. Miller relates many experiences of exorbitant prices charged for supplies en route. Prices for storing overnight were as high as $5 for a single night. The tourists emphasize the importance of straining gasoline through chamois skin or some other water-tight substance. On one occasion when Mr. Miller stopped at a small town for a supply of gasoline, the merchant was very indignant when asked that it be strained. He was surprised when half a teacup of water and sediment was taken out of five gallons of gasoline."


In a separate editorial from the same edition of the magazine under the heading of 'France's Liberal Auto Laws', the editor laments:

"France encourages automobiling in contradistinction to the American disposition to derogate its advantages. It is the liberal laws and the leniency in their enforcement which are responsible for the great popularity cross-country motoring has attained in that country which have placed France ahead of all other countries in the manufacture of automobiles and the promotion of motoring... The result of these laws has been the exhibition of rural and urban France to thousands of tourists from all countries, and the exportation of thousands of automobiles to every civilized land... It is, we believe, a false idea of political popularity to cater to the blind and ignorant prejudice that at present exists against the motor vehicle in America."

In the face of shotgun-wielding farmers, road blockades and swearing locals, it is no wonder then, that motorized recreational travel was slow to gain popularity in America at the start of the twentieth century. It would take another decade before the roads of America saw recreational travelers on any scale.

Andrew Woodmansey

July 2022


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