Old Car Festival shows off early auto touring

DEARBORN — Today, people traveling in motor homes can park for the night at most Walmart stores. But what about those who hit the roads a century or so ago, back before big box stores, in fact, before there were formal campgrounds?

“It’s perfectly fitting that we’re parked here next to Scotch Settlement School,” said Daniel Hershberger, an expert on the early days of what was known as “auto touring.”

People camping beside one of the then-new Ford Model Ts could camp for a night or two in most schoolyards, Hershberger added.

“It was permitted in the summertime (when school was out and most people were on vacation),” he said.

“And,” Hersberger added,  “schoolyards had two things that were vital for such travelers.”

And what were those vital things?

An outhouse and a hand-operated water pump.

Hershberger, who lives in Plymouth and works at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, assembled a timeline of examples of early auto touring as part of the 62nd annual Old Car Festival at Greenfield Village. His 1927 Auto Kamp Trailer was one of four early auto camping scenarios set up on the lawn next to the Scotch Settlement School.

The timeline began with a 1914 Ford Model T and lean-to style tent that attached to the car’s roof and spread its shelter over a couple of folding cots. Outside the tent was a folding table and stools, a metal grate for cooking over a campfire, a folding reflective baker for biscuits or bread, and even a Hawkeye refrigerator basket, a tin and asbestos-lined wicker basket with a compartment for ice.

When people got their first car, Hershberger noted, their first thought wasn’t driving to work but being able to get away from city life and going on a vacation and see the countryside and wilderness areas.

Hershberger was born in Pittsburgh but his family moved to Michigan when he was a child so his father could work in the auto industry. Hershberger worked as a graphic designer in the automobile advertising industry, and through his work became interested in roadside advertising and roadside architecture.

He taught at his alma mater, the College for Creative Studies, for 18 years. While preparing a course in the design of gas stations, roadside restaurants and lodging, he got to wondering about how people traveled and where they camped before such structures or even the earliest “tourist courts” were available.

His studies led him to collecting, and to sharing his collection. Although he’s been displaying his collection and making presentations about the early day of motor camping for more than a decade, the Old Car Festival was the first time he presented such a four-scenario timeline.

Parked next to the 1914 Model T was a 1916 Clare Tent Trailer and the 1912 Overland Roadster that n and Nancy Liepelt of Madison, Conn., use to tow it.

Built in Clare in northern Michigan, the tent trailer was a big advancement for auto campers, Hershberger said. For one thing, all gear could be carried in the trailer rather than in or on the car with with traveling family.

The trailer carried a 12×14-foot tent as well as beds and had a built-in ice box tray.

The downside, Hershberger said, was the time needed to set up such a large tent. Clare claimed the big tent could be set up in 10 minutes. Hershberger said that might have been the case for the factory crew, but that most people needed an hour or so to complete the task.

One solution was the Auto Kamp Trailer, which was produced in Saginaw. It featured a fold-out tent (much like today’s pop-up trailers) as well as built-in beds and a cold box drawer.

Hershberger’s is one of only five Auto Kamp Trailers still known to exist. In addition to the built-in equipment, he has collected all sorts of other early camping gear, including a folding bath tub, a folding gramophone and an array of folding furniture produced by the Gold Metal Folding furniture Co. of Racine, Wis.

Hershberger said that Gold Metal produced cots and other equipment for the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American and first World War, needed a new market after WWI ended and turned to the fledgling motor camping hobby.

One of its products was a folding camp chair which we now know as the director’s chair. Hershberger explained that the chair got its new name when Hollywood movie makers left their sound stages and began shooting on location. Directors wanted the most comfortable but portable chairs available and it was the Gold Metal folding camp chair that met their needs.

Speaking of having needs that needed to be met, another solution to the Clare Tent Trailer was created in 1929 after Arthur Sherman of Detroit took his family camping with the Clare camper. It was pouring as Sherman and his family struggled to put up the big tent, so after their adventure in the woods had ended, Sherman returned home and, over the winter, built what we now know as a travel trailer in his garage. He showed his creation at the 1930 Detroit auto show and began taking orders. Soon, he started the Covered Wagon Co. and was building hundreds of travel trailers a year.

During World War II, the company built troop transport bodies for the U.S. Army. After the war, Sherman sold his factory in Mount Clemens.

The Covered Wagon on display at Greenfield Village was Sherman’s original prototype that he used for his own family and was on loan from the Detroit Historical Society. Hershberger noted that the lawn next to the Scotch Settlement School was only the second public showing of the prototype trailer since 1956.

Larry Edsall
Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at ledsall@cox.net.