Route 2 in north-central Massachusetts was closed for three hours this past Friday because of an accident just west of Athol, where I live, and all of the holiday weekend traffic got diverted along Main Street of my town and the one next to it. “I kept looking out the window and thinking, boy, there are a lot of campers and trailers going by,” a woman at the pizza place said. “I thought everybody must be coming here for the weekend, but then I realized there was something else going on!”
We don’t usually have major traffic jams here, so this one has been a topic of conversation for the past couple of days. It has struck me, though, that that kind of traffic was probably similar to the way Main Street used to be before it was demoted to Route 2A and a bypass--now the main Route 2--was built in 1957. In fact, at one time Athol was something of a magnet for auto tourism, in the days when public “autocamps” catered to newly mobile Americans in search of both automobility and the great outdoors.
Farmers and others whose fields and roadsides became impromptu campsites were less enthusiastic, and by the 1920s, a network of somewhat more formal—although still rustic—autocamps had developed across the U.S. to service the growing numbers of car tourists. One of the first of these camps in New England was on Route 2A (then Route 2) in Athol, opened in 1921 in a pine and hemlock grove at the top of a long hill that leads into the town from the east. Like other municipal auto camps, it was intended at least in part to boost the town’s image by providing a free amenity to people from outside the area.
It appears to have done this quite effectively. A local paper reported favorable comments by many 1924 campers: “This is the best treatment that has been offered to us by any New England town,” one visitor wrote in the guest book. “Thanks Athol,” wrote another. “You are a wide awake burg.” By this time, the American Automobile Association estimated that there were between 10 and 20 million autocampers on the American roads each year (Belasco, p. 74), and people were becoming better-informed about the more desirable camping spots, as well as more discriminating about services offered. Cars from 48 American states were spotted in the Athol autocamp in 1925, by which time it offered a central kitchen, toilets, running water, and electric lights.
But the Athol autocamp had another side to its existence. The camp was situated on the property of the Town Poor Farm, essentially a home for the indigent and impoverished, who were expected to help defray the cost of their upkeep through labor on what was then a working farm. The Overseers of the Poor also managed the autocamp, as well as selectively harvesting the wooded property on which the Poor Farm and the camp were located; in 1923, about half a million board feet of chestnut and pine timber were cut and sawn, with the money being turned over to the town. (The autocamp and roadside were left forested.) As a combination of tourist facility, social service agency, and farm/forestry program, Athol’s Poor Farm and autocamp seem intriguing and possibly unique.
I’m not necessarily saying we ought to have made a tourist attraction out of these sites, although it’s worth noting that two autocamps in Glacier National Park, Rising Sun and Swiftcurrent, have recently been added to the National Register of Historic Places. And I’m not generally a big fan of replacing real things with plaques and signs telling us what used to be there. But even a small marker at the side of the road might have given those thousands of travelers who passed through town at 10 miles an hour last Friday something to ponder—a little-known layer of the past that might have said to all those Labor Day drivers, “This, too, has a history.”
(NOTE: For information about Athol’s Poor Farm and autocamp, I’m indebted to Dick Chaisson’s incomparable local archive. The images below, taken in November 2009 and February 2010 respectively, show the barn site during and after demolition; Route 2 is at the base of the hill seen in the post-demo photo.)