Sunday, September 5, 2010

Inadvertently recreating car history

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.

Warren Belasco’s 1979 book Americans on the Road: From Auto-Camp to Motel, truly an oldie but a goodie in the academic literature on car culture, chronicles the progression of this fairly short-lived form of auto touring. Because early American automobility was limited to the well-to-do few who could afford cars, and because there was a dearth of paved roads in most of the country, touring by car in the 1910s involved roughing it. Many of the first auto-campers relished the challenges of the road, including the necessity of fixing their vehicles on the go, meeting fellow enthusiasts, seeing the “real” America on their own timetable, and stopping to camp whenever and wherever they wished.

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.

It didn’t take many years for the charm of autocamps to pall. As the comfort of roads and cars improved, a more specialized travel infrastructure began to develop, offering greater privacy and comfort both on the road and off of it. Private camps that charged a fee took over from free municipal camps like Athol’s, while the expansion of the tourist population in the 1920s and 30s caused some unease among motorists who liked the ideal of meeting the “real” America but didn’t necessarily want to camp right next to it. The permanently or inadvertently nomadic—hoboes, gypsies, the unemployed who roamed the roads after 1929 in search of work—threatened the carefree mobility of the auto tourist on a two-week vacation. A group of gypsies who made use of the Athol autocamp in July 1924 was asked to leave when they seemed disposed to stay all summer. “This camping ground and log cabin have become quite popular with tourists, and its privileges must not be abused,” a local paper editorialized. Autocampers also became loaded down with so much impedimenta—like the “Kamp Kook” stoves advertised in an Orange newspaper in 1930—that the experience lost any vestige of the rustic. And growing concerns about the effects of car culture on middle-class families, car and campground safety, cleanliness, noise, and—at bottom—social difference in all its forms prompted a shift toward individual cabins and motor courts that eventually evolved into the familiar motels—including the comfortingly familiar brand-name chains—of today.

Athol’s Poor Farm was occupied until 1951, and the old house and barn still stood on the property until last fall (the shot at left was taken in August 2009). Then, with no public fanfare, both were torn down. The property, which spans the distance between Route 2A and Route 2 right at exit 18, is earmarked for some kind of economic development project, although the town and the owners have not been successful at attracting a developer despite several years of effort. In the meantime, they’ve erased a fascinating piece of local history—not only the Poor Farm itself, but its association with the autocamp that Athol built as a way to attract visitors from among the streams of car tourists traveling through the town in the 1920s.

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.)

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