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The American Road

June 14 – September 1, 2014

“Road Trip!” These words conjure all sorts of imagery, vivid memories, and nostalgia. Opening June of 2014, the Harley-Davidson Museum’s special exhibition The American Road traces the rise of the road trip as an American ritual. The story unfolds in the 1930s, when leisure travel and the open road offered an escape for a small but growing number of affluent Americans. By the post-WWII years, taking to the road became the template for the average family vacation. “Westward ho!” was their cry, albeit in a station wagon rather than covered wagon, as celebrating the frontier and old west became central to defining uniquely American ideals of freedom and exploration. Though this Golden Age of the road trip ended with the gas crisis of the early ‘70s, the ritual remains a fundamental American experience, evidenced by its place in pop culture as well as the curiosity it sparks globally as motorists and motorcyclists retrace historic routes.

Detour to YouTube to see The American Road Video

Watch Video

The Cleanest of Places

Gas station restrooms have long been the butt of cleanliness jokes. As the comedian George Carlin once wondered, “Why do they lock gas station bathroom doors? Are they afraid someone will clean them?” It is no joke, however, when one needs to visit the restroom on road trips. Since the 1920s many of those necessary stops have been made at gas stations.  

Popular culture maligns the gas station bathrooms for its grime, but at one point they were the epitome of cleanliness. From the mid-1930s to the early-1960s, most oil companies promoted clean restrooms both as a means of attracting customers and keeping them. Gas station owners who joined the clean restrooms programs, and ensured their bathrooms stayed clean, received a sign to hang along the road.

Oil companies took clean bathrooms seriously. Texaco’s Registered Restroom program included spot checks, while Phillip 66’s hired registered nurses. All of the programs sported easy to remember names, such as Union 76’s Sparkle Corps. No matter what the oil company, the inspectors were almost always women.  

The Sparkle Corps, started in the late 1950s, was the last major edition to the era. By that time, the clean bathroom programs were already beginning to disappear.

Aquarama and Roadside Attractions

The American Road, and the views along it, evolved over time.  Natural landscapes gave way to motor courts and service stations as businesses emerged to oblige a new flow of cross-country travelers. By the 1950s and 60s, kooky, mysterious, and just-plain-fun attractions packed the roadside, beckoning tourists with large signs and unique entertainment.

Aquarama, one of these roadside businesses, featured underwater shows, choreographed to music, not to mention live mermaids! It opened in 1964 near the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri modeled on Florida’s famous Weeki Wachee underwater performances. The costume is one of the originals worn by the Aquamaids who, along with the Aqualads, put on three shows a day.

To learn more about Aquarama and other roadside attractions, please visit the Members Only section of our website!

A Q&A with the speakers from The American Road Sampler Series

Jeff Kunkle
Co-founder of Vintage Roadside and roadside historian

It is accurate to say that the road is Jeff Kunkle’s life. He and his partner Kelly started Vintage Roadside as a way to tell the forgotten history of mom and pop businesses – and the people that owned them – that once prospered during America’s golden age of the road trip. While researching these stories, Jeff has amassed a huge roadside history collection. The Vintage Roadside Archive contains over 100,000 artifacts, vintage photographs, prints, and film. Many of the artifacts and photographs that appear in the Harley-Davidson Museum’s The American Road are on loan from the this one-of-a-kind collection.   

Jeff has written history and preservation articles for The National Trust for Historic Preservation, as well as other publications. His vintage and contemporary photographs appear regularly in books and print articles. He operates Vintage Roadside as an archivist of historical materials, a merchandise designer for “businesses with history,” and a conduit for sharing personal road trip stories via the company’s popular Facebook page.

In his upcoming presentation for The American Road Sampler Series, Jeff will be sharing stories and photographs of the road as it appeared during the golden age and as it appears now. Along with the presentation, guests will sample roadside-inspired food and drink. Join us on Saturday, July 26! A limited number of tickets are available.

Q: What is your favorite roadside attraction?
 Man, that's a tough question. They all have that one special thing that makes me love them all. A few random ones I find myself visiting again and again are:

Stewart's Petrified Wood outside of Holdbrook, AZ. I love the incredibly unrealistic dinosaurs and random mannequins.

Confusion Hill up in the Northern California Redwoods. Chainsaw carvings, chipalopes (related to the jackalope) and a gravity-defying mystery house.

The Mid-Missouri Museum of Independent Telephone Pioneers in Blackwater, MO. A small museum in a great little town that includes all of the equipment and items used to provide phone service a few decades ago. Old switchboards, payphones and assorted telephone memorabilia - it's fantastic!

Petrified Creatures Museum of Natural History in Richfield Springs, NY. You can dig for your own fossils! And, it's been there since 1934. We even went here the afternoon of our wedding.

Any giant fiberglass statue. More than once I've rerouted an entire road trip to drive hours out of the way to see some type of giant fiberglass statue. And, a few times it's one I've already seen before!

Q: What have you found are the ingredients of a classic road trip experience?
I think two of the biggest ingredients are a sense of humor and no expectations. There's something incredibly liberating about getting up in the morning, opening an atlas, and choosing a random route to your next destination. Chances are that whatever you pass by will be new to you. It's those stories and photos of the unexpected that usually end up becoming the best memories from a trip. I know I'll never forget the time I ended up spending the night at The Clown Motel in Tonopah, NV. Certainly wasn't something I planned on that morning!

Another thing that I love to do is ask people their stories. From the volunteer at a small town historical society, to the owner of a roadside attraction, it's infectious to hear their passion and the reasons they're there.

Q: What do you think is the best stretch of highway in the United States?
Another tough one! I'd say when most people are asked to name their "ultimate" road trip they'd probably choose Route 66. It really is an amazing journey, people travel from all over the world to drive from Chicago to LA. Several of the business owners I know along the route say that if it wasn't for the international tourists they would have a tough time hanging in there which shows how widespread the appeal of that trip is. It's amazing how the allure of Route 66 has lasted all these decades.

Another incredible trip is the Lincoln Highway. It does have it's dedicated followers, but not nearly the fame that Route 66 has. I've always been floored by how many things from the past are still along this one.

One of my personal favorites is Route 20 across Central New York. We've spent weeks driving back and forth across the state - it's fantastic.

However, one thing I always try to share with people is that you don't have to take a big road trip along these routes to have a great road trip. Even if you're headed down the interstate on a short trip look for those "business loop" exits, and take a leisurely drive through a place you would have missed at 70 mph. Many times these are the pieces of old highway that were bypassed by the interstate. You never know what you'll find!

Q: Are their regional differences in types of roadside attractions?
There are. From alligator themed attractions in Florida to Bigfoot themed attractions in Northern California. For me it's one of the greatest parts of a road trip - knowing you're experiencing something you can't experience anywhere else. It's really a reflection of how most of the roadside businesses used to have that feeling of place before they were replaced by uniformity. It's fun to stand underneath the vintage neon sign advertising the Mountaineer Inn with it's giant neon hillbilly and know you can only be in Asheville, NC. It's that sense of "place" and the feeling you're seeing something that people have been coming to for decades.

Q: Is there a place in the US that you would like to visit, but have not yet?
Right now the top of my list is South Dakota. Tons of roadside dinosaurs, and I really want to visit The Flintstone's Bedrock City in Custer, SD. I have several vintage postcards from there and the costumes the characters wore were amazing. My favorite shows Fred wearing a pair of Converse and Barney is actually wearing jeans under his brown...whatever those things were they wore on The Flintstones were called.

Q: It’s your first time in Milwaukee! Is there some roadside business or attraction you're looking forward to visiting while you’re here?
I've got a huge list, but a few I'm really hoping to see are:

The Grebe's Bakery neon sign.

The Wisconsin Gas Building.

Leon's Frozen Custard.

And, of course, The American Road exhibit at the Museum. I've heard through our Facebook page from people that have seen the exhibit and they're raving about it.

Q: Since you started documenting the roadside, have you noticed a change?
I think there will always be change along the road. We all see it every day in our own neighborhoods, and the old highways are no different. Historic businesses feel that same pressure from development and ever-changing consumer demands. It's devastating to find something you look forward to gone, but for myself, it motivates me to stop and see anything that catches my attention on a trip. We've all had that one thing we see every day that we think will always be there and then one day it's gone. Sadly there's no guarantee of a "next time" for these old places and things.

All the Comforts of Home

In the mid-1920s, leisure car travel grew in popularity and new types of vehicles emerged. House cars and travel trailers became popular with motorists who wanted to experience America in comfort. The vehicles included small kitchens and beds; some even had two rooms.

In the early 1930s, 160,000 travel trailers were bouncing down the road. At the height of its popularity seven years later – and despite the hardships of the Great Depression – nearly 90,000 were constructed. Salesmen used samples such as the one photographed to entice buyers. The samples showed all the comforts of these vehicles.

The travel trailer was fully customizable. From hitches to interior furnishings, buyers and builders had many choices. For example, Aladdin boasted its 18-foot trailer had a “super scientifically insulated refrigerator” and Coleman stove. At a price of $545, the Aladdin cost as much as a new Ford car. If a buyer wanted more features such as more beds or space, the cost went up.

For enthusiasts not wanting to purchase manufactured trailers, they could purchase blueprints to construct their own. The Hammer Blow Corporation of Wausau, Wisconsin – inventor of the ball and socket trailer hitch – was one of many manufacturers that sold plans. In 1936, the company advertised a “Super Deluxe” supplement giving owners of their home-built trailer guide plans for a new streamlined guide. 

Streamlined trailers, in fact, were coming into vogue. So too were streamlined house cars. It had all the comforts of a travel trailer, but it as the early ancestor of the recreational vehicle, the house car was a self-contained vehicle. Like the travel trailer, many early house cars were home built by enterprising devotees. There were also manufactured house cars from manufacturers. 

In 1936, Milwaukee industrial designer Brooks Stevens was asked to craft an extravagant truck and trailer for local millionaire William Woods Plankinton, Jr. Stevens called it the Zephyr land yacht. The land yacht stretched forty-five feet, slept nine people, had a living room, a full kitchen, and bathroom with a shower. Like others, its owner William Plankinton wanted to vacation on the road with the comforts of home. Stevens had given both the truck and trailer a flowing streamlined design. His creation inspired him to make a line of house cars.

Through the 1940s, Stevens built more than twenty house cars were built between 1936 and the late 1940s. Some were sales or delivery vans for Wisconsin-based firms such as Oscar Mayer, S.C. Johnson, and Miller Brewing. Many of Stevens’ streamlined vehicles were constructed by the General Body Co. of Chicago, IL, who also built the designer’s legendary Weinermobile. The example on exhibit in The American Road has all of the comforts of home, including a dinette, bed, and a galley kitchen with sink and icebox cabinet. 

The Brooks Stevens house car, the salesman sample, and many more artifacts are featured in The American Road. The exhibit will be open for a limited time at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, June 14-September 1, 2014, and is included with a museum admission.

Rolling History: Tin Can Tourists

For many people, traveling with a camper is a relaxing hobby that allows them to escape the rigors and schedules of everyday life.  In the mid-1920s, leisure car travel grew in popularity and new types of vehicles emerged. House cars and travel trailers became popular with motorists who wanted to experience America in comfort. The vehicles included small kitchens and beds; some even had two rooms. Enthusiasts joined clubs, traveled between camps, and studied how-to books on topics ranging from construction to cooking.

The Tin Can Tourists, an organization of recreational motorists, formed in Florida in 1919. They established camps, which became temporary communities for socializing and organized activities. These sites had basic facilities like bathrooms and showers, and enthusiasts could stop there for a day or longer. The last official TCT rally was held in 1968.

Forrest Bone and his wife Jeri became involved with vintage trailers as charter members of the Vintage Airstream Club. They were interested in other brands of trailers as well, and formed a more inclusive club in 1998, bringing back the name Tin Can Tourists and offering members a chance to meet and have fun with other owners who shared their interest in vintage recreational vehicles.

Today, Tin Can Tourists can be found on highways and byways in all 50 states, as well as internationally. Many members enjoy reliving childhood memories by pairing vintage cars with their trailers, and dressing in period-correct clothing for a full experience. There is excitement when arriving at the campground to see who is there and what rig they have been working on improving. Campers trade ideas about upgrades and help each other with repairs. Member Terry Evans describes it as a family, and that your trailer “becomes a great icebreaker and everyone is your friend.”

This year, we will have some Tin Can Tourists joining us for Wild Ones Weekend!  On July 12, a display of vintage trailers will be on site here at the Museum. Brands like Airstream and Shasta will be represented, showing diversity in color, shape, style, and textures. Some travelers use only the conveniences of their rig’s time period, while others prefer modern amenities. Trailer owners will be available to tell you all about their time on the road and what makes each piece unique! 

Special thanks to Terry Evans, Terry Bone, and www.tincantourists.com for this information! You can learn more about the organization by following them on Facebook (facebook.com/tincantourists), Twitter (@tincantourists) or Pinterest (pinterest.com/tincantourists).

Bob Waldmire

During his life, Bob Waldmire constantly crisscrossed the country between his home in Arizona and his family’s home in Illinois on Route 66. Along the way he would meet new people, commune with nature, and create his art. The art – mostly hand-inked illustrations – took on many forms such as Postcards, posters, signs, murals, and much more. It was this work, the love of the road, and his warm personality that made him an icon of “The Mother Road.”

Bob began his life on the road driving from town to town creating illustrated birds-eye-view maps to pay for his travels. He sold spots on his maps to local businesses; in turn, those businesses sold the maps in their stores. By the time he moved on to other projects, he had created posters for thirty-four cities. Most of these had been college towns – ironic considering Bob only had brief encounters with college education. He was largely a self-taught artist.

These spiral notebooks contain information on the businesses Bob approached, as well was initial sketches. As he traveled, he also would sketch people and places he saw along the way. They are filled with some of the earliest art he completed on the road.

If you are a member and want more information on Bob Waldmire, please login to the members only website where we additional information on his life and work.   

These artifacts and many more are on the display in The American Road. The exhibit will be open for a limited time at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, June 14-September 1, 2014, and is included with a museum admission.

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