‘Thoreau at 29 Cents a Gallon’

Autocamping and the freedom of the open road.
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Back in the day, autocamping was popular with families and their pets at sites like Houghton Lake in Roscommon County.
Back in the day, autocamping was popular with families and their pets at sites like Houghton Lake in Roscommon County.

In the 1910s, Michigan saw an increase in automobile ownership, more development of good roads in the state and an enthusiasm for motorists to take to the open road. Autocamping offered the traveler a new freedom, breaking the constraints of railroad and steamship schedules and overcrowded, expensive hotels. With folded tents and camping gear, thousands of Michiganders headed for the countryside.

Autocamping offered the driver an opportunity to feel himself “king of the road,” limited only by the quality of the roads, his machine and his ability to repair it.

Motorists traveling long distances were advised to make extensive preparations and carry equipment that should enable a driver to meet every possible emergency, short of a total rebuild. The editors of the “Official Automobile Blue Book” published a list in 1920 of what to take on tour, which included such items as a set of socket wrenches, machinists’ hammer, small vise, cutting pliers, grease gun, assorted cotter pins and many more necessities. A roll of chicken wire, 12 inches wide, could be used to get out of deep sand or mud. Despite the many items suggested to bring along, the editors also recommended that the automobilist “travel as light as possible.”

Autocampers enjoyed getting away from the routines of everyday life, living a timeless existence and getting “back to nature,” although campers had to endure many hardships along the way. The experience of the road often was a conflict between comfort and adventure.

A specialized autocamping industry quickly developed, offering ease and comfort with such products as tents, camp bedding, camp stoves, cooking equipment and other unique gear. The Auto-Kamp Equipment Co., based in Saginaw from 1914-30, offered the Auto-Kamp trailer with a tent-style top, two fold-out beds, a fold-up dinette table, a complete kitchen outfit, ice-box storage and a two-burner gasoline stove.

By carrying equipment in their autos, travelers could stop along the road, sometimes in an open field, a pasture or an orchard, with or without the farmer’s permission. Church and schoolyards often were a spot of choice to set up camp for the night. This did not always go over well with the pastor or teacher who found the grounds covered in litter, smoldering fire pits, tramped down vegetation and other detritus from the campers. The need for campgrounds was apparent, and the Michigan State Park Commission was formed in 1919. Several state parks were established in the 1920s, and autocampers quickly took advantage. Municipalities also started offering free campgrounds, reasoning that campers would spend money in their communities.

Autocamping began as a rich man’s vacation alternative, but in the early part of the 20th century, the era of mass motoring opened the world of camping adventure to the middle classes as autos became more affordable.

Soon terms like “motor gypsying,” “motor hoboing,” “autotramping” and “motor vagabonding” referred to those motorists living on the open road.

As written in the June 1912 issue of “Motor Car” magazine of the autocamper, “You are your own master, the road is ahead; you eat as you please, cooking your own meals over an open fire; sleeping when you will under the stars, waking with the dawn … Thoreau at 29 cents a gallon.”

BLUE Vintage Views columnists M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson reside in Grand Rapids. They are authors of the book “Historic Leelanau: Recognized Sites and Places of Historical Significance.” 


By M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson

*Photography courtesy Vintage Views

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