Camping In The 1920’s

(Editor’s note: This delightful camping recollection is written as told to Real Travel Adventures by our 92 year old traveler.)

It was the early 1920’s and I was only about seven years old when my parents decided we’d take a family trip to see the historic and tourist sites in Florida… a long way from South Carolina by the dirt road we had to travel. My dad was a nature lover, and my mom was very adventuresome, so we made lots of unusual trips in those days when travel was not the norm.

Dad loaded us into the family Ford with the kids in the rumble seat. Then he screwed the luggage carrier onto the running board outside the driver’s seat…I always wondered why it was located there, since he had to crawl in from my mom’s side of the car. Down the bumpy road we headed. Our excitement for the experience was high, but of course, we three kids in the back seat had the normal bickering and whining after a few hours. My little brother loved to pick on me, and the little spats that ensued would elicit a loud warning from my dad: “Do you want me to cut a switch?” or “Do you want to continue the trip or shall I turn around right now and go home?” Not so different from today’s auto trips with children! But we didn’t have any video games or DVD’s to watch in those days. They hadn’t been invented yet. I had my doll to keep me entertained. My big sis must have had a book, and I think my younger brother had a little toy animal or truck to play with. Another family who also had a car went with us, and we followed each other, which was not difficult since the roads had no traffic back then. It was good to have each other’s company in case of problems along the way because there were no cell phones or rural phones, and gas stations were few and far between. Not many country homes had telephones or even electricity then. So if one car broke down, the other family could go for help, but we never had that occur, thankfully, but occasionally we’d get stuck in a rut so deep that we’d pay a farmer to get his horse to pull our car out!

No trip was completed in those days without a flat tire because tires were narrow and of thin rubber, with inner tubes which sprang leaks frequently from the huge ruts in the road. But the kids didn’t mind…It was our rest stop while dad jacked up the car, removed the tire, and pulled out the inner tube to fix a patch. I remember watching him finding his red tool kit with a piece of square patch rubber,and something that looked like a grater from the kitchen. He would scrape the patch till it was rough and then applied some kind of glue. He put on the patch and we waited while the glue set. Sometimes we’d take a walk or go find a tree for a bathroom in the middle of nowhere. When the patch on the tire was set dad would take out the air pump, which he pumped with his foot to inflate the inner tube, like you do a bicycle tire today. Then we’d be back on the road again. We always had to keep a can filled with water to pour over our motor when it overheated. That would require another trip delay while we waited for it to cool.
Our open-air car had a top and sides of canvas, which was so much trouble to install that Dad would only reluctantly put up when my mom insisted it was about to rain. Usually he got it up after we were drenched!. I remember it had a few leaks in it, which required a tin cup to catch the drips! The sides had Isinglass windows, which were a form of mica and gave a dim, wavy view of the scenery. There was a flap on the driver’s side to put his hand out to give a turn or stop signal.

Hotels existed only in cities, and the motel concept had not yet happened, but in a few places there were tourist homes, which were like bed and breakfasts today. You could get a room and meal for the night in someone’s home. RV’s and trailers had not yet been invented, and campgrounds were unknown to us. Our parents decided the camping experience would be more educational fun.

The Great War had ended a few years earlier and Dad had found our camping gear from cheap sale of Army surplus. We had a canvas tent, which was heavy and stretched on a few poles, but we only used this if it rained. Otherwise, it was too much trouble and too hot. We had not heard of sleeping bags yet, but we each had a folding cot, which was a piece of canvas between some poles for legs. I loved lying in the open air and looking at the myriad of stars in the night sky. There were no street lights to dim our view, so we could see myriads of stars. Dad loved to point out the constellations and have us locate the North star. I remember one night when we were fast asleep we were suddenly awakened by the clickety-clack and mournful wale of a train zooming past us. We were startled and frightened because we had not even seen the track nearby. Many mornings we would awaken with cows munching grass around us. That was fun for a city family. We were always careful to leave our campsite cleaner than we found it and to put out our campfire very, very thoroughly.
There were no campgrounds as such, so we would knock on a farm house door in late afternoon and ask if we could camp in the farmer’s meadow for the night. We purchased milk and eggs, butter, fresh vegetables and fruit from the farmers whose fields we stayed in. They were usually glad to make the sale. The normal price in the 1920’s for bread was 8 cents a loaf, un-sliced; (no one had thought yet of selling pre-sliced bread.) Eggs were about two pennies each, but sometimes the farmers just gave them to us free. We’d fill our canteens with water from the farmer’s well and use his privy too.
There were no fast food restaurants in those days, and eating establishments were rare, even in cities. For our lunch we would buy sandwich fixin’s at a little country general store and have a picnic in the woods or in a grassy place beside the road. Canned food was pretty new then, and pork and beans were popular with us. There were no insulated coolers, paper plates, or even plastic invented yet, so we took our own tin plates and cups on our trips and washed them in a stream. We couldn’t take glass items because they would break on the bumpy road. My haven’t times changed!

In the evenings we had a kerosene lamp because flashlights didn’t exist then. If we were sleeping out, we sometimes had a hot meal of little tins of meat and vegetables, which we bought along the way when we could find them. Mother warmed them on top of little cans of Sterno heat, which we would light with a match. Sometimes we would be in a place my dad could build a campfire, which was lots of fun! Mama played her mandolin, my brother played his mouth organ or sometimes used a comb covered with tissue paper and he hummed through it. The grown-ups told stories. about when they were young or about our grandparents’ in the Old South prior to the Civil War when there were house parties for two weeks and the women got to wear “Gone With the Wind” ball gowns and ride a flat boat with a piano on the river.

After a couple of nights of camping-out we’d stay in a tourist home, so we could have a bath. But occasionally, if we were camping in the woods, dad had a way of rigging up a shower that we kids thought was so much fun! In my mind’s eye I can still see the one gallon, blue-labeled Jewel lard can. He punched holes in the bottom. He would heat water from a stream on the campfire, fill the bucket and tie it to a stout limb and dangle a rope from the handle. The water would drip so one could soap up and then pull the rope and dump the water for a rapid rinse! We thought that rare event was really fun! It was the way he had created his daily cold shower in his youth in the 1800’s. BRRRH!!
My favorite camping trip our family enjoyed was to St. Augustine, FL, to see the fort and historic sites. There were beautiful homes to tour. Keep in mind that in those days there was no air-conditioning and women and girls always wore hot dresses, and there were no sneakers for foot comfort while hiking or sight-seeing. We loved seeing the ocean and being on the beach, even though we wore funny cotton bathing suits to the knees.
We also camped our way to Mammoth Cave when I was a teen and I had my most fun flirting with teen boys of the other families with us.
Today, at 92, I enjoy traveling in the amazing luxury of my daughter’s RV. I am amazed as I compare my fond camping memories with today’s nice campgrounds, which have almost the ease of staying in a hotel. I still love to sit by a campfire and roast marshmallows or sip hot chocolate. A couple of years ago, at age 88, I even caught my first fish with the help of my son-in-law. And I have fun telling my campfire memories of those early camping days.