Iowa History
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Iowa History

Iowa’s First Road Trips

An Iowa family out for a drive. (State Historical Society of Iowa)

Iowans are rediscovering the joys of the road trip this summer as a safer “Plan B” alternative to other vacations during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But a century ago, the introduction of the Model T Ford let Iowans explore the country as never before, zipping off to visit far-flung relatives, explore state parks and take advantage of a whole new economy of roadside diners and motels.

“The automobile and state park system were new things on the cultural landscape around Iowa at that time,” said Leo Landis, state curator for the State Historical Society of Iowa. “People were eager to get out and explore the natural environment, go for a hike, have a picnic or socialize with their family.”

Iowans out for a picnic. (State Historical Society of Iowa)

Twentieth-century city dwellers wanted to get out of town to get away from overcrowded streets and the persistent stench of horse manure, raw sewage and rotting piles of uncollected garbage, according to historian Peter Blodgett of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

“Upper-middle-class families traveled throughout the countryside and camped by the side of the road, reveling in their sense of independence,” he said in an online presentation called “What It Means to Be American,” hosted by the Smithsonian Institution and Zocalo Public Square. “In its infancy, however, an automobile could not deliver most Americans from their urban frustrations, for most Americans could not afford to own and operate one.”

But that changed in 1914 when Henry Ford introduced the $5 work day, Landis said. Suddenly, more families could afford to buy a car. Out-of-town day trips and weekend getaways became more attainable.

Around the same time, the Iowa State Board of Conservation helped draft legislation to conserve the state’s natural resources and create the first state parks — Backbone State Reserve in Clayton County and Lacey Keosauqua State Park in Van Buren County — that became popular destinations.

“Automobile tourism and the conservation movement became really important in Iowa in driving the development of state parks in the 1920s,” said historian Rebecca Conard, who grew up in Lake View, Iowa, and contributed to the book “Iowa State Parks: A Century of Stewardship 1920–2020.”

“Bixby Cave and the Wildcat Den near Muscatine along with the Maquoketa Caves were very popular,” she said. “Iowa was just full of those kinds of gathering places, along a river or interesting geological formations like the Ledges. The automobile made it easier to get to them than a horse and buggy.”

But early 20th century automobile tourists faced numerous challenges rarely encountered by today’s travelers. Roads were often rutted, rocky, muddy and steep.Gas stations and mechanics were few and far between. Tires, which were similar to today’s inner tube bicycle tires, blew out frequently.

Early automobiles often required repairs. (State Historical Society of Iowa)

As automobile tourism grew, however, local, state and federal governments began to build and maintain better roads and highways. Garages, gas stations, roadside cafes and diners emerged along with hotels and motels. The Automobile Club of America and the American Automobile Association began printing and distributing road maps across the country.

Through the next few decades, the growth of car ownership, rising middle-class wealth and paid vacations for many workers led to a boom in automobile tourism that continues today.

Unlike trains, automobiles enabled Iowans to travel whenever and wherever they wanted to go. (State Historical Society of Iowa)

Learn more

Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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Iowa Culture

Iowa Culture

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources. iowaculture.gov