As we left Cedar Rapids, Iowa for Minneapolis there had been reports of bad road conditions and we were fearful that car travel would be slight. But only two blocks from the middle of the Cedar Rapids business district a Ford runabout pulled to the curb.
“If you’re headed out, boys,” the driver called, “you’ll be doing me a big favor by riding with me to Mason City.”
Mason City, Iowa was more than 150 miles on our way. Here was luck.
And here, too, was an example of the hundreds of instances throughout our trip where it was possible to repay the kindness of those who gave us rides. This man was a traveling salesman. He had to spend weeks at a time on the road. He was lonesome and delighted at company.
Before we arrived in Mason City he was delighted in our company for reasons other than loneliness. There was mud to battle, aplenty. Win and I came in handy, pushing the Ford through these spots. Once, as we pushed, the car’s fast-spinning wheels filled the air with mud particles which resembled a chocolate rainbow. Win and I resembled chocolate cake by the time the car reached solid ground.
Here also was the first good example of how our unusual method of travel made it possible to learn about the United States in ways not ordinarily available. Approaching Nashua, Iowa our benefactor asked: “Did you ever hear of the Little Church in the Wild-wood?”
“Yes, definitely,” we both chorused.
“It’s just a couple of miles out of our way. I’ll drive you out to see it, if you’d like. “
We certainly would. Under his guidance we not only visited the “Little Brown Church in the Vale” which had inspired song and poetry, we learned from him some of its history and background. That night, in the Mason City tourist camp, our diary notes were more extended than usual. We had begun the process of expanding our knowledge of the USA.
The Mason City camp was the best we’d encountered. These camps meant to the auto tourist what the Pullmans meant to railway travelers. In practically every town in the central states and the West and in many cities in the East there was a place for autoists to go and pitch their tents. There they would find water and fuel and toilet accommodations. Some of the camps offered conveniences more luxurious than many tourists had at home. There was often a cooking pavilion with gas or electric stoves, electric washers and irons, and a bathhouse with hot showers. Some camps were truly splendid. Several times we found tourist accommodations having lounging rooms with books and newspapers, desks equipped for writing, and phonographs and pianos. There was usually a grocery store nearby for supplies.
These camps were generally free. The towns benefited from the tourist trade and supported them. In the far West, a charge of twenty-five or fifty cents per car was sometimes made.
It was not in the accommodations that autoists received their greatest value from a tourist camp. It was in the friends they made there. Folks they had never seen before, who would pass out of their lives tomorrow. But for a night, all were neighbors.
Introductions were not needed. “That family is driving an Illinois car. They’ll know about the roads east of here. I’ll go talk with them.” Or, “That car comes from Omaha. I wonder if they know Tim Smith.” Or, “So you’re from Oregon. You’ve come a long ways.”
Often a single camp would have cars from a quarter of the states in the Union. An American melting pot, with Southern drawl and Yankee twang blending with accents of the Midwest, Southwest, and West. Laughing, happy, free; doing favors for one another; lending a pail, some salt, a hatchet; taking turns at the camp equipment. The Jones kids from Texas were playing tag with the Smith girls from Buffalo while the Jones and Smith adults swapped experiences of the road.
While eating supper at the Mason City camp the Lee Brothers dropped over. We talked for two hours. They were each about thirty but looked much younger.
“Where do you live?” Win asked.
Ralph Lee smiled as he pointed to a nearby Ford, equipped with a homemade house body. “That’s our home.”
Twenty-eight years ago their parents had traveled with a circus. The boys had been shuttled between friends and relatives. School attempts had failed. The brothers had taken to the road while still young and had been traveling ever since, occasionally alone, more often as a pair. Sometimes they peddled things. That day in Mason City they had made thirty dollars selling patent signs to the merchants.
“Why don’t you boys sell something?” Lloyd Lee asked.
“Why, we’re on foot. We couldn’t carry anything to sell.”
“Try shoestrings,” Lloyd said. We talked a little longer. They told us how they had once sold laces, and pictured to us the advantages of the business. “They’re easy to carry and your stock will have a quick turnover.”
That night Win and I both thought about their suggestion and tucked the idea into the back of our minds where it mellowed during our travel next day from northern Iowa into Minnesota.
The road north was a combination of the Jefferson Highway, Scenic Trail, Glacier Way, and some three or four other pikes. The markings of each trail were painted one above the other on the telephone poles until, with their colored decorations, they looked like grotesque totem poles adorning the highway.
South of Owatonna, Minnesota we were picked up by a man in a big Buick and soon learned that we’d just missed having some real excitement. Just a few minutes before, as he had dashed out from behind a grove of trees at the rate of forty miles an hour, he had come suddenly upon the Rock Island tracks as the No. 20 eastbound limited was hurtling itself toward the crossing. There was nothing he could do but stare the monster in the face and give his car the gas. As he cleared the track the steam engine’s cow catcher hooked his rear fender and tore it to shreds but the speed of his car saved him. He had gone half a mile before he dared to stop. Soon after that he had stopped again, to give us a ride. He was still shaky but nevertheless kept driving at a breakneck speed and scarcely glanced at a crossing which we passed. He was staying the night in a hotel and agreed to pick us up in the morning, out on the highway near the tourist camp.
Since our resolve was to touch every state in the Union on this trip, it was now necessary to backtrack over to Wisconsin. This was the most advantageous place to set foot in the Badger State. At the side of a Wisconsin country road, just across the river from Stillwater, Minnesota, one might have seen, had he passed that way about noon on the fourteenth of July, a couple of boys eagerly bunching unwrapped shoestrings together and tying them with colored ribbons.
But woe be to such passersby. A workman came trudging down the dusty road. Win walked out and waited until he approached. “Good day, Mister. My brother and I are hiking through to the west coast, making our way selling shoestrings. Would you like to buy some? Ten cents a pair. ” The stranger hesitated.
“They’re something you’ll always use,” put in Win.
“So they are, so they are.” Cheerily he paid his dime and continued on his way.
Win could scarcely wait till our first customer was out of hearing distance. “That’s eight cents clear,” he whispered. “He took a ribboned pair.”
Another man came innocently along. Another sale. Joyously we walked back over the bridge to Stillwater to begin business in earnest. I took one street, Win another. Timorously, I walked the full length of my territory without approaching a person. “Just to get the lay of the land,” I told myself. Then I walked back again. Mustering courage at last, I struck a couple of loungers in front of a barbershop. They both bought. Then I asked everybody who passed and they all purchased my wares.
Twenty minutes from the time we had separated, Win and I met again, both sold out. We had made one dollar and eleven cents clear profit. Then and there was witnessed the beginning of the company of “Line Bros., Ltd. In Business for Themselves.” The “Limited,” of course, referred to the condition of our finances.
That afternoon in Minneapolis we hunted up a wholesale shoe house and bought two gross of paper-wrapped strings for three cents per pair, then headed out of the city selling as we walked. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately, as it turned out—we took the wrong road. Selling as we went, we dispensed of our entire stock, so decided to head back and stick around until morning for new supplies. Under the same billboard right in the heart of Minneapolis we slept well, after a good traveling day of 130 miles by car, nearly seven miles of walking, and a net profit of $4.25 in our pockets.
With two more gross of strings we headed out again next morning, offering our wares along the way. The selling business didn’t seem to be retarding our progress. That afternoon a ride of 180 miles came along and at dusk, after averaging thirty miles an hour, we were in the tourist camp of Ortonville, Minnesota, on the border of South Dakota.
It was Saturday night. The little town was crowded with farmers and their families, in for their weekly shopping. For Win and me, there would be time to rest tomorrow. Right now there was work to do. Having divided our stock, Win walked two miles over to Big Stone City, South Dakota, while I tackled Ortonville. Men were standing in groups on the street corners. I would walk up to a group and say my piece. If one man bought, they all did. In a minute or so I was walking to the next group, with an additional fifty cents in my pocket.
Back at camp we figured up accounts. On this day we had traveled 215 miles and had made a profit of seven dollars in less than three hours of work. We were now 1,188 miles from home, had spent nine dollars and had made eleven.
“I rate our trip a big success so far,” was Win’s summary of this first week on the road.