Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Muskogee's Auto Tourist Camp


 by Glenn Smith, Muskogee, OK

Muskogee's Auto Tourist Camp
  In the earliest days of long distance travel by automobile, motorists who ventured very far from home faced a problem at the end of the day: where to spend the night? Hotels were expensive and inconveniently located in downtown business districts, and after a hard day's drive few motorists were comfortable traipsing across stuffy hotel lobbies in their road-worn touring clothes. Pitching a tent out along the road was soon perceived by many to be a better alternative.
     As autocamping rapidly increased in favor after 1915, many communities along the major highways, hoping to lure motorists and their dollars, built municipal camps and made them available at no, or for a modest charge. Road associations also touted the many public tourist camps on their favored routes. In 1923, for instance, the Jefferson Highway Association published a "tourist camp manual" describing the features of over one hundred municipal camp sites that had been especially built for the accommodation of travelers on the Jefferson Highway.
 One of the largest and best appointed tourist camps listed in the JHA manual was the camp at Muskogee, Oklahoma. Built in 1921 by the Muskogee Kiwanis Club in Spaulding Park at the then-hefty cost of $3,000, the Muskogee camp could accommodate 200 cars and provided a screened building containg electric lights, twelve gas plates for cooking, and four large tables and benches for dining.  Other crucial amenities provided for campers included sinks with running water and bathrooms containing toilets and showers. A pond was available for swimming during the summer months, and band concerts held in the park provided free entertainment.
     Muskogee's tourist camp was an immediate big hit with motorists, one of whom--Frank M. Smith of Dallas, Texas--described his favorable impressions in a 1921 letter: "When we reached the park we hesitated to go in as the lawn and everything about it was so well-kept we thought we must have made a mistake. In a few minutes, however, an officer approached us and invited us in.  We were directed to a large building where we found bathrooms, reading and rest rooms, and also a place to cook meals. A registration fee of 25 cents is charged for each car utilizing the camp. There were probably 50 cars in the park the night we spent there. We found Muskogee highly praised during our trip and every tourist had a good word for the city on account of the excellent arrangements made for their comfort."

View of the Camp from across the 'pond' in 2013.
      According to a Muskogee Times-Democrat article, as of July 15, 1922, over 1,400 tourists had already stayed at the Spaulding Park camp during that season, a big increase over the previous year's total.  Noting that the camp's users came from all over the U.S., the article concluded that "the univeral lure of the open road and purring motor is best attested by the diversity of the people who make this outdoor camp their temporary haven." Within only a few more years, however, most of those fetched by the "open road and purring motor" no longer cared to put up a tent at the end of a day, preferring instead the convenience of a tourist cabin.  In Muskogee and elsewhere in the U.S., most travelers very quickly abandoned municipal camps in favor of private cabin camps and, subsequently, tourist courts and motels.  By the mid-1930's, no fewer than eight private camps, all offering cabins, were in business in Muskogee.
     In the early 1930's, the Kiwanis Club gave the camp building to the Girl Scouts, who remodeled it and for many years used it as a meeting place and camping house.  Known as the "Little House," the building was recently remodeled again and, now in the care of the city's Park Department, can be rented for meetings and family gatherings. Although several historic buildings in Muskogee have been torn down, the "Little House" in Spaulding Park remains as a memento of the earliest days of motoring on the Jefferson Highway.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Muskogee and the Jefferson Highway

Muskogee, Oklahoma is proud to have played a founding role in the establishment of the Jefferson Highway across the state of Oklahoma. The many active boosters and promoters of the city included a large number who gave their total support to new road-and bridge-building programs.

When the first organizational meeting of the Jefferson Highway Association was held in New Orleans on November 15 and 16, 1915, organizers had expected to attract about fifty delegates, but over six times that number attended! In fact, more than fifty delegates showed up from Oklahoma, many of them from Muskogee.  All delegates wanted the new highway to run through their states and cities.  Route selection yielded the most contentious issue of all: would the new highway run through Arkansas or, less directly but on better roads, through Texas and Oklahoma?

David N. Fink, president of the Commercial Bank of Muskogee, quickly emerged as the leader of the Oklahoma delegation, which succeeded in getting the highway routed through Texas into Durant, Oklahoma, then north through McAlester, Muskogee and Vinita to the Missouri state line. At this
meeting Fink was also elected JHA vice-president. further reflecting the great enthusiasm for the new highway coursing through the state, several months later Fink and approximately two hundred other delegates from seven Oklahoma counties met in McAlester to organize the Oklahoma Jefferson Highway Association.

In late November, 1916, the JHA held a meeting of the board of directors at the Severs Hotel in Muskogee, on which occasion Fink was unanimously elected as JHA president for the following year.  At a concurrent meeting of the Oklahoma Jefferson Highway Association, Fink proposed a plan to build a new bridge of concrete and steel over the Canadian River near Eufaula, in order to prevent the JHA from altering the highway's route in Oklahoma.  A non-profit company was organized and authorized to issue bonds to finance the $125,000 cost of the bridge, which was completed in April 1920.

This is the original road where the Jefferson Highway
came into Muskogee from the south side.
It is now South 24th street and only used by local traffic.
Photo taken by Glenn Smith September 2012.
The highway through Muskogee County was completed and opened in the summer of 1918. the public's interest in automobile travel continued to grow by leaps and bounds as the Jefferson Highway and other improved roads were built.  Not only did car ownership increase rapidly in the Muskogee area, but as the largest city on the Jefferson Highway between Kansas City and Dallas, Muskogee benefited from lots of tourist traffic, an outcome that city fathers and business groups had eagerly anticipated from the start.  To foster and accommodate that ever-growing automobile traffic, the local Kiwanis Club in 1921 built in a Muskogee park a well-equipped state-of-the-art tourist camp able to accommodate 200 automobiles.

Muskogee had led the way to get the Jefferson Highway built in Oklahoma, and the leadership of David N. Fink (1868-1927) was an important part of the highway's successful completion.

This article by Glenn Smith was originally published in the Jefferson Highway Declaration Newsletter of the Jefferson Highway Association Vol 2, No. 1, Winter 2013

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Muskogee's Torson Hotel
Muskogee's Torson Hotel

The opening of the Torson Hotel at 6th and Boston in Muskogee was reported in the Muskogee County Republican newspaper on 15 September 1910. The brief announcement said: "It is a modern hostelry, and will be conducted with an eye single only to the comforts of its guests." Thomas A. Johnson and J. B. Torrans built the structure and operated the hotel.

The Torson was considered a family hotel, temporary home to Muskogee visitors including traveling theatre troupes, as well as permanent home for local families and businessmen.  Frequent events occurred at the Torson, including bridge parties, wedding and engagement receptions, and numerous meetings and conventions as well as private parties in the family suites.

In March of 1911, such a large event was held that a riot almost ensued.  An article in the Muskogee Times-Democrat shouted: "Cabbies Run Over Lawn" and explained: "So sharp was the competition for trade among the cabbies lined up on the street in front of the Torson hotel last night that it required the presence of police to quell the small riot that threatened as each and every cabman insisted on driving his carriage in the same location, the walk leading to  the entrance of the hotel. A reception was on at the Torson and the guest list was large and distinguished. When the festivities were over and the guests called for their carriages, the cabbies all came in a bunch, until the street entrance was congested with hacks and even the lawn was driven over by the ambitious cabbies who saw visions of short drives and big tips.  Patrolman Bailey headed the platoon of police officers who tried to straighten out the muddle between the cabbies." .....Muskogee Times-Democrat.

Large conventions at the hotel were common. On 27 March 1912, The Muskogee Times-Democrat reported: "Floating above the stately entrance of the Torson hotel, the stars and stripes waved in the breeze today while within one hundred women, members of the Daughters of the American Revolution were entertained. The occasion was the coming of the state chaper of the D.A.R. which convened in Muskogee today."

The Torson was a busy place in bustling downtown Muskogee until in early 1917 the owners began negotiations with the Bedouin Temple for purchase of the "famous hostelry at the corner of Sixth and Boston for use as a home for the shrine" for $43,000.

By 15 May of that year, the deal was completed and the hotel tenants were moving: "Mr. and Mrs. H. H. Ogden, who have had a suite at the Torson hotel, are moving to the Hotel Severs....Thomas A. Johnson and J. B. Torrans will be at the Hotel Severs after Wednesday, having sold the Torson hotel to the Bedouin patrol of Shriners....Mr. and Mrs. John Flenner, who have been at the Torson hotel, have moved and are temporarily at home with Mr. Flenner's parents Mr. and Mrs. J. R. Flenner, 525 South Fourteenth.....Mr. and Mrs. C. W. Hathaway and children have moved from the Torson hotel to the Mayland apartments on South Seventh street." .....Muskogee Times Democrat.

Today, the Torson Hotel is gone from the south west corner of 6th and Boston but the property is still used by the Shrine.