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.