Road Tripping with Stewart Donaldson
As the summer winds to a close, Labor Day weekend brings a chance for one last summer road trip. Mass production of the automobile in the early 1900s made road trips a reality for individuals and families across the United States. However, whether hitting the open road to visit family or simply to enjoy scenic views, an early 20th century road trip required an adventurous spirit and lots of advance preparation.
The William Donaldson family of Roslyn clearly had what it took to embrace road tripping. As Clarence Mackay’s chauffeur, William Donaldson was well acquainted with the operation of automobiles and an expert driver on local and interstate roads. When not transporting members of the Mackay family between their New York City mansion and “Harbor Hill” estate, William frequently transported other estate workers. Occasionally, he took his son, Stewart, with him on trips around Long Island or to New York City. In 1914, William purchased his first car, a Ford Model T. From that point on, road tripping was an experience he was able to share with the whole family.
Stewart Donaldson’s detailed description of his father’s first car and memories of family road trips from Roslyn to Monticello, NY to visit his grandparents are among his many memories of growing up in Roslyn preserved in the Bryant Library Local History Collection.
According to Stewart, his father’s first car “was a 4 cylinder black colored, Model T Ford touring car. It had running boards, a tool box on the running board and a spare tire fastened to the back of the car. The gasoline tank was under the front seat and it had a brass radiator shaped as I use [sic] to think like a “grave stone.” The black top would fold back and lay behind the back seat.” Luggage racks fastened to the running board were used to “put the bags and other things in there to carry as there were no back luggage compartments such as we have today.”
Summertime road trips to visit his grandparents in Monticello, NY required a full day of travel, with only a short window of time to visit. While they didn’t have to fight speeding cars and traffic jams, the Donaldsons and other early motorists faced plenty of other challenges to overcome along the way.
While it probably wasn’t a problem for a driver with William’s experience, wayfaring would definitely have been an issue for less savvy road trippers.
“I do not remember road identification signs and we never had a road map. I think this went into the 1920s, if my memory serves me right.”
Road signs as we know them today were not widespread until the nationwide expansion of roads and development of road numbering systems that resulted from the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 and the Federal Highway Act of 1921.
Paper road maps did not become widespread until after 1913, when gasoline companies began commissioning maps for distribution in their service stations. Quite a bit of advance planning was needed before setting out.
“We always carried several cans in the car -- 1 for water, 1 for Gasoline (which was [a] sealed can with a spout and screw on cap. And several quarts of Wolfs Head oil as I remember. The gasoline in those days was white gas, there was no colored or hi-test gas as I recall. The gas pumps were hand cranked and only gave the gallons pumped – you had to figure out the price. When you poured gasoline into the tank, you would use a funnel with a chamois strainer to keep out the dirt and water. I know we always carried a spare tube and a spare tire usually strapped to the back. We had a hand operated tire pump, a tire pressure gauge.”
Minor breakdowns were always a possibility, and road trippers learned to be patient.
“We never thought anything of the motor boiling over on a hot summer day especially if you were climbing up the mountains. You would just pull off the road, let the motor cool down and put more water in the radiator. And the first stream or old garage you came to you would refill the bucket.”
However, a major breakdown on the road could be a bigger problem:
“Repair shops and gas stations were usually old ‘carriage shops’ or old blacksmith and wheelwright shops and the mechanics were the old carriage makers, blacksmiths or wheelwrights. Some were men who had experience as engineers on large boats and in the 1920s they were beginning to train men as motor mechanics, but this was definitely in the cities and not out in the country.”
Stewart recalls that day trips were the norm:
“There were no diners or motels, you always took a picnic lunch and picked a shady spot near a stream or brook and spread out a large cloth to try and keep the ants away. After eating we would walk down to the stream and wash the dishes, clean up, and off again at a fast rate of speed of probably 25 or 30 miles an hour at the most.”
By today’s standards, such a trip seems arduous. Yet, to Stewart Donaldson and his family, road tripping was a novelty. Looking back and viewing the experience through boyhood eyes, Stewart concludes:
“I guess it was fun though. I don’t remember hearing my folks complain too much about it. And everyone was always ready to go on the next trip.”
From The Bryant Library Local History Collection - Have a safe and wonderful Labor Day Weekend!