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The Glidden Tour: Road Testing the New Machine

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In the very early years of the 20th century, automobiles were just beginning to appear on streets around the country. But it was one thing for the town doctor or banker to strut his new auto up and down Main Street; it was quite another to trust the machine enough to take it on a road trip. Many a horseless carriage that ventured out into the countryside on a Sunday drive was towed back to town by an amused farmer and a reliable pair of mules. The Glidden Tour, a long-distance “reliability and endurance tour,” would give many a small town – including in North Carolina – its first sighting of an automobile. And the yearly event would go a long way toward convincing a wary public that the auto age was here. Road trip!

Motoring into the 20th century

Today, we jump in the car and hit the road. Easy, peasy. With maps and GPS, we know which road to follow. When we are hungry, we stop at a convenient restaurant. When we are ready to rest, we check into a roadside motel. When the gas tank nears empty, we have our choice of filling stations. But at the dawn of the 20th century, with cars just starting to appear in cities and towns, there were few decent roads, no maps worth speaking of, no roadside eateries, and no motels. The first drive-through gasoline filling station would not appear in the country until 1913. And for most of the American public, this new machine – the automobile – was frivolous and nowhere near as trustworthy as a good old mule.

Painfully aware of this attitude, the fledgling American Automobile Association took the initiative to stage an event that would convince the public that the automobile was rugged enough to hit the road. In 1904, the AAA organized a “national reliability run” – a 1,318-mile automobile road rally from the east coast to the World’s Fair in St. Louis. Seventy-seven autos departed from several eastern cities, and 66 arrived at their destination.

It was not a race, but rather a rally: On each morning of the event, the cars were assigned an arrival time at the next overnight stop. They could arrive early, but if they were late, they would be penalized one point for each minute over the assigned time. At the end of the event, the car with the fewest penalty points would be declared the winner.

Easier said than done. The speed required in order to reach the next checkpoint on time might only be 20 miles per hour, but the road was rough: there were streams to ford, directions to be divined, popped tires to be patched, and not-infrequent roadside repairs to be made.

A car on the Glidden Tour fords a stream.
Fording a stream and getting a pointer
Repairing a Maxwell automobile on the Glidden Tour
Roadside repairs to a Maxwell touring car
A wagon ferries a Glidden Tour car across a river.
Tools for crossing deep water.

Mud holes seemed to be constantly trying to suck the autos into a “bog-down.” One tour participant remembered:

The weather was an equally determining factor in each day’s progress. On rainy days we skidded and swished through the mud, frequently having to be pulled by mule power or pushed by manpower from hub-deep ruts or the ever-hospitable ditches on both sides of roads.

The Glidden Tour

Despite the ordeal, the AAA’s event was novel, and it generated lots of publicity across the country. One of those who saw greater potential for the rally was Charles Jasper Glidden. Glidden, who had accumulated a fortune as an early provider of telephone service, was an automobile enthusiast himself. In 1901, he sold his New England telephone business to Bell Telephone and turned his attention to promoting the automobile.  That same year, he and his wife Lucy were the first to circle the globe in an auto, and in 1902 the couple drove to the Arctic Circle.

Charles and Lucy Glidden on tour
Charles and Lucy Glidden on tour

After participating in the 1904 AAA rally, Glidden took control. He worked with the Association to make the rally more competitive in 1905, he offered a $2,000 prize, and he christened the event with his name. Under his direction, the Glidden Tour became the premier auto event in the United States.

For the AAA, the event was a tool in promoting the need for better roads. And now that the tour was a well-publicized competition, the auto manufacturers saw it as a way to demonstrate the durability and reliability of the prestige marques of the day: Maxwells, Chalmers-Detroits, Pierces, Cadillacs, Metz’s, Columbias, Mitchells, Stevens-Duryeas, Fords and Flanders. Automobile advertisements would trumpet success on the Glidden Tour as a noteworthy selling point.

A car advertisement boasting of a win on the Glidden Tour
Auto manufacturers used the Gliden Tour to sell cars.

1911 North Carolina connections

Between 1905 and 1909, the yearly Glidden Tour covered much of the northeast and midwest, and it even ventured into Canada. Then, in 1911, the tour ventured for the first time into the American South.

The 1909 Good Roads Run

Two years before, The Atlanta Journal Constitution and The New York Herald Tribune had co-sponsored a “Good Roads Run” from New York City to Atlanta (including an overnight stop in Winston-Salem). That tour gained great notoriety when baseball hero Ty “The Georgia Peach” Cobb agreed to drive one of the cars.

Baseball hero Ty Cobb in uniform and behind the wheel in the Good Roads Run
Ty "The Georgia Peach" Cobb: behind the wheel and on the field.
The cars of the Good Roads Tour lined up on the street in Winston Salem, 1909
The 1909 Good Roads Run in Winston-Salem

The 1911 Glidden Tour heads south

On October 14, 1911, 77 automobiles – 64 of them in competition – left New York City bound for Jacksonville, Florida. At 1,454 miles in length, the 1911 Glidden Tour was only half the distance of the Glidden’s previous year’s run – Cincinnati to Chicago by way of Dallas and Omaha – but it was to be the most challenging Glidden Tour yet.

The 1911 Glidden Tour didn’t have the star power of Ty Cobb, but it did feature one woman driver, Roberta “Birdie” Marks of Athens, Georgia. Birdie had returned from touring in Europe specifically to enter the Glidden Tour, and despite the fact that other woman drivers had been turned down, her entry was approved. 

Covering the 1911 Glidden Tour, The Horseless Age: The Automobile Trade Magazine noted:

There is one young woman driver in the contest. She is Miss Roberta Marks,of Athens, Ga, and at the wheel of No. 49 Columbia. They call her “Birdie” for short. She is one of the slam-bang, spectacular style of drivers and shows her big gray car no mercy on rough roads.

Roberta "Birdie" Marks behind the wheel on the Glidden Tour
Roberta "Birdie" Marks

Off-road competition: Winston-Salem and Greensboro collide.

In North Carolina, there was intense competition among cities for the honor of being an overnight stop on the tour. Winston-Salem had hosted the previous year’s Good Roads Run, and they wanted to repeat what had been a festive experience. But Greensboro wanted in on the action. Winston-Salem was confident of being selected until, a short time before the event, they received a letter from the organizers questioning whether the city’s single hotel could accommodate the expected crowds. The city leaders were baffled because Winston-Salem was proud of having at least five top-quality hotels, including one – the Zinzendorf Hotel – reputed to be the best in the state. The mystery was solved when it was discovered that a delegation of prominent Greensboro citizens had traveled to New York to lobby on behalf of their city, and that group had been spreading the word that their rival had only one hotel, and that one “quite shabby.” Winston-Salem set matters right with the organizers and was selected as an overnight stop on the tour. Charlotte was also selected.

Beyond being a stopover city, Winston-Salem had strong civic connection to the 1911 rally. As they had with the Good Roads Run the year before, the Winston-Salem Board of Trade sponsored a car competing in the tour. The car was a brand new 1912 Mitchell 5-6 Touring, on loan from a local automobile business, The Motor Company. The Mitchell was driven by Gernie Miller, a young man from Yadkin County who worked as a machinist at The Motor Company.

Mud up to the hubs, then sprint for the Twin City

The 1911 Glidden Tour went smoothly until the cars reached Staunton, Virginia. South of there, torrential rains turned already crude mountain roads into quagmires with ruts two feet deep. Winston-Salem’s Maxwell car skidded so violently that the passenger, Paul Montague, was thrown from the car. He was bruised, but gamely climbed back on board to push on toward Winston-Salem.  Widely-traveled Charles Glidden said he had never seen roads so bad. 

The New York Times reporter covering the tour gave readers this advice concerning Virginia roads:

Get an aeroplane at Natural Bridge and stay in the air until the North Carolina line is reached. Nothing has approached in vileness the condition of the roads in Virginia.

When, on October 18, the cars passed Kernersville bound for their stop in Winston-Salem, they were behind schedule and eager to make up time lost wallowing in Virginia mud. Fortunately, the last stretch of road was a brand new macadam highway, and they barreled down it as night fell. With headlights easily picking up the light-colored roadway, and local people lining the road holding lanterns to light the way, drivers were able to fly through the darkness at 60 miles per hour.

Few cars managed to arrive in Winston-Salem on schedule, but that did not dampen the excitement downtown. The first to arrive were greeted by a crowd of over 4,000 people around the Zinzendorf Hotel. Two musical groups – The Salem Boys Band and the Twin City Concert Band – took turns serenading. Each arriving team was greeted by group of leading women from the city. They were presented with bouquets of flowers and North Carolina tobacco products, and they were escorted to their hotel rooms.

Newspaper headline announcing the arrival of the Glidden Tour in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, October 18, 1911
The Glidden Tour has arrived!

The second loudest greeting of the evening was for Birdie Marks, one of only three drivers to arrive by their appointed time. But the loudest cheer came for the arrival – also on time – of the Winston-Salem car. The big Mitchell blew into town having covered the last leg from Kernersville in just 16 minutes. Driver Gernie Miller was covered head-to-toe in Virginia mud, and he was reluctant to enter the polished lobby of the Zinzendorf Hotel. So the crowd picked up their home town hero and carried him up to his room, where he was smothered in flowers.

In the next day’s edition, the Winston-Salem Journal described the occasion:

It seemed that every citizen of the Twin-City vied with each other in making the greatest demonstration possible. And there was not one not the tourists approached on the subject but declared that the welcome received here was far ahead of a anything they had witnessed on the entire route so far.

Charlotte comes up short

When the rally cars left Winston-Salem, the next overnight stop was in Charlotte. That city had already announced its eagerness for the visitors to arrive. When the tour was still in Virginia, there had been some rumors of tense encounters between tourists and farmers, including stand-offs in which motorists were held at gunpoint for “scorching” (speeding) and for “canine fatalities on the highways.” The Charlotte newspaper made it clear that these trivial peccadilloes would not dampen Charlotte’s enthusiasm for careening automobiles:

Roaming dogs are not held in high esteem in this community. Speed up and enjoy yourselves.

In Charlotte, the Y.M.C.A. provided gifts for the tourists in the form of boxes containing toilet soap, talcum powder, toilet water and tooth paste. Reports were that these toiletries were appreciated by the road-begrimed motorists, but somehow that didn’t seem to tip the publicity balance in Charlotte’s favor. Motor Age magazine described Charlotte as “a good motor center” with 345 automobiles on its streets. But apparently, the influx of visitors sorely taxed the city’s hotel capacity, and Automotive Industries magazine of November 1911 complained:

Charlotte needs more hotels…The experience of the Glidden Tour may have been unusual and extraordinary while stopping over night at Charlotte, but it can be said with conviction that nobody connected with the tour enjoyed the stay.

Ouch! The morning after their unenjoyable night in Charlotte, the motorists were off across the state line, bound for Jacksonville, Florida.

Lessons from the Glidden Tour

The Glidden Tour would run for two more years, gradually relinquishing its reputation as the premier annual auto event in the United States to the Indianapolis 500, which had been started in 1909.

But the Glidden Tour was an important factor in the transition to an age of automobiles. When the tour began, there was one auto for every 1,000 people in the country, and there was much public sentiment against the new machines. After the 1905 Glidden Tour, The New Hampshire Union newspaper came out indignantly against the tour, automobiles, motorists, scorching, and amusement:

To our mind, the whole thing has been an almost entirely unmitigated nuisance. The lives and property of perfectly harmless people have been seriously menaced; the laws willfully disregarded; and for no earthly reason rather than to afford amusement to a lot of strangers. There seems no reason at all why the people of the community should be subjected to such things.

We say it is an outrage; and, if these people think of coming here another year, we hope the laws against speeding and scorching will be promptly and vigorously enforced against every offender. Let a few of them stay in jail for two or three days, and all the rest of us will be the better for it.

But by the time the the Glidden Tour ended in 1913, there was one auto for every 35 people in the country, and the tour had been instrumental in steering public opinion toward the belief that this new contraption, the automobile, was safe, useful, and reliable enough for a long trip.

Over 18 years, the tour passed through many small towns, often giving locals their first sighting of an automobile. One small town hung a banner saying, “This town has a speed ordinance, and for the Glidden Tour, the limit is slow.” Town officials didn’t want to prevent accidents; they wanted to give their people time to soak in the automobile experience as the tour breezed down Main Street. In North Carolina this exposure was particularly important, as farmers who saw the cars in action, and who appreciated the beating they were taking, started to feel that these newfangled machines might not be just a passing fad for wealthy city folks.

All photographs of the 1909 Good Roads Run and the 1911 Glidden Tour are courtesy of the Detroit Public Library. The library has an extensive collection of Glidden Tour photographs. Great fun to browse.

The newspaper image announcing the tour arrival in Winston-Salem is courtesy of The North Carolina Collection at the Forsyth County Public Library.

A footnote to the story above:

The checkered flag that has become the universal signal for the end of an automobile race first appeared in the 1906 Glidden Tour. At the end of each section of the tour, officials validated the time turned in by each car. These officials were called “checkers, and they carried checkered flags to identify themselves to arriving drivers.

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