There’s nothing quite like the summer road trip. What is more glorious than the hum of wheels on asphalt, the radio blasting your own summer soundtrack, windows down and the wind rushing through your hair at 55 miles per hour? With the freedom of the open road before you anyplace is a destination and anything seems possible. Is it no wonder then that Americans have such a love of the road trip?

It wasn’t always that way, however; there was once a time (less than a hundred years ago, in fact) that the idea of a motorized excursion anywhere was simply impossible. Roads were built for horse-drawn wagons and carriages and just terrible for these new-fangled horseless carriages. Nevertheless, there were still some brave souls eager for new adventures.

First American Road Trips

Dr. Horatio Jackson, Sewall Crocker and Bud, a stray dog they picked up during their cross-country road trip.

The first cross-country road trip was done on a bet. While visiting the University Club in San Francisco, Dr. Horatio Jackson overheard some gentlemen in the club discussing how they thought this whole automobile thing was just a passing fad. The 31-year-old Jackson, an automobile enthusiast, said he believed that a four-wheeled machine could, indeed, be driven across America and agreed to a $50 wager that he was the one to do it.

There was a hitch, however. Not only did Jackson not have a car, but he also didn’t know how to drive one even if he did.  Nevertheless, he managed to convince young mechanic and chauffer Sewall Crocker to be his backup driver, mechanic, and all around travel companion.

Upon Crocker’s advice, Jackson bought an automobile from the Winton Motor Carriage Company. Both inside and out, Jackson and Crocker piled coats, rubber protective suits, sleeping bags, blankets, canteens, a water bag, an axe, a shovel, a telescope, tools, spare parts, a block and tackle, cans for extra gasoline and oil, a Kodak camera, a rifle, a shotgun, and pistols. He then christened the vehicle the Vermont, kissed his wife goodbye, and on May 23, 1903, he and Crocker left San Francisco for New York.

Though the trip was not without its mishaps, 63 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes after beginning their journey in San Francisco, they drove into New York on July 26, 1903. The whole trip cost about $8,000 including food, gas, lodging, tires, parts, other supplies, and the cost of the Winton automobile itself.

22-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey, the first woman to take a road trip across the country.

On June 9, 1909, 22-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey set out in a green, four-cylinder, 30-horsepower Maxwell Motors touring car from Hell’s Gate in Manhattan, New York, with three female passengers (two older sisters-in-law and 19 year-old friend Hermine Jahns, none of whom knew anything about driving a car) to become the first woman to road trip across the country. Using maps provided by the American Automobile Association (AAA), they traveled 3,600 miles of road (though only 136 was paved), sometimes using telephone poles as a guide, as the poles with more wires usually led to a town.

Their trip was also not without its troubles, either. In Nebraska, they crossed a trail where there was a manhunt for a killer. In Wyoming, Alice got bedbugs from a hotel the ladies were staying at. In Nevada, they were met by a hunting party of Native Americans, bows and arrows drawn on the frightened young ladies.

They arrived at the St. James Hotel 59 days later having changed 11 tires, cleaned the spark plugs, fixed a broken brake pedal and once slept in the car when it was stuck in mud. In 1960, AAA named Alice Huyler Ramsey the “Woman Motorist of the Century”.

The Golden Age of the Road Trip
As more and more people were opening up to the idea of the horseless carriage, more roads were being built all throughout America, and these new highways helped drive automobile travel forward across the country. This new means of traveling by road meant seeing “the wildest and most natural places on the continent,” according to Colorado attorney Philip Delaney when recounting his 1903 road trip from Colorado Springs to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He continued, “The trails of Kit Carson and Boone and Crockett, and the rest of the early frontiersmen stretch out before the adventurous automobilist.”

With the expansion of the highway system, along with the affordability of the Ford Model T car, by the late 1930s and early 1940s, the US had, indeed, become a nation on the move and Americans started venturing across their great land, not only for migration, but also for holiday.

With this new “on-the-road” style of vacationing, garages, gas stations, roadside cafés, and diners began to pop up along more frequently traveled routes while hotels, restaurants, and general stores started to advertise in the earliest guidebooks produced by automobile organizations such as AAA and the Automobile Club of America. It was also during this time, in 1937 to be exact, that W.S. Stuckey, Sr., set up his first lean-to and started selling pecans and candies.

After World War II, America saw a boom in the number of Americans families who owned an automobile and it wasn’t just used for Pop to get back and forth to work, because it also ushered in the golden age of the family road trip. It also meant the beginning of President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System modeled after “the awesome system of roads he saw in Germany”.

Though the interstate highways allowed people to get places faster, storied highways like Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway were quickly becoming the roads less traveled. As a result, many of the mom and pop hotels, diners, and the like that once thrived along these now abandoned highways unfortunately began to close. Some were only barely hanging on when the 1973 oil embargo saw the end of their businesses and the beginning of the end of what was once a rite of passage in the summer – the great American road trip.

Stuckey’s fell victim to the downturn in road travel. Not only did the decreased traffic on America’s highway decrease the number of roadtrippers making stops at Stuckey’s, the number of Stuckey’s diminished as well. Falling out of family hands in 1964 when Mr. Stuckey sold the popular roadside chain to Pet Dairy Corporation, the familiar blue roofs further began to fade from the highway landscape when Mr. Stuckey retired as head of the Stuckey’s Division of Pet in 1970. Mr. Stuckey’s death in 1977 marked the end of an era for the popular travel stop, with many of the stores shuttered and sold for their real estate.

With gas prices continuing to rise through the new millennium, fewer and fewer people opted for shorter trips or even “staycations”- participation in leisure activities within driving distance of their home that does not require overnight accommodation. Indeed, in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s of this century, many were declaring the road trip officially dead.

Resurgence in Road Tripping Expected
Despite several decades of decline, it looks like road trips haven’t flat lined just yet as low gas prices outweigh coronavirus fears and nearly 1 in 3 Americans are planning to take a road trip this summer. Travelling by car is not only cheaper than air trips, it’s also much safer carrying reduced risks of exposure to the virus. And it seems like the road trip trend will continue for the foreseeable future as researchers at the University of Illinois have found that in a post-COVID-19 America, it’s starting to look like more and more people will be forgoing travel by air, trading it for some travel time on the road.

One thing’s for sure, when you do get back on the road, Stuckey’s will still be there as it always has been since 1937. So, hey America, stop on by one of our Stuckey’s locations and relax, refresh and refuel just like you remember it. And if you’re planning on a little staycation of your own this year, you can still find plenty of highway happiness by visiting Stuckey’s online and purchasing a Stuckey’s pecan log roll or two and some t-shirts, hats, mugs or other Stuckey’s merchandise –souvenirs from your trip down the information superhighway.