Cross-country caravans of up to 200 cars once took off from Urbandale traveling as ‘one big family’

Editor's Note: As our On the Ground reporting team travels to Urbandale to continue our mission to tell stories about what makes Battle Creek Battle Creek, we wondered how Urbandale came to be known as the "Home to the First Auto Tours." A bit of digging turned up the following narrative written by local historian Mary Butler.

Multiple entryways into Urbandale have signs that claim the community is “Home to the First Auto Tours.”

Given its location, one might think the neighborhood within the city of Battle Creek would have aligned itself with another product – cereal, produced by the Kellogg and Post companies. But, a gentleman named James H. Brown had other ideas. 

By the 1920s the automobile had captured the hearts of the American people, as the lure of the open road tempted a new generation to travel. The only problem was that this open road was difficult and dangerous to travel. Even the major roads were frequently narrow and steep, rutted and unpaved. Maps were few and unreliable. Roadside accommodations were scattered and uneven in quality. Most importantly, the cars themselves broke down with great regularity and drivers had to learn to be their own mechanics.

So how were people to enjoy the freedom of travel to faraway places? One novel solution was provided by Brown, of Battle Creek, who organized group tours of automobiles, who traveled in caravans for mutual pleasure, safety, and convenience. Raised on a "scientific farm” near Climax, Brown was deeply interested in improving farming techniques. 

In the 1890s he was appointed state Sanitary Livestock Inspector and was the first in the state to administer tuberculin tests to cows. A few years later he was made associate editor of Michigan Farmer, a weekly agricultural magazine. He traveled around the state lecturing on scientific farming.

He founded the Battle Creek Historical Society in 1916 and wanted to indulge his love of history by traveling to historic sites on the East coast. And he was sure others shared his interest. He introduced the concept of the caravan of automobiles, traveling together “as one big family,” and began his annual Michigan Automobile Tours in 1916. The trips began in Battle Creek, Urbandale to be precise, and usually went to a series of historic sites on the East Coast, including Plymouth Rock, Washington, D.C, Mt. Vernon, Niagara Falls, and the Lincoln birthplace. 
Brown carefully organized tour logistics for maximum safety and efficiency. He was quite proud of the fact that, in over a decade of touring, none of the 4,000 tourists had even been injured and no car had ever been “bumped or put out of commission” in more than 30,000 miles.

He carefully designed the routes to allow the participants to study the history and geography of the cities and countrysides they passed. To save money, and to avoid the pitfalls of unreliable accommodations in local “tourist homes,” the travelers camped out each night on the fields of cooperative farmers. 

During one such tour in 1923, more than 200 cars, carrying 800 people from all over the Midwest, participated in a three-week trip from Adrian, Michigan to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, D.C. 

Tour participants paid $3 in advance registration and certified that they were of “good character, have an interest in educational matters, and were willing to assist in the welfare of the big tour family.” Brown made all the necessary advance arrangements to make the logistics easy for the participants. He organized daily deliveries of mail, gasoline and oil, ice, and groceries made to the campsite, so no one had to stop along the way for supplies.
Each morning, after cooking breakfast, the cars lined up in their appointed positions, to leave the campground with Brown’s car in the lead. The six-person touring car, which he designed himself, was one of the most sophisticated. It was 14 feet long and 6 feet wide. The interior was finished in oak and seats were upholstered in Spanish leather. The floor was covered with linoleum or rugs; the windows were fitted with shades and silk curtains. 

Inside were living and dining areas with a full office area, equipped with a writing desk and typewriter.  Brown was a working journalist.  In addition to directing the tour, he sent long daily dispatches back to the Battle Creek Enquirer, describing in great detail the flora and fauna the tour passed each day.

Two large sleeping areas were created in awning-covered extensions. At the rear was a bathroom with toilet, lavatory, shower and folding tub. The water for the toilet and shower bath was stored in a ten-gallon tank attached to the outside of the vehicle. The kitchen area included a gas cooking range and large refrigerator which could hold a 50-pound cake of ice.

At stops along his tours, Brown collected a stone to commemorate his visit. He placed many of these “historic” stones into Battle Creek’s Stone History Cairn which he constructed in the downtown Monument Park.

One of his most famous stones was brought from Plymouth Rock. Actually, he picked up four stones from the rocky coast near the pilgrim landing site, which he brought back to Battle Creek. All four rocks were put on display in the window of an old drug store and residents were asked to vote on their favorite stone. The chosen rock was mounted in the auto tour monument in Urbandale. The other three stones were set aside for the next auto caravan, which went to the west coast. Brown donated the three remaining Plymouth Rocks to Seattle, San Francisco, and San Diego.

Brown was truly a pioneer in several fields -- but none more important than his innovative work in auto travel during the 1920s. As he advertised in one of his promotional booklets, Brown’s tours offered “Life in the open – where you barter your sheets for a star-lit bed – a vacation that yields dividends in health and restfulness.”
Mary Butler is Research Center Director for Heritage Battle Creek. The Historical Society of Battle Creek and the Sojourner Truth Institute of Battle Creek merged in 1999 to create Heritage Battle Creek. 
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