A New England Road Trip Taken Over 100 Years Ago

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I love New England and I love books. When a book is written in the moment and done well, it can be almost as illuminating as a well-documented scrapbook or a narrated home movie.

I also love to travel about in New England. I recently found a unique used book, a non-fiction first person account of a road trip taken around New England over one hundred years ago by a husband and wife duo.While I have traveled throughout much of New England and recognize many of the destinations in their book, I have never endeavored to do the entire region in one journey. Even now, I think that would be a daunting task.

Published in 1915, We Discover New England was written by Louise Closser Hale. It was  illustrated by her husband Walter Hale, whom she affectionately refers to throughout the 314 page book as; “The Illustrator.”

The book provides a snapshot of New England at that time, and it sheds some insight into how people traveled in the early automobile era. This NYC couple was in the minority of Americans who owned a car in the early 1900s. This account was written during the First World War. Louise and Walter recently returned after 9 years traveling in Europe, some of the time as a war correspondent, journalist and illustrator team. . Occasional allusions are made when the couple stops at New England inns and Louise notices women gathered in knitting ‘circles’ or on porches of public buildings, knitting socks for troops overseas.

This rambling narrative mentions a few historic sites along the way (with very little detail) and describes briefly, some scenic areas in passing, but mostly, the focus is on the actual traveling itself and the novelty of it at the time.

Some of the observations the author makes are a bit humorous, taken out of the original context one hundred plus years later. Some comments sound a bit snobbish, especially when she compares many of the amenities (unfavorably) found along the route to those in Europe. Some comments seem insensitive regarding the ‘lower classes’ and minority groups they observe and meet as they motor. Louise does not know, or even bother to ask, the chauffeur anything about himself until nearly the end of the journey. He is mostly invisible to them on the trip.

I have to remind myself that this book was written in a different time when Americans as a whole were less sensitive and probably less tolerant. In fact, in this country, women did not even have the right to vote until 5 years after this book was published. Upon reflection, I guess we’ve grown up a lot since then, but still have a way to go, I think. Anyway; that entire overlay aside, We Discover… provides an interesting window into New England motor travel at that time in the history of our country. Without further adieu, I will summarize:

One summer day in 1915, Louise and Walter leave their nice New York City high rise apartment on Fifth Avenue and struggle to fit all the hat boxes, evening gowns, multiple overcoats, golf essentials, heavy rugs and other paraphernalia necessary (apparently) for an approximately two week road trip through New England.  It seems that Walter drives but prefers not to as he “can’t see anything” when he does, and that Louise does not drive at all. (Actually, it made her so nervous to be moving in a vehicle on the road that she chooses to spend most of the time in the back seat where she can look out the window and only see the back of a chauffeur’s cap to the front). This is how road tripping was  ‘done’ by those of their lifestyle  at that time it seems.

When they finally get rolling, they begin their journey by heading north, along the border between New York and nearby Connecticut, mostly on the New York side. Just south of Massachusetts they cross briefly into Connecticut then follow the extreme western border of Massachusetts north. Interestingly, or confusingly, depending on your perspective, the author only names townships of interest along the way, so if the reader does not keep a weather eye on the map, it can be vague as to which state they are traveling in, as there are multiple localities with the same name in many of the New England states.

In Williamstown (MA) they encountered a sign which showed up frequently, in one form or another, before curves in the road which read, “Sound Klaxon (Beep Horn), per board of Selectmen.” They often were limited to 15 MPH on the back roads and through villages, which to the chauffeur seemed ridiculous when he could often drive 20 MPH in New York City. In Manchester (VT) and other localities, they spied Grand Army of the Republic (Civil War) veterans sitting in front of old soldier’s homes. Typical nightly room prices at country inns ran about $2.50 with two meals! They winced a bit at having to leave the customary 25cent tip and reminisced about the days when 5 cents would do…

On a back road in Vermont, they drove through 4 crossroads in close proximity, each with a mill pond and working mill with a water wheel. I can only think of a couple such still in existence in Vermont and don’t think they have functional water wheels. In one village they passed a young child skipping rope in the road. She was fascinated by the motor car and they did the ‘obvious’ thing and invited her for a ride. A bit further down the road, they passed the child’s mother putting laundry on the line and they all waved to her and kept going, returning the child home a while later!!! Everyone was fine with that situation at the time. I had to put the book down for a moment to put it all in perspective as my first reaction was outrage and panic. What a difference 100 years makes!

There was a running debate between Mr. and Mrs. Hale, the entire trip, as to whether the top should be up or down. She, did not appreciate having her hair and hats constantly blown about, nor being rained on at intervals. He, maintained that it was nearly pointless to own and travel in a motor car if one had the top up and couldn’t see anything. Besides, he maintained, it took such a long time to put up, or down, and if you got a little wet, the open top would provide enough moving air to dry you out in time… They seemed to have used all the folds in the material of the top when it was down (most of the time) to store items like; golf clubs, whiskey flasks, extra clothing and reading material. This made it even more inconvenient to consider putting up and only seemed to solidify his point.

They were both repeatedly astounded by the countryside as they traveled through and marveled at how people lived in the rural areas. As they neared Vergennes VT, they saw a sign that read, “No More Than 6 MPH”, which they thought absurd as they’d been motoring most of the day at about 15 MPH with no trouble whatsoever!

They continued toward Burlington VT with a lot of hints mentioned for future motorists regarding sights, routes and eating places. They spent the night at a hotel there where the artist made a sketch from the roof top. Come morning, they navigated eastward toward the White Mountains.

They headed to Franconia Notch and Bretton Woods in NH where they encountered vigilant forest rangers on motorcycles, ever on watch against forest fires. They saw several landmarks and icons, such as the Old Man of the Mountain and passed Fabyan’s Hotel (once a grand hotel sited near the Mount Washington Hotel) and the Mount Pleasant House (another past grand hotel), then the Crawford House (once the largest hotel in the White Mountains) in Bartlett NH. They stayed in North Conway for the night at the Kearsage Hotel (a grand hotel destroyed a few months later, by fire).

The following day, they aimed for the Maine Woods, passing through Fryeburg and Naples to Poland Spring Maine where they stopped to observe the famous water spring (still there but no longer the resort as they knew it). They then motored along to Portland where they hoped to catch a glimpse of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow home, but became lost in town and never did locate it. Next they drove through Biddeford where they noted the mills were at a standstill, idle with the workers hanging out of windows and doorways. The reason for this was not explained and was probably so obvious at the time of the writing of the book that it was not included in the narrative.

The tourists continued southward to Kennebunkport and noted that at that time in Maine, cemeteries were often used when locals gave directions and they were always referred to as; ‘The Tombs’, as in, “Take your next left after The Tombs on the right side…” The next stop was Kittery Maine where they wanted to see the Naval Shipyard and they were able to observe some ships under construction in the dry docks. As they entered Portsmouth NH, over the bridge, one interesting fact to me, is that both the author and the illustrator extolled the beauty of the old doorways on the old houses in Portsmouth. This struck me personally as my brother Jon and I both have a passion for those doors, which are mostly still there and still amazing, as documented by each of us in our respective blogs: Go Into the Light and Dream New England .

Next destination was Newburyport MA where they stayed overnight in the historic Wolfe Tavern, departing in the morning for Ipswich, Essex, Gloucester, Beverly and Salem MA. They finally made it to Boston, which being from the city, appealed to them as an overnight option.

In the morning, they drove through Taunton and Fall River MA, then on to Tiverton RI which Louise commented was lined with roadhouses (drinking establishments). This was just a few years before prohibition in the US, but apparently, it was already a sensitive issue. Along the journey, they came to the outskirts of Newport RI which was mostly large, showy farms. They continued to inner Newport RI where they spent a few hours acting like tourists and gawking at the summer cottages, as the elaborate gilded-age mansions there are referred to, and looking up the owners in a guidebook. Newport and its close proximity, was home to 3 forts and a torpedo-boat station then, as well as a diverse population of sailors, whose behavior and language the author was fascinated by.

About this point in the journey, both main characters, as well as the chauffeur (who had a girl in the city), become homesick for New York and they decided to cut the trip short and return home by the most direct route possible. They waited in a long line for the evening ferry to Conanicut Island (RI), which consisted mostly of horse-drawn conveyances. From there, the Hales boarded a second ferry to Connecticut, with grocery wagons and other tourists.

Louise tends to psycho-analyze people she meets or imagines meeting along the way. She has a lot of opinions and considers this to be an innocent hobby of hers. Spending most of her time in the back seat, she has a lot of time on her hands and much of the book consists of these rambling imaginings of hers. She describes herself as: a modernist, a (sort of) suffragist and an individualist”(whatever that is EJ).

As they drive through Southern Connecticut, they notice the many commercial market farms and gardens where workers are gathering produce to get to the markets in New York City. They drive through Groton, New London and Lyme to New Haven where they stop for gas and some sketching. They note they are less than 200 miles from ‘The City’ and decide to drive all night to get to New York as soon as possible. They are like the horse who smells the barn in the distance and they push through to Bridgeport where they finally stop at a hotel for supper, then on to Norwalk where they had to put on heavier coats, then on through Stamford, New Canaan and Rye, Connecticut. Finally, they arrive home in the wee hours to Fifth Avenue, New York City; their home sweet home!

I frequently found myself referring to the map at the front of the book to try to determine what state the travelers were in, and when that was not helpful, to the computer, as having only occasional landmarks and townships (without states) mentioned was confusing. At times, the offhand social commentary, which I realize was probably commonplace when the book was written, was disturbing and distracting to me. However, overall, I found the book to be enlightening. It has made me think a lot about the early days of driving when automobiles did not have roofs or sturdy ones anyway, heat, windshield wipers, headlights etc. At one point, they lament that being an early model, their vehicle was not a ‘self-starter’. There were not a lot of options for early motor-tourists who had to light running lamps after dark and rely on multiple maps and the directions of locals who often had never left town themselves.

Previously, travel was mostly done for commerce or other necessity. When the railroad lines were run, the routes, with few exceptions, were designed for ease of building and not scenic reasons. Those were initially constructed with trade routes for freight in mind. A bit later, spur lines were run, usually off the freight routes, for tourists to go to the mountains or seaside. Still, roads were mostly developed to get products to waterfront ports or between local markets, as inland trade was relatively localized. The first several decades of motor car travel was pretty restricted as to available routes and didn’t necessarily go entirely on course as you pleased. You had to connect the dots the best you could

We tend to take for granted all the options we have today, highways, bi-ways, back roads etc. Many of these, in fact most of these, were non-existent or little more than gravel paths when auto touring first came into fashion. Those early tourists had to be adventurous and creative to navigate from one place to another. At times, they used woods roads and cut through fields to get from one road to another.

I almost hate to admit it, but I recall the days before Interstate 93 was completed in NH and Interstate 93 finished in Vermont. I grew up in Northern Vermont and we spent most holidays at my grandparents in seacoast New Hampshire. We would leave before daylight to make the trip, either way, and driving a seemingly endless chain of back and side roads, would arrive after dark at the end of that long day. We’d eat car picnics on the way and stop only for gas and bathroom breaks, simultaneously and infrequently. And that wasn’t that long ago.

When I think of all the road trips I have taken as an adult, for the sheer enjoyment of the trip, it makes me realize the strides the concept has made in the past one hundred years. I am more grateful than ever to be able to meander along back roads because I want to and not because I have no other choice!

After Notes:

Louise was an actress, playwright and novelist during her lifetime, as well as a correspondent for Harper’s during WWI and a journalist. Her husband Walter was an actor and an artist and illustrated this and other travel articles and books. Sadly, Walter died of cancer just 2 years after they took this journey. Louise continued her creative endeavors for another 18 years on her own.

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