Sometimes the way we view history becomes skewed–as if everything that happened before our own lifetimes occurred all at once. For instance, we think of train travel as a dated mode of transportation. However, consider this: Thomas Jefferson never lived to see a steam-powered train. That’s really quite amazing that one of the fathers of westward expansion conceived the idea without having seen the speed with which we can now travel to these once-distant areas. Trains certainly changed the possibilities of what the country could and would become.
Perhaps no invention changed peoples’ personal travel opportunities the way the car did. While automobiles evolved slowly through the end of the 19th century, it wasn’t until Henry Ford put those metal contraptions on an assembly line in 1908 that cars became affordable to the masses. While still considered a luxury by many, a car was at least within reach of many in the middle class. Suddenly, people could travel beyond the confines of their own cities—and travel they did! The 1920s saw the completion of Route 66, from St. Louis to California. The emergence of the first road trips began, when “Tin Can” tourists took to the road in their Tin Lizzies, as Model Ts were affectionately known. Businesses sprung up to accommodate the tourists who could wander the roads at their own leisure, rather than being beholden to train schedules and urban environments. For instance, hotels were something usually only seen in cities. Entrepreneurs then created the motel–a combination of “motor” and “hotel”–that allowed travelers to pull directly to the front door. The first motels even had individual carports.
With the car’s evolution, followed by the creation of the highway system, supported in great part by petroleum companies, came changes to everyday life as well. People could not only travel occasionally, but they could make different choices in where they lived and worked. So, along came the suburbs, turning Chesterfield from an agriculturally- focused community into an enclave of the larger St. Louis area.
Nevertheless, the evolution was not necessarily a speedy one. One of my mom’s childhood recollections in the 1940s is sitting at my great-grandmother’s house on Olive Street Road, counting the cars that passed. “In the evenings my grandma and I would sit on the front porch and listen to the quiet sounds of dusk – crickets, katydids, voices in the distance and each pick a number. Then we eagerly counted each car that passed the house on Olive Street Road to see whose number was the winner. Usually it was between 3 and 7 …over a span of an hour or two.”
I remember the same car counting game, but by the time I played, I had to be a slightly faster counter. Of course, the most vivid auto-related memory of my youth is watching the traffic of Olive Street Road at a complete standstill as drivers waited in seemingly endless lines for gasoline during the energy crisis of the late 1970s. Now, with four lanes and more intense travel, the game might be a true challenge.
Think how different our landscapes would be without all of the vestiges that accompany an auto-driven society. The next time you drive through Chesterfield, take a look around. What would the landscape look like without parking lots, drive-thru restaurants, motels and gas stations? All were born out of the history of the automobile.