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J.H. Brown - Auto Tour Pioneer

by Mary Butler, Research Center Director, Heritage Battle Creek


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 James H. Brown of Battle Creek, who organized group tours of automobiles, who traveled in caravans for mutual pleasure, safety and convenience.


James H. Brown is one of the most interesting figures in Battle Creek’s history.  Born in New York state in 1859, he came to Michigan as a young child.  He was raised on a "scientific farm” near Climax and was deeply interested in improving farming techniques. 


Deaf since childhood, he was largely self-taught.  But he learned enough to become a school teacher and even developed a new system of phonics to teach his students to read. 


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.


Brown continued his interest in agriculture and  in writing for newspapers and magazines for the rest of his career.  But he had two real passions in his life – history and automobiles.


He was one of the founders of the Battle Creek Historical Society in 1916.  One of his primary contribution to that organization was collecting old photographs and copying them.  A good portion of the images which we have today of 19th century Battle Creek were preserved by J. H. Brown.


Brown wanted to indulge his love of history by traveling to historic sites on the East coast.  And he was sure others shared his interest.  Thus began the concept of the caravan of automobiles, traveling together “as one big family.”


Brown began his annual Michigan Automobile Tours in 1916 and conducted a total of 12 until 1926.  The trips began in Battle Creek 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 countryside 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. 


The 1923 tour was typical.  Over 200 cars, carrying 800 people from all over the Midwest, participated in the 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.”  When they arrived in camp for the first day, they paid a final installment of $3.  Each tourist was responsible for supplying his own car and necessary tent, bedding and cooking supplies.  Extra luggage, which could not be carried in cars, was loaded onto a REO Speedwagon truck which followed the caravan.


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.


Upon arrival, each tour car was assigned a numbered fender flag and a permanent place in the caravan.  Each night the cars parked, with military precision, on a cooperative farmer’s field, where each car was allocated a space 24 feet wide.  The rows of campers were divided into three divisions, with Brown’s car in the middle, serving as camp headquarters.  Once they were parked and unpacked, the families prepared dinner and set up sleeping accommodations.  Then they gathered around the communal campfire for educational lectures on the history or agriculture of the area.


Each morning, after cooking breakfast, the cars lined up in their appointed positions, to leave the camp ground with Brown’s car in the lead


The touring cars carried a variety of camping gear, from simple tents and sleeping bags rolled up on running boards to elaborate recreational vehicles with built-in amenities. 


Brown’s six-person touring car, which he designed himself, was one of the most sophisticated.  Built on a REO chassis, his elegantly appointed car 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.


One of the most valuable accessories was a brass map case, which Brown also designed.  A thirty-foot long road map of the tour route was scrolled around two rollers inside the case mounted on the dashboard.  The route for each day’s trip was viewed through an eight-inch window and could be studied through the attached magnifying glass.


In addition to being a pioneer in auto travel, J. H. Brown was a passionate historian. 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 the Owl Drug Store at bank corners 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.


J. H. 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 the 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.”