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Western Trails Project - Advent of Automobiles

Cars passing through Dorrance, Kansas, as part of Glidden TourWhen automobiles appeared, they began to change rural life in Kansas. The speed of automobile travel ended some of the isolation of rural residents. Touring the countryside by automobile became a new leisure time activity. The annual Glidden Reliability Tours, organized by entrepreneur Charles Jasper Glidden from 1905 to 1913, helped popularize automobile travel by demonstrating the dependability of automobiles for long roadtrips.

The photo on the right, from the L. W. Halbe Collection, shows Glidden Auto Tour participants passing through Dorrance, Kansas, on July 29, 1909. View this photograph and others in the Halbe collection by clicking below.

Advertisement for Hockaday auto supply store, WichitaEarly touring drivers needed information about the existing roads that included an assessment of whether they were suitable for automobile use. Automobile tour guides used a narrative together with mile increments and existing landmarks—railroad track crossings, schoolhouses, grain elevators—to direct the driver. Sometimes these early guides published the license plate numbers and car models of automobile owners in the area. View an example of an early Sedgwick County guide.

F.W. "Woody" Hockaday, an auto supply store owner in Wichita, Kansas, was one of the first people to issue state road maps like the ones we use today.

Since most rural roads were dirt at the turn of the century, farmers were at the mercy of the weather when they needed to get their products into town. Before the state highway system was in place, road maintenance was the responsibility of local landowners. Good roads problem pamphletThe Kansas Good Roads Association formed in Topeka in 1900 to lobby for improvements to the existing road system. Communities participated in "Good Roads Days" that drew members of the community together to work on their local roads using hand tools and horse drawn equipment.

As automobiles became a common form of transportation, plans rapidly evolved to link counties, states and even countries through a network of graveled, oiled or paved "365-day roads." Organizations were formed to promote specific highway routes, including the Meridian Highway to connect Canada to Mexico, closely following the 6th prime meridian through Kansas (present-day U.S. 81) and the Pan-American Highway which would extend the Meridian Highway to South America. Several U.S. coast-to-coast routes were proposed. A speech by J. M. Lowe circa 1912-1915, published by the National Old Trails Road project, descibed a highway that would follow the route of the historic Santa Fe Trail through Kansas.

Photo of countryside near Dorrance by L.W. HalbeThe United States' entry into World War I suspended some of the pressure for road improvements, but by the end of the war, road improvements were being touted as essential to provide employment for all of the returning soldiers. In 1928 the passage of a constitutional amendment in Kansas cleared the way for federal and state funding of a coordinated state highway system. To view additional images of early road and automobile pamphlets and photos, select the photograph collection or title below.

L. W. Halbe photograph collection

Automobiles and Road Pamphlets

Year Book. Automobile Club of Wichita, 1909-1910.

The Good Roads Problem. F. L. Coburn, c. 1912.

National Old Trails Road Project. J. M. Lowe, c. 1913.

Annual Report. Kansas Good Roads Association, 1918.