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How California auto clubs led the way to better roads and highways

Studebaker was one of the models advertised in the Telegram on Feb. 10, 1913, but unlike the Ford, it did not carry a price in the ad.
Studebaker was one of the models advertised in the Telegram on Feb. 10, 1913, but unlike the Ford, it did not carry a price in the ad. Feb. 10, 1913

Roads are a subject close to the hearts of taxpayers and travelers.

Two recent viewpoints were published on the opinion pages of the Tribune on the subject, and politicians say that roads are often the first thing constituents want to talk about.

Early California roads were a libertarian’s dream: low taxes, no bureaucracy and in most cases not much of a road.

The first newspaper in the county, the Pioneer, endorsed better turnpikes in its first edition on Jan. 4, 1868.

“We want better roads. No farming community can prosper without good roads and deep plowing,” wrote editor Rome Vickers.

On Jan. 25, 1868, Vickers begged for a railroad or “a webfooted mule” to bring the mail through the winter adobe mire.

At the time, bridges were rare, so the next month, on Feb. 22, Vickers suggested taking up a collection to fund one over San Luis Creek south of San Luis Obispo.

“A substantial bridge could be built for $250; a sum that would undoubtedly soon be raised if the matter was taken in hand in the right manner. At present, though, every one seems depending on his neighbor to make the first move, and, although all seem willing and anxious that it should be built, no one, as yet, has taken the lead in the matter.”

County residents were expected to pay $8 or work on a road-building assignment for four days a year.

The Pioneer wrote, “The county is sadly in need of good roads, and every resident should be willing to do his part in the way of repairing them.”

Occasionally, the county would crack open the treasury and pay for a major item. The first significant improvement of the Cuesta Grade road was built with Chinese labor and county money, but the big picture of connecting the county to the world only saw fitful efforts in the early years.

Libertarians, you had your chance. Ultimately, it took wealthy people and their clubs to improve roads.

Origin of the auto club

Before Henry Ford made cars affordable for the masses, it was largely rich folk who owned cars, and being clubby, they formed automobile touring groups.

In fact, much of the earliest signage on the roads was placed by these clubs.

The Daily Telegram on Sept. 8, 1908, said: “The Automobile Club of San Francisco has had 300 miles of roads surveyed for the placing of signs. It is the club’s plan to place signs on the roads within a radius of 300 miles of San Francisco at a total cost of $10,000.

By Nov. 8, 1912, the San Luis Obispo County Auto Club was organized. Members paid $1.50 per quarter, and barbecues and motor runs were planned.

The editor of The Telegram, C.L. Day, was an astute businessman and sensed a whole new market for advertising as the automobile industry ramped up. He would print wire stories about new trends and products as well as covering the growing scene locally.

The formation of the automobile club was front-page news the day after it formed, and the first excursion was to the San Luis Hot Sulphur Springs for a Sunday afternoon luncheon on Dec. 15.

By Feb. 10, 1913, the San Luis Obispo Automobile Club was lobbying Monterey County to build a bridge across the Salinas River 4 miles south of Bradley. The crossing over quicksand put cars and lives at risk, and a nearby rip-off artist was charging $1.50 to $10 to pull stuck motorists out with a team of horses.

In the ensuing years as Ford perfected the assembly line and automobile prices dropped, wealth was no longer required to own a car. Automobile clubs consolidated and became champions of roadside safety, insurance, trip planning and a host of other driving-related issues.

The San Luis Obispo branch of the Automobile Club of Southern California celebrates its 100th birthday on Sunday, Sept. 24, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with events including an Automotive Concours at Monarch Dunes.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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