A history of auto travel in Grand Lake
On May 29, I joined the Grand Lake Historical Society’s Walking Tour to explore the hidden history of the most well-known town in our county. At the end of our tour through the town, we stopped at the Smith-Eslick Cottage Court on Vine Street.
The museum holds much of Grand Lake’s history, including the impact of automobile tourism on the town’s growth. Around 1915, the Smith-Eslick family built the Cottage Court, which has the distinction of being the oldest original motel structure in the entire U.S. The Court was named after three generations of the same family who owned and operated it, welcoming visitors and making sure their stay was comfortable. The Cottage Court originally had carports and was geared to a new type of traveler in those days — ones with automobiles.
Museum docent Elin Capps gave us a tour of the Cottage Court, which featured four, rustic bark-sided cabins separated by carports.
“Imagine living in Iowa or someplace, and hearing that your neighbor has a new automobile. They ask if you want to take a ride with them up into the mountains. For the first time, you’re traveling outside of your hometown, and exploring the country,” Capps said, reflecting on how exciting this must have been for average Americans ready to explore the vast U.S.
In the early 1900s, vehicles, known as horseless carriages, revolutionized how people traveled. Previously, getting from here to there required literal horsepower on stagecoaches or in the saddle, or a train ticket where passengers were restricted to specific stops and timetables. Now, traveling was as easy as hopping into your personal vehicle parked in the driveway, then heading in whatever direction called to you. In those days, many were called to the West, eager to escape crowded cities.
In the 1903 article “Frontiering in an Automobile” by Colorado resident Philip Delany, he wrote of his groundbreaking journey from Colorado Springs to Santa Fe and back: “so the machine is conquering the old frontier.” He wrote people could now drive into “the wildest and most natural places on the continent.”
“The trails of Kit Carson and Boone and Crockett, and the rest of the early frontiersmen, stretch out before the adventurous automobilist. And when he is tired of the old, there are new paths to be made,” Delany continued.
Many road-trippers were inspired by this advice.
Capps explained that in 1913 Henry Ford brought moving assembly lines to his factories, which resulted in a boom in automotive production. The Ford Model T is known as the “universal car that put the world on wheels.” The idea of the road trip was born, and the sky was the limit. Thanks to mass production, middle-class Americans could afford cars that offered them a freedom once reserved for the wealthy. Road trips epitomized the American ideals of freedom, pioneering spirit, self-reliance and courage. Courage may seem incongruent to the current definition of a road trip, but Capps assured us that these early road-trippers were courageous.
They embarked on trips without cell phones or Google maps — on unpaved, isolated roads and over Berthoud Pass. Cars could go up to 60 mph, and lap belts were rudimentary. Capps explained that travelers also had to pack all their belongings, meals and tools in their little cars, in case they broke down. There was no AAA to call; restaurants, motels and gas stations were few and far between. There was also a risk of having their car or its parts stolen, so carports like those at the Cottage Court were necessary.
These risks didn’t deter travelers from hitting the road, however. Picturesque Grand Lake, nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountains, became a haven for tourists. The town, formerly a getaway for Denver’s elite who had money for summer vacations, could now be visited by anyone. Many of these travelers packed their trunks (in those days, literally a trunk they tied to the end of their car) and parked their Model Ts at Smith-Eslick Cottage Court at a time when one could rent a room for a $1.50 a night.
First, Capps showed us the automobile amenities the museum housed. After it became clear cars weren’t a passing fad but were about to transform the American landscape, companies began manufacturing automobile amenities for road-trippers. The first of these was the Birch Pueblo Auto Bed.
This was a portable double bed that tourists could take with them in their cars. It weighed 50 pounds and had an cast iron frame.
“It was like a plumbing project when you stopped your car, because you had to put this whole thing together. But at least you weren’t on a bed roll with the ticks, you were off the ground,” Capps said.
In those days, many road-trippers camped out during their journeys. Motels hadn’t yet become mainstream, and many enjoyed the experience of being out in nature and practicing self-reliance, just as early pioneers of the West had done.
The next amenity the Birch Co. created were enormous tents with a large flap that you could put over the top of your bed and your car to protect its roof.
“You had to keep the canvas over your car roof, because it could get clobbered in the rain or hail,” Capps said.
Capps also showed us a shiny black 1920s Model T parked in a carport and gave us a tour of the modest rooms where travelers stayed to enjoy to the lake, before continuing their road trip. The simple rooms featured a stove for cooking, a water basin for cleaning up, a table and a bed — all the visitors needed for a few nights’ stay. Capps explained that visitors enjoyed fishing, early forms of water skiing on a “aquaplane,” snow skiing down Trail Ridge Road, and exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, which officially opened in 1915.
Thanks to cars, tourists to the quaint Grand County town had driven from crowded city streets, through awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains, to the peaceful shores of Grand Lake in a day.
On a visit to Cottage Court Museum, you can step inside an integral era in Grand Lake’s history as a tourist mecca. Although the museum already contains many important and unique relics from that time, there is even more to look forward to as the museum continues to expand.
In 2008, the Cottage Court was relocated by the Grand County Historical Society to a one-acre property. This acreage will allow for the creation of Grand Lake History Park, which will recreate the Court’s original wooded setting, including a fire pit, picnic area and pavilion to hold community events. They will also recreate the Court’s former office and mercantile as a welcome center. The museum hopes to complete renovations in 2024.
Stay updated by visiting the Grand Lake Historical Society’s website to see what renovations are in store for Cottage Court.
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