As always, click the pix for larger size…
The advent of the automobile in the late 19th century had little impact for a decade or so. Most Americans saw “horseless carriages” as nothing more than toys for the rich. They were noisy, unreliable and dangerous. Some cities and towns banned them. Others passed peculiar laws, such as the one that required that a person on foot with a flag, a bell or lantern precede any auto operating within the town limits.
But in 1902, a group of people who saw the true potential of cars and trucks formed the American Automobile Association in New York. Soon, local clubs all over the nation had become affiliated. In 1904, the AAA announced a grand tour to the St. Louis World’s Fair. Main starting points would be New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, with smaller groups beginning in Minneapolis, Kansas City and Birmingham. Officially, 77 cars participated, with 66 actually making it to St. Louis. Along the way, they were joined for a day or two by hundreds of local cars.
It was the largest such event ever held and caught the attention of newspapers all over the world. Its success inspired Charles Glidden, the millionaire inventor of barbed wire, to suggest that the event be annual, and that it become a competition of some sort. To encourage that change, he offered a trophy worth $2,000 to the winner. And so the Glidden Tour was born. It would remain the premier automotive event in the nation, outstripping the Indianapolis 500, until its demise in 1913. For the first few years, it retained its east-west orientation, with New York as the starting point.
But in 1910, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the New York Herald Tribune sponsored a “Good Roads” run from Atlanta to New York. Winston-Salem was selected as an overnight stop and the Winston-Salem Board of Trade sponsored a car, a 1910 Mitchell lent by The Motor Company. The car was driven by Robah Stowe, a machinist for The Motor Company and R.J. Reynolds’ personal chauffeur. His passengers were James A. Gray, Jr.; Peter Wilson, Jr.; and Herbert B. Gunter, the managing editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. The Twin City Daily Sentinel engaged Jim Gray to write daily reports from the road.
There were dozens of other entries from all over the South. It was not a competitive event, but there was a daily time limit. Any car exceeding the limit was eliminated from the tour. On Wednesday, June 8, the tour arrived in Winston-Salem. Every car in Winston-Salem, almost four dozen, all crammed full of people, greeted them as they made their way up Main Street to the Zinzendorf Hotel. Among them were Kate Bitting Reynolds, driving her own Cadillac, with an all woman crew, but the crowd favorite was a two-seater Reo Roadster driven by seventeen year old Miss Ruby Adams, with her thirteen year old sister Edith sitting on the lap of the passenger, Miss Pauline Holder. The sidewalks and upper story windows of buildings along Main Street were jammed with people.
A lavish luncheon was served at the hotel, accompanied by speeches. The hundreds of visiting tourists and journalists were then taken on tours of Salem, Bethabara and Bethania. Partying continued through most of the night.
After the tour reached New York, the Sentinel published Jim Gray’s wrap-up. He said that in New York, the tourists voted Atlanta, New York and Winston-Salem as their favorite cities of all the tour stops. He also mentioned that the drivers encountered some strange speed limits, ranging from 99 MPH in one Georgia town to 2 MPH in Kernersville. And in Mt. Crawford, Virginia, the magistrate and his nephew, the town constable, had set up a courtroom in the middle of the street…the constable chased down several drivers on horseback and hauled them back to his uncle for fines.
The tour was covered daily by newspapers in every corner of the nation. It’s success led to the 1911 Glidden Tour making its first foray into the South, beginning in New York and ending in Jacksonville, Florida, a distance of 1,476 miles. It would come to be considered the most grueling Glidden yet.
Towns and cities along the route immediately began competing to become overnight stops. The most ferocious competition was between Winston-Salem and long-time rival Greensboro. Initially, Winston-Salem won the battle, but in the end almost lost the war. Just a few days before the tour was to begin, the Twin City received a telegram from tour officials questioning whether the city’s one hotel could accommodate all of the expected visitors. Since the city had five first class hotels, the locals were puzzled until they discovered that a huge delegation of Greensboro’s most distinguished citizens had gone lobbying in New York…and one or more of them had told tour officials that Winston-Salem had only one hotel, and that it was perhaps a bit shabby…of course the Twin City’s top hotel, the Zinzendorf, was considered throughout the South as the best in the state…alternative facts were not invented yesterday.
The event was a blend of a road race and a rally. Each day, cars were assigned a deadline for reaching the next overnight point. Unlike in a rally, they were not penalized for arriving early. But late arrivals incurred a point per minute penalty. Most of the more than seventy entries were organized into factory teams of three cars. But once again, the Winston-Salem Board of Trade stepped up to sponsor an independent local entry. The car was again lent by The Motor Company, a 1912 Mitchell 5-6 Touring car. The driver was Gernie Miller, a Yadkin County boy and a machinist at The Motor Company. He was accompanied on the journey by Paul Montague, son of H. Montague, who established and endowed the Montague Medal which is till awarded to the student with the highest grade average during senior year in all Winston-Salem / Forsth County public high schools, and W. A. Moser, who would soon become the local agent for Indian motorcycles.
The official start on October 14 in New York was merely ceremonial. The cars drove a short distance to the Hudson River ferry, which carried them over to Jersey City for the real start. The big moment for Winston-Salem would come on October 18, when the cars arrived from Roanoke. But on the 17th, as the tour headed from Lynchburg to Roanoke, a tremendous storm lashed the area. After the lunch stop in Staunton, the roads had become sea of mud. Only a handful of cars arrived in Roanoke on time. The next morning, the roads were so bad that the start was moved twenty miles south of the city. Even so, most of the competitors found themselves mired in mud and flooded or washed away while fording streams. At one point, the Winston-Salem car went into a violent skid, throwing Paul Montague out into the mud. Severely bruised, he gamely climbed back aboard and the tour went on. Very few of the cars would make it to the Twin City on time. There was unanimous agreement that the Virginia roads were the worst on the tour.
That morning in Roanoke, all competitors had been handed passes to the Winston-Salem YMCA, the Twin City Club and other local membership facilities, along with discount coupons for restaurants and soda fountains. The first to arrive found a huge crowd of over 4,000 waiting to greet them at the Zinzendorf Hotel. Two bands, the Salem Boys Band on the street level plaza and the Twin City Concert Band, on the hotel balcony, took turns playing for the guests. Inside, each competing team was greeted by a separate group of the leading women of the town, handed bouquets of flowers and escorted to their rooms.
All arrivals were wildly cheered, but the second biggest outburst occurred when Roberta “Birdie” Marks of Athens, Georgia, the only woman competitor and her all female crew came roaring down Main Street, one of only three cars still with perfect scores. That was only topped by the greeting for the Winston-Salem car, which arrived in early afternoon, also with a perfect score. They had run the last leg from Kernersville in only sixteen minutes. Gernie Miller, covered with Virginia mud, was reluctant to enter the pristine Zinzendorf lobby, so the crowd picked him up and carried him in, where he was smothered in flowers.
As cars straggled in throughout the afternoon and into the night, a perpetual festive luncheon was held and competitors were treated to tours of local points of interest. The party went on through the night. The next morning, as the competitors departed for Charlotte, they were waved off by the entire student body of the Salem Female Academy and College and a sprinkling of other college girls who had come home for the event.
On October 26, the competitors gathered in Valdosta, Georgia for the final 86 mile run to Jacksonville. The two other cars that had arrived in Winston-Salem with perfect records had encountered difficulties south of Charlotte, so only one team still had a perfect record…the Winston-Salem Board of Trade car piloted by Gernie Miller. But the referee was in conference somewhere nearby, and something else was going on out on the course. After lunch in Live Oak, Florida, Miller found himself trapped behind slower traffic, unable to pass on the single lane road. Normally, slower cars would pull over the allow the faster ones by, but this time that was not happening. By taking dangerous chances, Miller was able to pass some of them, but not all. The Winston-Salem car arrived in Jacksonville eighteen minutes late. They thought that they had won anyway until they discovered that the referee had added 26 minutes to the deadline for the Lynchburg-Roanoke segment, just enough to restore the Maxwell cars, all of which had gone about 26 minutes overtime on that stretch, to perfect records and making them the winners of the Glidden Trophy and thousands of dollars and national glory.
Follow Gernie Mitchell as several years later he and his brothers found the Miller Motor Company in the building at 610 North Liberty / 609-611 North Trade that will soon become the new home of Sweet Potatoes restaurant: https://northcarolinaroom.wordpress.com/2017/02/02/a-sweet-move/