In late July, 1909, Nebraska newspapers were abuzz with news of the Glidden Auto Tour. “Glidden Tourists Pass Through Omaha,” “Glidden Tourists Will Go at Top Speed Through Fremont,” “Thousands Welcome Glidden Tourists,” and “Glidden Tour Makes Kearney the Mecca of Automobilists,” were just a few of the dozens of enthusiastic headlines.
In the Fall 2012 Issue of Nebraska History, historian John T. Bauer describes why this now obscure auto tour was such a big deal. The Annual Reliability Touring Contest of the American Automobile Association (better known as the Glidden Tour) was an endurance run that gave automakers an opportunity to showcase their models. More than 30 contestants driving cars from 17 different manufacturers competed in the 3 categories of the tour. Over the 2,637 mile, 19-day-long race, the goal was not speed as much as car reliability. Contestants were required to arrive at checkpoints on time, and were penalized for being late or for any repairs made to the cars.
The route was long, grueling, and given the condition of rural roads, even dangerous. Starting in Detroit, the contestants traveled through Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis, Omaha, Denver, and Colorado Springs, ending in Kansas City. This was the first year that the tour passed through Nebraska, thanks to the insistence of western state representatives that farmers and small town residents were very interested in purchasing automobiles.
The travelers only spent two days in Nebraska, so towns had to lobby hard for attention. Most of the contestants were not interested in stopping unnecessarily, meaning that much of the attention fell on Dai Lewis, the Glidden Tour pathfinder. Newspapers wrote about him before he arrived, crowds gathered to hear him speak, and automobile dealers escorted him from city to city. After much persuasion, Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Kearney, Nebraska secured honored positions as overnight stops, gaining the chance to charm and impress the contestants. Kearney received praise from the tourists for its hospitality, particularly the six showers that were installed specifically for them. The showers were so welcomed, in fact, that they made headlines in national publications that were following the tour’s progress.
Automobile owners from all around the area gathered to see the tourists, but the next morning the contestants left for Julesburg, Colorado, speeding past many hopeful small towns. The national spotlight had moved on from Nebraska, but the moment of glory would be the talk of the state for days to come.
- Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant