Where the West Began... Guests Camped Free

Despite initial enthusiasm from both tourists and community boosters, the heyday of free municipal tourist camps was surprisingly short lived. By mid-decade, with thousands of low-priced cars on the market, everyone from office clerks to factory workers was now able to pack the family in a flivver and take to the open road . . .

Chester H. Liebs, Main Street to Miracle Mile: American Roadside Architecture (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995)

As did many cities across the U.S. in the early 1920s, Fort Worth invested in a non-profit hospitality venture. Automobile travelers motoring along West Seventh Street could pull over and check into the Trinity Tourist Camp – located on the western edge of Trinity Park. Officially opened in 1923, it featured showers, writing and reading rooms, sanitary facilities and guards. The camp would – city officials hoped – bring people to stay for a few nights and spend some money in the city. It would also cut back on unauthorized camping on private land and roadsides.

As early as 1918, a free city-owned camping ground had materialized at the southern end of Trinity Park, primarily serving drought (then spelled “drouth” in the press) refugees from West Texas. Families arrived in canvas-covered wagons. “Under the giant trees,” a journalist wrote, the weary and worn travelers can lay down to rest and for the moment forget the sun-baked lands, withered crops and wasted efforts.”

A different crowd hit the roads in the early 1920s, though. Affordable vehicles and expanding highway systems inspired recreational excursions. The new, better-equipped camp on the north end of the park proved popular; more than 16,000 people camped there during the first year, according to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story published in January of 1924. Historians of the era have written that cities actually competed for short-term sojourners, and Fort Worth’s camp earned compliments. “Why can’t all tourist camps be like this one?” a Star-Telegram interviewee asked.

What diminished the nation’s free camps? There was money to be made through private facilities. Thomas D. Green of New York, president of the American Hotel Association, referred to “the tourist camp problem” in 1930. Disparaging remarks about “squatters” also hurt. Chester H. Liebs, a St. Paul attorney who researched camp phenomena, noted that – in the late 1920s – “municipal officials also became concerned over who might roll into town and set up house on any given evening.” Although some unsavory people did alight at camps, Liebs wrote, “Many of these fears and apprehensions were grounded solely in class prejudices, and the majority of camp guests were still by and large responsible and law abiding.” Proliferating tourist courts along the West Seventh-Camp Bowie corridor replaced the riverside haven. Farewell, campers.