Home Away From Home

Once Smithsonian historian/author Roger White got rolling on his research, he could not stop marveling at the motor home, a beloved piece of 'pure Americana.'

April 10, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

"On the road" was an American mantra long before Jack Kerouac sought karma with the Dharma Bums. And early house car nomads had a lot in common with Ken Kesey's busload of hippie-era Merry Pranksters.

House cars, converted buses and pickup campers often had a homemade folk art quality similar to the works of those grass-roots visionaries who create perpetual motion machines.

From the turn of the 20th century right up until today, autocampers, motor home travelers and Winnebago snow birds have thought of themselves as "gypsies."

But the operative word in Roger White's new Smithsonian Institution Press book, "Home on the Road: The Motor Home in America," is "home."

The Smithsonian launched the book yesterday with a media blowout at the National Museum of American History, where White is a transportation historian.

"Americans want to believe they're on the road and yet don't want to leave home," says White, 45, a lean, sweatered guy with a serious demeanor, an easy wit and a sharp eye for the offbeat insight.

"The message of the book," he says, "is that the motor home has always reflected the American home, from the bungalow, to the suburban rancher, to the high-tech home of today with the computer terminal and fax machine and all the high-tech gadgets we enjoy."

In a curious parallel with the late 20th century, early autocampers and house car travelers launched themselves on the road in search of a renewal of family values.

"It was an experience in itself just to research," White says, "because this is pure Americana. It takes you into a very grass-roots subject.

The motor home, White points out, did not begin as a manufactured product. "It was the other way around," he says. "It began with motorists themselves. They had this tremendous desire to go out on the road for pleasure, to pretend they didn't have homes, that they were itinerants.

"And yet they had a tremendous desire at the same time to take all the comfort and security of home and impose that on the roadside."

He cites an early example of a woman in house dress and feather duster standing in her touring car, "pretending this part of the car is a bedroom, this part the dining room. They were making this up in their mind, he says.

"That's what made this research so interesting. I became sort of a Charles Kuralt of research."

On the research road, White found a remarkable collection of Kuraltesque characters who appear in the muddle of middle America like blueberries in a muffin.

Not the least was the Bardwell family of Baton Rouge, La., Stanford and Loyola, and their seven children: Stanford Jr., Duke, T'Lane, Harvard, Princeton, Auburn and Cornell. They toured for about a decade in a 1953 Blue Bird school bus converted into a 10-bed camper they called the Collegiate Caravan. Typically, they weren't roughing it: They took their maid, Bea Houston, along.

Kuralt himself was possibly America's best-known motor home user when he crisscrossed "heartland" America for his CBS "On the Road" show.

Roger White lives in Odenton, not far from a KOA campground, but not in a motor home. He graduated from Severna Park High, got his undergraduate degree in American Studies from UMBC in 1975 and earned his master's degree at the University of Delaware. He helped launch the Baltimore Museum of Industry during William Donald Schaefer's reign as mayor.

"Of course," he says, "that wasn't transportation and I have to say that's my first love. When this job opened, I jumped at it."

That was in 1981, and he's been at the American history museum every since, officially a museum specialist for road transportation. He works in a small office packed with transportation facts.

"We don't own a motor home," he confesses. "We'd love one if someone offered. I can't say we've gone after one either. Collecting vehicles, as you can imagine, is a little different from collecting campaign buttons. You have to be really selective."

A bus from Baltimore

The museum's transportation collection does include some remarkable vehicles, including a couple of trailers, an early Model T Ford, Evel Knievel's motorcycle and a vintage Baltimore transit bus in better condition, perhaps, than many on the road today.

One of the first things White collected for the museum was a tourist cabin and its furnishings.

"A real one," he says, "from Route 1, about two miles south of Laurel. It was called Ring's Rest and it opened in the early '30s. It was a small family place with small wooden cabins. So we went and disassembled it and stored it."

Some of the stuff in the cabin went into an exhibit he helped mount at the museum in 1985, "At Home on the Road," which was inspired by "Americans on the Road," a book by Warren Belasco, a professor at UMBC.

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