Paper GPS guided motorists 100 years ago

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They used to call it motoring.

The acquisition of an automobile was a particularly prestigious event for well-to-do members of the community in the early 1900s.

This time of year was challenging for those proud automobile owners. For the most part, they had not been able to drive their vehicles on snow-covered Maine roads, and now the urge was building to get out and go touring on spring-like days over barely passable, unpaved roads.

Just before World War I, many of the automobiles seen around town were open to the elements. The adventurous automobilists often donned long coats and goggles for protection against dust or mud. They grabbed their GPS and set off down the road like Mr. Toad in “The Wind in the Willows.”

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Wait a minute. They grabbed a GPS?

Well, sort of. I have one. Maybe it was not a global positioning system, but it was a geographical positioning system. I found it in one of my frequent trash-or-treasure searches through boxes of old photos and letters.

The Maine Automobile Association, which was based in Portland, published yearly guides of motoring routes around the Pine Tree State, and the 1916 edition I came across is a remarkable forerunner of the digital screen with voice-assisted maps we use today.

The title page says the 400-page book “points the way” to Maine cities and towns, with almost mile-by-mile instructions on getting there. As you read, you can almost hear that electronic voice of a modern GPS. The book claims a tourist could cover the full “Pine Tree Tour” in less than two weeks.

Here’s a sample of what the pages of this 4-inch-wide and 10-inch-tall volume contains.

At the start of directions to Farmington, the guide takes the driver past Lake Auburn and through Livermore Falls with notes about the route at frequent intervals. At the entry for mile 36.1 at North Jay, it says, “Cross bridge and pass monument on left.” At East Wilton, mile 39.1, it says, “Keep left at fork at stone watering trough.”

That’s the kind of information listed for travel through Maine. The section describing Auburn-to-Portland says you will find “Splendid new gravel road” from Auburn to Danville Junction, and then “fair to good dirt road” to Portland.” Some routes warn about poor travel in wet weather.

There’s a box with this advice midway through the book. It says, “Remember that the preservation of the highways depends as much on the automobilist as it does on the road patrolman. Don’t speed. Don’t run in a rut. Keep off the shoulders as much as possible. Don’t go around corners fast. Use chains only when necessary and don’t apply your brakes too suddenly.”

The Lewiston Journal of May 16, 1916, carries an advertisement for Cadillac Sales Co., Park Street, Lewiston, that says a Twin Cities motorist “went out on those bad roads north of the town last Sunday, and made every hill on high.”

There’s also an ad for Hudson cars, which could be bought at The Hudson Motor Sales Co. on Main Street, Lewiston. And, the Maxwell could be purchased at Hall & Knight Hardware Co. on Lisbon Street. Does the name “Maxwell” ring a bell? Jack Benny’s old Maxwell could be heard coughing to a start on many of the comedian’s radio shows.

A news item from May 1916 creates a vivid picture of motoring back then. It says two men from Oxford were passing through Shaker Village at night. They had turned to the side to “let a team” pass, as many horse-drawn vehicles were still using the roads at that time.

The car “skidded into the ditch and almost in the twinkling of an eye the machine turned turtle, pinning the two men beneath.”

Their shouts roused residents of the Shaker community, and one of the Sisters said, “Not only did they cry for ‘help,” but they also shouted, “Murder!”

The Shaker sisters and brethren righted the car, treated the men’s cuts and bruises and gave them breakfast in the morning.

Motoring was truly an adventure nearly 100 years ago as you followed the guidance of your paper-bound version of a GPS.

Dave Sargent is a native of Auburn and a freelance writer. He can be reached by e-mail at dasargent@maine.com.

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