Auto camps started in the early 20s as municipalities struggled to cope with the increasing numbers of tourists on the roads. As automobiles had become more affordable, throngs of "auto gypsies" camped along the roadside. These early campers often camped on private property and left evidence of their visit behind in the form of tin cans and other bits of garbage. By providing a specific place for tourists to stay, municipalities could prevent trespassing and while attracting tourist dollars.
These early auto camps were free and they spread across the U.S. during the early 1920s. John Margolies in Home Away from Home provides these interesting numbers: "By 1920, with some 12 million cars on the road, some 300 cities provided free tourist parks. By 1922 there were 1,000 such facilities, and the number jumped to 2,000 by 1923" (Margolies, 17). They ranged from "accomodations offering a clubhouse, dance hall and laundry room to an open field" (Margolies, 17).
The rhetoric surrounding auto-camping touted it as supremely democratic and egalitatrian. All men and women were leveled in the great outdoors, as they squatted together, cooking their supper over an open fire. In his excellent book, Americans on the Road Warren Belasco explains:
This was the camp-as-melting-pot, a roadside re-enactment of the assimiliationist myth. Yet, as with the myth itself, there were limits, subtle assumptions about the kinds worth melting with...in the end, autocampers emphasized respectability over eccentricity and democracy. If romantics hoped to cross class lines, it was the line between the middle and upper classs; now the modereately well-off could do what had once been reserved for the very affluent [in travelling]. The Pierce-Arrow thus received more attention than the Ford, for the rich man's car -- not the poor man's -- legitimized the sport" (Belasco, 106).The introduction of consumer credit and the first generation of used cars on the market democratized automobile ownership. The guests at municipal auto camps shifted from those who could have afforded to stay at a hotel to those who had far fewer options. The autocamper, once seen as a source of tourism dollars, was seen as a drain on the local economy. The negative response to those with less money to spend, was no doubt exacerbated by the growing depression, the effects of which, at the end of 20s, were already being felt by many farmers. Warren Belasco describes both the cause and the effect of the shifting demographic of these auto camps:
Most disturbing was the highly visible automobility of these people. At a time when cars were still considered a sign of success, the migrant motorist was an unwelcome reminder of economic dislocation. His dilapidated Ford mocked the studied shabbiness of the autocampers, for his shabbiness was real. Also threatening was the fact that he took his family along. Autocamping had appealed to a desire to stabilize middle-class families; yet cars seemed to make migrant family life less secure, for migrants did not enjoy permanent homes, schools or churches" (Belasco, 112).Towns and cities tried to keep out less affluent guests by charging a fee to stay. With these entrance fees, sponsors of these camps hoped to cover the expenses involved in their operation and to restrict the guests to those who could afford a user fee. The user fee made the autocamp an attractive business oppportunity for enterprising local property owners. By the end of the 20s, the operators of these autocamps had shifted from local governments to individual entrepreneurs.