By Ted Hunt
When Henry Ford introduced the Model T automobile in 1908, he gave Americans mass mobility and a means of escaping their restrictive environment. Americans saw the automobile as a new way to explore the unknown, and explore they did. The auto quickly replaced the horse and buggy. It could be used in everyday activities; it was less trouble than a horse or mule and could carry passengers and pull trailers for miles without requiring a rest and water break — or having to be fed.
Just a Few Miles Down the Road
With the advent of the automobile, states began building hard surface roads to accommodate the demand. The Dixie Highway, completed in 1915, ran from Montreal to Miami. It connected with another set of roads from Michigan to Florida. The completed system is better understood as a network of connected paved roads, rather than one single highway. The Tamiami Trail highway, completed in 1928, gave Florida more than 3,000 miles of open roads to travel. Florida was always a destination for tourism as early as the 1870s, who arrived by trains and steamboats. Tourism exploded with the auto and paved roads, and tourists came by the tens of thousands to the Sunshine State — “auto camping” became the norm.
The Tin Can Tourists Club
With the influx of so many folks with a common interest in camping and pulling their homes behind them, America’s first RV (recreational vehicle) camper club, the Tin Can Tourists of the World, was organized in Tampa in 1919. They were called “auto campers.” The idea was to create clean and safe parks for members to stay with their families. It stressed friendship and shared experiences, living in a tent, pulling trailers and camping around the country. The organization had their own secret handshake, sign, password and song. The head of the group was given the title Royal Exalted Tin Can Opener of the Tin Can Tourists, which was changed to Royal Chief in 1935. They held two annual meetings a year, summers in Michigan and winters in Florida. Many members soldered a tin can to their radiator cap as a badge of their participation. Membership is estimated at 17,000 in 1921 and soared to over 100,000 by 1935: The Tin Canners were many and true pioneers of the open road.
The origin of the name Tin Can is uncertain. Some say it was named after the Ford Model T, often called the Tin Lizzie. Others attribute it to the tinned food cans that made up a substantial part of their diet or the most popular explanation, they pulled trailers that resembled oversized soup cans.
Buckle Up — Let’s Go for a Spin
These nomadic adventurers roamed the Florida roads, seeking thrills, spills and the perfect spot to camp or park their portable palaces. They didn’t need a fancy GPS or travel app to find their way. They had trusty roadmaps and a sixth sense for adventure. The Tin Canners swarmed over the Florida peninsula. They braved bumpy dirt roads, washed out bridges, fallen timbers blocking their path and wild hogs challenging for space on the road — finding yourself in the middle of a cow stampede was not uncommon.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Florida offered few public campgrounds or lodgings for the tourists, so tents were the order of the day. Tin Canners often modified their tents to include their cars as part of the structure. The car became a place of rest as well as a mode of transportation. Early auto camps were often little more than backyards, lawns, or a cleared space on the side of a dirt road. They were known as “roadside gypsies.”
Their cars were standard Model Ts, large touring sedans or trucks of all shapes and sizes, piled high with bedding, canvas tents and boxes of canned food. Five-gallon cans of gasoline and water were strapped to every available space. Spare tires were tied to the fenders. The autos looked like turtles, carrying their homes on their backs.
Many pulled trailers. Some looked like small houses —others like tear drops, train cars, and yes, soup cans. They painted their trailers in every available color, transforming them into rolling rainbows on wheels. There are reports of what looked like circus parades cruising down country roads. They were often called “motor-hobos” or “auto-vagabonds.”
Strength in That Horsepower
The formation of the Tin Can Tourist Club gave clout to the group. Throughout Florida, camps were established to accommodate the members. By the 1940s just about every major city and town created camp accommodations for the Canners. Camps with 1,000 lots were not uncommon and became completely rented out in the winter months. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s these camps flourished with the influx of seasonal visitors who pulled their homes behind them. Trailer parks developed to cater to the waves of new visitors. Roadside attractions, amusement parks and gas stations developed facilities to meet the needs of the Auto Campers. Tin Canners were a blessing to local economies: They brought money to buy stuff.
Today’s Tin Canners
Gradually, these camps began to diminish in importance as small and affordable motels replaced them in the late 1950s and 1960s. The Tin Can Tourists stayed intact until late ’70s until the late 90’s when the towed house trailer was replaced by the self-propelled RV with some as expensive as a home. In 1998 the club was revived in Michigan and just like the original group, it holds annual meetings every summer in Michigan and at various campgrounds in Florida in winter.
They also hold rallies throughout the year at campgrounds in the US and Canada. Today there are over 2,500 campers registered with the Tin Can Tourists of America organization.
So, next time you see a vintage tin can trailer on the highway or backroad, give them a honk and a wave, for they carry the spirit of the original Tin Can Tourists, the pioneers of the portable lifestyle.
They are the true “happy campers”!