In 1924, Seegar Swanson and Elliott Nystrom, both twenty years old and friends since elementary school, decided to take a year off and tour the perimeter of the United States, making sure to visit the four corners of the country: Maine, Florida, California, and Washington. They saved money for their trip and bought a 1919 Model T Ford touring car for $125. They left Ashland, Wisconsin, in the late summer of 1924, and returned to their hometown in 1925. The trip took about a year because they worked at different jobs along the way. Also, Swanson points out, more than once, that the top speed of their Model T was 25 mph, if the roads were good.
Along the way Swanson and Nystrom kept a log of their experiences and expenses and took many photographs. Additionally, they wrote long letters home. After Swanson and Nystrom finished their journey, Swanson attended Northland College in Ashland. In 1936, he became the editor of the Superior Evening Telegram and later on he worked at the Duluth News-Tribune. After a long career in journalism, he retired at seventy-two. At the age of ninety, when he started writing Ford Tramps, he had his detailed resources and years of writing experience. He spent three years writing his book, and his hard work and dedication paid off because Ford Tramps is a well-told story that captures the mood of the country and its people in the mid-1920s and gives readers a glimpse into the daily lives of ordinary Americans and the places they lived.
Published in 1999, Ford Tramps is out of print, so if you want to buy a copy from Amazon, it will be used and it will cost between $56.26 and $154.63. Thriftbooks has one copy listed for $59.99. I paid under $20 per book when I bought two copies in 2000. I gave one to my father, and I kept the other.
My father read Ford Tramps right away and loved it. I cracked open my copy in March 2023. It’s amazing how fast twenty-three years can drive by. And if I hadn’t read a blog about autocamping in the 1920s written by Chris Marcotte, my copy of Ford Tramps would still be parked on my bookshelf.
I wish I’d read Ford Tramp years ago, when my father was still alive so we could’ve talked about the book and why we liked it. Even though we never had that conversation, I’m going to tell you why I think he enjoyed the book so much.
He liked it because Swanson’s descriptions of the 1919 Model T bring the car to life. The Model T that Swanson and Nystrom drove had three pedals on the floor and a lever by the door side of the driver’s seat that controlled the transmission, and it had a lever on the steering wheel that controlled the throttle. A complex coordination between feet and hands was needed to shift gears. Machines fascinated my father. He loved being a part of them, manipulating them, controlling them, understanding them, and pushing them to their limits. He drove cars and motorcycles, and he flew planes. Just as Swanson and Nystrom had to learn the personality of their Model T and what it could and couldn’t be asked to do, my father took pride in mastering his cars, motorcycles, and planes.
He liked the book because the Model T broke down on the road, and its tires often went flat. Swanson and Nystrom played nursemaid to the Model T, learning what they could fix themselves or rig up until they could afford a mechanic. My father, a savvy mechanic, would’ve reveled in the Model T’s challenges. Sure, when the car broke down, he would’ve sputtered and cursed. Then he would’ve put the Model T in its place and back on the road. He owned his own garage where I once heard a customer with an old sports car ask him, “What if you can’t get a part?” My father answered, “I’ll rig something up, and it’ll work.” That 1919 Model T would’ve been putty in my father’s hands.
He liked the book because he was in his 60s when he read it, but he could be young again, on a vicarious adventure from the comfort of his couch where his standard poodle and his greyhound curled up near him. In 1955, he was eighteen when he moved from a small unincorporated town in northern Wisconsin to the big city of Milwaukee, hoping to make his way in the world. My father never took a road trip like Swanson and Nystrom, but in a small way, he liked to travel and experience new places and meet new people. Swanson and Nystrom met many interesting and kind people while working odd jobs and autocamping. Swanson’s writing breathes life into these men and women, allowing readers to work beside them in an orchard picking crops or sit with them around a cookstove as they share stories and food with other autocampers.
My father liked the book because Swanson included many photographs, maps, log entries, expense accounts, and receipts. It was fun to see what food, lodging, camp fees, car repairs, and other necessities cost in the mid-1920s. Swanson and Nystrom also reported how much they were paid doing manual labor. My father, an avid photographer, took photos when he traveled. After he had his film developed, he would show you ten pictures of the same vista, then ten pictures of the same museum display, then ten pictures of the same man who took him out fishing on a charter boat. My father considered maps to be among the most useful items in his life. He used them when driving to someplace unfamiliar, and he used them to plan his flights from one airport to the next. As a pilot he kept a log of all his flights, and as a businessman he kept expense accounts and receipts.
My father liked the book because the Ford Tramps spent time in his beloved state of Arizona. He moved to Arizona when he was forty, and he thought his adopted state was amazing. Swanson and Nystrom marveled at the Petrified Forest, amazed that trees had turned to stone. The pair debated between seeing a bullfight in Mexico or seeing the Grand Canyon, with both of them favoring the bullfight. The Grand Canyon won out because in Mexico, bullfights were only held as part of major holiday celebrations, and it was too long a wait for the next holiday. Some things are meant to be. Swanson and Nystrom fell in love with the Grand Canyon, agreeing it was, as Nystrom remarked, “The greatest thing we’ve seen so far.” They stayed for five days. They hiked to the bottom of the canyon and swam in the Colorado River. They hiked along the rim in both directions, and they attended a Native American ceremony. One afternoon they took shelter in their Model T during one of the desert’s quick moving and furious storms accompanied by lightning that seemed to touch the ground and thunder that redoubled its intensity as it echoed off the canyon walls. My father never tired of watching desert storms roll through Tucson.
I’m at the point in the book, when Swanson and Nystrom have just crossed into California. Even in 1925, in an effort to contain harmful pests, California border patrol officials stopped cars to make sure people weren’t carrying fruit into the state. The Model T was searched from top to bottom because Swanson and Nystrom admitted to having a handful of oranges that they’d been given in Florida. Embarrassed, but having nothing else to hide, they were allowed to enter California. I have eighty-eight pages left to read, and Swanson and Nystrom are about to visit Yosemite Park. I’m sorry my journey with them will soon come to an end.
Someone suggested I sell my copy of Ford Tramps, pointing out my investment in the book had at least tripled. I’m not selling my copy, but if I did I could list it as “like new” because it’s only been read almost once, and I haven’t spilled any coffee on it. I wish I had my father’s copy of the book, but I wouldn’t sell his copy either. However, I would’ve been willing to share one of the copies with someone else. My father would’ve liked that, too.
Had never heard of this story or book. What a part of history, and so wonderful for you to share. A nice collection of your dads’ interests as well. Thank you Vicki!
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love this story; very heartwarming — Dad, AZ, Grand Canyon, road trip, chatting up with folks around the fire that you’ll never see again, sacrifice of the bull fight, — definitely heartwarming; makes me want o do a road trip, I miss them
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