In June of 1921, a long-planned idea of Theodore Wirth’s came into being. He had been the superintendent of the Minneapolis Parks since 1906, all during the time when America’s personal transportation system was switching from horses to cars. In 1920, he had enlisted the enthusiastic support of the Civic and Commerce Association. Plans were being considered to put a camping place at Lake Calhoun, Glenwood Park, or The Parade for tourists arriving at Minneapolis in automobiles. The Northside Commercial Club beat him to it. In June 0f 1920, they opened a camping place for 200 cars under the bridge at 42nd Ave. N. Maybe that was nicer than it sounds. The north-siders also opened another camp in 1920 at Camden Park.
Long-distance auto travel was just out of its infancy. Ten years before, a cross-country auto trip would make the hometown papers. At the beginning of the 1920s, Minneapolis was confident of 40,000 automobile tourists a season. Wirth wanted to be ready for the influx.
“The motoring tourist is a great booster who spreads his gospel of enthusiasm in a few weeks from coast to coast. A good camp, a city’s welcome, the local citizens’ hospitality, become known almost overnight to thousands of tourists,” proclaimed a letter to the newspaper. No wonder the Mayor formed a Tourist Welcome Committee. (Theodore Wirth was on it.) The Tourist Camp idea reflected a great deal of civic pride, and of course the city welcomed these tourists and their spending.
Theodore Wirth convinced the Park Board to host an auto tourist camp. Minnehaha Park was chosen as the site. As had been the case in the mid-1800s, the Falls and the pretty glen below were a central focus for tourists. Wanting to “fit up” the camp with every possible comfort, “light, water, sewer, and shelter” were to be provided. In April of 1921, various civic organizations in South Minneapolis declared that 50 men were at the ready to clear the ground for those improvements. The Park Board appropriated $2,500 toward the effort.
Scant weeks later, the camp opened with 120 spots for the auto tourist.
So enthusiastic were Minneapolis’ civic leaders that the Auto Tourist camps provided cooking facilities along with those “every possible comforts.” And it was all entirely free.
The Minnehaha Auto Tourist Camp was a popular success from the moment it opened. But perhaps Wirth and the other civic leaders over-estimated just how much automobile-tourism there was in that first season of 1921. They hosted 3,405 people in 681 autos. An average of 5 people per car: That seems high.