Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Great Back East Mortorhome Trip of 1969

In the summer of 1969, when I was 12 years old and just out of seventh grade, our family went 'back east" on an epic motorhome road trip. I kept a daily journal with illustrations and post cards of our journey. I think it was a requirement from mom. I scanned those pages. Notice what nice cursive writing I had (thanks teachers at Adam's School). Dad wrote his memories of the trip as part of his "An approximate history of John William and Norda Fife Emmett from 1945-2002" which we all received as a Christmas gift in 2002. Entries from his life history are quoted in blue below.  FYI: dad's memory and my journal account do not always match up. Most of the photos are scanned from dad's kodahchrome slides. A few (most with black sides, because they are square slides and not oblong) are from us boys each of whom took photos using Kodak Instamatic cameras with flash cubes.

John Emmett's account:
"Sometime in 1968 or maybe 1967 there was an article in the Relief Society Magazine telling about a family from Bountiful who had saved money for a year and then rented a motorhome to take the family on an extended Family Home Evening -type trip to the East coast. I had finally broken past the minimum earnings guarantee ($12,000 per year) at the Logan LDS Hospital and decided we should be able to do the same thing. Norda agreed and we started planning and saving. 

We bought a road atlas and started planning our route with the intentions of including U.S.A. and LDS church historical sites, ski areas, family members, friends, and an occasional major city along the way. Little did we know that a few Dodge dealerships, out of the way RV facilities, Church parking lots, 15 mph curves in West Virginia, and the Washington DC parking police would also be included in the itinerary. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We loaded up in Logan and headed out for Colorado to see what the ski area at Aspen looked like. By the time we got to Glenwood Springs it was late in the afternoon and the Woodall directory of RV parks did not indicate any nearby places to "hook up" so we spent the first night of the trip "free standing" in the parking lot back of a familiar looking building we were sure was an LDS chapel. So far so good (except for the back bumper that was bent when I caught it on a post at a gas station in Glenwood Springs - it takes a while to figure out how much overhang there is at the back of a 26 foot motorhome).

Dad would mark out our route with a yellow highlighter. I loved following along with the road atlas and helping with navigation. This love of maps is one of the reasons I knew that I liked geography.  

The next morning we initiated our breakfast ritual with only limited success. Each child was to choose their favorite Kellogg cereal from the variety pack, open the carton's wax paper lining carefully so it wouldn't leak, pour in the appropriate amount of milk, sprinkle with sugar, EAT IT ALL, and dispose of the container before putting their spoons in the sink to be washed. For some reason this idyllic plan never quite got off the ground but "what can you expect from a bunch of slow learners in only 3 weeks" ended up covering a multitude of sins during the course of the trip. 

Our first stop before heading out of town was at the local Safeway store for provisions. While Norda and I cruised the aisles with most of the children tagging along so they could pick out their favorite junk food, Jake (age 10) drifted off to look at comic books. After going through the check out line we dutifully hauled all of the supplies to the RV, carefully put everything away, and hit the road. After driving a few miles someone asked "where's Jake?" and, because no one had an immediate answer, we returned to the store and retrieved him from the magazine rack. Thus was born our first accommodation to traveling with a group of 8 - each time we re-entered the motorhome and were about to drive off Norda would say "count off" and I would say "one", Norda would follow with "two", Bill with "three", and so on until Tom finished the routine with "eight". Then Norda would ask "is the door locked?" and one of the children would either answer "yes" or "I'll get it" and then, and only then, was I permitted to start rolling out to further pursue our great adventure.  

In the master bedroom where mom and dad slept.

 The three drivers in the cab. 


At every campground, dad was in charge, with us older boys helping, to hook up the electricity, water and sewage (the yuckiest part). In some campgrounds we had to dump out our sewage at specific dumping place. Some campgrounds had shower stalls which we would use.


Tom and Mary always slept on the floor with Jake above on the dining table that folded down in to the twin bed where Jake (pictured) and I slept. Bill and Bob slept on bunkbeds that folded out and up from a sitting bench.

Dad taking the sleeping photo.

Sleeping was also an option during the day, either sitting up or on the back bed.

This KOA guide book from that era has entries similar to the entries in the Woodall Guide. This image shows the entry for the Goodland Kansas KOA we stayed at.

Mom was a big fan of General/President Eisenhower.

The drive across Kansas was flat but green and included our first encounter with Interstate rest stops (which usually meant a gas station, restaurant and gift shop). It was also out first introduction to those big, red WRONG WAY signs that give you a clue if you are headed someplace you shouldn't. The only other rarity on our way to Kansas City was the loud 'thump' associated with a pheasant hitting our windshield and leaving a few feathers stuck to the glass as a memento of the encounter. We survived but I don't thing the bird did.

The journey was not without its wrong ways, its coming to a stop out in intersections, and its getting lost.

Abilene, Kansas

Eisenhower home.

We always hoped that the campground or motel would have a swimming pool. Don't know where this pool was, but once in a while we got lucky. Mary on my shoulders.

Bob ( I think)

Bill and me.

Post cards are of the Mormon Visitor center in Independence near the temple site and an old photo of Nauvoo with the original temple.

As we approached Kansas City I noticed the battery charging gauge was at "zero" and that it just stayed there. After finding a place to hook up we spread out for the night. The next morning I located a nearby Doge dealership and arranged to have a new alternator installed. We rented a car for the day and visited some of the local sites (Harry Truman's home and Presidential library, Liberty jail, the RLDS tabernacle, and the LDS information center) before retrieving the motorhome and turning in for the night again. 

In no particular order we visited Hannibal, Missouri, sites related to Tome Sawyer (including a damp tour through "the cave"), Nauvoo (which didn't have much done in the way of restoration back then), the Carthage jail, Adam-ondi-ahman and some Lincoln sites in New Salem and Springfield, Illinois.  Then it was on to Cincinnati to stop over with my nephew, David Nelson, and his family. 


Dad in front of Tom Sawyer's home.


Tom Sawyer Cave, Hannibal Missouri. I think this was one of the photos I took.

Crossing the Mississippi.

Carthage Jail (one of my photos)

 Nauvoo House, which was originally a hotel owned by Joseph Smith.

Twenty three years later in 1992 the John and Norda Emmett family (all six kids and all of their kids) held a reunion in Chicago and Nauvoo. We rented out the whole "hotel" which the RLDS church managed as a dormitory style accommodation. Coming up the hill from the Mississippi River are some of the grandkids.

Here is the whole "famdamily" at the terminus of Parley Street where Charles Shumway, Norda's great-grandfather, embarked westward in the first wagon of the exodus from Nauvoo.

Notice the "Mod Negro" I drew--one of many we saw.  For a kid from Logan Utah this was an unusual sight for me. FYI: Mod means cool, hip, modern as determined by his bell bottoms and peace sign necklace.

I'd say that my plaid shorts with yellow socks that match my yellow shirt made be "mod" too. Keith O'Brien's on main street in Logan was our main source of clothing. More often than not, mom would buy the same shirts and shorts but in different sizes and colors for the four oldest boys.

 Lincoln House and Museum

Fairly early the next morning we took off for Williamsburg on what turned out to be about a 16-hour drive. The roads through West Virginia followed the contour of the land faithfully and there were a lot of 15 mile per hour curves that could not be negotiated at 20 MPH. We saw lots of hills, valleys, mines, and small run down towns. It was probably the mos depressing area of the whole trip. By the time we got to Williamsburg at 11 pm we were glad to find the RV park - even though we soon found out that it was bounded on one side by a very busy railroad track. Fortunately we were all tired enough to sleep through most of the noise from the passing trains.

Sometimes we ate lunch on the road, but other times we would stop so the kids could run around (playing football here with Bill and Jake versus Bob and Chad) while mom fixed lunch in a stationary motorhome.

West Virginia

 The hedge maze at Williamsburg. Black Converse All-Stars were worn everyday it seems.

Bob with dad's Polaroid camera.

I've always been impressed with well tended gardens.





After 2 days of looking at the colonial period as seen through the re-construction at Williamsburg we headed for Washington, D. C., and found a RV park in a wooded area about 20 miles out of town. The next morning we drove into the heart of the Washington Mall and found that parking space for a 26 foot long motorhome was a t a real premium. I finally found a place near a bus area and left Norda in charge of seeing that we didn't get towed away while I took the children to see the Capitol building While we were gone a nice officer explained to Norda that we shouldn't be parked there and when she asked where we should park he said "on the outskirts of town and take a taxi from there". Before moving on we saw everything on the Mall - the Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson monuments (I think Norda and Jake were the only ones who walked down from the top of the Washington monument) [my journal confirms Mom and Jake plus Mary walked down and Bill, Bob and me walking up all of the stairs--I have long remembered that feat and am glad we did it while the upward climb was still permitted], the Smithsonian Institution, the White House and the outside of the Blair House, the Library of congress, and the Supreme Court.

 George Washington's Grave

  Mt. Vernon


At the White House

Our planned route from DC to Delaware took us via Baltimore. Because of propane tanks, the motorhome was not allowed to use the Interstate 95 tunnel under Baltimore Harbor. Instead we were diverted to US highway 1 that meandered along the city streets of downtown. The year before Baltimore had been wracked with deadly race riots. Mom knew of the riots and was nervous. Dad decided that we needed gas right about the time we were driving through what looked like a mostly black urban neighborhood. He did not seem phased by the situation so he pulled into a gas station to fillerup (which took some time given the big gas tanks). Mom "freaked out" and commanded that no one get out but dad. We gassed up and left without incident.

Over 700 people were injured and almost 6,000 arrested during the Baltimore Riot of ’68.

The next day we headed for Philadelphia and saw the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall before striking out for New York. Most of the bridges and tunnels had warning signs about "dangerous cargo' which, it turns out, includes propane gas. We first discovered this when we couldn't take the tunnel under part of the Chesapeake Bay and had to drive through the downtown area of Baltimore. When we came to the George Washington Bridge the sign said "hazardous cargo exit here" so off we went. The next think I knew we were in Spanish Harlem and didn't have a clue how we were going to find the parkway that led to Pelham where my sister Dorothy and her family lived. I pulled into a Shell station and tried to get directions from the attendant but his English was about like my Spanish so I just followed my instincts, returned to the bridge exit, ignored the "dangerous" cargo signs and headed for the suburbs without delay. Dorothy and Claire rolled out the welcome mat and we moved in for a brief stay so we could (1) find a Dodge dealership to have another alternator installed and (2) visited the Big Apple per se. So, the next day Norda kept Mary and Tom in Pelham with her and did the laundry while I took Dorothy's car and loaded up the other 4 boys to head to NYC. WE drove down the West Side Highway and parked near the Battery Park. A short walk had us to the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and before we knew it we were climbing the stairs up the arm to get to the torch. I'm not sure they let you go up there any ore but I think I have a slide or two to prove we made it - if I just knew where the slides were. 

Next came a ride uptown on the subway just so we could say we had been there and done that. We made it to the top of the Empire State Building, which was the tallest building in the world at the time, and then I called the theater where Max Morath was performing to see if we could get tickets for that evening. The play was affirmative so now we had a slight problem - all the boys were in short pants and t-shirts which did not seem appropriate for an off-Broadway production even though it was a one man show. The logical solution was to go to Macy's department store and buy some clothes for them. Everyone found something appropriate in a hurry except Bill. He was 17, had his driver's license, and swooped his hair over his forehead in a very particular way so it behooved him to find something appropriate for his current status in life. After much looking, without success, I spotted some pants hanging on a rolling rack and pointed them out to him. He decided they would be OK so I made the purchases and they all changed outfits in the store's dressing rooms. We put the traveling clothes in a sack and left to find a way to get back to the car park, head toward the theater, and get something to eat. The only problem was that Bill kept tripping on this pants, That is when we figured out I had found the "return rack" and these pants were defective because one leg was about 5 or 6b inches longer than the other. A quick fold under and some well placed safety pins got us going even though Bill still didn't think he look too "spiffy". 

By now it was rush hour and cabs were few and far between We finally hailed one down but when he counted noses he said they could arrest him for having 5 fares so "2 of the kids will have to scrunch down on the floor where they can't be seen". We agreed and then I told him we were in a real hurry because we had to go to the Battery, get the car, get back up to about 76th street, find a place to eat, and be at the theater by curtain time. He said "hold on" and took off down the West side along the docks and under the elevated highway. If you have ever seen THE FRENCH CONNECTION and can remember Gene Hackman's chase of the train you will have some idea what our ride was like. [A few years after this trip dad took us to see The French Connection in Logan's Gem Theater. It was the first R rated movie I ever saw. During the car chase scene all of us boys agreed that it was very much like our speedy and thrilling cab ride under the elevated highway in NYC.] The good news is that we found the car, found the theater, found a place to eat, and made it in time for the curtain. The bad news is that Max Morath didn't sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" that night but we all knew it by heart anyway so it didn't matter much. The rest of the show was really great - so good in fact that Norda and I drove to Colorado on a Friday night impulse to see him perform the same show at the Central City Opera House and, later, when he brought a touring company to Slat Lake City we took the whole family to see him at the Pioneer Theater. 


Valley Forge

 George Washington's headquarters.

 at Valley Forge

 On the subway.

 From atop the Empire State Building

One man show: Max Morath at the Turn of the Century at the Jan Hus House on the upper east side (351 E 74th Street) which ran from February 17 to June 14th meaning we saw in on the second to last night of its run. Here is Morath performing one of our family's favorites--a unique version of Take Me Out to the Ball Game.  We can all sing it. Unfortunately he didn't sing it for us.

 The next leg of the trip took us up the Hutchinson River Parkway to Connecticut to stop in Old Lyme to visit Aunt Thelma McKee (my mother's youngest sister). Ever the gracious hostess, she sent a doll for Mary to play with and she also gave a real silver dollar to each of the children. I am still in trouble over that because when we got home I put all of the silver dollars in their savings accounts and the children were very unhappy to find out years later that the bank would only given them paper money - they thought the coins were in a vault somewhere and the silver dollars could be recovered whenever they wanted them. Norda still has pangs of guilt for what we did. 

A quick drive through Rhode Island (mostly so we could say we had been there) led us to Massachusetts and on to Boston. We found a parking place within walking distance of Filene's basement, the Boston Common and the swan boats, the State House, and beacon Hill for a quick tour and then moved on to see Paul Revere's house, the Old North Church, Faneuil Hall and Old Iron sides before stopping off to visit Leif and Berit Johanssen, We first met them at Ft. Sam Houston when we both reported for active duty and then we were both assigned to Ft. Devens. They were originally from Norway but had emigrated to the U.S. for dental school and we became good friends during our stay in New England. 

Then we got on Route 2 heading west. Our tour of the town of Harvard included the town square, Unitarian church and Reed's general store before i took some pictures of the Harvard Inn (with our old apartment upstairs on the north side) and headed down Stillwater road to see the Shaker museum. Then it was back on route 126 to drive through the town of Ayer, into Ft. Devens and look at the Army hospital where Bob was born, out the Shirley gate to see the town listed on his birth certificate, and on down route 2 toward western Massachusetts. Then at route 5, we turned north so we could visit Houston and Norma Stevens in Brattleboro, Vermont. He was my partner in Logan for the year '66-'67. After a short stop to tour the new home they had under construction it was off again over some of the back roads to look for another always hard to find trailer park that would allow "over nighter" motorhome hookups. then we were off again across upstate New York to visit Palmyra, the Hill Cumorah, the Joseph Smith home, and the Sacred Grove. While parked at the visitor center the rear bumper became caught on a fairly sturdy bush so we postponed our departure for Michigan until after I could find a suitable telephone pole to back into to bend the bumper back to something approximating the original position.

Plymouth. Loved my dark blue Ban-Lon shirt.

 Old Ironsides

Bob in front of his birthplace. Dad served in a MASH unit here right after the Korean War.

Bob and Chad under Mom's umbrella.

The turned off American falls.

The next stop was in Dearborn, Michigan, To visit the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village for another step back in time ala Williamsburg and then it was off to the upper peninsula via [a drive by of a very small ski hill in central Michigan and] the Macknac Bridge, on across Wisconsin, and south to Minneapolis. During the year we lived in Minneapolis while I was interning I was alwasy 90 degrees off in myu directions so I made a special point driving through Wisconsin and Minnesota to stay full oreinted with the points of the compass. That woked fine until we were on the outskirts of town and then, when I saw the first recognizable landmark, my internal compass switched back and I was agian off by 90 degrees. I guess somethings never change. 

We drove past our old apartment at 1706-2nd Avenue and found it had been nearly swallowed up by the freeway, which was about 100 feet away. A quick drive past the Minneapolis General hospital and the school where Norda taught 1st grade in '52-'53 and the we headed for another Dodge dealer to have the THIRD alternator put in the motorhome. 

By this time (in fact, ever since we turned the cornet in Boston to head west) we were all getting anxious to get home so some of the things we had planned to see or people we thought we might visit kept getting dropped from the itinerary. 

1706 2nd Avenue, Minneapolis

We left Minneapolis and got to Mount Rushmore just in time to see the monument before it got dark and then agreed to do what we all knew we would do - just keep driving and head for home withouth another overnight stop. WE set up a rotation system with Norda, Bill and me rotating between driving, being the observer/co-pilot, and sleeping. Every hour we would change assignments and just kept plugging along through South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah steadily enough to reach Logan about 24 hours after leaving Minneapolis. The only down side to this arrangement was that we were not able to visualize each and every sage brush plant, rock, run down farm, and telephone pole on the way but, "hey, when you've seen one you've seen them all"!

Bill's memory of the last leg home: "this post did indeed bring back an entire Dodge motorhome of memories, and strangely enough one of the most vivid is my riding shotgun while Mom was driving on that last all night push for home and nervously fearing that Mom was going to drop the right tires off the asphalt and she'd overcorrect and we'd flip the motorhome somewhere in the middle of Wyoming. Obviously I did not give Mom enough credit for her stellar driving skills. It did work to keep me awake and alert all night however."

I haven't purposely left out the rest of the minutia and interesting details of the trip - I just found out that I really don;t have total recall. Therefore, any of the other participants can feel free to embellish this epistle with any of the happenings that I have left out. If any of you want to review the 35 mm slides to help refresh your memories, I may (or may not) be able to find them if given enough advanced notice." Dad, I took up your challenge. I hope you like it. 

Wall Drug

Bear Lake. Almost home.

Home. 395 East 600 North.

Thanks mom and dad for a grand adventure and thanks siblings for being such agreeable travel companions. Other than having to hook up the the sewage draining tube, I have nothing but fond memories. Ever since that trip I have been a committed road tripper.

Read about a similar epic Back East road trip (without a motorhome) by the Chad and Marie Emmett family beginning here:

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