Smithsonian exhibit focuses on transportation

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 2, 2011

by Wayne Hinshaw
for the Salisbury Post
WASHINGTON — What is transportation? That’s easy. It’s the car that I get into and drive to the point of my destination. Finished!
Hold on a minute. According to Wikipedia, transportation is much more. It is the “movement of people and goods from one location to another.”
That definition includes travel by “air, rail, roads, water, cable, pipelines, space, the infrastructure, vehicles, and operations.”
Now things are getting more complicated. The Smithsonian Museum of American History’s section on transportation deals with many of these modes of travel, but not all. The giant national museum has an exhibit on travel called “America on the Move” which highlights a 1927 stop in Salisbury and the Spencer Shops. If we skip the local parts of the exhibit, what else does the exhibit have to offer a visitor?
The exhibit is not just a display of old cars and trucks with a few trains tossed in. The theme is about people and places and how cars and trucks affect the lives of people and the economy. The themes focuses on 15 stories or places across the country.
Western stop
The first setting in the show places visitors in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 1876 where a busy train with mannequins around it sits near a horse and wagon where freight is being loaded. The steam locomotive is the “Jupiter.”
It was exciting to see the use of theatrical lighting with good stage sets and backdrops with some use of sound in the exhibits to present the artifacts. All exhibits have photos and labels to further explain the event or setting.
I was able to get a good feel for the situation being presented without reading all the labels. The visual presentation is that good.
A 1926 Ford Model T roadster is displayed on a Turn-Auto rack for service surrounded by the tools of an auto mechanic.
An old red gas pump and parking meters caught my attention. Oh, how most of us hated the dreaded parking meters in Salisbury. Oklahoma City had the dubious honor of starting the municipal movement in 1935 of installing meters to control parking and create revenue and almost every city followed the movement.
As schools consolidated and the distances to the schools increased, the need for buses grew. A 1936 “double deep orange” Dodge school bus from Martinsburg, Ind., marked the event of the yellow bus. Buses were painted yellow for safety starting in 1939 and it has become a national standard.
The importance of a good road system is relayed through the exhibit. With muddy roads, people couldn’t move about and carry on their business. Farmers couldn’t get their food goods to the market. By the 1930s, governments started paving roads.
There is a striking exhibit of the famous Route 66. A giant map backdrop shows the route of the road crossing America while 1930s cars loaded with suitcases appear to travel by in front. The “U.S. Route 66” emblem is projected onto the floor.
Route 66 ran from Chicago through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, ending in Los Angeles. The road called the “Main Street of America” covered 2,448 miles.
Songwriters wrote about the highway, singers sung about the highway, and a television show from the 1960s called “Route 66” featured the highway.
Many folks fleeing the Dust Bowl in the 1930s traveled west on Route 66. The highway opened in 1926 and was removed from the Interstate System in 1985 with the coming of bigger, faster interstates.
Mobile homes
During the depression many Americans started living in “trailers,” or mobile homes. A family could live in a trailer and be able to pick everything up and move without having to pay property taxes. Permanent trailer parks came into operation.
A display about a car dealership in 1950s Portland, Ore., with a mannequins of salesmen and customers emphasizes the importance of automobile sales and this nations economy.
There’s a curious customer peeping through the showroom window looking at a 1950 Buick on display.
Before modern motels dotted the roadside, travelers spent the night in “cabins” at motor courts along the roads. I recall my family staying in such a cabin in Asheville in the 1950s.
There were a dozen or so cabins on the mountainside, all furnished with what surely had to be non-matching antiques. By the 1960s, many of the cabins started to disappear.
Suburban growth
In the 1950s, families started moving into homes in the suburbs. An interesting backdrop showing a suburban home with a car in the driveway has the house plans next to it. It is the setting for a 1955 Ford Country Squire station wagon.
Almost 17 percent of the cars built that year were the popular station wagons. Families could commute, take the entire family shopping, and haul goods to the suburbs.
In the suburbs in 1953, children could ride their Schwinn Panther bicycles. Younger children might own a “Kidillac” pedal car (1953).
A very effective presentation of busy city traffic consists of a 1942 Harley-Davidson motorcycle and an 1941 Indian motorcycle in a line of vehicles with a 1939 Ford Street roadster, a Greyhound bus and a 1950 Studebaker Champion Starlight Coupe.
The mixed color lighting and the background of city buildings had you ready to dodge the traffic. If horns were blowing, it would have been all too real for the indoors.
In the 1950s, cities were taking over the bankrupt rapid-rail transit systems as buses powered by liquefied propane were hitting the streets. A display of a 1959 rail car captures the sounds of the people talking and a fast moving video on the back of the car has me hurrying for a seat. Subway cars have a special smell that only a subway car can offer.
The “America on the Move” exhibit does a good job of relating and tying together the modes of transportation with the cultural lifestyles and the effect of both on people’s lives.