On May 29, I joined the Grand Lake Historical Society’s walking tour to explore the hidden history of our county’s most famous town. At the end of our tour through town, we stopped at Smith-Eslick Cottage Court on Vine Street.
The museum preserves much of Grand Lake’s history, including the impact of auto tourism on the city’s growth. Around 1915, the Smith-Eslick family built Cottage Court, which has the distinction of being the oldest original inn building in all of the United States. Named after three generations of the same family that owns and operates it, the court welcomes visitors and makes sure their stays are comfortable. The cottage court originally had parking and was intended for a new type of traveler in those days – those who had cars.
Museum lecturer Ellen Capps gave us a tour of Cottage Court, which included four rustic bark-sided cabins separated by a garage.
“Imagine you live in Iowa or somewhere, and you hear your neighbor has a new car. They ask if you want to take a ride with them into the mountains,” Capps said, reflecting how exciting this is for ordinary Americans willing to explore the vast United States, for the first time. Once, you travel outside your town and explore the country
In the early twentieth century, vehicles, known as horseless carriages, revolutionized the way people travel. Previously, getting from here to there required actual horsepower on wagons or in the saddle, or a train ticket as passengers were restricted to specific stops and timetables. Now, traveling was as easy as navigating your personal car parked in the driveway, then heading in whatever direction called you. In those days, many were called to the West, eager to escape the crowded cities.
In a 1903 essay “Frontiering in a Automobile” by Colorado resident Philip Delaney, he wrote of his groundbreaking journey from Colorado Springs to Santa Fe and back: “So the machine invades the old frontier.” He wrote that people could now drive their cars in “the wildest and most natural places on the continent.”
“The trails of Kit Carson, Boone, Crockett, and the rest of the early frontiersmen, stretch before the adventurous motorist. And when he gets tired of the old, there are new ways to go,” Delaney continued.
Many road-goers were inspired by this advice.
Capps explained that in 1913, Henry Ford brought moving assembly lines into his factories, leading to a boom in automobile production. The Ford Model T is known as “the universal car that puts the world on wheels.” The idea of a wild ride was born, and the sky was the limit. Thanks to mass production, middle-class Americans could buy cars that gave them the freedom previously reserved for the wealthy. The road trips summed up American ideals of freedom, entrepreneurial spirit, self-reliance, and courage. Courage may seem incompatible with the current definition of a road trip, but Capps assured us that these early hikers were brave.
Embark on journeys without cell phones or Google Maps – on unpaved, isolated roads and via Berthoud Pass. Cars could reach speeds of 60 mph, and lap belts were primitive. Capps explained that travelers should also pack all of their belongings, meals and gadgets in their small cars, in case they break down. There was no AAA to call; Restaurants, motels, and gas stations were few and far between. There was also a danger that their car or its parts might be stolen, so cars like those in the cottage court were essential.
But these risks did not deter travelers from taking the road. The picturesque Grand Lake, located at the base of the Rocky Mountains, has become a haven for tourists. The city, once a haven for Denver’s elite with money for summer vacations, can now be visited by anyone. Many of these travelers packed their boxes (in those days, literally a box they strapped to the end of their car) and parked Model Ts at Smith-Eslick Cottage Court at a time when one could rent a room for $1.50 a night.
First, Capps showed us the car facilities that the museum houses. After it became clear that cars were not a passing fad but were about to change the American landscape, companies began manufacturing automobile amenities for road drivers. The first was the Birch Pueblo Auto Bed.
This was a portable double bed that tourists could take with them in their cars. It weighed 50 pounds and had a cast iron frame.
“It was like a plumbing project when you parked your car, because you had to put it all together. But at least you weren’t on a bed with ticks, you were off the floor,” Capps said.
In those days, many road-goers would camp during their travels. Motels had yet to become mainstream, and many enjoyed the experience of being outside in nature and practicing self-reliance, just as the early Western pioneers did.
The next amenities that Birch created were huge tents with a large hood that you could put above your bed and on your car to protect its roof.
“You had to put the fabric over your roof, because it could fly off in the rain or hail,” Capps said.
Capps also showed us a glossy black T-model from the 1920s parked in a garage and gave us a tour of the modest rooms where the travelers stayed to enjoy the lake, before continuing their road trip. The simple rooms feature a stove for cooking, a sink for cleaning, a table and a bed – everything visitors need for a stay of a few nights. Capps explained that visitors enjoyed fishing, early forms of water skiing on “aquaplaning,” snowboarding down the Trail Ridge, and exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, which officially opened in 1915.
Thanks to cars, tourists drive to the quaint town of Grand County from busy city streets, through the stunning Rocky Mountains, to the serene beaches of Grand Lake in a single day.
On a visit to the Cottage Court Museum, you can enter an integrated era in Grand Lake’s history as a tourist destination. Although the museum already contains many important and unique antiquities from that time, there is more to look forward to as the museum continues to expand.
In 2008, the cottage court was moved by the Greater County Historical Society to a one-acre property. This space will allow the creation of the Grand Lake History Park, which will recreate the court’s original wooded environment, including a fire pit, picnic area, and pavilion for holding community events. They will also re-establish the former court office and mall as a welcome center. The museum hopes to complete renovations in 2024.
Stay informed by visiting the Grand Lake Historical SocietyFind out about the renovations in Cottage Court.