The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 8, 2012

Cross: Following the 1929 Sharp family trip to Yellowstone

A journey long ago truly put the family in family vacation

By John Cross
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — In July and in the midst of the vacation season, cross-country family vacations now are done in the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle speeding along a smooth interstate highway.

Arguably, the biggest challenge might be dealing with backseat inquiries of “are we there yet?”

But when Paul Sharp, a railroad man living at 313 Nicollet Avenue in North Mankato, decided to take his wife, three kids and her parents on an three-week adventure to see Yellowstone Park in July, 1929, things were dramatically different.

Paved roads were yet a rarity and virtually nonexistent beyond any city limits, and even short trips into the county were an adventure.

Roads rarely were the shortest route between points. Rather, they often were meandering affairs that wound through the countryside following a path of least resistance.

And the cars themselves — the Sharps owned a 20s-vintage Hudson touring car — were primitive and cantankerous.

Accommodations were limited, usually consisting of campgrounds along the route. And in an era long before lightweight instant-up tents, setting up camp each night after a long day of travel involved erecting a heavy, military-style wall tent and other primitive camping accouterments of the day.

The entire cost of their 21-day adventure was $270, a bargain by today’s standards but a tidy sum when compared to the $2,300 annual income for the average American family in 1929.  

The following excerpts are taken from the meticulous daily records kept by Sharp’s wife, Mabel, as his family made a pre-Depression, 2,700-mile road trip through the Black Hills to Yellowstone Park.

After reading the daily accounts, it’s easy to understand how the free cold water that Wall Drug began offering to travelers in 1936 was such an attractive enticement for early travelers as they bounced along U.S. Highway 16 across sun-baked South Dakota on their way to the Black Hills and beyond.

The journal and photos were made available by Pam (Sturtz) Swanson of Clear Lake, Iowa, who is Paul Sharp’s grand daughter via his daughter, Caroline. Sharp died in 1979.

To view the entire handwritten journal click on the link in related content.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by email at