Think driving is tough today?
One hundred years ago there were no paved streets or reliable street signs. People with carriages disliked the new-fangled motor vehicles that scared their horses. Traffic laws pertaining to horseless carriages were nonexistent or inconsistent.
Where was an automobile owner to turn?
The same place they turn today – AAA.
AAA Washington/Inland celebrates its centennial this month.
“Because it was new at that time, people really had to have an interest in motor travel. And there was a danger factor,” says local AAA spokesman Dave Overstreet.
In 1912, there were fewer than 1,000 automobiles in Spokane County.
What started with 46 people looking for a way to gain funding for road projects, help one another with maintenance issues and erect signs in the Seattle area has grown to a club of 840,000, says Overstreet.
Of those, about 10 percent are from the Inland Northwest.
A basic membership costs $53 a year and includes emergency roadside service, maps, travel planning, AAA guidebooks and access to the club’s insurance and financial services.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, AAA installed the first signs along highways and county roads, says Stan Miller, who worked for Inland Automobile Association for more than 30 years, the last 10 as its president.
“They liked to take their tin lizzies out on weekend junkets, and they’d get lost on their way to Colville or Colfax,” Miller said.
AAA also provided its members the first road maps of the area and was a pioneer in rating hotels and other establishments.
In the 1970s, Miller created the Gas Watch to monitor prices at service stations across the West.
Kathy King’s introduction to the club was trial by fire – or rather snow and ice.
King had just started working for the Inland Automobile Association as the infamous winter of 1978 set in.
The bitterly cold weather meant many calls from members who couldn’t start their cars or, if they had started them, slid them into roadside ditches.
“We worked New Year’s Eve night and New Year’s Day,” said King, who hasn’t seen such a severe winter since.
But coming to the aid of travelers is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to most members.
A Spokesman-Review e-mail query on the topic of AAA’s anniversary generated dozens of stories about the club helping local drivers fix flats, charge batteries and recover keys from locked vehicles.
Leslie Lindgren became an AAA member after she divorced.
“They’re always there to rescue me when I’m stranded,” she wrote. “I’m still single. I like to think it’s because of AAA. It satisfies me in ways my ex never could.”
Greenacres resident Arlene Stromberger was saved from one of the most embarrassing (and agents say common) car predicaments.
“The only time I’ve had to call AAA for assistance was when my keys were accidentally locked in my car, which was sitting in our driveway. The second set of keys were in my purse, which was also locked in the car,” Stromberger wrote.
Roadside assistance is still a mainstay of AAA, but members also can get help planning trips, buy AAA insurance, change currency and buy traveler’s checks and purchase a sturdy, wheelie suitcase at a discount. The club has recently put an emphasis on its financial products.
“We’re looking now to say we’re not only here to provide roadside service to our members, but we also want to help them insure their homes and plan for retirement,” Overstreet said.
Many people may have fond memories of vacations taken with AAA agent-prepared “Trip-Tiks” highlighting the best routes to their destinations, attractions along the way and even where to expect road construction.
But the specifics differ now.
In 1952, bridegrooms flocked to the local AAA office to get help planning their honeymoons.
Today, Mary Howard is more likely to help families plan a road trip to Disneyland (1,325 miles).
Howard has worked for AAA for the past 16 years, six of those in trip planning.
She’s learned a lot in those six years.
The first time someone said they wanted to see the Corn Palace, Howard had no idea it was in South Dakota. Now she’s helping a woman plan a tour of all the covered bridges in Oregon.
Then there are the things that never change.
In 1970, AAA was calling for a north-south freeway in Spokane.
Though work has finally begun on the project, we’re still years away from seeing it become a reality.
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