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How Sarasota, Fla., Lured the Tin Can Tourists

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March 15, 2010 by   Leave a Comment

The 37th annual arrival of the Airstreamers in Sarasota, Fla., last month recalls another group of highway roamers who journeyed to Sarasota en masse from all parts of the country more than 80 years ago, albeit in conveyances that were far from shiny and certainly not aerodynamic, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

They were the Tin Can Tourists of the World, formed in Tampa after World War I in the days when road travel was still an arduous and iffy adventure, with paved streets the exception and service stations and motor courts few and far between.

The goals of the club were simple: “To unite fraternally all auto campers; to provide clean and wholesome entertainment at all campfires; to help enforce the rules governing all campgrounds.”

Their rules of behavior included displaying the emblem of the order; helping a fellow member in distress; keeping and leaving all campgrounds clean and sanitary; and putting out all fires, destroying no property and “purloining” nothing.

Initially, the federation was derided as a bunch of vagabonds. It was said their name derived from the tin-can condition of their modified cars, or the belief that most of them dined from tin cans — or both.

Their chosen emblem was a tin can perched atop their radiator.

Sarasota’s chapter of the group was organized on Jan. 7, 1921, with 22 members joining an estimated 17,000 from throughout the United States and Canada.

The group grew quickly, gathering in different locations around Sarasota throughout the 1920s, but holding their annual conventions in Tampa, Gainesville and Arcadia.

In 1931, three years into the Great Depression, a group of Sarasotans traveled to Arcadia to sell the group on the idea of making Sarasota its convention site. By that time, the Tin Canners numbered in the tens of thousands, which would add a sizeable amount of money to the coffers of any city that hosted them.

The hopeful sales team was accompanied by a motorcade of 250, the American Legion band and a fly-over by a plane with a greeting painted on the wing.

They wound through the camp and the band and a violin, string and harmonica ensemble serenaded the crowd.

Arcadia did not have a chance. Although its mayor beseeched the Canners to remain in Arcadia by pointing out that they had been welcomed there when they were given short shrift by other communities, including Sarasota, the Sarasota contingent was persuasive, and the confab chose Sarasota for 1932.

Their arrival in January was headline news for the city that had fallen on hard economic times: “SARASOTA WELCOMES TCT FOLK.”

For the locals still suspect of the group, given its Tin Can name, Royal Chief R.W. Vaughn informed them that the group was made up of respectable people from all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, manufacturers, preachers and bankers and noted that they “spent hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for gasoline, oil, tires, new cars, motor repair and upkeep.”

The group gathered annually around Payne Park, and their community later morphed into the Sarasota Mobile Home Park. By 1938, more than 3,000 “nomads” from 45 states, Canada and two foreign countries poured into Sarasota.

Their time was spent at shuffleboard, baseball, fishing, trips to the winter quarters of the circus, dances and TCT business. The climax was a Carnival Ball and a downtown parade with marching bands, floats representing the campers’ home states and thousands of onlookers lining the way.

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