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Truck Stops: A Historical Perspective

Last week we reported on the 10 best truck stops in America, but that wasn’t the full story. Perhaps we should take a closer look at the history of these roadside staples. Truck stops can trace their roots farther back in time than the trucks that give them their name.

Before there was the sprawling travel center, there were truck stops. For more than 60 years these buildings have been providing food, fuel, and a place to rest for truck drivers and weary travelers alike.

The Early Times

Modern truck stops can trace their roots all the way back to the 19th Century, when stagecoach relay stations dotted the countryside, providing a resting point for travelers, coaches and horses. Commerce was coming into fruition across the newly settled America, and the relay station provided that crucial point for man, animal and freight to rest.

By the 1920s, gas-fueled vehicles were taking the place of wagons and coaches. In the late-1930s, a nascent trucking industry began to build itself as the backbone of American commerce. Americans were entering the age of the automobile. Suddenly those old stagecoach relay stations looked like a seriously viable business model.

It didn’t take long for small operation truck stops to sprout up, mainly as a means to provide a place to get diesel gas for large delivery trucks roaming long stretches of highway. World War II was heating up, interstate commerce was soaring, and the need for truck stops was never greater.

The focus on the truck driver would continue. Trucks engines of the time were primitive and unpredictable. Many truck stops were already starting to boast large service garages, restaurants and showers.

Even so, the majority of yesteryear’s truck stops didn’t even look like what we would consider a truck stop today. Some were in small, nondescript houses, while others were really nothing more than glorified gas stations with a large parking lot.

In the 1940s and early 50s truck stops were beginning to evolve away from the model of a simple gas or waystation for the casual traveler. In 1948 Fred Bosselman, truck driver and farmer, opened Bosselman & Eaton in Grand Island Nebraska. You may recognize the name because Bosselman Truck Plazas are still in operation today.

By 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower had signed the Federal Interstate Highway Act into law, which would result in over 41,000 miles of new interstate roads and highways being built across America. In one act of the pen, suddenly the truck stop business evolved to cater not just to the needs of truck drivers, but to the needs of everybody. This was when the truck stops of early years began to evolve into the huge travel centers of today.

The Modern Day

Once Americans started hitting the roads in droves, the first chains began to appear. In the beginning, many truck stops were operated by oil companies, such as Amoco and Skelly. It wasn’t long, however, before commercial demands were outstripping establishment supplies.

The small service centers that were more than capable when highway traffic was at a minimal could no longer meet the need. A quaint house on the side of the road no longer cut it.

As the needs of a nation grew, so did the size of the truck. The term 18-wheeler was coming into fruition. These were the rulers of the road and by the 1960s and 70s gigantic multi-acre truck stops began to appear across the country. This was also around the time the TravelCenters of America opened its first locations.

Over the next forty years the idea of a massively luxurious and well-appointed facility caught on, leading to what we have today. While a luxurious and well-appointed truck stop might not be at every point on the journey, today’s modern offerings are more than adequate.

Between huge convenience stores, a variety of facilities, magnificent views and unthinkable amenities like movie theaters and golf courses, wherever you are, a truck stop is just up the road.

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