Share story

The 1950s and ’60s saw dramatic changes in small-town life, as the postwar economic boom brought new opportunities, new businesses and improved roads.

The White River Valley Museum’s new exhibit, “Grease Was the Word,” mixes that history with nostalgia as it explores the teenage car culture that also sprung up.

Auburn saw a particularly large growth in car dealerships and services related to automobiles. The city was dubbed “The Little Detroit of the West,” and no citizens were more interested in cars than local teenage boys. Cars gave them new freedoms, new opportunities to show off.

Lucky teens had their own cars; others wheedled and coaxed parents to lend the family car. Car clubs became ubiquitous. Though many were thought to contribute to juvenile delinquency, a club called the Gearlords, founded in 1962 by Auburn High School students, was devoted to car safety, helping stranded motorists and sponsoring track racing. The exhibit includes photographs of these clean-cut club members, their cars and their races — and a recent picture of former Gearlords and their cars at a reunion. It’s a testimony to how far back in history the ’50s and ’60s are.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

In those days, the concept of “teens” was changing. Youths became pre-adults with a whole subculture of their own, one that included drive-in movies, proms, after-prom activities, lovers’ lanes. All of these are represented in the exhibit by photographs of prom couples (with girls in their pastel tulle), bands and teenagers sitting in or by cars of the period.

Cheap 45 rpm records and car radios offered access to music aimed at teens. Samples of early transistor radios, records, record players and record covers are displayed.

Cars offered privacy for teens at a time when their hormones were racing. These were the days when couples went “steady.” The conventions of the time demanded a chaste relationship, but couples could announce their relationships when young men gave their class rings or — if they were sports lettermen — their sweaters to their sweeties. The class rings and sweaters on display speak to that more innocent time.

In addition to the memorabilia, the exhibit includes five short educational films of the period, each designed to guide teens through their transition to adulthood. They are charming and revelatory about a time long gone. In one, teens are taught good manners, how to use cutlery and properly use a napkin.

In another, called “Teenicide,” a patrol officer points out the increase in death rates because of teen drivers and offers safe-driving instruction — the beginning of drivers’ ed.

This modest exhibit does more than examine car culture. The clothing, hairstyles and music re-create a time past and remind us how much life has changed.

Nancy Worssam:

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.