Tales from the Road: The Lincoln Highway in Illinois

Sometimes I just have to run off. And so, even though I had done little preparation, I headed out to hit the Lincoln Highway in Illinois. Actually, full disclosure, my original plan was to do Illinois and Iowa, but fate had other plans. I was late starting out. Originally I was going to begin at Plymouth, Indiana, and take the second iteration of the road westward. But I thought that instead I had better take I-65 so I could get up there faster. I hit endless construction and delays, finally reaching the 1913 Lincoln Highway east of Merrillville, which I had not driven in some years. Here it is called 73rd Street, and the 2-lane was pleasant enough, with little traffic. The rural-ish road leads through the original downtown of Merrillville when it was just a small town, not the behemoth of sprawl to the south that most people think of when they hear the name.

original Lincoln Highway just east of where it joins 6-lane US30, Schererville IN

Eventually it makes its way through older parts of Schererville to US30, preparing for its jump from Dyer across the stateline. 30 is six crowded lanes wide here, hardly conducive enjoying the Lincoln Highway scenery, what little is left. Past the junction with US41, where Teibels, a long-lived restaurant, still appears to be thriving, is an Ideal Mile, which the rest of road has caught up with and surpassed. There is also the monument to Henry Joy, but ironically not an inch of space for even one car to stop to appreciate it.  

I crossed the border, and soon after US30 turned northward, but the Sauk Trail, the original Lincoln Highway route, continued westward. Ah yes, where the gangsters dumped the bodies (my grandparents lived on Chicago’s southside early on and told me this!) The wetlands are still there–nice to see! No menacing gangster ghosts, at least in daylight. Arrived at Illinois Highway 1 in south Chicago Heights, and for a short time was on the Dixie Highway (or I should say one of the Dixie Highways–it had many fingers) as well as the Lincoln. Turned west with the Lincoln and soon was on six lanes through massive commercial sprawl–very disheartening. Just nothing left of the old road to see, all a blur of wide lanes and endless chains. New Lenox is an interesting old railroad town, though, where I noted one of the many murals celebrating the highway that dot the route.   

mural in downtown New Lenox IL

Reached Joliet, crowded with awful traffic, and noted some interesting old buildings that there was no hope of appreciating. Did cross a very cool iron drawbridge built in the 1920s, but my enjoyment of it was marred with construction. After that, with few exceptions, nothing but suburbs and 4-6 lanes.

drawbridge, downtown Joliet IL

When I reached Plainfield I drove a bit of the fabled old Route 66. Years ago when I lived in Chicago and worked in radio, a good friend of mine, artist Mary Selfridge, lived in Plainfield. She was just starting out and later rose to some notable heights. Back then, long ago, Plainfield was just a nice small town. Its beautiful commercial district is still largely intact and very upscale now. Gone the agricultural center, where perhaps the wealthier farmers lived after they retired. Now it’s boutiques and coffee shops. But this is a way we save historic downtowns these days. With so much  sprawl beyond, it took forever to leave Plainfield, ultimately on the historic route, now Illinois 126. Enroute to Aurora and virtually no open country, immensely unsatisfactory. Am I whining? Well, as I work in historic preservation, all this ungodly sprawl is anathema to me. On my right, the ugliest sort of new houses had just mushroomed in the past year; on my left the land had been farmed only the year before, but this year, who knows? Please, do not tell me there’s a housing shortage. 

US30 Motel south of Aurora IL

Somehow back on 30 with the Lincoln Highway, Passed a few old motels and cabins whose future appeared in doubt and at last reached Aurora, population now over 200,000! Ay! Not the Aurora I once vaguely knew in my younger years.

refurbished early auto camp shelter outside Aurora IL

Marked was a Lincoln Highway shelter from the early days of autocamping, now at the edge of a golf course. In opposite corners were fireplace ovens. Stopped for a bit to read the signage placed there. And in North Aurora stopped for a milkshake at Bruno’s, highly recommended! I needed that.

I followed northward the Fox River Valley through Batavia and on to Geneva, past the most magnificent 19th and early 20th century mansions surrounded with large estates. This has not changed much; I was through here many years ago. My mother’s generation-older cousin, whom I called “Aunt,” had married well and lived in St. Charles, the next town north up the river. I remember we visited her on my 12th birthday and she treated me to ice cream, whatever flavor I wanted, at a little shop in Geneva. (I chose pistachio, which then was rather exotic.) I turned westward through the lovely downtown of Geneva. Lovely, but crowded, and the afternoon was wearing on.

historic theater building, downtown Geneva IL

At last, open roads! Endless farms, small agricultural towns at intervals along the road like beads on a chain. The REAL Lincoln Highway. The hour was late but the threatening clouds had mostly given way, so I felt hopeful of making the Mississippi by dark, my new goal. Reached DeKalb, a city worth exploring more. Decades ago, in my afore-mentioned radio days, I had made a public appearance at a dance at Northern Illinois University here. Likely I had driven I-80 to get here; of course, I did not recognize anything, but did pass the campus and spotted another Lincoln Highway mural.

Lincoln Highway mural, DeKalb IL

The road soothed me; this was much more like it! Eventually I reached Rochelle, where I had been before a couple of times.

Mural depicting Emily Post who took a cross country auto trip in 1915 and bogged down in mud outside Rochelle IL

Another mural, and of course the iconic gas station, happily marking a turn of the route back westward.

refurbished historic gas station, Rochelle IL

Just a little out of town is a roadside park–probably built by the New Deal in the 1930s, as so many were–at a place where another road meets the highway at an angle. What a nice old road, very rural, paved with old concrete that’s doing just fine, thank you. I noted daffodils blooming in several yards, while back in Indy ours are all done. Waves of spring. About here is where I started seriously thinking about making the Mississippi River my goal and heading back next day to catch what I missed going out. (And plan for Iowa another time.) Spend more good road time–and find a route back to Indy far away from the greater-greater Chicago mess.

Continued on through the tiny town of Ashton, struggling a bit to keep to the route here, when I turned onto the aptly named Track Road, which runs straight and true along the railroad and was the Lincoln Highway’s original route. It was gravel still, and I was enchanted. In my mind my Ford Ranger morphed into a Model T. The train running alongside carried some types of cars a T wouldn’t have recognized–and no doubt the crop fields were surrounded by fencing 100 years ago, but–close enough!

Track Road, heading westward out of Ashton IL

Soon arrived at Franklin Grove, with the national headquarters of the Lincoln Highway housed in–what else–the Lincoln Building, which actually was constructed by a distant cousin of our revered Abraham. It was closed, unfortunately, as was the Lincoln Way Cafe, which appeared definitely to be my kind of place. Oh well, I thought. I will catch these on the way back tomorrow.

Lincoln Highway National Headquarters, Franklin Grove IL

Onward through Dixon, through its famous Victory Arch. These arches built on the main drag were not uncommon in small towns in the early 20th century (whether to commemorate victory in the World War or simply to boost the town), but few survive. Dixon has made a decision to keep its iconic structure, which is now in its third or fourth iteration. Dixon boasts some wonderful buildings downtown, but in truth, I had simply had it with cities. Besides, the sun was descending.

Dixon IL

Onward to Sterling, another city and worse, lots of sprawlmalls. Westward Ho!

somewhere west of Sterling on he Lincoln Highway

It was barely still daylight but Iowa was within reach. The route here was a little confusing and I turned onto 136, but before I got into Fulton proper I THOUGHT I saw a sign that the Lincoln Highway turned south and ended up crossing the US30 bridge directly into Clinton.

West into Iowa on the US30 bridge

Tomorrow was another day! Just at dark I found the Timber Motel, right on the Lincoln Highway, with an incredibly spacious, clean, and reasonable room. The only typical amenity missing was coffee, but I wasn’t complaining. I later learned that this motel is a favorite of Lincoln Highway scholar Russell Rein.

Timber Motel, Clinton IA

In the morning I headed back into downtown Clinton, which has a lot of great buildings that are largely empty, unfortunately.

Lincoln Highway, downtown Clinton IA

I was paralleling the river northward when I came to the huge historic courthouse, and shortly after, the 136 bridge, which is a few blocks south of where the original Lincoln Highway bridge was. Both bridges across the river (US30 and 136) rise up from the bank toward the supports; both are two-lane. Let’s just say I was glad there wasn’t much traffic at either crossing.

east into Illinois, Highway 136 bridge

I was instantly attracted to Fulton, which is  very proud of its Dutch heritage, featuring whimsical sculpture in several places and an honest-to-goodness Dutch-built windmill standing right where the approach to the old Lincoln Highway bridge had been.

authentic Dutch windmill overlooking Mississippi River at Fulton IL

Walked a bit on top of the levee along the mighty Mississippi, which is more narrow here than one might expect and thus a good place for a ferry and to locate a town, and that is its origin story.

downtown Fulton IL

The town was clean and attractive, and I spotted a very nice bakery and restaurant–Krumpets–perfect for breakfast. And oh it was! As I entered, the 1940s tune “Ruby” was playing, one of my mother’s favorites. (Yes, she’s have liked this place, too.) I wandered about for a bit then returned to the Lincoln Highway and took a few minutes to check out a hamlet, Union Grove, that was bypassed by the construction of a bridge over railroad tracks. Passed through Morrison, which I barely remembered from the night before, and much bigger than it appeared because the Lincoln Highway runs a block north of the extensive and very historic downtown. Arrayed on a bluff above the highway itself are mansions galore, each more fabulous than the last, in an assortment of 19th and early 20th century styles. This town had some money, and judging by the excellent condition of the historic downtown, still does. Having just spent quite a lot of time in Fulton, I left exploring Morrison for another time. Not far eastward was a former roadside park now abandoned and fenced off.

eastbound Lincoln Highway, Sterling IL

My disregard for cities had not abated when I reached Sterling, but I did look around a little and discovered an odd thing: what had once been quite a lovely park on an island in Rock River, a great picnic spot (at least at one time) and numerous abandoned buildings. I wonder why this lovely place, I believe called Lawrence Park, is not kept up? Onward on the original Lincoln Highway route, Palmyra Road, which I’d missed going west. Near Prairieville was the Midway Drive-in movie theater, still in use. (Midway between Sterling and Dixon, I assume.)

Midway Drive-In, Palmyra Road (old Lincoln Highway) near Prairieville

Always great to see those still going. I was enchanted at a whimsical herd of Holsteins fashioned from old gas tanks and stopped at the business, Palmyra Greenhouse, for a souvenir plant. (It’s doing fine.)

“cows” created from gas tanks and milk cans, Palmyra Greenhouse near Prairieville IL

Back through Dixon, under the arch. Only many miles later did I realize I’d forgotten to seek out the famous Lincoln statue there.

I reached Franklin Grove, eager to visit the national headquarters, to discover it was open only on weekends. Well dang! That’s when I try to avoid traveling. I did stick my head into the Lincoln Way Cafe, but was still so stuffed from the fabulous breakfast in Fulton that I simply couldn’t eat anything.

Lincoln Way Cafe, Franklin Grove IL

Back along the Track Road, which delightd me so, to Ashton and on to Rochelle. There I went south a couple of blocks to see Railroad Park, where two main lines cross in an X. There was signage explaining the history, a shelter–all in all an attractive place. I pondered what next to do; the farther east I traveled, the fewer viable options heading south I had: I simply could not face all that Chicago sprawl again. I elected to take the interstate south from Rochelle, but what a miserable experience, sucking away all my Lincoln Highway joy!  Eventually I got off and took Illinois 116 eastward, and it was heavenly, running straight and true through the former prairies on old over-engineered concrete, endless fields and farms, even crossing Route 66 at Pontiac. Everything spoke to me. I reached US52 and took it almost all the way home. How I love old roads, three-dimensional historical documents spinning out their stories.

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On the Road Again: In Search of the Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania, Part FOUR

My last day on the road, like the three previous, dawned beautifully sunny and pleasant. 

Lincoln Motor Court, view from Cabin 11

I was ready to take on the Alleghenies! This time in daylight! I headed west back to Schellsburg, where I passed the grocery that had saved me from hunger my first night out. 

East of Schellsburg, Pennsylvania

Little had I realized that I passed that night Little Boy Blue (or the Pied Piper, depending on what source you believe), which marked the entrance to the long-defunct Storyland, a 1950s roadside attraction that closed in the 1980s. Evidently many of its features are still there, hidden back in the woods, but it is private property. And, to reduce my temptation further, I was still nearly 500 miles from home.

Former entrance to Storyland, west of Schellsburg

But I did try to get on some of the original alignments where possible. This one, west of Schellsburg, was lovely in the morning sun.

old alignment west of Schellsburg

And it passed an 1806 log church that is listed in the National Register and evidently still used, at least occasionally.

Old Log Church west of Schellsburg

This fairly short stretch of the road was especially scenic with a quite a lot of roadside attractions, past and still present.

former Shawnee Cabins west of Schellsburg

Heading west a few miles west of Schellsburg

Apparently I somehow passed the overlook where the long gone and much mourned Grand View Ship Hotel once stood. It is not commemoratively marked, but I recalled a sign indicating an overlook at something over 2900 feet. That must have been it. I was too busy careening up and the mountains to go back, flying past runaway truck ramps and signs warning them to use lower gears. That caution applies equally to baby pickup trucks, too. The sights I missed in the dark a few days before now were before me, and I had fleeting thoughts of how fortunate it was that I hadn’t gone tumbling down a mountainside in certain spots. In the dark I had certainly adhered to the posted 35mph limit, and I didn’t run too far above it in daylight. I caught some of roadside artifacts the books mention: a bison farm, abandoned tourist cabins, derelict buildings that once might have been inns–a glorious morning! The stretch between Jennerstown and Laughlintown was particularly wild and woolly–and spectacular.

Then I hit the sprawl stretch northeast of Pittsburgh, which is singularly unlovely and boring with chain names one can see anywhere in the country. I did spot a nice stretch of the original road about to the left and I followed it for a bit, but as with so many of these, it was insufficiently marked and I was not certain where I would end up. I made my way back, which afforded me the opportunity to cross the later Lincoln Highway route across the massive George Westinghouse bridge, constructed in 1932 (mentioned in chapter one of this blog series). 

George Westinghouse Bridge, hading west into Forest Hills

I would have thought I was crossing one of Pittsburgh’s three rivers, but no, it was Turtle Creek, far down in a broad valley where the huge Westinghouse factory complex, begun in the 1890s, once sprawled. Some of the buildings survive and at least some of them are used for manufacturing.

I swung around Pittsburgh, realizing from my first day’s experience that I had not the time to try to follow the old route through nor to pick up the original iteration that skips West Virginia entirely. 

Lincoln Highway looking west, west of Pittsburgh

But I picked up the second iteration on the other side of Pittsburgh via the Steubenville Pike, and this time enjoyed the few bits of roadside artifacts to be seen without following a poky box truck. An occasional flying leaf skittered across the road or smacked into my windshield, adding to the joyful feel of it.

Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania, west of Pittsburgh

Seeing the sign for the Homer Laughlin factory, I decided to diverge south from route just a little to see it. (And besides, the original Ohio River crossing had been farther south, so I wanted at least to see where it was.) The town of Newell, where Homer Laughlin is located, once had many pottery factories, but for the most part only vacant lots and crumbling ruins remain, not dissimilar from those of the auto-related industries in Indiana. I made my way back north to Chester where the bridge is and stopped at the iconic World’s Largest Teapot, moved from its original location farther south to where it can be seen from the approach to the bridge on US30. Starting life as a root beer stand, in 1938 the barrel-shaped structure was moved to a spot on the recently reconfigured Lincoln Highway and remodeled into a giant teapot in homage to the local pottery industries. The owner had a china shop behind it and sold refreshments and souvenirs from the Teapot. Eventually it languished and suffered multiple owners, but the town of Chester eventually received it, and local groups moved the Teapot to its current location and refurbished it. (It is, by the way, smaller than the giant coffee pot about 150 miles east on the Lincoln Highway.)

The area where the bridge approach is now had been a popular amusement park called Rock Springs, built in 1897. Like most of these from the trolley park era, it was fading by the 1960s, conveniently so, for the builders of the new bridge wanted the land. Still, its loss is much mourned even today, and souvenirs from Rock Springs are highly prized. A commemorative marker notes the site. Had I my druthers, I would probably have spent a day just around here on both sides of the river, including a revisit to the ceramics museum.

I crossed the bridge into East Liverpool and tried to follow some of the old route through there, stumbling onto the largest Carnegie Library I had ever seen. (I come from Indiana, which boasts the greatest number of such libraries built in the country, some 164. I have seen nearly all the extant ones.)

Carnegie Library, East Liverpool, Ohio

I somehow missed the old route out of town into rural Ohio, but I did stop in the beautiful Riverview Cemetery that overlooks the Ohio Valley and where Henry Ostermann, a name known to Lincoln Highway aficionados, is buried. He was the Lincoln Highway Association’s Field Secretary and among its most effective promoters. Ironically, Ostermann was killed in Iowa while merrily speeding on his road.

Steel Trolley Diner, Lisbon, Ohio

Eventually finding the Lincoln Highway again, I returned to Lisbon and another look at the Steel Trolley Diner. Famished by this time, I still  hoped for a diner–one that was open, that is–or a small town cafe. West out of Hanoverton I spotted a tired little cafe called the Avalon Family Restaurant.

Avalon Family Restaurant, west of Hanoverton, Ohio

It felt a bit like an “Easy Rider” moment when I walked in–there were only four customers, clearly regulars, sitting at a table, chatting with the owner and the waitress and eying me curiously, but the food was good. 

interior, Avalon Family Restaurant

I headed into the clouding sun and Minerva, where a roadside cow advertises a regional dairy of the same name, whose storage tanks are painted in black and white like Holsteins.

By the time I approached Canton it was rush hour and I elected to take the US30 bypass, since I had gone through it on the way east. I skipped over Massillon, but slipped through Dalton.

Dalton, Ohio

I skipped my beloved Wooster too, but hopped on the old road into Hayesville and Mifflin. The sky was darkening very fast and some sprinkles hit my windshield.

I gave up all hope of doing any more Lincoln Highway this trip and headed home through the deluge.

What have I kept from this adventure? Well, my one souvenir was this mug from Lincoln Motor Court, the purchase of which went toward keeping that charming and cozy relic maintained. No, it was not everything I had hoped; there was too much congestion in the larger towns and the townships close to metropolises like Philadelphia. The joy tended to be strained there. But the memories of roller coastering through the Alleghenies and curving foothills in Ohio, the charming small towns, the roadside relics, will linger forever. The Road is the Way, and I can still feel it.

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Preservation Tales: I Thought This Was Saved!

Collier Lodge

Collier Lodge, Baum’s Bridge, India

I first learned of Collier Lodge, originally built deep in the Kankakee Marsh along the river of that name, back in the 1990s at a historic preservation conference in South Bend. A fellow from Porter County gave a presentation about the significance of this battered structure that once hosted the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and author Lew Wallace. I recall talking to him about writing a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, but he said they would be handling that themselves. Great!

A few years later I was in the general vicinity and drove over to take a peek. The surrounding ground had been cleaned out a good bit, the building painted and presumably stabilized–some funding had been obtained for the purpose–and hopeful signage erected on and in front of the building about restoring the lodge. All right then! Naturally, I long assumed that it had happened. Even folks who were working at Indiana Landmarks (the statewide non-profit preservation organization) at the time, helping in the early stages, assumed it had ultimately been restored. I suppose it’s just that this place is so out of the way. I had been intending for years to get back there to see it (in its gloriously restored state, I had thought) and only managed to hurry up there last week when I learned of its imminent demolition.

Faded signage touting restoration

This site is really important historically. The sloggy marsh immediately south of the building is actually the original main channel of the river, before it was dredged and straightened and turned into essentially a canal in the decade before World War I. Here had been one of the only places travelers could get through the swamp relatively easily. The vast Kankakee Marsh was formidable indeed, later becoming known as the “Everglades of the North.” Its presence was why Indiana’s first border-to-border “highway” in the 1830s, the Michigan Road, took a severe northeast jog from Logansport up to South Bend then west over to Michigan City. But some preferred the more direct route through the swamps, and here there was a ford, known, in a variety of spellings, as Potawatomi Ford, indicative of the fact that there were certainly native Americans in the region. The first settler of European ancestry here seems to have been George Eaton, who operated a ferry for several years, interrupted only briefly by the construction of a bridge, which soon burned. After Eaton’s death in 1851, his widow continued running the ferry until her death six years later. The ferry continued until one Enos Baum built a more substantial toll bridge at the site of the ford, giving the local community its name of Baum’s Bridge that continues to this day. (It’s on Indiana maps.) The Kankakee Marsh, however, was a wild and difficult place to live, although a number of people fed their families and even made a good living from the fruits of fishing, hunting, and trapping, perhaps with a small subsistence farm on the side. The quantities of fish and game are what began to draw wealthy sportsmen (indeed, only men at first) to come play pioneer and spend a week or much longer camping and hunting. The area was so vast and rich, there seemed little danger of the attractions running out. Soon any number of clubhouses appeared, constructed by sportsmen’s groups from as far away as Pittsburgh. Many of them clustered about Baum’s Bridge. Some individuals built private lodges; Lew Wallace lived for weeks at a time on a houseboat anchored near the bridge. In the 1890s Elwood and Flora Collier built a large house above the river to house themselves and their three children, intending to establish some sort of  business there. Mr. Baum built a houseboat to take his family to the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1903 (and made it), then used it for an excursion boat venture, which failed because the river’s depth was unpredictable. Undaunted, the family remodeled their house into an inn and named it Collier Lodge. Upstairs were accommodations, while the first floor contained a restaurant and store that catered to hunters and the growing number of tourists. The chicken and fish dinners on Sundays were legendary, enjoyed by locals as well as visitors.

west side, Collier’s Lodge, once a long porch where guests would sit and watch the river

In the eyes of developers, all that good land under the waters of the great swamp taking up parts of six counties should not go to waste, and so in the decade leading up to World War I, the area was ditched and drained and the river straightened. The game was soon gone, scattered to the four winds or killed off. So ended an era, and over time, all the clubhouses and lodges disappeared–all but one, though it stood abandoned for decades. 

How wonderful that Collier Lodge was rediscovered! It could be a wonderful meeting place, retreat, with a small museum, perhaps–and this just as early efforts to restore part of the Great Kankakee Marsh were beginning. The property was purchased and the newly formed (2001) Kankakee Valley Historical Society took ownership. I regularly heard of the annual Aukiki River Festival held in summer as a fun and informative event, intended to raise awareness and funds. The archaeology department of Notre Dame conducted a dig the following year, expecting to find artifacts from the hunting lodge days, perhaps some pioneer relics, and maybe some native American remnants if they were lucky. Little did they realize how rich and deeply layered the site would prove to be. The finds ranged from buttons and camping items from the late 19th century to projectile points and other stone tools from the Early Archaic period (ca.9000 BCE)! Annual digs have continued into the present, with another scheduled for this summer. Artifacts from several successive native cultures, the remains of a pioneer cabin, and much more have been excavated and catalogued, adding a wealth of information on several thousand years of human activity in the Great Kankakee Marsh. So exciting! And yet, the largest artifact of all, the Collier Lodge–the very reason all this research began, the last extant building of an important era of history–was put aside until it was deemed too far gone to save. (In my experience, it probably still could be saved, but the expense is so much greater now.) Now it seems there is a plan to build a replica in another location. The actual building wuld have been grandfathered in.

A replica, IF it ever happens, is meaningless on a different site. Preservation gone wrong. As a local woman who came by as I was photographing the lodge said, “It’s a shame.”

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On the Road Again: In Search of the Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania, Part THREE

As it grew light I was eager to leave the charmless motel outside of Trenton, with its broken security lock and lack of any coffee anywhere. Having determined the first day of this adventure that I could not make New York nor much of New Jersey in the allotted time, I was now heading back, hoping to catch most of what I had missed eastbound in the dark. The weather continued fine and I poked about Trenton for a bit, bumping into the William Trent House, built in 1719–yes, how the town got its name–while trying to make my way across the Delaware River on the right bridge into Pennsylvania. This proved difficult. I saw the famous “Trenton Makes – The World Takes” bridge but could not figure out how to get on it and back on the Lincoln Highway. I had found it in Trenton but lost it crossing the Delaware (where is General Washington when you need him?)

The William Trent House, Trenton, New Jersey

Some of the problem was that I was completely unfamiliar with the territory, and I was trying find something that, for the most part, barely exists–especially in urban areas. There are clues, yes, but no flashing signs proclaiming “Lincoln Highway this way” (and I wouldn’t want there to be, but subtle signage might be nice). I’m good with maps but they were all inadequate, and I could not follow the Association’s online map while driving. Indeed, having a navigator would have been helpful, but this was a solo trip. In truth the Lincoln Highway experience is nearly impossible in certain built-up regions, even for those adventurers who are capable of seeing the ghosts of the past. 

Highway 1 these days northeast of Philadelphia is an expressway running through miles of wetland, or so it appeared. Apparently I was not far from Levittown, the second of the fabled post-World War II suburbs of that name. I tried several times to get off the expressway and get onto the old highway that I was more or less paralleling, but I always instead found myself in little bits of upscale newer suburbia nestled on higher ground. Although often accused of “having a map in [my] head,” I’m afraid my geography was a little hazy there. Maybe I had some vague notion that Philadelphia was on the coast–I suppose because of the Navy Yard where my father’s ship, the USS Dayton, was built during the War–but of course New Jersey is in the way. (The shipyard, what’s left of it, is on the Delaware River.) But after crossing into Pennsylvania nearly all I could see for many miles was that wetland–or flood plain plus tidewater? I appreciate General Washington’s feat even more.

Broad Street, Philadelphia

Eventually I did get back on the Lincoln Highway as I approached Philadelphia proper on US 1/Roosevelt Boulevard. The architecture grew interesting as I got deeper into the city.
The Lincoln Highway books mentioned a few surviving landmarks from the early days, but traffic on Broad Street was really too hectic to take note of any. Because of the traffic and construction and one-way streets I missed even glimpses of any of the historic sites I had briefly visited here decades ago, although I did make a westward turn at the gargantuan City Hall. Completed in 1901, it is the largest city hall in the country and at the top boasts a huge statue of William Penn by Alexander Calder.

Philadelphia City Hall, Broad Street and Market

The city was much different from my 30-year-old memory. I finally, with a little help, found Lancaster Avenue–imagine where that heads–which is Lincoln Highway heading out of the center city. (When I stopped to ask where Lancaster Avenue was, people persisted in asking “where are you going?” when, of course, it was the way that I was seeking.) I was delighted to see that there were lines above and tracks for electric trolleys, which I’d not seen anywhere for years. Some of the neighborhoods I passed through seemed dreadfully poor, dotted with wonderful 19th century buildings in terrible shape.

Lancaster Avenue, Philadelphia

These gave way to tree-filled suburbs in full autumnal splendor and names of storied institutions come to life: Bryn Mawr and Villanova, whose buildings resembled those of Notre Dame that I know so well. Both Catholic universities, they were founded the same year, 1842. I was famished by this time and desperate for a diner when one appeared in Wayne. Minella’s turned out to be a newer diner but it had replaced an older one on the same site. Its menu rivaled War and Peace in length but the place  felt right enough, although quite large.

interior, Minella’s, Wayne, Pennsylvania

My hunger satisfied I hit the road once again and for some miles it was lovely, but the closer I got to Lancaster the more congested it became. 

looking west on Lincoln Highway somewhere west of Wayne, Pennsylvania

Downingtown, Coatesville, and towns far smaller looked worth exploring but the traffic was discouraging. I did pass intriguing roadside attractions, many with a “Dutch” theme, and several more diners, many closed but some open.

Coatesville, Pennsylvania
former Dutch Haven restaurant, east of Lancaster, Pennsylvania

But I stopped at none, for I was feeling road stress again with constant traffic. I reached the bypass around Lancaster and took it all the way to York. November days are short, and anyway, I had been on the old route through both towns eastbound only two days before.

Wish I could have stopped at this nearby diner

I had arranged to stop and see a Facebook friend–what a world!–who lives in York and has essentially a private museum of old radio/TV/movie stuff. It’s a pretty spectacular collection and it was tough to leave both her and the cool things to see, but once again, miles to go before I could sleep.

photo of 1930s sex symbol Jean Harlow, my mother’s favorite

It was dark, and knowing what hairpins and spirals lurked in the mountains west beyond York, I elected to head north to the Pennsylvania Turnpike (the expressway that put the Lincoln Highway out of business) and exit at Bedford, only a few miles from the Lincoln Motor Court where I would spend the night again. The turnpike was farther north than I thought and there was much construction, especially around the many tunnel entrances.

Endless tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike

Exhausted, I got off at Bedford and, despite my having wandered around the town quite a bit only two days before, was completely lost. And there is nothing like dark in the mountains. (Well, all right, yes, I have been deep inside caves.) I finally spotted something I recognized and got back on track, which is to say, the Lincoln Highway, which brought me back to the Lincoln Motor Court. A different cabin this time, but a bed just as welcome and comfy. Ahh. Tomorrow was another day.

Cabin 11, Lincoln Motor Court

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On the Road Again: In Search of the Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania, Part TWO

I awoke from a delightfully cozy sleep at the Lincoln Motor Court, about five miles east of Schellsburg, ready to resume. Again the day was clear and sunny. I walked around the charming court and gazed back westward at the mountains I had come through. Across the road was an abandoned former inn, an early 20th century hotel built on foundations more than a hundred years older.

looking west on US30 from Lincoln Motor Court
Lincoln Motor Court

I headed east into Bedford, only a few miles beyond. The town, laid out in 1766, was so charming I had to walk around for a bit and admire its 18th and early 19th century buildings–and inquire the whereabouts of the Coffee Pot, which it turned out I had passed coming in! (There was a well-leafed tree in the way, and I hadn’t been looking for it.)

The Coffee Pot, Bedford, Pennsylvania

This wonderful building, no longer in use but a three-dimensional historical document of the Lincoln Highway’s heyday, was moved from its original location and refurbished with the help of the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor. I then stopped at an amazingly intact 1933 filling station, gloriously art deco-styled in polychrome terra cotta, still owned by the same family. Mrs. Dunkle herself presided within.

Dunkle filling station, Bedford, Pennsylvania

Onward into the mountains once again, after going through Everett, which boasts a New Deal-era post office containing an unusual sculptural mural, “Signing of the Constitution,” by Hazel Clere.

“Signing of the Constitution” in Everett, Pennsylvania post office

A much-altered art deco theater barely survives, no longer showing movies, alas. Faded signs suggest there had been some effort to save it. On the east edge of town is The Igloo drive-in, closed for the season, but apparently still in business. Sorry to have missed it, even though it cannot seem to make up its mind whether to be an igloo or a giant sundae, with its splash of chocolate sauce and cherry on top.

The Igloo, Everett, Pennsylvania
Everett Theater

I kept to the old Lincoln Highway then eased onto its reunion with current US30; there has been much alteration coming down to and around a plethora of motels and gas stations, which I later realized was the hamlet of Breezewood, where I-70 bumps into the old road.

Lincoln Highway east of Breezewood, Pennsylvania

Then the mountains took up in earnest and I had ample chance to test my downshifting skills as I twisted through the bronze-tinged peaks and valleys, whisking through the occasional stringtowns and pike towns–often peppered with stone houses and barns–on this road that in the 19th century was what passed for a turnpike. Suddenly found myself in a lovely “fair as the garden of the Lord” valley–there was even a sign pointing toward Edenville–filled with orchards and pastures, produce stands and dairy farms, such a contrast to what I had just been through! Then a picturesque string of buildings that comprised the village of St. Thomas.
Reached Chambersburg, charming but congested, and spotted its Family Diner on the way out, with offerings such as sloppy joes and homemade soup. Yes!

Lincoln Highway, looking east near Fayetteville

Onward through more mountains on that beautiful two-lane road. Passed through Fayetteville, Caledonia State Park, and paused at the Thaddeus Stevens Blacksmith Shop, which I later discovered was renovated and restored by the Works Progress Administration in 1938. The original had been built in 1837 but was destroyed during the battle of Gettysburg. Rebuilt after the war, it remained in in business until the 1890s, after which it languished until the New Deal came along.

Thaddeus Stevens Blacksmith Shop, east of Fayetteville, Pennsylvania

Gettysburg at last, still as I remembered it from passing through 30 years ago. Statues along the highway that were in tourists’ snapshots from the 1920s. Rolling hills laden with ghosts, even in the sun.

Gettysburg National Military Park on the Lincoln Highway

Gettysburg the town was charmingly historic, for the most part, albeit crowded. This Midwesterner is not accustomed to seeing so many wonderful late 18th/early 19th century structures! New Oxford, Abbottstown . . . the road becomes messy after that. York remains amazingly intact, even in its center. Market Street is narrow and congested, flanked by rowhouses with shops on the first floor, block after block. How I longed to explore–but so many miles to go before I could sleep.

York, Pennsylvania

Passed the York Fair, the oldest fair in the country, begun before America even was a country, in 1765. Then I spent quite awhile searching for a shoe. Not just any shoe, mind you, but another famous Lincoln Highway landmark, the Haines Shoe House, which, ironically, is today most visible from the US30 bypass. Built in 1948 by Mahlon Haines, the 25-foot tall oddity was intended to promote his forty shoe stores and stands up a hill from the Lincoln Highway on the west side of Hallam. Haines apparently allowed older couples to live in it, even providing groceries and other amenities. Later, honeymooners could register at his stores to stay there. The present owners offer tours of the five-level Shoe House, but it was closed for the season.

Haines Shoe House, Hallam, Pennsylvania

Continuing on the ever more crowded road, I stopped at Jim Mack’s (origins in the 1950s) for ice cream, then arrived in Wrightsville, where a stunning art deco bridge crossed the broad Susquehanna River to Columbia. When it was constructed in 1930 it was said to be the longest multiple arch concrete bridge in the world.

bridge across Susquehanna River between Wrightsville and Columbia, Pennsylvania

Entering Lancaster I found it to be much larger than I had imagined, although, like York, laden with blocks of late 18th/early 19th century buildings–and also very congested.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania

East of town was particularly sprawl-awful but bits of old highway kitsch kept it interesting, such as the Dutch Wonderland amusement park, built in 1963.

Dutch Wonderland, east of Lancaster

Finally I was back on a two-lane road again, but this was not the Lincoln Highway experience I had hoped for; once again, night was drawing nigh and I was a very long way from the cheap hotel in Trenton I’d booked. I continued on 30 and, even as accustomed as I am to following old roads, lost it. It seemed simply to end and I was uncertain where I was, only that by this point in the growing gloom, I knew I needed to make my way around the Philadelphia metropolis if I was ever to sleep (not to mention meeting friends who live in Princeton for supper.) After getting numerous wrong directions, 911 and the Pennsylvania State Police saved me while I was caught in a hopeless morass of cars on some unidentified interstate. Ironically their directions led me to drive on  at least part of one iteration of the Lincoln Highway, the fabled Highway 1. 

Modern technology kept me talking with those friends and letting them know of my progress toward Trenton, so they were able to meet me almost as soon as I arrived and whisked me off to a lovely and civilized supper, followed by a tour of Princeton by night and a visit to what I might call the Orson Welles memorial in Grovers Mill. Back to the Trenton hotel, which had not an ounce of charm. Exhaustion won out, however, and I dreamed of the next day’s adventures.

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On the Road Again: In Search of the Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania, part one

I can still feel it–the exhilaration of flying along the two-lane highway through the Alleghenies: the Lincoln Highway, once touted as America’s Main Street, in Pennsylvania! 

This was the year, you see, that I was going to do the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first coast-to-coast automobile highway, eastward from Indiana. I had always planned to take a week; I was sure I would need it. But life intervened as it will. I broke my leg, so I could not drive for a month (I have a stick, of course!) and even if I could, I was not getting around all that well for clambering in and out of a small pickup truck. The year grew late, but miraculously–one might say tragically, since climate change is the cause–autumn lingered and with it, lovely weather and the most beautiful light. I found four free days. Not enough, as I soon proved.

Since I do not live on the Lincoln Highway I had to start out early to catch it about halfway through Ohio, east of Mansfield. I have done the routes in this state before (and written about them, see past blogs), but only a couple of times past Canton. Wooster is a favorite town, though, so I did drive through, past its over-the-top courthouse, oddly placed on a corner lot with no surrounding grounds. Passed through Massillon, with its fantastic library overlooking the town–a 1930s WPA project that adapted a mid-19th century mansion into a stunning repository of books. Reached Canton, with its over-the-top courthouse.

ca.1940 postcard

From there the highway meanders in a slightly southeasterly direction through ever-higher hills. At Robertsville, where parts of the original brick road that I saw several years ago are now paved over, I took a marked Lincoln Highway bypass and become hopelessly lost on beautiful rural roads. If I’d had more time it would not have mattered, and I would have further explored the charming little town of Malvern, where I wasn’t supposed to be. There I found myself on a highway where a sign informed me I was going both north and south at the same time. It’s true! Routes 43 and 183, North and South, respectively. Get off the Lincoln Highway and enter the Twilight Zone

Found my way to Minerva and back on the Road, on to Lisbon (“oh no, that cute little drugstore with the fresh roasted nuts is gone!”) with its lovely square and 1871 courthouse.

Columbiana County Courthouse, Lisbon, Ohio

And the Steel Trolley Diner, a classic, was also, sadly, closed–permanently? Signs were unclear. It was for sale–and I never got to eat there.

interior, Steel Trolley Diner, Lisbon, Ohio

East Liverpool on the Ohio River at last, once home to scores of pottery manufacturers, now home to the Museum of Ceramics, located in the former downtown post office. 

Museum of Ceramics, East Liverpool, Ohio

Late afternoon and it was November, after all, with earlier sundowns, plus I was heading east, into even earlier sundowns. I had miles to go before I slept and the prospect of driving through unfamiliar mountains in the dark. So I chose a later, shorter iteration of the Lincoln Highway route that crossed into West Virginia for a short stretch. I found the US30 bridge across the Ohio River much blocked by construction.

US 30 bridge over Ohio River

Erected in the 1970s, the massive steel truss bridge resulted in a reconfiguration of the Lincoln Highway’s crossing and routing on both sides. The route now skirts the north edge of Chester, West Virginia, where, along with Newell just to the south, most of the rest of the pottery factories were located (and Homer Laughlin still is.) A box truck that had pulled in front of me resolutely remained, so my enjoyment of this hilly, winding two-lane road was greatly diminished–and slowed! Pittsburgh was less than 50 miles away, but would I get beyond it before dark? 

It was not to be. I reached an interstate bypass and determined to take it in order to get around Pittsburgh quickly, but that was not to be either! There were hopeless jams and tunnels with major construction projects. Foolishly I briefly got off downtown–straight into the traffic of that evening’s football game (what do I know about Monday night football?) I saw the Lincoln Highway route through downtown, the Boulevard of Allies, but it was a sea of cars. Frantically I managed to return to the bypass as the sun dipped behind the mountains. One more tunnel (also under construction) and I got off the bypass into a very tony forested suburban area.

Westinghouse Bridge northeast of Pittsburgh, 1940s postcard

Unknowingly in the twilight I crossed the stunning George Westinghouse Bridge built in 1932 and soon was driving through every type of sprawl imaginable. Fancy lifestyle centers. Auto dealerships. Strip malls. Fast food. Ugh. Not for me. Given the distance I had to cover, I had earlier opted to stop for food I could eat on the road: cheese curds and dried cherries purchased at Shisler’s Cheese House back in Ohio, west of Massillon. I was getting hungry and had hoped to have supper at some sort of diner or cafe. Though dark, it was still early, and I figured that soon I would be free of all the sprawl and in the mountains. But the sprawl went on and on and on.

Then suddenly all was dark. Very dark. All at once the mountains seemed to loom all around me. The narrowed road curved and dipped like the wildest roller coaster. I was climbing and descending in third gear, even second–once even in first. I kept passing signs–jumping into my headlights like scary mannequins on an amusement park dark ride–warning trucks to stay in low gear and other signs telling them to stop (and let things cool, I assume?) There were several runaway truck slopes, too, heading off into the darkness. I had no idea how close to the edge I was, nor much “down” was beyond it. Apart from those truck ramps, there were no places to pull off to the side. Harrowing? You bet. The mountains were heavily forested and I could see no lights. Rarely, I slipped through tiny stringtowns with no apparent businesses, only a few precarious houses hanging onto the edge of the road. No diner beckoned; I stopped for some gas at Jennerstown, which was supposed to have one, but I did not see it and I did not know how far I still had to go. Finally I rolled into what I later learned was Schellsburg and saw a most welcome grocery and deli! The folks inside blinked at me as if I were a Martian, but a sign advertised any deli sandwich $2.75. Fantastic! I ordered, fell gratefully into a chair along with my maps and route books and discovered I was less than five miles from the Lincoln Motor Court, my destination for the night. Hallelujah! I packed up my half-eaten sandwich and headed east; an oasis in the desert could not have been a more welcome sight. The owners, who, alas, have the place up for sale (but hope to sell it to someone who will continue its 80 years of tradition) were lovely and “old shoe,” as my mother used to say. They handed me the key to cabin 12 just across the driveway. I opened the door and exclaimed with delight.

Cabin 12, Lincoln Motor Court

There was a shimmer and I was in the 1940s, and my vehicle parked outside was not a Ford Ranger but a sturdy Model A, resting from its extreme endeavors just accomplished. The Lincoln Motor Court is said to be the last collection of tourist cabins still open on the Lincoln Highway. The rooms appear as they did in the first decades of the cabins’ existence. I finished my braunschweiger, tallied up the day in my journal, and sank into an unimaginably comfortable bed. I would be well rested for more adventures in the morning.

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Why Historians Sigh

I do history, which some maintain is a science but others assert is an art. It is both, I believe, and I lean a bit toward the latter. And then there is myth-busting, which is sometimes impossible. We try. That’s our job.

I’ve been at this for a long time and have been down many a rabbit hole; history is like that. Historians search for primary sources, documentation from the time in question, placement in context. The more elements to draw upon, the better, even while taking into account the possibility of error. I am always happy, for example, to find newspaper articles of the time that discuss the “facts,” but then I remember how many times current newspaper articles are wrong, how often they misquote or exaggerate, and someday future historians may be using them for sources. Oh dear.

Not long ago Traces magazine published my article about the long gone town of Hindostan, the first seat of Martin County. In it I explored the lingering myths of its supposed overnight demise because of some ravaging plague in the 1820s. Starting as early as the 1930s, the Indianapolis Star and the News ran feature pieces about once a decade ballyhooing the “angel of death” riding through the town. Often whole sentences were repeated in subsequent articles. It was useful Sunday filler material, but fraught with myth, not fact. Myth is more fun. (You can check out the article in the Summer 2020 issue of Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History.)

Erroneous sign near site of Hindostan: the myth lives on

An existing small town with which I’ve worked on and off for nearly two decades insists that it was founded a certain year. The truth is that the correct date is six years later. Now certainly the origins of many towns are obscure, but with this town, that is not the case. The holy grail, the original hand-drawn town plat, still rests in the county courthouse, the date plain to see. The townsfolk have the notion that there existed a “community” of sorts in the region and they just “got around to making it official” on the later date. What defines a town, anyway? Does any cluster (and it was not even that) of families living in an area automatically mean it’s a town? There were people living in that general vicinity for more than 30 years, were they a town then? No! A community? Perhaps. Suddenly and arbitrarily, people determined on an origin date that belied the obvious fact of the plat being filed and recorded six years later. I have never discovered from whence this notion came. These folks celebrated their centennial and then their sesquicentennial six years too early. But it gets worse. Recently erected is a fancy permanent sign on the state highway welcoming travelers to this historic town, founded–yes, you guessed it; it’s the wrong date. Now it’s written in stone! Who needs historians?

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A Cacophony of Cranes: A Symphony in Three Parts

Part 1                             cranesThe wonder of the earth fills my soul.  Ritual interactions with seasonal events are not to be missed.  And so, every fall for many years I have made the annual pilgrimage to Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, just north of Medaryville, Indiana off US421, to see the gathering of the sandhill cranes.  Usually starting in October, they arrive in droves, enroute from their summer homes farther north in Canada, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to take a breather for a few days to a few weeks in northwestern Indiana before proceeding on to their winter homes in Georgia and Florida.  The sight of thousands of these amazing birds flying in from all directions with their unique bugling cries, then landing, gabbling, dancing in Goose Meadow is an experience that is awesome in the truest sense.  Cranes are magnificent creatures that must be seen–and heard–to be appreciated.

I arrive at least an hour before sunset to see them glide in from the surrounding areas where they have been gleaning the marshlands and harvested fields.  Cranes fly with necks and legs outstretched (differing from herons, who fly with their necks crooked in an “S”). Often a whole flock will hit a thermal and essentially stall, landing almost straight downward feet first with an elegant awkwardness.

Usually on weekdays the crowds are smaller at the observation platform constructed on the east side of Goose Meadow; hearing the cranes is a vital part of the experience and sometimes it is difficult over the babble of idiots talking about the great bargains they found at Walmart (something I actually overheard).  Why do people make the trip to see the cranes and then talk the whole time–is it just to say they did?  They should stay home and watch YouTube videos.  The rest of us want to revel in this glorious display and hear the crane music. No talking in church!

I always stay until dark, nearly always the last to leave, alone with the cranes and the night.  I’ve walked back to the car in moonlight, with bats darting overhead, my soul astir.  Once, leaving the gabble and mutter of the meadow, I started down the road, and suddenly there was a huge rush and roar, and all the cranes rose at once to head out to their roosting areas.  It was almost pitch black and I couldn’t see them, but I heard the magnificent beat of the wings.  I was in the very Presence.

Part 2

The glacial moraine of south central Wisconsin has held a place in my heart for decades.  Years ago, I often escaped to its rolling terrain and granite outcroppings when I lived in Chicago.  Since then, I’d passed nearby a time or two and thought of returning to the area, and finally, several years ago, I did.  But as I was leaving Baraboo, heading back home, I discovered that the International Crane Foundation was nearby. How did I miss that? Darn! I had to go back.

And I did, twice.  The International Crane Foundation (ICF)Home – International Crane Foundation was co-founded in 1973 by two pre-PhD ornithologists, George Archibald and the late Ron Sauey, fellow graduate students at Cornell.  Both young men admired early environmentalist Aldo Leopold (whom I regard as a spiritual guide), and, as it turned out, Sauey’s family owned land just down the road from Leopold’s legendary Shack, featured in his masterpiece Sand County Almanac.  The origins of today’s ICF began on that land, not very far from their present, larger property, which houses research facilities, a library, and mating pairs of all fifteen of the world’s cranes.

Cranes were–and remain–greatly threatened, largely due to the disappearance or compromise of their various habitats. Dr. Archibald set out to raise cranes in captivity and release them in the wild and originated a number of techniques to prevent chicks from imprinting on their human helpers. Whooping cranes, a North American species, were nearing extinction and Archibald worked extensively with a female named Tex, mimicking mating calls and dances of the male.  Tex finally did lay a fertile egg through artificial insemination, but tragically, she was killed by a pack of marauding raccoons shortly after successfully hatching her chick.

george-archibald-tex-saving-whooping-cranes-1-png-662x0_q70_crop-scaleDr. Archibald was director of the International Crane Foundation from its inception until 2000, and is still very much involved with the organization. Today he writes, lectures, and works with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), heading the Species Survival Commission for cranes, traveling to crane habitats all over the world, including the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. In 1984, relatively early in his career, Dr. Archibald won a coveted MacArthur “genius” award, and in 2006 he won the inaugural Indianapolis Prize for his life-long dedication to crane conservation, to name but a few of the many honors he has received.

Part 3

What better way to celebrate summer solstice than with the glorious cranes?  The International Crane Foundation hosts a fundraiser every summer called “An Evening with the Cranes.”  Local restaurants set up stations of good things to eat and drink throughout the public part of the facility, along the paths that wind past the pens of the cranes.

The sun was bright and hot at 5pm, here deep in the Central Time Zone (as Indiana is supposed to be).  The ICF public area is nestled amidst a restored tall-grass prairie, so shade was at a premium, but never mind, it was all about the cranes.  There was the gorgeous pair of whoopers, which I could watch for hours.


And then there was this stately Sarus crane, a huge bird some six feet tall (I had to look up at him!) and over 50 years old!  Majnu had lost his lifelong mate a year or two before and had not been doing well. Then he was introduced to a sweet young thing, and in due course came chicks. He’s doing fine.


Many of my most revered environmentalists are long gone:  John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson.  Dr. George Archibald, happily, is very much still with us, still dedicated to his life’s mission of saving cranes.  And there he was, amiably chatting with various “craniacs.”  To me, he’s a rock star!

I summoned the courage–hardly necessary–to go up to talk with him, sharing a little about my work. He graciously introduced me to the current director of ICF, even as more people clamored to chat. I was elated. But two days later, leaving Wisconsin, I wanted to stop in briefly at ICF once more, perhaps to hear the cacophony of cranes and look in the shop–and there he was, as gracious as before.   We talked of cranes and wonder. gjgeorgereduced

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The Boys with the Shovels: The CCC at Pokagon State Park

CCC - Pokagon Chieftain.2015For 62 years, veterans of the Civilian Conservation Corps, most of them from Company 556, have been coming to Indiana’s Pokagon State Park on the last Sunday in July, for the oldest continuous CCC reunion in the country. For the last 25 years, I have never missed one, although the rapidly dwindling number of veterans is painful to see.

In 1953, twenty years after the CCC had been established in the depths of the Depression, Roger Woodcock, formerly of CCC Company 556, along with several others who had worked at Pokagon, sought the park’s help in setting up a reunion. The gathering would be at the open air Combination Shelter overlooking the beach, both constructed by Company 556. Roger consulted a local meteorologist as to the best day to hold the event, and the fellow assured him that it never rains the last Sunday in July. Indeed, in all those years, it has rained only four times.

Pokagon State Park was largely unforested farmland when the Indiana Department of Conservation took possession in 1925 and named it to honor Simon Pokagon, a chief of the Potawatomi tribe that once inhabited the area. Above the southern basin of Lake James, a large glacial lake in this moraine area, construction began on the Potawatomi Inn, which opened in 1927. Park personnel developed two beaches and over the next few years improved campgrounds at the north end of the park. The beginnings of a boys’ camp, built in part through a Civil Works Administration (CWA) project, appeared in the early 1930s on a bluff overlooking the upper basin of the lake. (CWA was a short-lived New Deal work program during the winter of 1933-34.)

CCC Company 556, initially formed in the fall of 1933 to do several projects, including an imaginatively designed group camp (all long since demolished) at Indiana Dunes State Park on Lake Michigan, finished its work there and established Camp SP-7 at Pokagon the following year. The park underwent an ambitious development program, including reforestation, landscaping, road building, and construction of numerous outdoor recreational facilities. The CCC boys hewed local timber and split native stone to construct buildings that harmonized especially well with the park environment, in keeping with guidelines created by the National Park Service, which oversaw master plans for CCC parks projects. adjustedCCCshelterPerhaps the best example is the beautiful two-story shelterhouse (now called the “CCC Shelter”) that nestles at the edge of the woods above the beach. Nearly all the park’s present landscaping and buildings–including the old gatehouse, the saddle barn, the dining hall and much of the group camp, the bath house, and overnight cabins near the inn–are the work of the CCC, which remained in the park until January 1942. They also built a toboggan slide, which has since been rebuilt and remodeled several times, adding to winter fun at Pokagon. Other than several expansions of the Potawatomi Inn and the construction of a nature center in 1981, relatively little has been added or changed on the property. Most of Pokagon State Park, that encompassed by the boundary in place in 1942, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. I had the joyful task of writing that nomination in the mid-1990s at the behest of the CCC veterans, who presented me with a plaque upon the park’s successful listing.

Initially I had met these men in 1991, when I was documenting all the New Deal sites and structures in Indiana’s state parks for the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology. As various structures built by New Deal agencies turned 50 years old, I frequently received calls from the preservation folks, asking about one building or another, and I had lobbied hard to do a survey and documentation like this. For this was not my first New Deal project; I had already put in ten years by then, starting with a grant from the Indiana Humanities Council for a year-long project, “Making a Better Indiana”: WPA, Labor and Leisure that sought out structures built by the New Deal and created programs around these findings. More grants followed, along with trips to the National Archives in those pre-computer days. Why WPA? Why the New Deal? In northern Indiana, where I grew up, I was surrounded with examples of their work. My favorites were Battell Park in Mishawaka, with its fieldstone fantasy rock garden that cascades down a bank of the St. Joseph River, and Washington Park in Michigan City, where the creative use of discarded construction material by FERA and WPA is still a wonder to behold, crowned with a four-story observation tower atop a dune. MichCity2What a joy it was to write that National Register nomination, one of my first, for the park and its zoo! For whatever reason, the New Deal captured my interest, and only later did I learn that a major engineering feat in South Bend, the straightening of an oxbow bend in the St. Joseph River, was a WPA project on which my grandfather had worked. And as I was busily collecting information on the New Deal in St. Joseph County, my mother casually mentioned that she had a clerical job at her high school through the National Youth Administration (NYA). Later I discovered several shelterhouses in various city parks around the state with plaques proudly proclaiming them to be the work of the NYA. The joy of discovery never ends–and I still stumble on New Deal work everywhere. Indiana was always a leading state in New Deal projects, difficult as that may be to believe given the current politics.

So, as always for the past 25 years, I spent the last Sunday of July at Pokagon State Park, honoring the boys of the Civilian Conservation Corps who, some 80 years ago, made the park what it is today.   There were two veterans present (a third, bless him, had intended to come but had a fall and couldn’t make it). 2015CCC Interpretive naturalist Fred Wooley, who retired this spring after 35 years, returned to emcee the program. Fred left a wonderful legacy himself; among other projects, his cherished dream of marking the location of every building on the site where the CCC camp was, including interpretive signage for each, has been realized. gatehse:smAnd soon, the beautiful gatehouse built by these boys so long ago and abandoned owing to changing traffic patterns will become a mini museum dedicated to them. Their legacy lives on.

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My Mother Never Warned Me about the House on the Rock

For years I have loved south central Wisconsin, a beautiful land of lakes and rocks and rivers. Within a fifty-mile or so radius of Madison are many wonders, both natural and manmade, and I have wandered the old roads about there through the decades. Early on the famous Wisconsin Dells was a destination for my family; sadly I discovered it has become a distorted playground of water parks and endless taverns, no longer the seemingly innocent tourist area of souvenir shops and amusements adjacent to the natural beauty of the Dells that had been the real draw in my youth. The Dells, fantastic stony bluffs and formations along the Wisconsin River, are, of course, still there, but I wonder if visitors even bother. Later, living in Chicago, I sometimes ran off to meander the winding roads, passing through charming towns such as Lodi, or stopping to hike at Devil’s Lake State Park.


Now that I live the better part of a day’s drive away, my occasional trips to Wisconsin have been pilgrimages of sorts. Once it was to see Taliesin, fabled home of master architect Frank Lloyd Wright near Spring Green; other times, to marvel at the International Crane Foundation, which keeps breeding pairs of all fifteen of the world’s cranes and works to restore their habitats, and also to commune with the spirit of early environmentalist Aldo Leopold at his legendary Shack nearby in the Wisconsin River floodplain.

There was one major attraction I had always missed but had always wanted to see. Indeed, I had passed very close to it on my way to Taliesin (now there is a building with which I can dance!) Although I have been aware of it most of my life, apparently The House on the Rock near Spring Green is well known only regionally. My parents went to see it once, I think, and later my widowed mother went there with a busload of seniors from her home in northern Indiana, where I grew up. Mom never spoke all that much about it, only to recommend it as fascinating and that there was a lot to see. Oh brother! What an understatement.

I have always embraced architecture and museums of many sorts. I am a public historian, after all! But what is The House on the Rock anyway? Is it a museum of amazing artifacts of history and popular culture in dire need of a curator, or a massive interactive art installation? Or perhaps a great mischievous joke on the public? Yes. It is all those things. I doubt I will ever return, but I will never forget it. P.T. Barnum would have loved it!

It begins innocuously enough, although there are hints. The House is, as advertised, built upon a chimney rock overlooking the Wyoming Valley and reached by meandering rural roads south and west of Spring Green. At the entrance to the property and at intervals along the lengthy winding drive leading to the house are huge, vaguely medieval, vaguely Oriental urns. With dragons.  I really was not sure what to expect; the brochures are cryptic, although not obviously so. The website was no better. Let us simply say that they leave a lot out. There were multiple large parking lots amidst trees and flower plantings and more urns.


Surrounded with flowers, the visitor orientation center, apparently one of the most recent buildings, offers views of the property, ticket counters, a gift shop, and a sizable exhibit on Alex Jordan (1914-1989), the builder of The House on the Rock. The story is that Jordan found this beautiful site in the 1940s and gradually built a weekend retreat, supposedly never intending it as anything else. But he kept building, kept collecting things (he may have been the world’s greatest hoarder), and people were curious, so he began asking a nominal fee for admission. And it grew from there. And it grew. And it grew.

Admission tickets are sold in sections or a special price for the entire attraction; the latter seemed to make sense, since a return trip was not likely. Material I had read said to allow at least three hours (ha!). The first section was the original house and additions; it felt like a combination treehouse and cave, which may make no sense until you see it. It was dark and shadowy and labyrinthine, with an overabundance of antique you-name-its on display on dimly lit shelves and in nooks and crannies all around. It is in this section that one finds the famous Infinity Room, one of the last additions to the House under Jordan’s ownership.


“Stumbles upon” may be a better term; the passageways are twisted and multi-leveled, and it is dark! I cannot imagine my mother and her fellow seniors, even in healthy shape, rambling about in there. It seemed the only way out was to go back the same way.

The second section–and there is a ticket taker at the beginning of each–is in a separate building, or series of buildings, leading into a recreated turn-of-the-[20th]century street. I should at this point note that there are restrooms scattered throughout the site, and each is filled with collections or concoctions as well. The entrance is open so that men, too, can at least glimpse,  IMG_3839for example, this artful display of glassware in the ladies’ room before The Streets of Yesterday.

Yesterday’s streets, which of course are dark and somehow seem a little odd compared to those you may have seen in other museums, gradually lead you to an array of mechanical coin-operated animated musical devices. They take tokens that you purchase when buying your tickets.



At first I was charmed, for I have seen a fair number of entertaining antique musical devices, and this seemed to be a marvelous collection, albeit ill-maintained. Then I was awed, for down the passageways were orchestrions that then merged into room-sized contraptions; then there were rooms filled with orchestras of various instruments, playing, seemingly, by themselves. Most were a little or lot out of tune, adding to the growing feeling of unease. And so much, so many, too much!


Indeed, the order of things is lost in my mind, and there were no maps. Was the vast space that displayed the 200-foot sea creature(!) in mortal battle with a giant squid before or after all the mad music? The scale of the diorama, if you could call it that, was imposing. The walls of the room displayed endless cases of priceless nautical artifacts–or were they?–including a sizable collection from the Titanic. From there, I think, the passages led to another huge space filled with various relics of transportation. All, everywhere, was shadowy, and everywhere was. . . stuff.

But also here, incongruously, in what felt like an underground cavern, was a cafeteria and a little ice cream shop, a place at last to rest a bit, for the walk by this time could be measured in miles–or so it seemed, what with endless climbing and clambering. Later there was another resting place (with a few concessions available) that overlooked the Wyoming Valley from beneath the Infinity Room. On the hillside, by chance, I trust, a few deer grazed, a most welcome dose of reality.


The third section perhaps was strangest of all. Here surely would be “the world’s largest indoor carousel,” something I had been eager to see this entire “long strange trip.” The passage opened into another huge space of several levels. A portion of the walls was entirely covered with dusty carousel horses. My historian heart cried out in dismay. Indeed, this room would shatter it. The whole experience had become as a dream, bordering on nightmare. There stood a three-story carousel ceaselessly whirling–and you can’t even ride on it! Instead, it is a huge assemblage of carousel animals, including not one horse, all torn asunder from their origins–or are they? Perhaps they are simply very accurate reproductions. All around the carousel loomed large machinery, created of pieces of other machinery, even an Edison dynamo! At the other end of this Stygian expanse was a gargantuan cannon. Maybe. Who knew what was real at this point?

But even that dungeon of delusion was not the end. The way out led through rooms full of old animated circus displays of several scales, another of endless dolls, yet another with a amazing collection (these were real, I’m certain) of early 20th century animated window displays for jewelry shops. Apart from some signage explaining the window displays, there was no interpretation. I struggled for air. At last, after hours at a furious pace, we had made it through. But even outside there were odd relics–or fakes–all surrounded by riotously blooming gardens.IMG_3831

That’s the thing. There is a reason the House on the Rock is so dark within. It’s all part of the illusion.


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