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FINDING THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY

getaway-chicago logo Are we there yet? Every parent on a road trip with kids has endured the plaintive question “are we there yet?” As the Getaway Guys discovered in 2010 while exploring the Lincoln Highway from Geneva, Illinois to Clinton, Iowa, “are we there yet?” isn’t an inquiry only uttered by bored children in cars. Alan Barney (age 65) wanted to know the same thing.

lincoln2Contrary to expectations, the Lincoln Highway isn’t (nor was it) a continuous ribbon of concrete connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific. In fact it wasn’t (nor is it) continuous at all! The Lincoln Highway was more about hype than pavement and as one wag said about the ballyhoo, “more printer’s ink was used than cement."

Last year when the Getaway Guys explored this fabled highway they didn’t know beans about its history, where it was, lincoln3where they were going or what they would see. Typically the Guys are bound for a specific location looking for museums, architecture and odd ball stuff, but on this trip they were looking for a highway in addition to all the other stuff. Unable to drive from NYC to San Francisco, they chose Geneva to Clinton hoping to discover what all the fuss was about.

The Lincoln Highway was the brainy idea of Detroit car guys (the Lincoln Highway Association) trying to shame the U.S. Government into building all-weather highways across the U.S. so more cars could be sold in the early 1920’s. In those days pavement typically stopped at a town line and between was dirt or mud. lincoln4Zooming about in a Stutz Bearcat, terrorizing pedestrians and horses alike was fun, but a rendezvous with flappers and illegal hooch at a roadhouse was ever better. Zooming wasn’t confined to Sheiks and Shebas. Sober types wanted to connect too, if only in a Tin Lizzie.

lincoln5Despite Association ballyhoo, the Harding and Coolidge administrations turned deaf ears, surprising because the Harding administration was known to favor oil and grease. Silent Cal Coolidge hated Federal spending, period! Not until the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration did paved roads become a priority. Interestingly, a Major in the United States Army endured a bone rattling Army convoy journey along the supposed Lincoln Highway in 1919 to test America’s readiness for war and he was “sorely” disgusted. His name was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the father of the Interstate Highway System.lincoln6

In 1912 at Indianapolis’s Das Deutsche Haus, the aforementioned auto tycoons “invented” the Lincoln Highway, which wasn’t a bad idea. With the Federal Government uninterested, the Association appealed to municipal vanity along its proposed route from New York to San Francisco. An all-weather road from coast to coast would be a boon to local business, a way to promote commerce in a country rapidly becoming a nation on wheels. The makers of Fords, Auburns and Buicks needed better roads to sell more cars, as did tire manufactures and refineries. In the early twenties average Americans didn’t have cars, but an increasing number did and they were embracing tourism, which could be a cash cow en-route. Proposing a highway and building it are different things. The Lincoln Highway was (is) a meandering local patchwork.

Not interested in who paid for what, Neil and Alan were searching for remnants of the original routelincoln7 and landmarks (tourist cabins, eateries, rest stops and gas stations). Instead, they found an abundance of restored buildings and preserved architecture. With regard to the original route, sections no longer exist, but the resurrected Lincoln Highway Association has admirably marked its course where feasible.

The Guys stopped in DeKalb, Rochelle, Franklin Park, Dixon, Sterling, Morrison, Fulton (all Illinois) and Clinton, Iowa to explore what past travelers may have encountered. Sites for Marmon owners have largely vanished. Today’s travelers will discover examples of preservation, restoration and adaptive re-use.lincoln8

DeKalb, Illinois: DeKalb is a university town with an ebb and flow dictated by 25,000+ students needing the necessities of college life. Home to Northern Illinois University (1895), in the Roaring 20’s its much smaller student population was no doubt less of an economic engine than now. In DeKalb, The Lincoln Highway is Illinois 38 (largely a strip of fast food joints), but in the heart of DeKalb’s former downtown is the Egyptian Theater (1929), one of a handful of Egyptian Revival structures remaining in the U.S. It was slated for demolition in the 1970’s, but saved in the 80’s and now hosts 125 theatrical events annually. Architecturally it is well worth a stop.

Rochelle, Illinois: Through Rochelle the Highway is still Illinois 38 and the Guys stopped at a restored 1918 Standard Oil gas station (now Rochelle’s Visitors Center)lincoln9 at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and the Lincoln Highway. Way back when, a place to purchase gas and fix flats, this previous fuel oasis with two gas pumps and no frills exemplifies the Spartan amenities of early road travel ( gas stations were not shopping plazas.) Next, the Guys toured the Flagg Township Museum located in a former fire house and town hall at 518 4th Avenue. The kind of place the Getaway Guys always hope to find, this gem is packed with artifacts and ephemera related to Rochelle’s history. Heading further west, Franklin Grove.

lincoln10Franklin Grove, Illinois: At the north end of town there is an inconspicuous building of mid 19th century construction once owned and operated as a general store by Abraham Lincoln’s brother Tom. Jammed with stuff old and new, this is the headquarters of the resurrected Lincoln Highway Association and it has a plethora of information related to the highway. This hodge-podge is a must see. Through Franklin Grove the Lincoln Highway is Illinois 38.

Dixon, Illinois: A larger and more prosperous community, Dixon is essentially devoted to the memory of Ronald Reagan. His restored boyhood home is at 816 South Hennepin Avenue. lincoln11The house restored house is a quintessential late 19th-early 20th century residence in a pleasant neighborhood. Down Hennepin at Fifth Street is the admirably restored South Central School (now the Dixon Historic Center) which “Dutch” Reagan attended. In addition to a boatload of Reagan related material, the Center features fascinating exhibits of local history and loan exhibitions from the Smithsonian. The Lincoln Highway Interpretive Center at River and Galena Streets was somewhat anti-climatic, but the Lincoln Monument State Memorial commemorating lincoln12Lincoln’s Blackhawk War militia duty in 1832 is interesting (if confusing to get to on the opposite side of the Rock River). Spanning South Galena Avenue is the iconic Dixon Veterans Memorial Arch, a kind of promotional structure once popular when entering many U.S. communities during the early motoring age and often featured on picture post cards. Slightly west of Dixon at a wide spot in the road called Prairieville there is an authentic drive-in theater worth noting. Post WW II Alan got choked up about happier days (he and Reagan).

lincoln13Sterling, Illinois: The Guys deserted the Highway to investigate Indian mounds overlooking the Rock River in Sinnissippi Park. No longer recognizable as such, they were happy to see their preservation and well documented signage indicating their significance and their Native American attribution. From Dixon to Sterling the Highway is Illinois 2. Through Sterling is somewhat confusing, but a section passes through a residential area with grand 19th and early 20th-century homes mostly well-preserved and currently occupied. This struck Neil and Alan as curious. The desirability of highway traffic rumbling down a residential street of well-to-do housing seemed odd. What were earlier occupants thinking?

lincoln14Morrison, Illinois: About 15 miles west of Sterling is a gem named Morrison with preserved commercial and residential architecture. Morrison’s Lincoln highway is U.S. 30. Its main drag is a cornucopia of late 19th century commercial architecture in good shape and just north of the main drag on the original route is a cluster of grand residences worthy of observation. Somebody had money.

Finally the east bank of the Mississippi and Fulton, Illinois! Settled in 1835, it changed its name from Baker’s Ferry to honor Robert Fulton the builder of the first steamboat (the Clermont). Dutch immigrants arrived in sufficient numberslincoln15 without their iconic architecture and no discernable reason why. Nevertheless Fulton is unique. In 2000 Fulton erected a functional, full scale windmill fabricated in the Netherlands and shipped in pieces (along with Dutch craftsmen). One of only a few operational Dutch windmills in the U.S., the Getaway Guys got a personal tour. Opposite on 1st Street and 10th Avenue is the Windmill Cultural Center where Neil and Alan were mesmerized by a large, permanent exhibit of working models of Dutch and other European windmills. (“Dutch” Reagan’s parents lived in Fulton before moving to Dixon.)

Clinton, Iowa: Across the Mississippi and named for Dewit Clinton (a Governor of New York best remembered for the construction of the Erie Canal), the Guys thought it odd that nearby communities would bare the names of New Yorkers. This Clinton needs a stimulus. Once an industrial magnet humming with activity, its river front is largely abandoned and awaiting development. But there’s a bright side. The Guys lunched at the Candlelight Inn, a comfortable, contemporary restaurant perched on the banks of Ole Man River with spectacular, unimpeded views across this majestic waterway. The food and service were excellent and the cost very reasonable. Afterward the Guys began exploring by visiting Eagle Point Park north of town. With extensive hiking trails, scenic overlooks and a timbered lodge devoted to community activities it is a Civilian Conservation Corps creation. (See Neil and Alan’s C.C.C. destinations.).

lincoln16Downtown Clinton is somewhat moribund and the present recession hasn’t helped, but there is probably more to see than the Guys had time for. There are good examples of late 19th and early 20th century commercial architecture needing occupants, restoration or adaptive reuse. At 2nd Street and 6th Avenue there is the large and impressive Clinton County Court House, an architecturally interesting c'ivic building of note. Evening dining is limited, but Neil and Alan found (after getting lost) the McKinley Street Taverne at 2301 McKinley Street. Their dinner was very good (and copious), the service attentive and the prices were much to Alan’s liking (cheap). This restaurant occupies the former offices of the Disbrow Company (1856), a manufacturer of windows and doors.

Not the journey back in time the Guys sought because the Highway’s past has been largely erased by progress. However, from St. Charles to Clinton enough of the original course remains to make it interesting and thought provoking. June 2011

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