This coast-to-coast byway still showcases lovely America in a way that I-80 and I-90 just can’t do. Louise Brass explains why it means so much to so many locals, and how its 100th anniversary is being celebrated this summer.
The beloved Lincoln Highway charted its course from New York to San Francisco in 1913, when travel was slow and often hazardous. Getting anywhere by a Model T or a Model A Ford, or perhaps an early Benz, Haynes or Duryea, was a bumpy and breezy affair 100 years ago.
This summer will see a re-enactment of early coast-to-coast highway journeys by some 200 adventurous drivers and passengers, many in classic vehicles. Cities along the route, including the Illinois communities of Sterling, Dixon, Franklin Grove, Rochelle, Geneva, St. Charles, Batavia and Aurora, will welcome the motorists and put their stamps on the Lincoln Highway Centennial Celebration.
“People who live along the Lincoln Highway are very open and friendly to those who traverse this roadway,” says John O’Halloran, of DeKalb, who plans to join the tour in his 1948 Commodore Hudson. “It is absolutely the heartbeat of America.”
It will be a welcoming party that stretches some 3,400 miles in length, with Illinois being a central stopping place, particularly the city of Rochelle, through which the Lincoln Highway takes a curvaceous and prominent route. Called “The Hub City,” Rochelle is noted for its transportation hubs of rail and truck traffic, but this year also it’s an important part of Lincoln Highway activities, as an overnight stopping place, says Ken Wise, a member of Farming Heritage Incorporated (FHI).
FHI helped to restore the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) headquarters building in Franklin Grove in the 1990s. The historic, two-story stone building erected in the mid-1800s was the site of one of the first fundraiser meetings for the construction of the highway, according to Dixon Telegraph newspaper reports of the day.
“It was Valentine’s Day 1914,” says Lynn Asp, director of the Lincoln Highway Association National Headquarters. “The newspaper states that 250 people met upstairs to hear one of the officers of the first association. Somebody had to stop in every town and tell people what was proposed and ask for money.”
Investors, including many farmers, donated funds for the massive road project a century ago. Farmers also helped to fund renovation of the headquarters building in the 1990s. Bob Logan, mayor of Franklin Grove, says FHI members “brought a crown jewel to our town” when they secured the national headquarters of the LHA in Franklin Grove.
“It’s historical, because the building is on the Lincoln Highway and the meetings were held here originally to raise money 100 years ago. It wasn’t a governmental thing,” Wise explains.
Now, the undulating Lincoln Highway also has federal designation as a National Scenic Byway and attracts tourists from all over the United States and many countries.
Local businesses are well positioned to benefit. Cafes, restaurants, hotels and bed and breakfasts in communities along the highway this summer will provide welcome respite for travelers when tours come through at a breakneck speed of about 45 miles per hour. The event promises to be both profitable and entertaining for the communities, as media and tourists swoop into their towns to see the parade pass by.
“Almost all of the original road alignments from the East Coast to the West Coast are still in existence, although maybe not in a continuous line, and you may have to hunt for them,” O’Halloran says. He’s made the trip before, taking some unexpected turns, like finding himself on a railroad line, and sometimes ending up in a stranger’s back yard. He was the target of some stern looks. But it’s worth it, he says.
Everett Kraft and Merle Deets of Dixon know the Lincoln Highway well. In 2002, they joined in a three-car caravan along the Lincoln Highway from Dixon to Times Square (the official starting place of the highway) in New York City. Kraft drove his 1931 Model A and Deets his 1937 Pontiac sedan. They kept in contact using cell phones and CB radios.
Kraft says that getting to sleep in motels along the way was sometimes difficult because he worried that the vehicles, which attracted a lot of attention, would be missing by morning. But that never happened, and Deets started each day by singing “On the Road Again” over his CB radio.
In busy New York City, people waved and honked friendly greetings even when long lines formed behind the vintage vehicles. The cheery reception surprised the travelers. Even parking was easy. “In New York, I had a policeman tell me he’d waited 30 years to see a Model A,” Kraft recalls.
The highway has many alternate routes, such as in the village of Ashton, but through the years it has stayed fairly close to the railroad lines in many of the dozen states it crosses.
The first LHA was founded in 1913 by people eager to make things easier for automobile travel. After many years’ absence, it was resurrected in 1992 with the centennial celebration in mind.
The highway was dedicated to Abraham Lincoln in 1928 and thousands of Boy Scouts of America troops that year placed 2,400 concrete markers, embossed with bronze medallions showing Abe Lincoln’s features, and 1,000 metal signs, along the entire finalized route to help motorists navigate their way. One of the few remaining concrete markers that still has bronze pieces attached is in Aurora, says Sue Jacobson, secretary of the national association and a resident of Aurora.
“Illinois was one of the first states to mark the Lincoln Highway with our red, white and blue logo signs,” she says. “Each state tries to promote things along the way that have historical interest that can bring in tourism.” An original picnic shelter site associated with the Lincoln Highway still stands in Aurora.
The steadfast, enduring countenance of Abraham Lincoln – the president who worked so hard to ensure that our union remained intact, and who was killed before realizing his own dream of traveling to the West – is a fitting symbol for a project that so captured the country’s adventurous and expeditionary spirit.
The building of this transcontinental highway, and public enthusiasm for it, influenced the creation of the Federal Highway Administration and the Interstate Highway System.
Automobile magnate Carl Fisher raised $1 million to begin construction of the highway, and fellow industrialist Henry Joy was the first president of the LHA. In 1914, the installation of some ‘seedling miles’ – so called because they planted seeds in motorists’ minds of how good a paved road could be – were installed over very muddy sections.
The very first seedling mile in the nation was at Malta, just west of DeKalb, says LHA National President Kay Shelton, of DeKalb.
Shelton is joining the historic coast-to-coast tour, which culminates with the national convention in Kearney, Neb., in July. An Illinois-only tour in May started in Fulton and traveled east through Batavia, Plainfield, Joliet and New Lenox.
Shelton is even dressing for the part, with a vintage duster coat, goggles, scarf and a custom-made dress in the style of 1913. “This is such an incredible year. It’s so much fun to get off the interstate and be on the two-lane roads,” Shelton says.
LHA members are dedicated to the history and the enjoyment of driving, she adds. The very first members wanted to make car travel a safe and pleasant experience. Today’s organization is dedicated to preserving, interpreting and improving the highway.
“At the start, to try to keep it less confusing for travelers, they would encourage towns to change the names of some roads, from Main Street to Lincoln Highway, such as in DeKalb,” Shelton explains.
Located in Franklin Grove, at 136 N. Elm St., the headquarters includes an antique store with consignment sales of paintings, books, crafts and artifacts of historical importance. Lynn Asp devotedly manages the building that’s preserved by the FHI.
Keith Hill, of St. Charles, joined LHA because he likes to travel secondary roadways on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. There’s always something to see, he says. He’s run into Fourth of July parades he didn’t expect, had flat tires in lonely places and visited relatives who live near the historic roadway; he just can’t get enough. “I’ve been as far as Rawlins, Wyo. I want to continue my tour; I call it my campaign,” he says.
In the early days, the highway was nothing like the smooth, wide interstates of today. In many places, it was merely a muddy dirt road or a bone-bouncing boulevard, or a dusty trail through a scorching desert. Motorists found themselves not only trying to keep mud, grit and sand off their goggles and clothing, but also trying to skirt oncoming tumble weeds, spooked horses and inconvenient cacti.
It was necessary to be self-sufficient as a mechanic, too. Gas stations, then called filling stations, were few, in the early days. Rochelle recently renovated one of those rare Standard Oil stations on the Lincoln Highway, reprising its early look.
Dennis Murphy lives a block off the Lincoln Highway in Geneva and feels it’s important not to lose sight of history.
“In 1913, there were very few paved miles,” Murphy says. “You had to carry your own food and camping gear. There were a lot of arguments over the route, and there was competition between towns as to which would get it, because it was good for the town’s economy.”
In Geneva, the highway has a couple of original routes, on First and Third streets, and then west on Kaneville and Kesslinger roads. When the highway competed with a trolley line in Geneva, the auto route had to be changed, Murphy explains.
“It’s important for any culture to know about its past. That generally gives us an indication of where we’re headed in the future,” says Paul Schusch, of Geneva. “If we don’t know about the past, then we certainly will be a lesser society. The highway has helped the economy to grow. It’s definitely a good thing to have.”
To help celebrate the historic highway, the Illinois Lincoln Highway Coalition was formed, headquartered in Belvidere. It promoted the installation of interpretive gazebos and murals in various communities, which tell the multi-faceted story of the Lincoln Highway. View a coalition map or download an app at drivelincolnhighway.com.
Rochelle’s mural features early 20th century writer Emily Post, who traveled the Lincoln Highway in 1915, with her son as navigator, to write about her experiences and the availability of accommodations along the way. When heavy rains turned the road to mud, Post got stuck in Rochelle. Some people tried to persuade her to turn back, Shelton says. But the weather changed, the road dried and she continued west to complete her project.
In 1919, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a young soldier, traveled with a military convoy along the Lincoln Highway. In 1956, recognizing the importance of transportation to the security of the nation, he signed the Interstate and Defense Highway Act.
Today, the Lincoln Highway beckons those who want to see the loveliness of Americana, to savor its history, and to sample the great diversity which spans the continent.
The national road tour this year will consist of two 100-car caravans, one from the East Coast and one from the West Coast, beginning in early June, and meeting in Nebraska in July.
Many tourists are expected to visit the Lincoln-Manahan Home Museum at 607 Third St., in Sterling, says Terry Buckaloo, LHA member and curator of the Sterling-Rock Falls Historical Museum. Originally a residence built in the mid-1800s, the Lincoln-Manahan Home Museum was dedicated in 2011.
“It’s a home that Abraham Lincoln stayed at,” Buckaloo says. “We believe it’s the only home on the Lincoln Highway that Lincoln ever stayed in, that’s still standing.”
One of the oldest houses in Sterling, the museum welcomed adventurers of the Lincoln Highway Illinois tour, before they went on to the next stopping place and feasted on a hobo-themed picnic of beef and vegetables.
“I think the LHA is a great organization,” Buckaloo says. “In fact, when dealing with people who come through the museum, that’s one of the hot topics today. There’s a lot of interest in the Lincoln Highway.”
As the highway weaves its way across the nation, through shady woodlands, rich farmlands and tiny hamlets, and maneuvers its way over broad rivers and arid deserts, ending at the sparkling Pacific Ocean, it becomes clear that this is a route which truly represents America the Beautiful.