Did you know that the Lincoln Highway turns 100 during 2013? This great highway shares a deep legacy with me. Of course, many people likely have similar sentiments, since it is the former work-horse highway that stretched from coast to coast across 12 states. It was the super-highway of its era, perhaps matching in fascination to the railroads of the time.
In 1913, it began in New York City’s Time Square at Broadway and 42nd Street. It continued through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California, where it ended at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. The length was roughly 3,400 miles!
Route 30 across Iowa now is a seemingly straight shot across the land of verdant crops. However, when the Lincoln Highway was first laid out through Benton County, Iowa and due to the steep hills and ridges to the west of what is the U.S. 30 and State Highway 131 crossroads, the planners decided to take the route south (State Highway 131) about 4 1/2 miles and then west on what is now 13th Street through my hometown of Belle Plaine. Our family farm rested on the east side of Lincoln Highway and was located just over 2 miles south of Route 30.
Growing up along the Lincoln Highway was special. My Grandpa Horace was always especially fond of the old route as well as the railroad that went through town. When anyone referred to the Lincoln Highway, we knew exactly which route they were referencing. As Belle Plaine was also a railroad hub for the Chicago Northwestern and a popular stop, we also found our farm a straight route north and an easy walk for hobos needing a hot meal. There were marks made on telephone posts along Lincoln Highway, giving clues to these men that our farmhouse was a good stop. Mom would shoo us kids to the 2nd floor of the house while she fixed a quick, yet hot meal for many a grateful train-hitching fellow. Grandma Geneva, who formerly lived in the home, alerted Mom to the custom of providing meals.
When I think of the Lincoln Highway, I also pause to ask, “How many people experienced cattle drives on Lincoln Highway?” My Dad would have 60 head or so of cattle at the West Farm (the farm of my grandparents’ McLennan). After the cattle had grazed the pasture down, Dad would recruit Mom, the five of us kids, Grandpa Horace, and often a few of our fun-loving friends. We would drive the cattle by walking behind them, coaxing and scolding them, along the gravel road from the West Farm to our farm along busy 131. The cattle drive was about three miles long and took a couple of hours. What we discovered each time we did this was that cattle are innately stubborn, especially when they see a bridge to cross, where they lose their senses and become skittish. It would take Dad saying, “Come Boss” as he shook a pail of oats or corn. Once one cow took the bait and followed Dad across the bridge, the rest of these bovines followed suit. I guess we could credit it to their “herd mentality.”
Alas, the pace would change once the highway was in view. Dad would alert the Benton County sheriff ahead of time, so the sheriff could help stop or slow the traffic on the Lincoln Highway. Once we successfully drove the cattle from the gravel to the pavement, we would drive them north, just under a mile, to an open gate into the pasture by the grove of trees where deep grass awaited them.
As I check out the route of the Lincoln Highway, I also realize the many ties that I have to it. In Pennsylvania, it goes through Ligonier and Pittsburg, the area where my Grandaddy John Vale and his family of origin lived. When I went to college at Iowa State in Ames, I often walked along the Lincoln Highway en route to class. Finishing my bachelors degree at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, Illinois, I also drove Lincoln Highway to get to school from the western suburb of Batavia. My husband, son, daughter, and I lived in Batavia, Illinois for 20 years. The Lincoln Highway went right past our church where I worked as a preschool teacher also. The Highway went through North Aurora, Batavia, and Geneva, where we drove hundreds of miles over the years. On a special note, my husband, Steve, rode parts of the Lincoln Highway on his bicycle ride across the U.S. in 2005.
Needless to say, the Lincoln Highway deserves to be recognized as it turns a century. It was an integral force behind the transportation history of the United States. Many communities thrived because of the route passing through town, from diners to barber shops and full-service filling stations to motels, businesses welcomed many a traveler into their midst. I’d love to hear what memories you have of the Lincoln Highway. Perhaps you’d like to help the Lincoln Highway celebrate its Centennial. If so, I urge you to pay a visit to its website to see how you can participate in an area along the route near you: http://www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org/