- Historic Sites
Westward on the Old Lincoln Highway
The nation’s first transcontinental motor route can still be experienced in all its obsolescent charm.
April 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 2
The Lincoln stayed well south and west of Chicago and then headed toward a state notoriously challenging to cross-country travel. The rich, deep topsoil that made Iowa immensely productive for farming made it nearly impassable for motor vehicles. Guidebooks in the 1910s and 1920s warned that if you got caught in a rainstorm there, you should save your temper by stopping and giving the roads time to dry rather than get mired in mud.
I crossed Iowa in the company of Bob and Joyce Ausberger, a farm couple who grow corn and soybeans near Jefferson, a town of 4,292 people northwest of Des Moines. The Ausbergers were among the first to campaign against widening and raising a portion of the original Lincoln Highway—old U.S. 30 in the Jefferson area. In 1990 the Greene County Board of Supervisors, on which Bob Ausberger served, decided to rebuild several miles of old 30 (itself now bypassed by a more modern highway), widening its pavement and changing its height. “We knew it needed some work done, but we thought it could have been done while saving the integrity of the road,” said Ausberger, a lanky, earnest man from whom words emerge slowly, the pauses making his sincerity all the more striking.
To Ausberghr the Lincoln Highway is an almost sacred object. The highway got the farmers out of the mud. It gave them an alternative to their monopolistic tormentor, the railroad. It linked dozens of towns into a freely accessible network. “Greene County was the first county in Iowa to pave its entire portion of the Lincoln Highway,” said Ausberger; it had done so by 1924. Just east of Jefferson he stopped the car, climbed out, and peered along the shoulder. It was one of the sections that the county supervisors had “improved.” Ausberger was bothered by what he saw. “They raised it, they widened it.” Where the highway used to stay at the same elevation as the fields, now it proceeds independent of the roll of the land. Between the field and the road is a deep, sloping “borrow ditch,” which further changed the view from the road. “This fellow’s first row of trees was taken out,” Bob observed, displeased.
Then we were off to the west side of Jefferson, where Ausberger stopped the car again. “This is what we want the road to look like: save the trees, save the yards, preserve the identity of the old Lincoln Highway.” On this portion, called West Lincolnway, the county had added two feet of pavement to each side of the original eighteen-foot width but had left a groove visible between new and old. Ausberger likes this more modest and respectful way of dealing with the old road. A traveler could still sense what the Lincoln was like three-quarters of a century ago.
At first I wondered whether such nuances were all that important. But after four days of traveling Iowa with the Ausbergers, I began to see things from their perspective. The land is largely undramatic, ranging mostly from utter flatness to long green swells and troughs, covered by corn and soybeans, soybeans and corn. With two exceptions—the grain elevator, whose simple, undecorated forms inspired modern architects in the 1920s, and the courthouses, those stately edifices from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that dominate the central squares of county seats—rural Iowa possesses few architectural landmarks. Iowa towns by the dozen have watched their old business districts wither under the onslaught of WaIMarts and the centrifugal force of the automobile. In such a setting the highway itself becomes a key part of everyone’s experience, and it merits a kind of communal obeisance. Ausberger has studied its changing details, such as how State Engineer Fred White built the Lincoln in the 1930s with curbs to keep the rain from running off the highway and washing out the shoulders, only to have his successor decide that curbs were undesirable and knock them off. In the road, Bob said, “You can see the history of the thinking of the engineers and the politicians. We think the concept of a living history highway has some big possibilities.”
A number of Iowa communities conduct annual celebrations of the highway. The town of Nevada (pronounced nuh -VAY- duh ) has been holding “Lincoln Highway Days” on the last weekend in August since 1984. Thousands of people, many of them from the nearby university town of Ames, come for a parade, a rodeo, a barbecue, and other events, all honoring the road that connected Nevada (population 6,009) to the rest of America. “Lincoln Highway Days” is a premier local event, raising money for needed community improvements.