Westward On The Old Lincoln Highway

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In Belle Plaine (population 2,834, which is 1,053 fewer than in 1924), the Ausbergers and I visited the garage-cum-convenience store that was operated for more than half a century by George Preston, a local character whose penchant for nonstop talking once got him onto the Johnny Carson show. Preston’s garage, covered with advertising signs from long ago, is a shrine to Lincoln Highway enthusiasts, lowans still marvel that Preston had, for a time, a 900 phone number that allowed long-distance callers to listen to him reminisce about the highway. The Great Talker having gone to that Great Service Station in the sky, the Ausbergers and I did the next best thing. We visited his widow in her home behind the station. She let us poke through her husband’s enormous, messy collection of auto- and roadrelated objects. Then the Ausbergers and I drove to Belle Plaine’s lonely downtown and dined at the Lincoln Café, an informal, high-ceilinged old place where a fried-chicken dinner set me back $3.87. I passed up Iowa’s most beloved desserts—Jell-O with bits of fruit suspended in it and cream pie. Bob Ausberger, not surprisingly, chose the “Lincoln Burger.”

At the informal, high-ceilinged Lincoln Café in Belle Plaine, Iowa, a fried-chicken dinner set me back $3.87.

The next stop was Tama, Iowa (population 2,697), where the mayor and a delegation of townspeople assembled at the east end of town to show off the little Tama bridge, built in 1915 with side rails of reinforced concrete that spell LINCOLN HIGHWAY . Once in a long while a careless motorist has driven a car into the side of the bridge, damaging the letters, but the town has always seen to it that the name was restored. Most recently Tama has created a pleasant creekside park that nicely complements the bridge.

The Ausbergers and I traveled together as far as eastern Nebraska. Beyond Omaha and Boys Town, a sign pointed north to “Historical Lincoln Highway.” We followed the sign and found ourselves on a narrow old brick road that seemed oddly serene after the thick traffic and the strip-commercial development we had just plied through. This brick road south of Elkhorn, three miles long, appeared to be from a different world—or to be more precise, a different time. The red brickwork, bumpy but serviceable after threequarters of a century, had been laid in 1920. In honor of its intactness, one mile of it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I imagined the entire scene being transported to Henry Ford’s great Greenfield Village museum in Dearborn, Michigan, to be lined by tearooms, tourist courts, and filling stations dispensing gasoline dyed the distributors’ colors.

In the well-ordered capital, Lincoln (which, ironically, is not on the Lincoln Highway), I bade the Ausbergers good-bye and linked up with two Nebraskans: Carol Ahlgren, who directs the survey program of the State Historic Preservation Office, and Robert Hurst, a retired Air Force officer. The three of us made our way west on U.S. 30, which parallels Interstate 80, which parallels the Union Pacific Railroad, which parallels the Oregon Trail, which parallels the Platte River. East-west transportation routes through Nebraska have clustered within a narrow corridor for about a century and a half. 1-80 now carries most of the cross-country vehicular traffic, leaving Route 30 to the Nebraskans, which gives local idiosyncrasies a better chance of surviving. On 30 I noticed how some drivers would acknowledge oncoming motorists. “There’s a rural custom that people lift one or two fingers from the steering wheel, even though they don’t know you,” explained Hurst, who grew up in Lodgepole, on the high plains of western Nebraska. “Women rarely do it. Mostly it’s a man thing.”

In Fremont we drove Nye Avenue, as the old Lincoln is known locally, and admired a procession of grand houses facing the road from behind deep lawns. The houses appeared to have been built in the 1920s, when the elite still had the practice of erecting their homes on principal streets, making themselves all the more prominent and at the same time bestowing an aesthetic gift on the town.

In Ames an abandoned gas station, its stucco falling away to reveal the lath underneath, attracted our attention. Hurst and Ahlgren speculated that it had been built there because at that spot the Lincoln turned to cross the railroad tracks. In the Midwest the original Lincoln route followed the rigorously north-south and east-west section lines, avoiding the political and economic sin of cutting an efficient diagonal through farmers’ fields. As a consequence, the Lincoln crossed and recrossed the transcontinental railroad tracks, repeatedly exposing travelers in the underpowered vehicles of the 1910s to terrible danger. Deaths on rail crossings led to some of the first reroutings of the Lincoln, as the road’s organizers tried to keep it clear of the tracks. Near Kearney we noticed a tiny old bridge stranded in the middle of a field, one of the visible remnants of Lincoln abandonment that can be found across the country. Seeing it, I wished Ausberger were with us. He had become, to me, the King of Culverts, a man fascinated by every trace of the road no longer taken.