I’ve written in several other posts concerning my fondness for old highways. One aspect I love is former alignments, the kind you can see as you drive the older two-lane highways through countryside. The first alignment from the 1910s or 1920s made a curve, but the newer alignment, on which you drive, goes straighter. Meanwhile, off to the side, the old pavement remains, with grass sprouting through cracks and seams. One such wide, abandoned curve is north of my hometown, just to the east of the modern U.S. 51 (which is in the right-hand background of this picture). The alignment’s old bridge still has a plaque dated 1924 and indicating that the road was originally State Route 2.
In other places, the older alignment passed directly through rural villages but the newer alignment curves around to the side. South of my hometown, U.S. 51 proceeds through a nice series of towns and villages: the unincorporated Shobonier, Vernon, Patoka, and Sandoval. At the outskirts of both Shobonier and Patoka, you can still see a few hundred feet of abandoned roadbed indicating the original path of the highway as it passed through the respective business districts.
My hometown has similar, old alignments at its city limits, one on the opposite side of the river, where 40 was rerouted to the south to accommodate a new river bridge, and the other where the first pathway of U.S. 40 (the former Illinois 140) enters town. There, the original road went straight then make a curve to the left, but the replacement alignment first makes a curve and then heads straight into town. As one sometimes sees when discovering original alignments, the old road serves as access to people’s homes.
The last time I drove 51 north of my hometown, I noticed that the new, wider alignment didn’t extend too far south of Decatur but had bypassed another town that I liked when I was young, Moweaqua. Sure enough, at the north and south outskirts of town, a few hundred feet of abandoned roadbed indicated the original way into the town, where my parents and I sometimes stopped at a downtown restaurant (which is still operating) after our Decatur shopping trips were done. Although the realignments through Shobonier and Patoka had been done “before my time,” I still remembered the original approach to downtown Moweaqua and the anticipation of pancakes.
East of my hometown, at the intersection of U.S. 40 and Illinois 185, the two roads once went straight northwest and southeast, respectively, but the construction of Interstate 70 necessitated an alignment reconstruction, so U.S. 40 makes an S-curve over the interstate, and the intersection with 185 is a few hundred feet to the east. The original pavements are still there, however, and the new alignment of 185 shows a seam where the road once went straight. This intersection was quite important to me as a little boy, because it was the halfway point to my grandma’s house.
I enjoyed seeing another example of this landscape history as I traveled in central Illinois recently. Driving down I-55 north of Springfield, I pulled off at Elkhart, Illinois because I heard the downtown had antique shops. But a stopped train prevented access into the business district, so I just drove south on old Route 66 toward nearby Williamsville. On the north side of town, the original alignment of 66 (and perhaps of its predecessor, IL 4) lay in a grassy area and made its separate, abandoned way toward the center of town, while the newer road on which I drove bypassed the business district. Interestingly, there is a newer, four-lane version of Route 66 outside Williamsville, although neither it nor the two-lane route go very far before deadending at I-55, which you could call the fourth stage of automobile highway evidenced at Williamsville. (The four-lane version of Route 66 can be seen elsewhere in Illinois. One alignment proceeds out of Springfield, dead-ends at Lake Springfield, and resumes on the lake’s other side. Here is a picture of a four-lane alignment north of Litchfield, IL, with only the former northbound lanes still open.)
Mentioning U.S. 51 just now sets me daydreaming about numerous memories of that road.
“Where two great highways cross!” declared a Vandalia brochure from the 1940s, referring to U.S. 40 and U.S. 51. The latter road is a north-south highway through the center of Illinois. When Illinois began to create a system of automobile roads in 1918, the road was State Bond Issue route 2. In northern Illinois the oldest alignment of 51 is still called IL 2. When federal highways began in 1926, highway 51 was one of the series of 1-ending north-south roads with U.S. 1 on the east coast and U.S. 101 on the west coast. Highway 51 itself begins at U.S. 2 at Hurley, Wisconsin, near Lake Superior, and ends at U.S. 61 at LaPlace, Louisiana, 1286 miles south. Originally, the road continued another 73 miles, concurrent with U.S. 61, into New Orleans.
Here are some interesting sites. This one features pictures of the highway as it crosses Illinois: http://www.highwayexplorer.com/il_EndsPage.php?id=2051§ion=1 This site has shots of the old pavement before U.S. 51 was rerouted concurrently with Interstate 39: http://www.roadsites.org/losthwy/us-051_wi.html Finally this one shows the southern end of 51 in Louisiana: http://www.southeastroads.com/us-051_la.html
My childhood acquaintance with U.S. 51 included only about 95 miles: 65 miles to the north to Decatur, Illinois, and 30 miles to the south to Centralia, Illinois. Centralia has about 14,000 population in 2000, Decatur about 82,000, and my hometown 7000. Both communities were places my parents and I went to shop on occasion. I also got my teeth straightened by a Centralia orthodontist, so we frequently drove down 51 to that office during my early teenage years. Naturally, the scenery in both directions became significant personal memories.
In fact, two of my very earliest memories relate to U.S. 51. One is a childhood visit to see a railroad engine on display at Centralia’s Fairview Park. http://www.ageofsteammemorial.org/ The visit must’ve been fairly soon after the engine was moved to the location in 1962, when I was five, but I’d never seen anything so massive and amazing!
The other early memory is a childhood visit to Kitchell Park in Pana, IL, thirty miles north of Vandalia. I think this was a family reunion of some sort, but I don’t remember which reunion. Our yearly Crawford family reunions happened in late August in Vandalia. I remember being upset when two bigger boys wouldn’t let me play on a seesaw. To console me, my mother walked me over to the bridge, pictured in this very old postcard.
The bridge is still there, although I’m not sure I’ve visited the park since that early 1960s reunion. It was fifty years old then–ancient and venerable, to my young mind–and now it’s over 100 years old. But sometimes, when I’m at the edge of a lake or stream, this old bridge appears in my memory. We used to live along a small lake and, as I mowed the lawn, I’d think of the bridge. It always happens, too, when I see a Monet painting of water and water lilies.
I’ve lots of other childhood memories of U.S. 51. Ghost signs are advertisements painted on the side of buildings and other structures, but the signs are fading and not always legible. One of my favorites is gone: a Miller High Life logo painted on a silo beside the road, a few miles north of Vandalia. I went to high school with the girl who lived on that farm in the 1970s. I didn’t pass by the place for several years but the last time I did, the logo had pretty much vanished.
Barns with advertisements painted on their roofs or sides are particularly interesting. A favorite book, Rock City Barns, has pictures of two barns along U.S. 51 near Vandalia. The one I saw most often was the one several miles south of town. I say “was” because although the barn is still there (last time I passed by, anyway), the once-white letters on the roof had completely oxidized and were no longer recognizable.
The familiar black and white, six-pointed shield signs for U.S. highways became common from the 1960s on. Original signs were cut-out shields with the letters and numbers embossed, then after World War I, cut-out shields with flat letters were more common. During the late 1990s, when I took my father on a visit to Ramsey, IL so he could visit his grandparents’ graves, I found one of those post-war shields on a side street, where (I assume) it was unnoticed when signs were replaced. It’s gone now, sadly, but how fun to chance upon a different kind of relic of highway history.
Two-lane highways followed existing streets and roads. As we traveled to Decatur, I liked the zigzag but still northbound way that 51 passed through Pana: north on Poplar St., then east on First Street for five blocks, north on Cedar Street across the railroad tracks, east on Jackson Street for a mile or so, and then north toward Decatur. Read any guidebook for driving old Route 66 and you’ll find similar, zigzag alignments through towns. (Before the widening of U.S. 51 reaches Pana, I need to give a shout-out to a highway curve north of that town, which I always loved. It’s just a gentle curve through the landscape, with a sign pointing east toward a place called Dollville.)
Driving south from Vandalia, I liked those river bottom lands which often flooded in rainy seasons… a little hill called Pole Cat Mound…a lumber mill near the road where a great-aunt and uncle of mine lived…the barn roof that advertised Rock City…the small slope with a bath tub (apparently a trough for farm animals) nearby…a sign for a Lutheran Church located down the county road… a small and junky, crossroads antique store where I only visited once because the proprietor was so profane….a line of trees that indicated a much earlier alignment of the highway….a roadside picnic area, between the main road and another, earlier alignment…. Rural sight after rural sight along a gray two-lane road, accompanied by the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad and the accompanying power lines between the highway and the tracks of the Illinois Central. The large petroleum storage tanks near the village of Patoka intrigued me as a little kid because there were so many of them, huge cylinders, and a few had the red Pegasus logo for Mobil.Ò
Among those villages I mentioned earlier, I liked Vernon (population 178 in 2000), paradoxically, because of involuntary time spent there. My mother was at one point an interested sewer, and she loved the remnant and fabric shop in Vernon. I was a little boy and waited and waited and waited in the car for her to finish shopping; I read nearly all of A Christmas Carol as I sat in the back seat. But I liked the town because it is so small, the houses are not close together, and you have the (to me) peaceful experience of seeing the farm fields and bordering timber beyond the village as you look from highway through three or four blocks the village’s yards. I also liked the simply little playground and the G.A.R. monument, an inauspicious park but, I’m sure, sufficient for a little kid living in the tiny place.
Driving to Centralia, you arrive in Central City, Illinois, which is continuous with Centralia, and you feel a little relieved to be in a town again as you pass florists, gas stations, small churches, and motels. There was once a discount store along northbound 51 where my mom liked to shop for picture frames, and where I liked to browse the bins of LPs. I remember purchasing the Moody Blues’ Question of Balance album there, and perhaps others.
Central City soon merges into Centralia, and you arrive at Centralia’s business district. My parents enjoyed shopping there, though less frequently than our monthly or bimonthly trips to St. Louis. Along Broadway, there were nice clothing store (at one, I purchased some Cub Scout paraphernalia), a very cool newspaper office designed in Egyptian style, a stationary store which my mom particularly liked (and it still operates), and a music store where I bought sheet music. I was thrilled to find the music for “The Overture from Tommy,” which I’d heard on the radio in the Assembled Multitude version rather than The Who’s. Compared to my hometown’s, Centralia’s business district was not appreciably larger or more cosmopolitan, but it seemed so to me, a little kid, as we strolled from the stores near the Illinois Central tracks on the west and the grand trees and stately library in Library Park to the east. Perhaps that pre-kindergarten visit to the railroad engine always gave to me an extra bit of appreciation for the small town.
Another Centralia memory: a childhood visit to the synagogue there, as a Vacation Bible School field trip. But I’ve acknowledged that shul’s influence on my life in another blog entry here, concerning the Exodus and Christian Faith (4/5/11).
A few years ago I discovered a German word, fernweh, which means “far sickness.” It’s the opposite of “home sickness” but is a similar kind of longing: longing for a place that’s not home, a nostalgia for some place distant. I’ve experienced this feeling for places more exotic than our drives on U.S. 51, but the sights were enough like–and close enough to–my own home places that home- and far-sickness mingled. The sights along U.S. 51—the houses, churches, small industry, and business districts–were other people’s landscapes. In a childish way I wondered what people’s lives were like in these “distant” areas, creating in me the feelings described well by that word.
But there is also good old nostalgia, the sigh-inducing pleasure of driving a two-lane road you’ve known your whole life. Even classical music that has nothing to do with rural Illinois—much of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music, some of Elgar’s and Holst’s, and others—give me a peaceful sense that my brain “sets” into childhood scenes like those along U.S. 51.
When we lived in Flagstaff, AZ in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I felt homesick for Illinois and wanted to write about it. I ordered a book, Thomas J. Schlereth’s U.S. 40: Roadscape of the American Experience, to study the main east-west highway through my hometown. Although I hadn’t realized the book was primarily about that road in Indiana, the book providing interesting information about highway alignments, roadside architecture, community planning, and other things which I’d never considered before. I was more inspired than before to think about hometown landscapes and old highways. Soon I began reading about Route 66, which was the main road through Flagstaff (concurrent with U.S. 180 and U.S. 89). The next book I purchased was Quinta Scott’s and Susan Croce Kelly’s Route 66: The Highway and Its People, still my favorite among the now-many books about what Steinbeck called “the mother road.”
At that time I was never able to drive the famous Seligman-to-Kingman stretch of 66 in Arizona, especially after daughter Emily was born. That road was a considerable drive from Flagstaff and (always phobic about being stranded) I worried about having an infant in a car while traveling otherwise alone in a remote location. Instead, I liked to drive remnants of 66 at the Belmont exit of I-40. One interesting pavement, which featured a deteriorating Whiting Brothers station, was too pitted and difficult to drive, but a nearby alignment seemed maintained and passed a few gorgeous miles through the pines. This old postcard depicts that same alignment.
When we returned in 1999, we traveled down U.S. 93 from Vegas and then I took us on old 66 (now AZ 66) from Kingman eastbound. I snapped this picture to preserve not only a trip memory but the amazing clouds.
representative of those along America’s many other highways. She quotes the geographer J. B. Jackson that “The beauty that we see in the vernacular is the image of our common humanity, hard work, stubborn hope, and … love” (p. 10). She continues that a formal analysis of signs not only show us the humanity of Americans during different time period but also their values and economic realities. (To these comments, I added a few scans of motels from my own postcard collection, some from 66 and some from U.S. 51.)
Mahar’s book is divided into periods: “Symmetry, Geometry, Rigor: 1938-1947”; “Theming and Regional Symbolism: 1945-1960”; “Abstraction and Self-Expression, 1950-1957”; “Specialization, Modularity, Segregation: 1957-1965”; “Intensive Simplicity, 1961-1970s.” In the first period, signs were more straight-forward. In the post-war period, the simple geometry and efficiency of the earlier signs “no longer provided a sufficient means of differentiating one business form the next. Motel owners and signmakers responded by boldly theming their buildings and signs.” (p. 77). Thus, not only did signs show more visual interest in their shapes (for instance, incorporating designs like tails and arrows), but also more imagination in their names: one saw fewer motels simply named for their owners–“Clark Motel”—and more memorable names like “Desert Hills” or “Ozark Court” or (as in Flagstaff) “Flamingo.”
During the 1950s, one also saw many more novel signs and asymmetry, and what has been called the “googie” style related to the Space Age. Personally, I like these kinds of signs the best; during my parents’ 1960s vacations, plenty of those 50s signs still beckoned travelers along highways. The signs seem quaint and nostalgic now, celebrated in picture books about Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway, and striking where they still exist.
In the later period of Route 66’s existence, the 1960s and 1970s, one saw a return to more simple signs, often made of much cheaper materials than earlier signs. Part of this greater simplicity was due to cost savings, but also the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, and the accompanying feeling that we shouldn’t clutter natural environments with gaudy signs and advertisements. I think this postcard of the Motel Orlando in Decatur, Illinois is from the 40s but does show the original, simpler design.
It is hard to imagine a more thorough treatment of motel signage. Mahar discusses the many geometric innovations, patterns, and styles of signs, including materials, structures, and fonts, as well as years when a popular form (like tails—as in the above postcard of the Holiday Motel in Centralia, IL—arrows, and formal similarities to the motel’s architecture) were developed or dropped. She is influenced by material culturalists in the structuralist tradition, like Henry Glassie, and also Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, which “combined the science of rigorous analytic method with a faith in the power of ordinary objects to reveal larger truths” (pp. 24-25). I’ve always appreciated a book coauthored by my friend Keith Sculle: The Motel in American Life by John A. Jakle, Keith A. Sculle and Jefferson S. Rogers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). For good treatments of this aspect of American culture, I’d recommend that book plus Mahar’s detailed account.