During the last few summer days before classes start, I had a rare solitary day and decided to make one of my summer, barefoot road trips. When I was a kid in Vandalia, IL, we sometimes drove an hour up to Decatur, a substantial small city with a nice downtown. Dad had beloved aunts who lived there, too. We drove north for a half-hour through Ramsey, Oconee, and arrived at Pana, where the road made several turns. Then we proceeded north again, through Assumption and Moweaqua, finally arriving in Decatur. Thinking about an earlier blog post (https://paulstroble.wordpress.com/2011/06/12/1416/) I made my way over to Vandalia (an hour east of where I live now) so that I could drive up U.S. 51 at least halfway to Decatur. I had in mind a favorite, lazy pair of curves that I hadn’t seen for several years. (I apologize in advance for links to some of my other writings.)
Turning north off I-70 at Vandalia and driving north on Route 51, I was in the midst of traffic and thus didn’t want to take a cell phone photo of a low, wooded area on the east side of the highway and the south side of Bear Creek north of Vandalia, but that area was the place where my dad grew up, on a long vanished farm. He was born in an earlier house, on the north side of the creek. One of my earliest memories was a cross stuck in the low ground of those creek bottoms: it read GET RIGHT WITH GOD.
I paused at a couple remnants of an earlier era of travel. One is an old highway bridge and portion of abandoned alignment on the east side of Route 51, a few miles north of Vandalia. I hopped from the car, took some pictures of the bridge, the old pavement, and the surrounding countryside. The present road is higher and to the west a few feet; I tried to imagine what the scene would look like if the old road was still current and drivers made this much wider curve across the pretty stream.
The plaque on the bridge indicates that the road had been State Bond Issue route 2 during the late 1910s and early 1920s, prior to the road’s incorporation into the U.S. highway system. State routes 1, 3, 4, and others from that early road system still exist with those numbers, and I believe some short stretches are still signed route 2 in northern Illinois.
Up the road a bit, I also stopped at a place where old 51 had viered to the west and served as a picnic area, rejoining the main road a bit north. I remember stopping at that picnic area as a kid, but it has been closed for many years. Back in the late 90s I took a photo
of the bridge, and then I wrote a post about it (https://paulstroble.wordpress.com/2010/12/12/a-set-of-favorite-roads/) At that post, I remarked that the scene was haunting in its abandonment, perhaps since I took the picture in autumn. On this most recent trip, I revisited the place and and took a photo to compare with the earlier, autumn photo. The roadbed has become much more overgrown and the scene creepier—an example of how nature reclaims abandoned human-made landscapes. But I remember the pleasantness of that shady stop on the side of the road, when stopping for a picnic lunch beside the two-lane wasn’t uncommon.
I stopped in Ramsey, IL, the small town where my great-grandparents settled in the 1880s. They’d previously lived in Madison County, IL. My dad remembers his grandparents fondly and was a pallbearer for John (http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2012/05/my-civil-war-ancestor.html). I had not visited their graves since I brought Dad to the cemetery, not long before he died in 1999. Beside my ancestors lies the tenth of their ten children, my uncle Ed Strobel (1889-1961), who served in World War I. He died when I was four, but I vaguely recall attending his visitation. He was a bachelor who raised horses; a woman on Facebook told me Ed, a very kid person she said, had let her ride some of his horses when she was a little girl in the 1950s.
Back around the time I took Dad to visit his ancestors here in Ramsey, I was surprised to notice an old cut-out highway shield, once common along federal highways but replaced by square black-and-white shields beginning in the 1960s. The shield, along a Ramsey side street, had probably been overlooked by highway workers who had replaced the old signs. The shield has since disappeared and the “stop ahead” sign replaced, but the pole must be the same as the earlier picture, since it shows evidence of the place where the shield and “junction” sign had been.
As I drove highway 51, I snapped a few favorite sights. When you enjoy an old road, it’s difficult to say why certain sights warm your heart. They’re just roadside places that you remember from (in my case) childhood trips on Saturday mornings. But somehow you’re glad to see them again. What are your favorite highways and roadside places? (continued….)