Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Highways and Travel’ Category

My hometown is Vandalia, IL, which is the former state capital and the terminus of the pioneer National Road. U.S. 40 follows the National Road’s pathway. About eight miles east of Vandalia, you can discover the site of the first post office in Fayette County’s Cumberland Township (later called Otego Twp.), and the site of two pumps—-one for people and one for horses—that had existed in pioneer days.

My friend Mary Burtschi (1911-2009) was a devoted local historian of Vandalia. She was one of the major reasons I became interested in local history. In her book Vandalia: Wilderness Capital of Lincoln’s Land (1963), she writes:

“In 1828 the mile stretch through the bottom land east of the Kaskaskia River [at Vandalia] was still heavily timbered. It was a tremendous undertaking clearing the sixty-six foot strip through underbrush and forest trees of such gigantic size. The roadbed itself was only thirty feet wide. Both oxen and horses were used to pull the huge stumps around which chains were fastened. The workers grumbled; it was too much physical exertion and they felt they were poorly paid. A song or rhyme that has been handed down describes the wretched condition of the pike:

“The roads are impassable—Hardly jackass able:
I think those that travel ‘em
Should turn out and gravel ‘em.

“Past the Statehouse square rolled the wheels of Conestoga wagons carrying settlers into a new life and hauling freight into a frontier territory and stagecoaches carrying travelers who would view the new land and then return home to sing its praises or to disparage the glowing accounts that had been written about it. A parade of critical visitors wanting to see the new democracy at work on the frontier cam through Vandalia. Many were convinced that the emotional religion at the camp meetings, the insolence of servants, and the free-for-alls in the grog-shops were too much for the educated man to tolerate. The impressions of the road and of the town recorded by these travelers is a part of Vandalia history.”

Mary quotes according from the German writer Frederck Gustorf, Edmund Flagg, and William Oliver, the latter noting an execrable well along the road. She continues:

“The ‘execrable well’ of which Oliver speaks was probably not the Twin Pumps on the Cumberland Road, located six miles east of Vandalia. Ezra Griffith, who came to this area in 1830, built the first frame house in Cumberland Township. The building, erected in 1835, contained the Cumberland Post Office, a store, and living quarters for the Griffith family. Across the road on the north side stood the wooden Twin Pumps with a horse trouble, hewn out of logs, at each one. The pump on the inside of the fence was used by the Griffith family for stock; the other on the outside of the fence was used by the traveler. Mr. Griffith maintained the pumps and provided a tin cup for the traveler to use. On the south side of the road for a quarter of a mile extended a line of shady locust trees. Here the traveler stopped to water his horses and to rest under the shade.” (pp. 145-146, 148)

Not long ago, I was over in my home area, Fayette County, IL, to take photos for the cover of an upcoming poetry book, and to photograph a few tombstones for the Find-a-Grave site. I visited the Pilcher Cemetery and the Griffith Cemetery, both in Otego Township; the two cemeteries represent much of my mother’s side of the family. My grandmother Crawford was a lifelong resident of Otego Twp. (and is buried in the Pilcher); she was friends with members of the Griffith family, like Chester Griffith who attended her church (and was a source for Mary’s history above). I think Ezra Griffith may have been a brother of my 3-great-grandmother Esther Washburn, but I’ve not proven that; the Griffith and Washburn families settled the area at about the same time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Coming back out onto U.S. 40 from the Griffith Cemetery road, I took a picture of the little area that had been the site of the Twin Pumps. But I also photographed the memorial to the site had been erected across the highway on the south side. It’s been there a few years but I’d not taken the time to photograph it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was a beautiful, sunny summer morning, and I remembered again why the summer of 1974 was so important to me. I was a teenager and driving the seen-better-days ’63 Chevy that had been Dad’s stepfather’s. I was completing two genealogy projects: a family history of the Mom’s family, and also a record of all the tombstone inscriptions in the Pilcher Cemetery near Brownstown, IL, where much of my mom’s side of the family are buried. (I write about my hometown roots and genealogy projects in other essays on this blog.)

To do the work, I started in the morning. I put on shorts and tank top but I figured that solitary hours spent walking in the grass didn’t require shoes, so I didn’t even bring them along. A visitor to the cemetery one day didn’t expect to see a barefoot, longhaired young man examining tombstones and carrying a clipboard.

One morning, driving down IL 185, I had an emotional experience of belonging, a sureness that I would always feel a deep connection to this place: my hometown Vandalia and the surrounding Fayette County. (My main blog has a photo of the area of that highway.) During the ensuing years, my home area has been (to use Frank Zappa’s phrase) a conceptual continuity for me. All the history teaching and writing that I’ve done connect to the summers I did local genealogy projects. And all the Bible-related and religious work that I’ve done (including most of my eighteen books) relate back to my grandma Crawford (buried in that cemetery), who inspired me to do genealogy and first got me interested in the Bible and spirituality in a very preliminary way that bloomed a year or two later.

Places like Twin Pumps are important for local history and for all my own modest efforts during the past forty-some years.

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Avery-book-cover-200x300Route 66: The Highway and Its People (1988) has always been my favorite among the many histories of the fabled highway. I purchased my copy in Sedona, AZ in 1989, during the years when my family and I lived in nearby Flagstaff. The photographer Quinta Scott and the historian-writer Susan Croce Kelly researched the highway and interviewed many people associated with the road. Scott took photographs, Kelly wrote the text, and the book was published by University of Oklahoma Press. I used the book in my “American Highways and American Wanderlust” colloquium at University of Akron.

Now, Kelly (Susan Kirkpatrick) has written a wonderful biography of Cyrus Stevens Avery (1871-1963), the “Father of Route 66,” also published by University of Oklahoma Press. What a fascinating life! Born in Stevensville, Pennsylvania, young Avery and his parents and siblings journeyed to Indian Territory and then Missouri. He went to college in Missouri, married Essie McClelland, then moved back to Oklahoma where he was an insurance agent, moved into real estate loans, and established the Avery Oil and Gas Company. In 1907, he and his wife and children moved to Tulsa.

Automobile travel at that time was new but growing rapidly. Roads were dirt and gravel, poorly suited for cars. Consequently, the Good Roads Movement in the 1910s was an effort to improve and eventually to pave highways. Avery became interested in this effort, which would benefit Tulsa and Oklahoma. He became a leader in the movement. Among his several roles, he joined the Oklahoma Good Roads Association, was president of the Albert Pike Highway Association, and was president of the Associated Highway Associations of America.

He was also appointed to the Joint Board of Interstate Highways, the task of which was to designate and mark a new system of federal highways. Prior to that time, roads had names, like the Lincoln Highway, the National Old Trails Highway, the Jefferson Highway, the Dixie Highway, and many others. But as the designation of named highways had been controversial in the 1910s, with towns vying for a place on major routes, similar controversies occurred in the laying-out of federal roads. One dispute was fateful. Boosters proposed a route from Virginia Beach to Springfield, Missouri and eventually to Los Angeles, and proposed number was U.S. 60. Avery, though, pressed for a major road from Chicago to Los Angeles, also via Springfield, MO, that would pass through Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Such a road would benefit his town and state, unlike the proposed U.S. 60 which, under the original plan, would not enter Oklahoma.

In the layout of federal routes, the west-east transcontinental highways would end in 0, and the principal north-south highways would end in 1. (My hometown Vandalia, IL, which Susan mentions as the terminus for the pioneer National Road, is on two of these routes: 40 and 51.) Avery wanted his route through Tulsa to be U.S. 60, identifying the road as a major route. Kentucky leaders, however, balked at that idea, since the proposed U.S. 60 would (and still does) serve that state. The number 62 was suggested (U.S. 62 is now the highway from El Paso to Niagara Falls). Avery disliked that number, but he and his associate Frank Page discovered that the euphonious number 66 had not yet been assigned to a road. Thus was born the Chicago-Los Angeles highway that became famous.

The federal highway system of numbered routes became reality in 1926. The work of improving and paving those roads continued for many years. Avery was instrumental in the formation of the U.S. Highway 66 Association and its work of paving and promoting U.S. 66. As a member of the American Association of State Highway Officials, he was also involved in the approval of the signage with which we’re all familiar, including shields for highways, octagonal stop signs, round railroad signs, yellow diamond-shaped caution signs, and rectangular speed limits signs.

Other aspects of Avery’s life are also noteworthy: his work for a Tulsa airport and for a water pipeline to the city, his tireless handling of political disagreements, his travels, and his efforts to improve race relations. During his life, he earned the animosity of the Ku Klux Klan and eventually lost his job as a state highway commissioner because of Klan manipulation. In her readable style, Susan discusses these and many other aspects of Avery’s long career in business and public service.

Avery died in 1963. He is honored in Tulsa with several memorials, and nearly any highway history will mention his work for Route 66. It’s fortunate that now he has a history of his own!

Read Full Post »

My review of John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle, Picturing Illinois: Twentieth-Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo (University of Illinois Press, 2012). This review was just published in Springhouse magazine, 30:5.

Postcards are wonderful to collect. Ebay, antique stores, and flea markets provide plenty of opportunities to purchase antique cards. I’ve been collecting postcards from my hometown, Vandalia, IL, for many years: the business district, the Vandalia Line railroad, local highways, the town’s two major hotels, local churches, and motels. One postcard, of a train passing over the Kaskaskia River railroad bridge, is postmarked 1907. Publishers include H. H. Bregstone (a St. Louis photographer), Curt Teich (discussed below), an early 20th century Vandalia photographer named McLeod, and some 1950s postcards by my photographer cousin Don Jones. When I saw this new book Picturing Illinois advertised, I immediately preordered a copy, not only because of the subject but also I appreciated yet another important contribution to cultural history by these two authors.

John Jakle and Keith Sculle have coauthored several books like their “Gas, Food, Lodging” trilogy—-The Gas Station in America (John Hopkins University Press, 1994),The Motel in America (John Hopkins University Press, 1996), and Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age (John Hopkins University Press, 1998)— as well asSigns in America’s Auto Age: Signatures of Landscapes and Places (University of Iowa Press, 2004), and Motoring: The Highway Experience in America (University of Georgia Press, 2008). They also contributed articles to The National Road and A Guide to the National Road (both published by John Hopkins University Press, 1996). Sculle, whom I’ve been pleased to know for several years, is the recently retired head of research and education for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and Jakle is prefessor emeritus of geography at the University of Ilinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Postal cards” were cards sold by the U.S. Postal Service beginning in the 1860s and were used as advertisements. But “postcards” as we think of them—a photo or artwork produced and sold by companies other than the USPS, on which one could write short messages and then mail—began in the 1890s (p. 17). These cards quickly became very popular, not only to be sent but also to be saved. Many people kept postcards in albums and trunks, making possible their later abundance (in good condition) on the antique market (p. 20). The authors point out that early cards accentuated the positive: “images that spoke in superlatives of technical prowess, of economic prosperity, and, as well, of the cultural accoutrements of highened civility that seemingly derived therefrom” (p. 2). The images of business districts were depicted artistically, emphasing visual perspective; sometimes, to reduce visual clutter, the power lines and telephone lines were removed from the photo (p. 3). Several postcard publishers dominated the market (pp. 16-19). For instance, anyone familiar with mid-century postcards will recognize the name Curt Teich and Co., which popularized a linen texture to the cards (p. 18). Not only the postcards themselves, but the messages that people wrote provide a slice of life (e.g., pp. 185-186).

The authors provide an interesting history of Illinois via its depiction in postcards. The book is a handy chronicle of the state from post-Civil War days to recent years. Part one is titled, “Chicago and Its Suburbs: The Metropolis” (pp. 23-113). “No other American city, save perhaps New York City, attracted more attention from postcard publishers than Chicago,” and also, Chicago was a major producer and distributor of postcards (p. x). The authors discuss several aspects of the Chicago area: the major stores, hotels, the stockyards, the lake and river, railroads and factories, ethnicity and race, religion, and other aspects of the city and metropolitan area. About a hundred different postcards are reproduced, reflecting these aspects of the history.

Part two is “Illinois beyond the Metropolis” (pp. 115-184). That is the term the authors prefer, rather than “downstate.” Nearly a hundred more postcards depict business districts, neighborhoods highways and bridges, court houses and churches, farms, lakes, institutions like hospitals and colleges, and other aspects of different places. “Egypt” is discussed on pages 178-179. Of course, Abraham Lincoln is a powerful presence in Illinois’ legacy, and postcards reflect this connection.

The authors provide a good representative sample of Illinois’ towns and postcards. Of course they have to omit many, many Illinois towns that had postcard views. Here are the places they discuss and depict. The downstate cities are: Springfield, Peoria, Rock Island and Moline, Rockford, Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, East St. Louis, Alton, Quincy, Danville, Jacksonville, and Galesburg. The authors also provide postcards from smaller towns: Bunker Hill, Monmouth, Lincoln, Savanna, San Jose, Vandalia, Niles Center, Pana, Hoopeston, Bridgeport, Union, Cullom, Chrisman, Genesco, Havana, Metamora, Lena, Merna, Harrisburg, Tuscola, Shawneetown, Galena, Pittsfield, and Cairo. Also included are farm postcards from McLean and Vermilion Counties and the Homer, IL area, novelty postcards from Boody and Magnolia, and cards from Starved Rock State Park. The authors include four Vandalia

postcards including one of my favorites, a view of the business district (figure 152B), published by Benke in Salem, IL.

In the epilogue, the authors contrast life in Illinois’ two great areas. Cards from Chicago emphasized the energy and bustle of the city, while cards from other Illinois places emphasized small-town charm, business districts more modest than the city’s, and farming regions. Thus, postcard companies “helped perpetuate the notion that Chicago and Illinois beyond the metropolis were two distinctive social spheres” and “tended to negate the ways in which Chicago and its downstate hinterland were, in fact, closely related” both culturally and economically (p. 188). And yet, the regions of Illinois were also “places where common lifestyles were possible” (p. 188). Ironically, people later in the 20th century tended to gravitate to “the idealized values of the small community, and a preferred iconography of places rooted more in a romanticized small-town pastoralism” (p. 189), the aspects of place that the early postcard publishers of Chicago had valued less.

The translation of history into geography is an important aspect of the cards. “What was emphasized in postcard views was history translated into material culture—especially history as implicated in things architectural or, perhaps better said, at the scale of landscape… Each postcard publisher’s array of images created an iconography in which depictions of the built environment (and sometimes the natural environment as well) combined to visually represent localities. Publishers also sought to picture important events or ongoing activities—history in the making, so to speak. But mainly it was history hardened into geography—places viewed as deriving over time through one or another process of change” (p. 21). Postcards also give people an excellent and positive sense of place, “remembered landscapes and places” that “fulfill actual geographies in interesting ways” (p. 189).

Finding postcards from your favorite communities and places will give you a wonderful and handy look at local history. Jakle’s and Sculle’s book not only give you the background of postcards but an excellent history of the past 140 years or so of Illinois history, with the benefit of showing how Illinoisans themselves viewed their state.

Read Full Post »

Lincoln Motels

At the University of Akron, I taught colloquia for the Honors College called “Life and Times of Lincoln” and “American Highways and American Wanderlust.” I enjoy the subjects of Lincoln, his life and career, and the Civil War. I also enjoy the subjects of American roads, highway businesses, road-related commercial architecture, and signage.

I’ve published a few things on these subjects, but nothing like my friend Keith Sculle, who has (with John A. Jakle) authored an excellent “Gas, Food, Lodging” trilogy—-The Gas Station in America (John Hopkins University Press, 1994), The Motel in America (John Hopkins University Press, 1996), and Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age (John Hopkins University Press, 1998)— as well as the books Signs in America’s Auto Age: Signatures of Landscapes and Places (University of Iowa Press, 2004), Motoring: The Highway Experience in America (University of Georgia Press, 2008), and most recently Picturing Illinois: Twentieth-Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo (University of Illinois Press, 2012). I reviewed this last book this past month for Springhouse magazine.

As I was thinking about Lincoln’s upcoming 205th birthday (tomorrow), I still had postcards in mind and thought: are there many motels that carry Lincoln’s name? I knew of a few, and I assumed there were (or had been) many more. And I knew that many motels were depicted upon postcards.

I searched eBay and collected a small sample of postcards of motels named for Lincoln. These cards nicely show the variety of architectural styles and motel signage that typify eras of highway travel. I didn’t take the time to look online to see how many of these places still operate. There are many other such motels, and surely many more that have carried the man’s name because they were on the old Lincoln Highway/U.S. 30. I remember the A. Lincoln Motel on Route 66 in Springfield as much larger (as depicted here) than the older postcard below. The sign outside was notable.

So …. here is my quirky way of commemorating Lincoln’s birthday this year. On frigid winter days like these, pictures of old motels can elicit a nice feeling of summery nostalgia for the open road, family trips and vacations past, and in this case, a sense of Lincoln’s heritage. What a treat it might be, to relax and sleep at a place named for Honest Abe!

I remember another Lincoln Motel, in my own hometown of Vandalia, Illinois. It stood on St. Louis Avenue (part of the original alignment of U.S. 40). When I was a kid in the 1960s the motel still operated and had a sign along the street, but the sign was removed long ago and, sometime during the late 1990s, the place was razed. It wasn’t much larger than 10 or 12 rooms or so and seemed out of place in what was, by then, just a residential neighborhood no longer along a transcontinental highway. The little motel was a remnant of earlier days of travel, one of those hometown places you remember when you were little.

Read Full Post »

$T2eC16dHJGwE9n)yUs8FBQvk1euHzw~~60_3I love seeing the old Rock City barns that still stand along many two-lane roads. They advertise the 10 acres of rock formations atop Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee (http://www.seerockcity.com). The park opened in 1932, and the project of painting barns to attract visitors began a few years later.

The other day I saw this old thermometer on eBay and successfully bid on it. It will soon join my small collection of antique advertising and highway signs. According to this page—http://www.seerockcity.com/pages/Barn-History —the thermometers were among the promotional items (and in some cases a small monetary payment) given to people who consented to having their barns or sheds painted. Thus placed in a nostalgic mood, I pulled from the shelves an old favorite book, David B. Jenkins’ Rock City Barns: A Passing Era (Chattanooga: Free Spirit Press, 1996).

Jenkins provides small photographs of all the known Rock City barns (and also sheds, garages, and at least one small store), and larger color photographs of particularly beautiful or unusual examples. Jenkins spent a long time and drove many thousands of miles to locate and photograph the quaint places. Some photos join with stories of people who own the barns: for instance, an older farmer who lived along U.S. 41 in western Indiana. I loved to see that particular barn during all the years I drove from Kentucky to Illinois to visit my parents in the 1990s (pp. 26-27).

Jenkins’ book includes the story of Clark Byers, the barn painter himself. He and his crew used 4-inch brushes, first painting the roofs black. Then he freehanded the white letters on each barn, using a variety of slogans like “See Rock City,” “Bring Your Camera,” “Beautiful Beyond Belief,” “When You See Rock City, You See the Best,” and of course, “See Seven States.” According to Byers, he was paid $40 a barn.

Jenkins writes that there are extant barns in fourteen states. See Rock City, Inc. had file cards about each barn, dating from the 1960s, but Jenkins found other barns not represented in the company’s records. Of course, he discovered that many barns no longer existed. He sadly writes that their quaintness, deterioration, and (for some) demolition indicate the passing of vital eras of American family farming.

Leafing through the book, you might find photos that you particularly enjoy. Jenkins himself is proud of a photo of a small Louisiana barn; just as he took the photo, a train passed across the nearby field (pp. 42-43). There is only one extant Rock City barn in Texas, and it gets a color photo. One barn in Alabama—painted “Fun for the Family See Rock City” faces a graveyard (pp. 122-123). As he writes, the fading barns seem most quaint and attractive.

My own favorite Rock City barn does not get a full color photo but is included in the back of the book (p. 138). This barn sits along U.S. 51 a few miles south of Vandalia, Illinois, my hometown. (The book mislabels it as being along U.S. 67.) It was one of the many rural sights I noticed whenever we made the half-hour drive to the next larger town, Centralia, where we shopped sometimes and where my orthodontist’s office was located. I have not driven that way for a while but the last time I did, the barn was still there but the once-white letters on the roof had completely oxidized and were no longer recognizable.

The very first family vacation that I recall was a visit to Rock City and Lookout Mountain. This was before the interstates. We began the vacation by traveling Illinois route 185 across Four Mile Prairie, the familiar way to my grandma’s house—-the road pictured in the header photo for this blog. Then I assume we connected to Illinois 37 and then drove down to U.S. 50. from which we connected to U.S. 41 that would’ve taken us all the way to Chattanooga. Although I was very young, I do remember walking atop Lookout Mountain and seeing Ruby Falls. Dad said he had to spank me to keep me from running toward the edge of the mountain. That would’ve been 1961 or 1962, a time when Clark Byers was still on the road somewhere, free-handing his signs.

“To miss Rock City would be a pity.”

*****

As I was writing this, I remembered two other favorite books. One is by William G. Simmonds, Advertising Barns, Vanishing American Landmarks, St. Paul, MN: Motorbooks International, 2004. Simmonds’ book depicts Rock City barns and also those advertising Mail Pouch tobacco, Meramec Caverns, particular products and stores, and the Ohio Bicentennial barns.

Also the noted historian Martin E. Marty and his photographer son Micah published Our Hope for Years to Come: The Search for Spiritual Sanctuary, Reflections and Photographs (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1995), which combines meditations with photos of old, interesting American churches.

Read Full Post »

After writing about Ramsey, IL (and childhood memories) in the previous two posts, let me import these thoughts from my “Journeys Home” blog.

First, let me give full credit to the photographer of these pictures. They were taken by Mr. John Kohlberg, who sells on eBay some of his railroad photographs from many midwestern communities. He took these photos in Ramsey, IL in November 1991. Ramsey is a small village in my native Fayette County, Illinois, north of my hometown Vandalia; my Strobel great-grandparents and four of their ten children are buried in Ramsey (though my grandfather, number eight of the ten, is buried in Vandalia). Mr. Kohlberg’s original photos are sharper and better than my scans. I received his permission to post these and so please don’t download them yourself.

The photographs depict the Norfolk & Western railroad. He says that originally this was the NKP’s Cloverleaf District, St. Lous Division, 4th Subvision from Madison, IL to Charleston, IL, later acquired by the N&W. (The “Nickel Plate Road” was the New York, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad, reporting mark NKP). The views were taken on the west end of Ramsey, east of the Illinois Central Interlocking Tower, and also from the stairwell of that tower. The line is abandoned.

I like to use eBay to find postcards and antiques related to Fayette County. Mr. Kohlberg’s photographs came up for bid as I did a “Ramsey” search. I purchased the photos not because I was familiar with those specific views (and I’ve not been to Ramsey for several years), but because that my heart was so warmed by them.

I grew up on a residential street traversed by the Illinois Central tracks. The railroad still operated when I was young; it rumbled across Fillmore Street, and sometimes you had to wait a while as it passed. The ICRR crossed Vandalia’s main street at a slight angle and sometimes halted downtown traffic as it rolled past the old debot, one of the town’s hotels, the grain elevators, and a lumber yard. The Pennsylvania Railroad also passed through Vandalia, but west and east. Those trains rushed through town much more quickly, stopping north-south traffic. I remember so many times when, as a little kid, we’d have to wait at the railroad tracks during a downtown errand, and I’d try to count the passing cars but either lose count or became motion-sick.

My dad was a truck driver who hauled gasoline and fuel oil to places around southern and central Illinois. Over the years he had two places where he parked his truck, one at Fifth and Johnson Streets and the other at Sixth and Main (Main is not Vandalia’s primary thoroughfare, in spite of its name, so a large truck parked beside white storage tanks were off the principal section of the downtown). The first place was along the Illinois Central tracks, where a wooden trestle carried Johnson Street above the ICRR tracks, and the second was near the intersection of the PRR and ICRR, where both current and exempt tracks lay across a small, gravel landscape, where tenacious grassy plants nevertheless persevered.

Sometimes I walked to downtown Vandalia along the ICRR. It was a stupid thing to do, but this was the 1960s and early 1970s, long before the headphones and music devices that have tragically contributed to the deaths of people walking along tracks, hit and killed on the trails. My only distraction was my own thoughts, and popular music like The Who’sWho’s Next or Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” in my mind. At a young age, when my friends and I played in the park beside the railroad tracks, we wondered if we might find hobos inside box cars that were occasionally parked along the ICRR. We had little idea of what a hobo was, but we imagined he’d be good natured, if ragged, and would befriend us and talk to us about life on the way. (Again, this was the 1960s, when we knew not to talk to strangers, but child abductions and the like weren’t in the news as they’d become much later.)

Once downtown—a kid walking on my own in our small, safe town—-I looked into the hazy, summer distance of the PRR tracks, and I sometimes became wistful and curious about the direction my life might take—as much as a young person can form such thoughts. I felt at home in our small town, but the railroads represented the world beyond our town: places to which to travel, the unknown to face as it came. The railroads also represented to me a kind of passing world because, although I’d no knowledge of the state of railroad business in America, I knew that passenger trains no longer stopped at Vandalia, and in fact such service had ceased when I was four or five years old.  Vandalia had four or five hotels, though I only knew of the two that still operated as such; another had been converted to the First National Bank, and two others had long since become local businesses. I had a very basic idea that Vandalia’s hotels had once been busy, necessary places for travelers, salesmen, and the like who rode the trains. Vandalia had several bars and package stores. “Package” sounded like such a nice word, a word we used at Christmas. And although my parents didn’t drink, I eventually became nostalgic for old beer signs for Stag, Falstaff, Miller Hi-Life, and others. Somehow I associated these familiar beer signs with the railroad, not logically, but I suppose because of the ICRR to the business district. A lot of hometown landscapes and features became sentimentally mixed in my mind.


My parents and I would drive to other small towns in the area, visiting relatives, or shopping for antiques in small shops along U.S. 51 or U.S. 40 or the more distant U.S. 50. These towns, too, had railroads. Bored while visiting relatives, I might play in the yard and see the nearby railroad tracks, the lines that accompanied it, the untidy landscape that also followed the tracks along their course. As we traveled, I might see a rusty storage tank beside the tracks, or a railroad tower, or we might pass over a very bumpy railroad crossing, marked with the familiar Railroad Crossing “crossbucks” sign. (The really old railroad signs were “sawbucks” and cast iron. There were examples of those at a gasoline storage area just west of nearby Effingham, IL, and I thought they seemed so old upon the landscape, where old U.S. 40 and its motels, corn fields, and farmhouses paralleled the PRR.)

Once I grew up and no longer traveled with my parents, I still loved to pass through small towns and reflect upon their landscapes. Of course, I enjoyed railroad landscapes, and although I’m not a railroad buff as such I appreciate the history and become deeply nostalgic when I see a trains passing through a small town, or abandoned tracks crossing a village road and very old sidewalks, or storage tanks and towers, or tracks that pass by someone’s old small house, with its yard and clothesline and “stuff.”

Thus, Mr. Kohlberg’s photographs filled me with nostalgia, though I wasn’t familiar with those particular scenes in the village where my family once lived. But they’re familiar in that sense that I knew these kinds of landscapes from a young age. They’re typical of my small town Illinois “home places. ”

I wonder: what everyday landscapes move you deeply, even though they may be very plain and, to some people, unattractive? One of my best friends, for instance, is cheered by the urban landscapes of Queens. Another loves the hilly vistas of small town Pennsylvania, where old homes perch on steep hills or stand along the very street. What sights and topographies would remain dear to your thoughts when, as Annie Dillard writes in her memoir, everything else in your mind is fading away, because you so love them?

Read Full Post »

My little nostalgic journey up U.S. 51 continues, because I kept screwing up the formatting of the previous post as I tried to get the text to wrap around the photos properly, LOL.

As I drove north from Ramsey, I passed through the little place called Oconee. I smiled, because I’d nearly forgot about the day, about 45 years ago, when Dad called from Oconee and said his pickup truck had caught fire!  He called home, and knowing my mother was at a downtown shop, I called the business number to tell her.  Life is so much easier now with cell phones.  The day became an impromptu adventure as we drove to the 25 miles or so to Oconee to fetch Dad. I’m sure this little station was the same place where Dad’s truck (a ’69 but I forget the model) was parked as it awaited repair.

When I was very little, we attended a family reunion at Kitchell Park in Pana, IL.  I don’t remember which of our families’ met there; our reunions usually happened in Vandalia, so perhaps it was a Carson family gathering. That’s the family name of his my dad’s mother’s side of the family, including the two Decatur aunts.  I played on the playground but a couple of older kids played too vigorously, I fell, and ran crying to my mother. To console me, she walked me to this 1910 bridge.  I’ve always thereafter felt a fondness for ponds or streams with lilypads (like those beneath that bridge), and of course the paintings of Monet. I took some pictures of the park and bridge but they couldn’t compare with this great old postcard I found on eBay a few years ago.

I love how two-lane roads follow the streets of towns and cities.  As you take U.S. 51 through Pana toward Decatur, you turn right, then left, then right again for a long stretch, and finally left again as you turn north.  Like so many small towns, Pana’s business district is forlorn, but I did notice an awesome “ghost sign” on the side of one building (I wrote briefly about ghost signs at https://paulstroble.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/favorite-roads-iiimusical-road-trips-ii/).

For some reason a lazy pair of curves, just north of Pana on 51, appealed to me as a kid on those Saturday drives.  They’re not far south of the turnoff to the village of Dollville. They were my primary destination this trip.  U.S. 51 is slowly being turned into a four-lane road (it’s been in process and under discussion for years).  I wanted to revisit those curve before construction altered the landscape.

When I was little, I didn’t think about why I liked those highway curves.  Something about that particular landscape and the short curves in the highway made me feel peaceful.  I was happy because I had a new toy to play with from our Decatur shopping time, and I watched out the car window as scenery passed by. Many years later, that landscape still warmed my heart.  So it was no big deal to drive nearly 100 miles from my current home, just to see that section of highway before, eventually, it becomes upgraded to four lanes.

I didn’t drive further north on U.S. 51.  The pair of gentle curves was the main thing I wanted to revisit.  A few miles to the north is the village of Assumption, and a little further north from Assumption is the village of Moweaqua, which I remember fondly from childhood Decatur trips because it had a wonderful restaurant along 51 through town.  One day, when we’d stopped in Moweaqua, we were amused to see a small gaggle of barefooted teenage girls walking along the main street.  Where were they headed?  Where are they today (now in their early sixties)?  Highway 51 once passed through Moweaqua, but now the four-lane road bypasses the town, and the abandoned alignments (which you so often see at small rural towns where the highway has been modernized) approach the town in grassy places at both the north and south sides of town.

I returned home not via U.S. 51 but Illinois 16, headed west to Interstate 55.  I’d once written a story about a small town along highway 16, for reasons I explain here: https://paulstroble.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/a-story-of-providence-and-community/  Such tiny little villages along 16!  But if you lived here, I suppose you’d either hate it or your life functions around the small sights of the village.  I’ve always been fond of trackside grain elevators, though; my hometown has them along the Illinois Central tracks.  I took a picture of those, plus a pretty scene where the road passes through a cluster of trees.

I stopped by a coffee shop along the way. I asked the barista if it was okay that I was barefooted, and she laughed and said, “As long as the state doesn’t see you.” Down old Route 66 a ways, I visited a wonderful antique mall.  One of the clerks happened to be outside on cigarette break. She said it was okay that I was barefooted so I went in and padded around the numerous displays on three levels, my feet free for a pleasantly long time upon the soft carpet.  An old road sign caught my attention, so I purchased it and took home an addition to my collection.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »