George Preston – A True Lincoln Highway Icon

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

Long before the conception of the National Lincoln Highway Association, as we spoke of in my last post, a character from Eastern Iowa was telling the story of the Lincoln Highway.  His name was George Preston.

george

George Preston was a self-promoter of that great road, the Lincoln Highway, and his own gas station, which is located along the Highway in Belle Plaine, Iowa. I personally met this iconic character back for the first time in 1990, around the same time he made his debut on the Johnny Carson Show. George was a collector who was proud of his finds and showed every individual each unique piece he had found over the years.

The last time I sat with Mr. Preston to hear his tales of the road was in the Spring of 1992.  His tales wound far and wide, bringing those who would listen deep into the story and making it hard for anyone, including myself, to want to leave. On this last occasion, George was promoting one of those cassette tapes of his very own work.  He asked me to buy one, and as I listened, I learned he had recorded himself rapping along to Burma Shave slogans. These slogans were put along the road to match the rhythms you would feel as you travelled along. As you drove, you would see such signs as: “When you grow old/And thin/Your head grows bald/But not your chin/BURMA SHAVE.” Now just imagine this fellow friend of the road rapping out to such a tune.

For a mere five dollars, I was able to own this lyrical treasure. Back then, a cassette tape was usually not quite as much, so I told George that five dollars was a bit high, but he assured me that the money was going to the restoration of his gas station.

This past year, I decided to create a George Preston likeness, and using the cassette tape I had purchased those many years ago, I created an interactive musical menagerie where anyone who visited the national Lincoln Highway conference could experience his talent.

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I unveiled this mechanical wonder to the public at the conference for all to experience In present day, it stands proudly in our humble museum in Grand Junction, Iowa, for all who visit to push the button and enjoy.

If you ever find yourselves traveling through Grand Junction, stop and get a few words of advice from my fellow friend of the road, Mr. George Preston.  It is a musical moment none should miss.

From the Open Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

Another One in the Books

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

Just a few weeks ago, the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association, for which, as you all know, I am the Artist-in-Residence, hosted another successful national conference in Denison, Iowa.  This is the third time we have had the honor of hosting this conference here in the state I call home.

The first national conference we hosted was in 1994 in Ames, Iowa. The organization was a young thing, with this being the second ever national Lincoln Highway Association conference.  Despite our early fears, the conference was a roaring success and set the stage for the many national conferences to come.

The conferences rotate through the 13 states of the Highway every year. As the years went by, we in Iowa had our second chance to hold the conference ten years later in 2004. This conference, lovingly called “Out of the Mud,” was hosted in Cedar Rapids, at Coe College.   We not only pulled “out of the mud,” we roared out and held yet another successful event.

This now brings our journey up to today. In the late days of June, we had our third national conference. This time around, we chose to host the conference on the western side of the state, in the town of Denison in Crawford County. Now this county holds a special place in my own story, as if you recall from one of my earlier tales, my grandpa and many more came from Crawford County.

During the conference, we visited many local haunts along the road, including a theater named after a little known lady, Ms. Donna Reed.  Here we enjoyed some old shows and spent a little time out of the heat.  As I stepped back out into the light, I was spotted by Mr. Gordon Wolf of the Denison Review. As I recounted some of my journeys along the open road, Mr. Wolf transcribed them for you to read below:

“Denison has been host to a number of Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) members this week who are in town for the national conference. For some of the visitors, the stay in Denison is akin to a homecoming. Their roots are planted in the historic coast-to-coast highway and are also tapped into the community…LHJ 1

…John Fitzsimmons is a great storyteller. A founding LHA member when he was 32, John is from Boone, via Eureka, California. He grew up in Placerville, California, which is also on the Lincoln Highway.

As the artist in residence for the LHA, he is known as “Lincoln Highway Johnny.” He creates works of art about the Lincoln Highway, all for viewing, not for sale. A display of his work was at the Boulders Conference Center for this week’s national conference.

 

Another strong connection with the route is that John’s grandfather, Pat Fitzsimmons, helped build the Lincoln Highway.

“Back in 1992, everyone was excited about starting the Lincoln Highway Association,” he said. “But we had to find out where it was.”

The location of parts of the original route, dedicated on October 31, 1913, by the original Lincoln Highway Association, was unknown.

One of John’s jobs was to help paint the red, white and blue Lincoln Highway logo on telephone poles along the route. “I painted over 186 of them,” he said.

John can be distinguished from his fellow LHA members by the overalls and hat he wears, and the Lincoln Highway logos he painted on the toes of his shoes. He told how that came about.

 

He and a partner were painting the highway logo on telephone poles in Boone County in 1992. He was standing 10 feet up on a ladder, and a swirling wind was blowing the paint in circles. “I looked and had more paint on myself than on the pole,” he said.

LHJ shoes

“Then I looked down and saw there wasn’t a drop of paint on my shoes. So I said I would train the paint to make an “L” on my shoes.”

 

Like others, John has a connection not only with the Lincoln Highway but with Denison and Crawford County. He said his father, Glenn Fitzsimmons, and mother, Rosemary (Segebart), grew up in Vail and knew the Mullenger family – Reed’s family.

He said his aunt Beulah Davis worked for Heidi Mullenger, Reed’s sister, and his mother knew Reed’s brother.

 

His mother and father moved to California in 1953. His father died three years ago at age 89. His mother is 82 and lives in Eureka.

This week, John called his mother and said, “Guess where I am. At Cronk’s.”

In her youth, his mother often stopped at Cronk’s after roller skating outings. “She said they had the best burgers,” said John. In addition, his mother’s cousin worked at Cronk’s.

For John the association is not only about preserving the history of the historic route but is also about the people. “I like attending the conference because I see people I don’t get to see all the time” said John.

But he can’t attend every national conference. He last attended one in 2013 in Kearney, Nebraska. He wanted to but was unable to attend last year’s conference in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; he is a civil war reenactor.

“Every year we are losing members and are losing fine workers,” John said. “I want to see them.

 

“Everybody loves the road and the history,” he added.

 

“There’s something about the Lincoln Highway, but it’s not just about the concrete. It’s about what’s along the highway – the buildings and the heritage.”

To read more of about the conference as told by Mr. Gordon Wolf, head on over to Denison Lincoln Highway Conference.

As I told Mr. Wolf, the best part of these conferences is seeing my long time fellow travelers over the years. However, as with most things in this life, the best is followed by the worst, as we miss those who have journeyed along the path we all eventually must follow.

If you find yourself heading east along the road next year, stop by New Jersey, where the 2018 national conference will be hosted.

From the Open Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny