Over the years, I have seen many a place along the Lincoln Highway that has been left to the wilds that surround it. From the concrete bridges that spanned the shallow creeks of the countryside to the many motels and cabins where weary travelers found a place to rest for the night, there is no structure built by man that is secured against the passage of time once it has been left to its own fate.
As I made my way across the great state of Wyoming many a year ago, I happened upon some old cabins next to Fort Bridger. As I observed the faded orange wooden siding and the sloping rooftops, I felt that twinge of sadness I so often find when I see these once loved places falling into disrepair. As I left to go on to the historic Fort Bridger itself, I made sure to mark the location so I could visit these former rest spots once again. Every time I found myself in that area of the Great Road, I visited these cabins and wished that there would be some character to come along and restore the buildings and grounds before nature had completely reclaimed the territory.
It was much to my delight to learn that back in 2009, just a character came along. These cabins, named the Black and Orange Garage Camp Cabins, were being restored to their former glory by the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources, with a member of Lincoln Highway Association, Todd Thibodeau, being the force of change for these historic furnishings. The restoration itself was done beautifully, as the crew behind the work was able to use at least ninety percent of the original materials and structures.
The structures themselves look much like they originally did when a traveler along the Lincoln Highway would come to stay the night, with each cabin featuring its own garage for those early automobiles. This was quite the feature for the time when these cabins were in their heydays from the early 1920s until 1936, when the Great Depression found its way down the road to this area of the country. While these restored cabins are not open for a current traveler to rest his tired bones from the road, they are open for any character who wishes to take a trip back in time to see how the accommodations of the past compare to those of today.
On a side note, I did see a reproduced concrete Lincoln Highway marker along the road there by the cabins some years ago. As it often happens, the featured medallion with the face of the president the road is named after was missing. I have not yet had my own opportunity to venture back to see the restored cabins in their current state, but I do hope that the missing medallion has also been restored to its home.
If you find yourself journeying along the Lincoln Highway through western Wyoming, take a moment and visit the Black and Orange Garage Camp Cabins and the grounds of Fort Bridger itself. As you walk through those restored beauties, think back to the not too distant past when the wilds had reclaimed this area for its own. I can only hope that other historic sites will be as fortunate as this and will find some character to come along and bring the past back to life.
I have often talked about the history of the Lincoln Highway and the many stories I have found myself inspired by as I have traversed that open road from both east and west. However, as we approach another one of the Lincoln Highway Association National Conferences, I find myself looking back at the beginnings of this very Association here in my home state of Iowa. And, as it so often seems to happen, I also find myself recalling a story I was told while I was doing my own early part of helping to contribute to the lasting memory of the Great Road itself.
The Lincoln Highway Association as you find it today was formed in 1992. The Iowa Chapter came together in October of that year, with many folks meeting to share their love of the road and the history that you find along it. Each one of these characters, myself among them, wanted to find our own way to contribute to the new association. We all shared in the excitement of bringing the history of the Lincoln Highway back to the modern times and, as we continued on, we each took on our own responsibility in telling the story of the Great Road.
As the artist and vagabond I am, I found that my endeavor to bring the Road back to life was to take to the poles. Back in the times gone by, the telephone poles along the Lincoln Highway would be painted with the signature colors and symbol of the Road itself so that travelers could find their way. These poles were found across the country in the early 1910s, but thanks to time and some newer poles, the paint was only a bygone memory to be seen in photos of the day. I decided I would load up my ladder, my paint, and my brushes, and set out to recreate these logos so that travelers of today would be able to find this original route of the Lincoln Highway as they journeyed across Iowa.
As I began my journey of painting poles, I found that Sunday morning was my time of choice. While folks would join together inside during those morning hours, I found myself out of doors, traveling along the empty roads in search of my next bit of wooden canvas. Each Sunday morning that brought the song of the birds and the sun shining down, I would head on out along the open road to my next destination.
It was one of those clear Sunday mornings that I found myself to the east of Ogden, Iowa, near to the small town of Beaver. The Lincoln Highway once had wound along the roads I was standing on, heading north through the main straight of Ogden before turning itself west on the first gravel road. As it headed out from that larger town, it dropped into Beaver before continuing its long journey. Though the years had changed much of the surrounding area, the road I had set my ladder along had not been touched by the swift current of time. That old gravel road was still the same road it had been, still reaching out to the west.
As the birds sang their tune, I set about unloading the rest of my pole painting equipment. The world was peaceful around me that Sunday morning in April of 1993, and the telephone pole I had chosen was on the south side of that gravel road. Across the road, there was an old farmstead facing out, with a two-story farmhouse built in the fashion of years gone by, but looked as though those same years had not touched a piece of siding on it. After admiring the handiwork, I pulled my gear, my ladder, my paintbox, and my trusty license plate out. Now that license plate was not meant for any car, but was my measuring tool of choice to place the red and blue bands of the Lincoln Highway logo on the pole in front of me.
Once I had found my way up the ladder to my painting position, I started to draw out my design. As I was finishing up with my measuring tool, there was a small noise from below. Standing below me, shielding her eyes from the morning sun, stood a little old lady who seemed to have come over from that farmhouse I had been admiring earlier. She introduced herself as Lucille and told me she had to come on out to see what a character like myself was doing on a ladder alongside the telephone pole across from her yard. As I told the story of how the poles had once marked the original Lincoln Highway, she nodded along and agreed that it was the thing to do now that the Association had been formed. She then thought a moment and told me she had her own story from this gravel road that led travelers along the Great Road to the west. I told her that I would be happy to hear her tale and came down to earth as she began to tell me about an old rodeo cowboy who also happened to be her uncle.
Back when Lucille and the Lincoln Highway had both been a few years younger, her uncle had been a rodeo cowboy and clown who had traveled across the Midwest. Back in those early days, there was money to be earned as a bronco rider in the rodeos in the area. However, as there were often many brave cowboys stepping up to ride those bucking broncs, being a rodeo clown could earn a cowboy a few extra bits of coin to use as pocket change. Her uncle had been one of these cowboys, and though his given name was Albert, he went by the name of Tex Winton, which she reckoned was a better name for a cowboy to begin with. Now Tex often traveled outside of the Midwest, using the Lincoln Highway to find his way west to where those larger rodeos would often take place. Lucille said that Tex claimed he had ridden in all the big rodeos, but it had been one in the state of Oklahoma that had been the roughest ride. At this rodeo, Tex had ridden a particularly rough bronco and had been thrown to the ground. From this ride, Tex received a back injury from which he never fully recovered.
Some time after that ill-fated ride, Tex found his way to the old farmhouse where his brother and his family lived in Central Iowa. Lucille recalls her father welcoming in the depressed rodeo cowboy, who had fallen on hard times thanks to his friendship with cards and the bottle. For a while, the family lived and worked together with their new addition, but it was not long before the brothers had it out. Lucille’s father gave Tex the choice between the road and work after the dust had settled once more. It was the night after that ultimatum was issued that Lucille recalled sitting on the porch with her uncle, who seemed to be a man without a friend in the world. Being the smart young lady she was, she told the cowboy that he needed to find himself a friend of the canine variety. She figured having a friend such as that would help bring him out of his dark days and help him avoid those bad choices he kept seeming to make. Lucille said Tex thought for a moment and then reckoned she was right, only he did not know where to find such a canine companion. The next morning, Tex packed up his suitcase, wished the family farewell, and headed out to the west on the Lincoln Highway.
It was a year later that Tex Winton came back to the farmhouse, and what a difference a year had made. Rather than the sad clown they remembered, Tex rolled up on the Great Road, driving an old automobile of the large touring car variety, though Lucille could not remember the exact make. The man himself had also made quite the change, as he returned to the home with a large grin on his face and a new best friend, an Australian Shepard by the name of Rascal, on the seat beside him. Tex had found his way on back to the rodeo, but instead of sitting on the saddle, he acted the clown all the more, with Rascal a ready partner in his new tricks. As Lucille recalled the dog, she smiled widely, sharing that Rascal was a brilliant hound and she had not since met a dog who had been as much fun to be around. That summer, Tex and Rascal entertained their family with their tricks of the trade, showing off the lasso jumping feats and more Tex had taught his friend to do. However, the partners only stayed for about a week before the rodeo clown and his canine companion journeyed along to the next rodeo along the way.
Tex and Rascal returned once more that following summer, though their old automobile did not. After the duo and their gear was dropped off at the farmhouse, Tex told the tale of his journey to the west along the Great Road. He had been heading on out to the 1929 Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo when his auto had broken on down on the side of the road. After the year of clowning around, Tex claimed his back had been ready for the broncos again. He was headed to the west to continue to refresh his skills when the car had given out on him. Not one to give up any longer, Tex and Rascal found their way to the nearest Lincoln Highway concrete marker and had set themselves up to wait for the next friendly fellow in a vehicle to come along. His ride finally came along after a few hours along the marker and the partners found themselves in the great state of Wyoming. Lucille could not remember exactly how Tex had done at that particular rodeo, but she did recall that he had arrived at the home, still grinning alongside his best friend.
That summer was the last time Lucille saw her uncle and his canine, though she did recall receiving letters and cards over the following years. These were often filled with the tales of Rascal and his tricks, along with Tex and his broncos. Eventually Tex and his best friend had retired after many a rodeo to the San Joaquin Valley in California. Lucille thought for a moment longer as she stared off down the stretch of Lincoln Highway in front of her house. She could not remember exactly when the cards stopped coming, she said quietly, but she could always remember the sparkle in Tex’s eye as he and Rascal journeyed along on their next shared adventure.
As Lucille finished up, I thanked her for the story of the clown, his canine partner, and his journeys along this road that had so much history of its own. As I climbed back up my ladder, I thought on how my own contribution to the Great Road might one day add to the story of another person as they journeyed out from Ogden to the west along a gravel road untouched by time.
Now that my pole painting years have passed, I often think back to those Sunday mornings I spent up on a ladder in those early years of the Lincoln Highway Association. As much as I recall the paint and my measuring license plate, I also remember the many different characters I met while making my own contribution to the Great Road itself. That was the thing about painting those poles alongside the Lincoln Highway. I never knew what stories might emerge from the characters who came out to greet me as I spent the hour and a half painting the logo on each one. While the stories varied from tales of their own experiences on the Lincoln Highway to just interesting memories from early days in their family history, each individual I had the fortune to meet contributed to my stories made alongside the Lincoln Highway.
I was also fortunate to have a partner in those early days who found his way up a ladder to paint the red, white, and blue logo of the Lincoln Highway alongside me. Ty Casotti was another founding member of the Lincoln Highway Association and shared in my passion for artwork and history. He was my painting partner and friend for many years and his contribution to the Great Road will always be remembered. I lost my pole painting partner in the later 1990s to a form of cancer. I often find myself thinking back and missing my fellow painter and friend dearly. This story is in his honor and in honor of those founding members who dedicated much of their free time and even more of their energy to the rebirth of the Lincoln Highway.
As you are well aware, I often find myself travelling from my home in Boomtown, Iowa to many a place on the open road. I often find my journeys taking me to the west, as I head out to visit my own birth state of California. Along my path to the West, I like to visit small towns and greet some of those characters I had met before, while also making new acquaintances as I learn about the unique history of each place. One of these stops brought me to Sinclair, Wyoming.
The year I stopped in Sinclair, I chose to do so as I was looking forward to seeing much of the petroliana (antiques related to the gas and petroleum industry) related to that great oil company the city is named after. Being such a home of one of the refineries of this company, I was certain that there would be a fantastic museum filled with artifacts of the company’s past. I found my way into this small Wyoming town and drove down their main boulevard, rolling slowly from west to east so I would not miss seeing this museum. I knew that this home of Sinclair history should be easy to see, as it might even have one of the signature green Dinos on display.
However, as I found myself at the end of this main street, there was no sign of museum or Dino. I turned back around and began the trip back to the west, as I figured I must have somehow missed the museum I was picturing in this small town. To my great delight, I finally did find an old building on one of the side roads off that main strip that had a sign in the window announcing it as a museum. As I neared this old building, I figured this must be a smaller exhibit, as it did not seem large enough to hold all the history of Sinclair and all its amazing memorabilia from the years gone by. I went up to this old building to read the small sign on the door. This sign stated that if any visitor would like to see inside, they should take a trip up to the police station and ask one of the folks in blue to open the door and let them inside. As I read this message, my expectations hit my boots. Here I was in the town named after Sinclair, which had changed its name to match the company that gave new life to the very oil refinery built just outside. If there was to be the museum of my imaging, with antique gas pumps, petroleum signs, and of course a green Dino or two, it had to be somewhere in this town and not just this small building off the main road.
I turned myself away from this old building, walking my way down the street with a blank stare. It was during this forlorn walk that I happened upon an older gentleman, who was enjoying an iced tea and sitting in the shade of a tree on this sunny day. I figured that if anyone could point me in the direction of the real Sinclair museum, this local old timer would be the one. As I introduced myself and described the object of my search, the man listened and nodded along. After I asked him where that museum might be found, he took a sip of his tea and stated that it would be a good idea to have such a place. As I pondered the fact that the museum of my imaging would always just be a dream, I figured I might as well ask this gentleman if he knew any town history. After asking what the town had been known for and learning some unsavory facts, I pressed on further to see if he knew any historical facts from the time of the early days of the Lincoln Highway that I could use as I put my pencil to paper. The old timer thought for a moment and after stating that was indeed a long time ago, he related to me a story he had been told in his younger years that happened in this small Wyoming town.
Back in the time before this town was named Sinclair, there had been a man travelling his way from the west along the great road itself, the Lincoln Highway. This man was making his journey in a 1908 Model S Ford Runabout. Now this old Ford had broken down just to the east of town and when the traveler could not get it moving once more, he found his way into town and hired a team of horses to haul his automobile to the local blacksmith to have a look. Back in those days, these automobiles were few and far between, so the blacksmith often served as the mechanic in many of these small towns along the road. The blacksmith took a look at the vehicle and told the traveler that it would likely be several weeks until he could find the parts he needed and even after that, it might take some time to discover how to fix his Ford. In those days, it was hard enough to just find tires to fit cars and while the car needed to be fixed, the traveler was also in need of a few more tires. The three he had hauled on the turtle deck of the Runabout had only lasted him this far and he had quite a distance to still go.
The traveler decided that he could not wait for these parts to arrive, so he asked the blacksmith if he knew of anyone who would agree to trade a wagon or buggy and a team of horses for his Runabout. The blacksmith stated he could not think of anyone who would want such a contraption, but he did have to admit it was a fair thing to look at. After a moment, the blacksmith agreed to the trade and the traveler went on his way. As the Runabout was not in a state to do as the name says, the blacksmith hauled the automobile over to the front of his shop for all his customers to see.
This 1908 Model S Ford Runabout took on a new life from that day on, as cowboys and customers came from far and wide to admire this engineering marvel. They came to sit in the broken down Ford and brought the blacksmith more jobs to work on. He credited his increased business to his new tourist trap and continued to draw many a visitor until time had moved forward enough that the old Ford lost its appeal and became a relic of a bygone time.
As the old timer finished his tale of the blacksmith and his old Runabout, I asked him if he knew what may have happened to that Ford. The gentleman just shook his head, as the tale had been passed to him long after the old car and blacksmith had faded into the town history. I thanked this local character for the story and left him to enjoy the rest of his iced tea on that warm day.
I have often found that by stopping along the way in these small towns, you can learn much more about the events of the past than what you can read in any book. As it has happened many times before, I learned of an old story of how the Lincoln Highway gave a small town a tale to remember. This 1908 Model S Ford Runabout was a simple machine, though something new in its time. Although the automobile never made it to the traveler’s destination, it gave this little Wyoming town an early glimpse as to how life was changing around them, all thanks to the automobile and the great road itself.