Pole Painting, Rodeo Clowns, and the Lincoln Highway

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

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.

Photo by Michael Kelly

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.

Lincoln Highway Johnny leaving his mark along the original Lincoln Highway in Boone County, Iowa.

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.


While my drawing itself is inspired by the man and his dog I learned about one Sunday morning as I painted a pole, my artwork today is created for the upcoming Lincoln Highway Association Conference in Rock Springs, Wyoming.

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.

Ty Casotti and a young Lincoln Highway Johnny

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.

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

 

It Runs in the Family

Greetings, one more time today, Fellow Travelers,

Lincoln Hwy Near Vail IA

The picture above was taken around 1913 near Vail, IA.  The fellow standing tall in the air, on top of his road grader, is none other than my own grandpa, Pat Fitzsimmons.  Pat and his crew of cousins began carving out and smoothing the roadway for the Lincoln Highway, starting their section in Missouri Valley, IA, next to the Missouri River, and working their way to Vail, IA.

Missouri Valley to Vail

 

Now, as the Google Maps image shows, it would take an average person about 17 hours just to walk that distance.  If you add in horses, grading the road, and the Iowa summer heat, this would have taken quite some time over the years.

As you can see, the Lincoln Highway runs in my blood from the beginnings of this great road and will continue to be reflected in my art and my narratives for many years to come.

From the Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

 

 

A Journey into a Bullet-Ridden Past

Greetings from the open road.  Today I bring to you a relic from the bygone days of the Lincoln Highway in Nevada.

Now you may be wondering, why did ol’ Johnny post some pictures of a piece of cement?  I asked myself what this was back when I found it in 1978, on a unique road trip from Eureka, CA to Green River, WY.  This trip was to reenact the route of the early day fur traders who took this route on horses, which my buddy Wayne and I did in 1978.  This journey took us three and a half weeks just going the one direction, with a little “help” from the BLM (Bureau of Land Management in Salt Lake City).

This relic was found in a low-lying area, in between Ely and Eureka, Nevada on Highway 50.  We were travelling on the north side of the current US 50, on what seemed to be an old trail or maybe a remnant of the old Lincoln Highway. We stopped for the night, made camp, and fed and watered the horses and mule. After the animals were taken care of, I journeyed out to look for dried sagebrush to make a fire for the night.

I came upon this relic on my search for fire fuel.  I showed it to my buddy, Wayne, and we were intrigued by the bullets, the lead that was seemingly shot into it.  The stone itself seemed to be a large piece of soapstone, which is not common in Nevada. I stashed the relic alongside our camp to come back and get it at a later time.

After the rendezvous in Green River, Wyoming was over, and we sold away our transportation, I returned to my hiding spot and retrieved the relic.  Now, my mission was to find out what secrets this stone held.  I talked to several old timers in that area, from Ely and Eureka, to see if they had any input to what I had in my hand.

The only story I could get was… During the early days of travel, there was a lack of one distinct thing: firewood.  If the trail needed to be marked, journeymen would use stone structures to warn people of washouts and other road hazards.  If they were to use wooden road marks, travelers would cut them apart and use them for firewood, as that is what they needed, thus endangering fellow travelers along the way.  The old timers believed that this apparent piece of a road marker was most likely broken off from a taller structure.  One old timer told me he faintly remembered stones like this lining washes next to the road.

I asked about the bullets, which seem to be .32-.36 caliber lead, and learned it may have been a few different things, from seedy characters who passed by over the years or maybe a cowboy, practicing his target shooting.  Whatever the story of the bullets really is, it truly is a neat piece of Lincoln Highway history.

From the Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

Boone County Historical Center

collapse 2

Hello fellow travellers,

A couple days ago, on May 29th, a small tragedy occurred.  The fascade of the Boone County Historical Center collapsed, as was predicted by contractors for some time before.  The building was built in 1907 and was scheduled for masonry work mid-June, but apparently the rough Iowa winter was a bit too much for the 109 year old building.

Collapse 1

Thankfully no one was injured in the collapse, but one of our beloved relics was a casualty.  Sitting in front of the Center was an original Lincoln Highway marker, as you can see in the photo above.  The front right corner has been chipped off among the other destruction.

This particular marker was found by a good ol’ friend of the road, Ty Cassetti, just north of Boone.  Just like most of the relics, it was a buried treasure, lost in the past.  Once rescued, it was donated to the Boone County Historical Society to mark the Lincoln Highway’s heritage, as it runs through Boone.

Now, the Executive Director of the Historical Society has confirmed that the marker will be repaired along with the building, but it does leave us to question a few things. How do we protect our relics from the wear-and-tear that come with the territory in this here great nation of ours?  How do we get young people nowadays to sit up and pay attention to what’s going on around them?  All I know for sure is that we have to keep on going down this wide road.

From the Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

If you are interested in donating toward the rebuild of the Boone County Historical Center, please visit Boone History Center Urgent Relief.

Iowa Lincoln Highway Artist In Residence

Greetings fellow travelers.  You have all seen my Hot Rod Art style, but I wanted to give you a taste of something a little different.  As the Artist-in-Residence for the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association, I have the pleasure of creating drawings of historical sites along the landscape of the Iowa Lincoln Highway.  Most all of these drawings are taken from the early days of the Lincoln Highway.

Now think back with me to what folks experienced driving back around 1913.  These folks drove the Model-T Ford, a novelty to the common man, as was the new idea of a road trip.  The road trip caught on as a new pass-time across the nation as more people left their homes to experience new sights.  Unfortunately, the road system was not ready for this new trend and was better for the horse and buggy, not the automobile.  Long distance automobile travel was something new, as before, most had been done on the railroad lines.

Youngville Station

Youngville Station was a one-stop. A one-stop was a combination diner, hotel, and gas station all in one. The original site of the Youngville Station sits several miles west of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Youngville offered tourist cabins for rest at $1 per night and a cafe for eating, if you could afford a home cooked meal. If not, the cabins also provided a campsite for your dining needs. It also offered a mechanic on duty and two, state-of-the-art, visible gas pumps.

Places like Youngville usually grew up around the crossroads, spread just far enough apart so that they would bring commerce to each station and not compete with one another.

Today this site is a restored interpretive site for the Lincoln Highway in Iowa.  If you happen by Cedar Rapids, continue on and take in the wonderful history of the Youngville Station and maybe taste a little of the life folks lived many years ago.