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.
I have been along the Great Road many times in my journeys, traversing in all manners of transport and even walking along it a few times. I have not, however, done anything quite like the story I bring to you today.
The Lincoln Highway runs along the heart of this great country from East to West, as you all are well aware. From San Francisco to New York City, the terrain is as varying as the people you meet along the long road, ranging from deserts to mountains to everything in between. Now back when the Great Road was new, there were many people who wanted to leave their imprint on the history of the road. Some people went for a long walk, others chose to grab a bicycle and set out. Now one gentleman, a Mr. Gustave Petzel, decided he wanted to stand out among these fellow travelers. In 1915, Mr. Petzel built himself a metal ball to roll from California to New York. This ball was four and a half feet in diameter, weighed 180 pounds, and made of steel. Gustave did do himself the favor of making it a hollow globe, with the steel rim measuring at a thickness a sixteenth of an inch . His goal was to make it to New York in six months time, where he would be rewarded with a thousand dollars from some folks in San Francisco.
While I have spoken before about the state of the Lincoln Highway in those early days, where parts of the road were little more than a nice dirt path. I do not know about you, but it is hard for me to imagine pushing a ball that large along not only along the nicer parts of the road, but up and then back down the Sierra Nevadas, the Rockies, and the Appalachians. After the mountains, Mr. Petzel would also have the joy of pushing that great steel globe across the open deserts and plains under the hot summer sun. One thousand dollars was a large amount back in 1915, but I cannot say whether that would be incentive enough for me to undertake such a journey.
Mr. Gustave Petzel set out with his great steel ball on June 3, 1915, with the goal to work his ball and his way along the road to arrive in New York in six months. While I have looked far and wide for more details of this impressive journey, I have not been able to find any word that Mr. Petzel accomplished his lofty goal. Whether the mountains, the ball or or the journey defeated his steely resolve, Mr Petzel disappears for a time to resurface with details of another attempt of crossing the country along the Lincoln Highway ten years later.
As we know, Gustave was quite the skilled craftsman after building that great steel ball. In 1925, Mr. Petzel decided to make his journey again, but since I would assume he had enough of large balls, he built himself a baby car, touted at the time as the “smallest car in the world.” Gustave and his four cylinder, 560 pound little car set out along the road, travelling the Lincoln Highway by way of Yosemite National Park. Instead of working his way along the Great Road, this time Mr. Petzel sold postcards to fund his trip. This trip was a successful one, as Mr. Petzel is recorded to have made his way to Washington, D.C. in February of 1926, where he showed off his baby car’s ability to go 52 miles on a single gallon of gas and speed up to 80mph.
Mr. Gustave Petzel was a fellow traveler who set his sights on leaving his name in the history of the Lincoln Highway. While I cannot say I would be one to make such a trip as his first attempt, I do admire his resolve to set out along that journey when the road was young.
If you find yourself making the same journey one day, keep Mr. Petzel and his great globe in mind as you drive from the shining coast into the great mountains of our county. Perhaps you may even spot the ball somewhere along the way, maybe standing as relic along the road in the Truckee River.
I bring to you a story of a fellow lover of the old days, who celebrates those vehicles built for speed and the dirt track of days gone by and, though not as common, days still to come. While I do enjoy the open road, I certainly respect the desire of Mr. Marty Pringle to keep these jalopies around.
Marty Pringle and his Dad’s original dirt track racer
I first met Mr. Marty Pringle when he stopped by my own hamlet, Boomtown, Iowa. While I showed him around my many relics, his eye lingered on an antique gas pump. While I do not often part with my pumps, Mr. Pringle offered me a 1950’s standing Coca-Cola machine as a trade. After a moment, I agreed to part with my gas pump and looked forward to the trade to come. This would not be our only trade, as we would soon both discover in the near future.
A short time down the road, I was lucky enough to find a pristine 1938 One-Ton International Truck. Not only was the condition of this truck, which had been in storage for over 35 years, an amazing find, the history was a tale to discover as well. This truck had owned by the legend himself, Mr. Richard “Lefty” Robinson, an Iowa native who raced the dirt tracks of the past. While he and his family were promoters of the dirt, his daughter, Shauna Robinson, became a fan of the pavement and raced with NASCAR for many years.
Now this truck had been used by Lefty for his used truck and equipment business located in the capital of Iowa itself, Des Moines. I knew I could not pass up the opportunity to own this beautiful vehicle, and, as the folks who owned it were ready to part with it to a good home, I hired a gentleman to bring this International over to Boomtown. This driver very much enjoyed the look of the truck, and as a dirt track lover, I allowed him to take a photo of it and post it on the worldwide web. I soon learned that there were plenty of folks out there who wanted to own this piece of Iowa racing history, including my old trade partner, Mr. Marty Pringle.
Eight months later, it was my turn to be ready to offer a trade, as I was looking for a new home for Lefty’s truck. While I did consider a few other locations, I decided to head up to Otho, Iowa and talk to Mr. Pringle first. After a bit of conversation, we agreed that Marty would head over to look over the truck and, if it was in the cards, he would bring the International to his own museum the Iowa Hall of Fame and Racing.
As soon as Mr. Pringle looked over the truck, I knew it was time to make our second trade. I offered to give Marty the International if he would be willing to part with one of his prize racing jalopies, which still race around the track to this day. After a pause, Mr. Pringle accepted my terms and our second trade was set. A few weeks later, Mr. Pringle brought down the 7UP racing jalopy and took back this relic of an Iowa dirt track racing icon.
Mr. Marty Pringle and the 7UP jalopy, built in the memory of his uncle
The International Truck is currently on a rotating display, currently visiting the Knoxville Racing Museum in Knoxville, Iowa. If you care to take a peek at a piece of racing and Iowa history, stop on by Knoxville, or better yet, visit Mr. Pringle up in Otho, Iowa at the Iowa Hall of Fame and Racing Museum.
While on one of my recent journeys in Central Missouri, heading to the great river of Mark Twain, I happened across a quaint, rare piece of our nation’s past. This treasure was called a “One-Stop,” a place for the weary traveler to rest, have a bite to eat, and clean off after a long day on the road. This particular One-Stop is located on Highway 36, just to the east of Meadville in Missouri. As I viewed this historic site, I had to wonder why this One-Stop was here, when the larger town of Chillicothe was just a drive to the west. However, as I continued heading toward the Great Mississippi River, I found my answer as I found myself surrounded by Pershing State Park. Thanks to the interest of a fellow traveler like myself, this unique glimpse into the past has stood the test of the ages and continues to serve as a reminder of the bygone years.
Unlike the One-Stop of above, one of my favorite stops along the Great Road no longer exists. Many years ago, as I was traveling west on the Lincoln Highway, I found a reminder of the bygone era, a Mom & Pop’s cafe. As we were to the east of North Platte, the cafe had been named the North Platte Cafe and would have been a perfect stop for a bite to eat for the weary traveler.
Now these cafes not only served the travelers, but also their surrounding communities. Folks would gather on a certain night of the week, meet up with their neighbors, and escape the demands of the kitchen for at least a little while. Unfortunately this little cafe went the way of many other old stops along the road, but you can take a look here and glimpse how this relic looked back when I beheld it for the first time.
My fellow travelers, while you find yourself out on the open road, make sure to take a look around as you never know what relic may show up along the way. As with the cafe above, sometimes if you stop and stay a while, you may even still smell the chicken frying for the folks to gather for dinner.
On my journeys, I have discovered many things. From discovering facts one would not other find to my own roots, I have learned how to meet the hills and valleys of this open road as they have come. However, I must now reflect, as nothing along my way could have prepared me for my next new experience.
Rosemary Fitzsimmons was my mother. She was a woman like no other, and while I tend to enjoy looking on the bright side of this road, I must now reflect back as my mother has gone on to join my father on the great journey beyond. It would not be incorrect to say that I would not be the Lincoln Highway Johnny I am now without her. She was not one for epitaphs, so instead, I will relate a contribution and legacy she gave to the Road itself.
In your travels, you may see the Lincoln Highway Boy Scouts. Though these shy boys tend to face away from the weary traveller, they certainly draw a crowd. Rosemary created these two life-size kids back in 1993 for a conference in Ames, IA. She named the boys Pete and Repete, though I must admit she never revealed which one each was. These little fellows have made appearances at more events than I can count, each a memory to those who met the young lads.
Now my mother, Rosemary, and my father, Glenn, made the long trek from my original state of California to my home state of Iowa with these boys. Often while traveling that way on their maiden voyage, they would put on them in the front seat so they could experience the great Road as well. Well, more times than not, other travelers would honk and wave at these young vagabonds, encouraging their travels and embracing those of the younger years on their own journeys across this great nation. If you would like to say hello to one of these fearless travelers, stop by the museum in Grand Junction, Iowa.
While I am certain my mom would not want much ado, I would be grateful if you would spare a quick thought for her. She was a true artist and one of the most generous persons I have had the privilege to meet. While I hope the day is far off for myself, I wish the best and God Speed to this amazing woman who I was lucky enough to call Mom.
As I find myself journeying along the open road, I find myself thinking back to my younger days and my early inspirations. As a young traveler, I went to school in the small central California towns of Shingle Springs and El Dorado, and later Placerville. Placerville, California provided an easy setting for my young imagination to take me back in time to the early days of the gold rush in 1849. Back in my younger years, the late 1960s, time and population had not yet found its way to the area. Nowadays, the population has grown and much of that mystical setting I admired in my early years has now faded into the past.
In those years, I had not yet learned of the Lincoln Highway, but as the fates would have it, my family resided up the hill from the original Highway. Often my friends and I would journey down the road to the local shops and visit the ice cream parlor for a cool treat. In front of this haunt was an original Lincoln Highway marker, where we would hang our coats, not knowing the history it represented. Placerville had another marker that had been encased into one of the shops along the road. These days the shop from my past is long gone, having been replaced by a place to find a quick bite to eat.
As you are aware, I have always been drawn to the tales of local history. This was no different in those young years, when my journeys led me to pick up a book with photos showing how the places I enjoyed everyday looked in the time of my imaginings. While we cannot journey back to those days, the pictures and stories shared allow a glimpse of that bygone time when gold was just being found in the hills and valleys of California.
One of my favorite towns in this area is Coloma, California, which you will find along Highway 49. History runs deep in this small town, as it is the location where gold was first discovered in California at Sutter’s Mill. As a young traveler, I enjoyed the field trips and outings to the old area, running wild amidst the historical buildings and museums.
One such building was Bell’s Store. Robert Bell, the store owner, established this beautiful brick building, displaying the wares of the day out in front. Bell’s Store was one of the first buildings put up after the Fire of 1856 which had destroyed much of the structures in this small town. A few years I painted a likeness of Bell’s Store, using acrylics on redwood, to showcase the lasting beauty of my favorite building in the area.
Even though the years have passed and my journeys have led me far away, I will always remember the settings of Placerville and beyond that inspired my young mind. As a miner ever seeks gold in the next big strike, I ever seek out adventure on the next road.
As I ventured along the Mother Road herself, Route 66, in Arizona, I found myself thinking of how this particular stretch is a tourist’s delight. Along the Route, you will find a bit of everything, from unique curio shops to many historical sites. Each town along the way gives Route 66 its own twist, which provides something for every person to enjoy. The stops draw the traveler in, inviting them to take a rest, enjoy a different part of the road’s history, and lessen the weight of their wallet along the way. While I try to avoid that last one, I thoroughly enjoy experiencing these different twists and appreciate how each town creates the atmosphere that keeps tourists coming back and experiencing the history of Route 66.
After exploring the many unique sights along Route 66, my destination came in sight. My journey along the Mother Road lead me to Jerome, Arizona, which can be found in the mountains to the southwest of Flagstaff. Like the Route itself, Jerome is filled with many unique shops and experiences, but truly is for those brave tourists who wish to experience a little of the days gone by. Jerome provides an Old West adventure in the form of a living ghost town, providing visitors with a glimpse into the past.
While in Jerome, if you venture past the fire station and journey down a long, skinny road, you will find yourself in the area previously known as Haynes, Arizona. About 30 years ago, a fellow Iowan by the name Don Robertson moved down to the area and created the historical complex known as the Gold King Mine and Ghost Town. I often wanted to venture out on this journey in years prior and meet Mr. Robertson, but I sadly was not able make the trip out until this past year. Although Mr. Robertson has journeyed on down the long road, his collection and work lives on, providing a glimpse into the past for folks like myself to enjoy for the years to come.
Whenever you find the need to get your kicks on Route 66, be sure to journey on down the Mother Road and bring along a friend, like my buddy in the drawing below, to enjoy the different twists along the way. Once you find yourself near Flagstaff, take a quick turn down to Jerome and to Mr. Robertson’s place and explore the many items he collected along his own journey. I guarantee that no matter where you find yourself as you journey along the great Route 66, the history of the road and the area will rise to meet you.
As you are well-aware, most of my works come from my trips along the open road or from my own history. However, another part of my journeys include reenacting history itself, in particular that war that set brother against brother, the Civil War.
Early in the fall each year, our group of Civil War reenactors, the Army of the Southwest, engage in a reenactment in Corydon, Iowa. This small town is located in Southeast Iowa on Highway 2. Now most towns in this area of my great state are farm-based communities, with a low population in the town itself. This reenactment takes places in the picturesque setting of the local park, with beautiful trees, a rolling landscape, and a quaint lake.
As a reenactor, I often vary between acting as a soldier for North or the South during our battles. When we are back camp-side, I take on a different role as a war correspondent. However, many of my fellow reenactors maintain their role as a solider while relaxing by the fires, which often inspires my art. I quickly sketched out the work below during this most recent event.
As the weather this year during our reenactment was not as inviting as years before, I decided to journey down the road about six miles to one of those other small towns, Allerton, Iowa. Now I happened across Allerton during a class reunion of sorts, which seemed to include former students from all the past graduating years. This reunion has a parade, a luncheon at the fire station, and activities to celebrate across the businesses in the community. I was fortunate enough to find a room at the Inn of the Six-Toed Cat, the local, and only, bed and breakfast in town. Now while I could regale you with the story behind this unique name, it is better coming from the cat’s mouth itself: Story of the Inn
As I sat on the porch, enjoying the scenes of this old, unique inn, I took in the stormy weather around me. This weather did not seem to dampen the celebrations around the town, as I heard the sounds of folks coming together to share their heritage. Most years, as a part of the reunion celebrations, the Inn hosts a dinner with General Ulysses S. Grant. However, General Grant was unavailable this year, so in order to substitute for the man himself, I created the work below.
If you ever find yourself looking to embrace some local culture in Southeast Iowa, take a rest in Allerton and perhaps General Grant or a six-toed cat may stop by to make your visit as memorable as my own.
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…
…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.
“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.”
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.