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.
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.
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.
Iowa Blackie was many things, but he was most certainly my friend. Although we had crossed paths many a time around my usual stomping grounds, we never had the opportunity to speak about our journeys. In 1999, the time finally came where I had the time to speak to this man who looked, for lack of a better phrase, as a street urchin who had grown into a true vagabond.
My likeness of the Hobo Iowa Blackie
I spoke of my interest in the great road, the Lincoln Highway, and he spoke of his love of the original roads, the rails that cross this great nation of ours. As the conversation went on, it was no surprise to learn that we shared a love of history and of how folks traverse the vast open spaces of the country.
Now Iowa Blackie was born Richard Gage in Northern Iowa. When he was off the tracks, he called home a small house along his beloved railroad in New Hampton, Iowa. His first experience as a hobo happened when he left home at the young age of 13, when he walked out of the house, jumped a railcar, and rode to Oelwein, Iowa. As I am sure you would understand, Blackie’s parents were not too fond of this new hobby of his.
To add to the character he was, Blackie told me he was a Poet Laureate, writing poems about his life. He came often to my stomping grounds to print his books at the Sunstrom-Miller Press in Boone, IA, every year at Springtime. He also created a railroad trivia calendar and sold those to the masses for one dollar a piece. However, as the savvy businessman he was, any inquiry as to the price of the calendar always returned the answer of “Something more than a dollar, please.”
During that first meeting in 1999, I asked Iowa Blackie where he called home while he was travelling along the open road. He spoke to being grateful of finding anywhere along the way to rest his head, but it often boiled down to finding a place where he could take shelter from the unpredictable weather of the Midwest. Almost as soon as he related this to me, he asked if I had anywhere he could use to serve this purpose. Now as you know, there are very few times I am without words, but in response to this question, I found myself not knowing what to say as I looked on this vagabond of a man. As I recovered, I spoke to the fact that my home was out in the country and transportation might be an issue for him and his travels. Not to be deterred, Blackie spoke up to say that there would be no issue, for he had his trusty bicycle that could get him back and forth. Not seeing a bicycle in our near vicinity, I asked him where the bike could be found. His reply was that it was not here, but in the Bike Barn in Ogden, IA, a town 12 miles away from where we were currently standing, as that was where he left the bike during the cold Iowa winters.
Being somewhat of a big hearted sap at the time, I chose to take on this hobo. This decision led to what I call the Iowa Blackie years, which were five Springs and often Falls where this hobo became my tenant. As the decision was made, I began to realize I did not know where Blackie would reside. He could not stay in my home itself, as I was certain that the missus would show me the doghouse as my sleeping quarters. I offered the 16 passenger van I used in my long travels that featured a bed in the rear and he jumped at the idea before I could think twice. And with that, my adventures began with the legendary hobo, Iowa Blackie.
While I did regard Iowa Blackie as my friend, as I spoke to earlier, I quickly came to understand there was a reason you do not bring home wild animals or, in this circumstance, wild Hobos. This is only the introduction to my adventures, as I will relate further tales of Iowa Blackie and our journeys along the road and on my own piece of land.
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.
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.
By now we know I am a fan of things on four wheels, but I have been known to cut down to just two. I like anything of the bygone era, especially when related to transportation.
Today, I bring you a picture of a Native American who was a horse wrangler for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, sitting atop of an Indian motorcycle. How do I know this? My grandpa, who you all have met, knew him and worked with the man behind the inspiration as a wrangler as well.
Pat Fitzsimmons, to me, Grandpa Pat, was a shirttail relative of Buffalo Bill Cody. His sister was married to Ed Cody, Buffalo Bill’s half-brother. Pat befriended Buffalo Bill, who asked him if he wanted to join up with the show and participate. My Grandpa decided to help by wrangling the horses and livestock for the show.
As a young man, Grandpa traveled to many different states with the show, curious about new places and new experiences. By this point in the story of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the show stayed in the mainland of the good ol’ USA and did not travel abroad as it once had. My grandpa told me of a story of a Native American who worked as a fellow wrangler. As he had a form of dwarfism, he stayed behind the scenes. Grandpa always said the Indian’s facial features were stoic and reminded him more of a Native American Chief than some of the other Indians who were in the show. This fellow told my grandpa that he was saving his hard earned money up to buy a motorcycle, an Indian Scout. To this, my Grandpa replied earnestly that he figured he would have one someday soon.
Several years down the road, after Grandpa had left the show, and went back to farming and ranching in Vail, IA, he took a trip to Omaha with his cattle. During this trip, he came upon a rare sight, an Indian riding an Indian motorcycle. The man on the motorcycle recognized Pat and pulled alongside, stating triumphantly that he had bought his Scout. They shared the rest of the afternoon, talking of old times and enjoying a few brews.
This picture is dedicated to Grandpa’s friend and his accomplished dream of an Indian Scout motorcycle.
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.
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.