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.
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.
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.
The open road has been a bumpy one of late, which delayed some of my travels. But I have returned and would like to talk about an “Alternative Style” car show I visited over the last weekend.
Near the Mississippi River in the Eastern Iowa town of Dubuque, Torque Fest happens every year. I have been attending this event every year since its inception, where it started in Farley, IA and moved around until it landed finally in Dubuque. Torque Fest is a celebration of the early creation of the American Hot Rod and all the culture that comes with it. While traversing the grounds, Bettys are plenty with rock-a-billy setting the soundtrack to the day. The word of event is No-Billet, meaning no fancy bells and whistles.
Most of the proceeds of the event go to a medical fund called Helping Hannah, who is the daughter of the founder, Mr. John Wells. Mr. Wells, the featured man in my drawing today, founded this fest. When I first met him, he was a purveyor of classic car films, using those funds to help his daughter. Now he has graduated to hosting Torque Fest once a year and Iron Invasion, a car show much the same as this event, in Woolstock, IL.
This show has a flavor for all tastes, with old time races ranging from automobiles to motorcycles to chain races, to a swap meet where you can find treasures from a bygone era. Every year in the early days of May, Torque Fest roars and rocks into Iowa, so if you should ever find yourself on the ol’ Mississippi during that time of the year, stop by and find out what this celebration of the past can give to you.
So thank you, Mr. John Wells for another successful celebration. The cars and the Bettys were a sight for sore eyes, with the weather and the soundtrack setting the atmosphere needed to celebrate the contraptions inspired by the past.
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.
I would like to introduce you to Mr. Hobart Brown, the Glorious Founder of the Kinetic Sculpture Races in Northern California (and beyond) which, to this day, starts in Arcata, CA and ends in Ferndale, CA.
I met Hobart back in the late 70s while I was studying at the College of the Redwoods in the Art Program. Hobart had an art gallery in Ferndale, CA, full of his specialty, metal sculptures. His biggest activity was the Kinetic Sculpture Race, which involves large moving works of art that must be hand or food operated only and must be capable of going over a variety of terrain.
I befriended Hobart and went to many of his art openings on Friday nights over the course of two years. He was kind enough to let college students bring one piece of art to showcase on those nights. These gatherings were often similar to costume parties or masquerades.
The last time I visited with Hobart, he was plagued as many of us are by the ailments of age, with severe rheumatoid arthritis affecting him. However, he kept in good spirits, focusing on his work to keep him going. Unfortunately, the world lost Hobart in 2007. However, his legacy lives on around the world through the many kinetic sculpture races that occur every year and through the artwork he leaves behind.
Lincoln Highway Johnny presenting his artwork to a fellow Kinetic enthusiast at the Kinetic Sculpture Museum in Eureka, CA.
The drawing above is a tribute to Hobart and his creation, the Original People Powered Bus:
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 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.