Road to Freedom Reborn
Ohio Stretch is in its New Glory Days
Point that hood ornament toward America’s first road trip. Take a joyride on the original coast to coast byway – the Lincoln Highway!
This “Main Street Across America” as it was known ushered in the freedom of the road era that helped spawn other legendary treks across the United States. But this seminal road was the very first transcontinental automobile route. It connected Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco along with 3,389 miles of drive-over country. Wanderlust carried Ford’s Model T, the Maxwell, Franklin, Hupmobile and Studebaker to distances never before dared.
Until recently, this historic road was forgotten in a flurry of invention that ignited progress, everyone looking forward. Nobody bothered to look in the rearview mirror. And when they did, much of the original road had been buried or rerouted. But across Wayne County, Ohio, it pretty much is as it was. So as the fascinating story of the Lincoln Highway resurfaced in recent years, this sweet spot has steadily gained momentum and leisure traffic once again. The experiential traveler can see, hear, touch, smell and taste the lure of this nostalgic stretch of pavement that leads to the crossroads of Pastime and modern times.
Paved before its time, the Lincoln Highway didn’t have songs written about it or movies made about it. The railroads of the Roaring Twenties still ruled long-distance travel. Besides, at speeds topping out at around 35 miles per hour, Lincoln Highway adventurers weren’t going anywhere fast by today’s standard. Although for the times, it was one helluva ride.
So it may be no coincidence that the ultimate road warrior, Jack Kerouac, and literary iconoclast was born around the time when the Lincoln Highway opened the first corridor to travel from one ocean to another by automobile. His legendary writings would come a generation later when cars, roads and well, everything seemed to live life in the Fastlane.
The old Lincoln changed the way and reason people traveled. Non-rail communities could suddenly compete in the marketplace much easier than before. It also lured a new class of explorer, often rolling with a cloud of dust, wearing goggles and wind-whipped hair.
“Growing up on the Lincoln, we had a choice. Keep the windows closed and have stifling dead air and no dust. Or choke to death from the steady stream of dirty clouds kicked up by trucks rambling by all day every day,” said Mike Hocker, Lincoln Highway historian, as he retold a story told to him by a lady who reminisced about those early days living on the storied road. “The Lincoln was not paved by modern means.”
An improved hard surface road could mean a surface of brick, stone, gravel, clay or even oiled earth.
“But think about the amount of traffic that road must have attracted to make such an impact on the quality of life that it seared into the memory of the lady who told me that story deep into her old age,” Hocker continued.
The creation of the Lincoln Highway was a daring undertaking by a group of automobile barons who had the foresight of America’s future before anyone else. So they risked their capital to bring this idea to life.
When the automobile was invented, it was mainly a toy for the wealthy to putt around town and show off. These short autoroutes were dubbed, “Peacock Alleys.” Beyond town, there weren’t any real roads of note. “Market Roads” were used by horse and wagon travelers and were nothing more than dirt roads, often in disrepair. In fact, if you had a storm, it could take days before these routes would be shored up. Besides, there were no gas stations or repair shops outside of town.
Still, these early, brazen, auto pioneers blazed their trails until the pavement caught up. But the problem for automakers was that there just weren’t enough enthusiasts to further grow their business. Then in 1912, Carl G. Fisher, president of the Prest-O-Lite Company conceived the idea of creating a coast to coast “rock highway.” On a side note, Fisher later became the founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He knew that if he could get this first transcontinental road built, it would attract a network of feeder roads from everywhere. Commerce would boom and so would the automobile industry.
The government wasn’t interested in flipping the bill for such a road because it lacked the vision of Fisher. There just weren’t enough automobiles to justify it. But Fisher set out to change that and with it, American history. So he met with other business tycoons with a vested interest in ramping up auto sales. These included Henry B. Joy, president of Packard Motor Car Company and Frank Seiberling, co-founder of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Henry Ford did not take part although invited, because he felt strongly that the road building business should be the responsibility of the government.
“Although these capitalists were concerned about selling more cars, they were patriots who cared about the infrastructure of the nation,” Hocker explained. “They came together and said, look, let’s do something from a marketing standpoint and let’s commemorate President Lincoln.”
Lincoln had been dead for about 50 years and yet there were still no monuments of note that had been built to honor him. So with a mix of capitalism and patriotism, the Lincoln Highway Association was officially organized in 1913. Later, the Federal Government would see the light and create the United States System of Highways which would use a numbered route system replacing names like “Lincoln Highway” with names like U.S. Route 30. That said, today’s Route 30 is not the same as the original Lincoln Highway. A lot of routing wars were fought in the interim.
Even if the official route was mapped one way, it wasn’t uncommon to have conflicting signs pop up overnight in some towns. Merchants on a parallel road through town may have felt snubbed so under the cover of darkness; they would move signage so that motorists would drive by their shops the next day. When these battles became relentless, alternate “loops” were incorporated into maps.
In 1919, a convoy rode the distance of the Lincoln Highway to demonstrate its success and promote its promise even though the Lincoln Highway wouldn’t be paved entirely until 1928. But it worked! And so, as envisioned, feeder roads took shape and the nation was abuzz with possibilities. Born with the long travel route by automobile was a cottage industry that supplied the growing traveling public. Filling stations, roadside diners, motor lodges and “all-in-one” type shops called “one-stops” sprang up across the country.
Within a couple of decades, this “Main Street Across America” couldn’t keep pace with the faster roads constructed at a dizzying pace. The Lincoln Highway Association had achieved its goal and ceased to exist in 1928. As time advanced, portions of the original Lincoln were rerouted, widened or abandoned. Other portions were smothered by growing communities that swelled around it, relegating it to nothing more than a residential avenue in many cases. Still, much of it survived and re-emerged through the cracks of history much like grass miraculously pops through solid concrete in due time.
One of the best cracks in history showcasing an intersection in time where you can see what the Lincoln Highway was and is all the same runs through Wayne County, Ohio!
“Wayne County has some very cool remnants that were left and forgotten but are now being rediscovered,” Hocker smiled. “Many of these are referred to as ghost signs.”
East of Wooster, Ohio there is an old brick portion of the Lincoln Highway that runs into a creek. An abandoned bridge had been torn out along with most of but not all of the original road.
“Ghost signs like this are what makes exploring the old road so much fun today,” Hocker continued. “The wonderful thing about small towns is that many of the old structures aren’t torn down. They’re reused instead. So you may be cruising along and see faded paint on the side of an old brick building that says, ‘Lincoln Highway Tire Repair.’”
Another popular find along the Lincoln Highway is old roadside markers. Sometimes these are seen in the middle of nowhere, half buried by weeds along a rural stretch of the historic road. They are concrete and brick markers erected by the Boy Scouts of America in 1928. Ohio is known for the brick pillar style markers which are not found in any other state. They are three feet wide by seven feet tall, each with a cast cap which dons a logo for the Lincoln Highway. One of the original markers is in downtown Dalton, Ohio but it’s not quite in its original location.
Today, the Lincoln Highway through Wayne County is designated by red, white and blue signs following the original 241-mile Ohio 1928 alignment that stretched from New York to San Francisco. Much of the scenic route through Wayne County is still very similar today to the early experience of traveling countryside between towns. Ohio’s portion of the Lincoln Highway was designated a historic byway in 2004 by the Ohio Department of Transportation. And with it, a resurgence of leisure travel breathed new life into the small town mom and pop shops along its way. One such town is Jefferson, Ohio.
“Jefferson was probably never any bigger than three horses and a squirrel,” Hocker said.
But in the center of Jefferson is a restaurant called The Town & Country. Until recently, its back lot had relics once known as camp cabins. On the western edge of Wayne County in farm country, you drop into a valley, and there’s a huge brick federalist-style old hotel which is now a farmhouse called Kollar Tavern. It was built in the 1840s, predating the Lincoln Highway. But because the Lincoln originally connected some of the best paths of its day, it often overlaid old Indian and military trails, so it already had a rich history. In eastern Wayne County – Dalton is a good, quintessential, small but vibrant town joining Lincoln Highway’s past and present. There are original roadbeds in the woods where the historic road originally laid, but it’s not tourist friendly.
“Some people go nuts over finding the old roadbeds,” said Hocker. “And there are a lot of old roadbeds to be found in woods, long forgotten. Using vintage maps, these modern-day explorers seek permission from property owners to try and find the original sections of road that have since redirected over the decades for one reason or another.”
Dalton, originally on the Lincoln Highway, was bypassed in 1953. About a decade after that, the four-lane U.S. Route 30 was laid on a parallel course nearby.
“A fun old road marker to find is off Route 30 as you travel from Dalton to Wooster,” Hocker said. “As you turn south onto Kidron Road there’s an old mom and pop called Shisler’s Cheese House. By the way, that little place does a whopping amount of business. Just past it is the old Lincoln Highway. Along with that short stretch is an original Boy Scout marker in its original position.”
In fact, from Dalton to Wooster, there are a lot of current mom and pop shops open for business. Nostalgia seekers will enjoy the old record store where vinyl is still king. Up the block is a used bookstore featuring rare finds. Browsing the many antique shops is a pastime all on its own. Then, of course, there are plenty of other family-run stores selling things like ladies fine clothing, Amish-made furniture, art, even a third generation jeweler that dates back to the roads earlier days. A place out in the country east of Wooster along the historic old section of the byway is the unique Wayne County Habitat for Humanity Restore.
In between the eclectic collection of retail shops, you can see remains of old one-stops and strip motels where you would have pulled your car up to your room door. As you travel the old road, imagine what it must have been like to have to stop every 20 miles or so to fix a flat or deal with an overheated radiator. It was a rough ride and didn’t come with air conditioning or heat. You certainly didn’t have fast food places at every corner like today. Picnic baskets were popular instead. Travelers would pull off wherever it was grassy and shady and roll out a blanket and spend an hour having a picnic. Then they’d pack up and continue. It was as much about the journey as it was the destination.
And that is the sentiment today for people looking to explore the all but forgotten routes zigzagging the rolling Ohio countryside. A perfect spot for a picnic today is Grosjean Park which is on the old Lincoln Highway off Freedlander Road. Minutes away is Secrest Arboretum among other pull-offs along this scenic drive. Secrest features open lawns and beautiful vistas, gardens and landscapes. Also, you are bound to come across plenty of Amish roadside stands dotting Wayne County. Make a pit stop for some conversation and a mouth-watering bite to eat.
If a picnic isn’t in your travel plans, no worries. The Lincoln Highway heads straight through Wooster. This town has a restaurant scene that rivals big cities. In fact, it’s now a major hub for “foodie bloggers” because of the diversity of its dining scene. You can stop in for authentic Amish cooking and homemade desserts. Another restaurant specializes in fresh, local fare made from scratch, daily and offers an indoor farmers’ market. Sidewalk cafes are everywhere.
Whether it’s upscale, casual, steak, seafood, Asian or Italian, there’s a taste bud for everyone. Little shops selling spices and olive oil attract the chef in every crowd. Start your morning with a choice of gourmet coffee houses and fresh baked goods and finish your evening at a brewery or wine cellar. And if you need to pack a picnic basket, there’s an old-fashioned grocery, bulk food store and delicatessen. If you are rolling through in an RV, these are your stops.
Wayne County along with three other Ohio counties together make up the largest Amish community in the world. Motorists often share the back roads with Amish horse and buggies, especially along the Lincoln Highway. Many of the Amish families in Wayne County stay true to their agricultural roots. Many also work businesses that attract visitors worldwide. The Amish are especially well known for their wood furniture and baked goods. You haven’t lived until you’ve had genuine homemade Amish deep dish pie made fresh with no preservatives.
The Amish enjoy the simple life and avoid many modern conveniences. Minimalist lifestyles are vogue among America’s younger generations (albeit they’re well-wrapped in the latest technologies) today so they could learn a lot about living off the grid by visiting with folks in this Amish Mecca. The original Amish immigrants came to the U.S. from Switzerland in the 1690s led by a religious man named Jakob Ammann. His followers became known as “Amish.” They settled in Pennsylvania to escape persecution. In the 1800s, much more Amish immigrated a bit westward to Ohio. This influx included the Swiss-German Mennonites. The Amish and Mennonites are both Anabaptist sects that formed as part of the Protestant Reformation but separate from it. Although they share many of the same beliefs and culture, Mennonites have adapted more technology into their daily lives so if you see an “Amish” person using a cell phone or driving an automobile; they are likely Mennonite.
Several stops across Wayne County get just as much attention as the Amish.
Just a few miles off of the Lincoln Highway today – in Kidron, Ohio – is a famous Amish store that Jay Lehman started in 1955. Lehman’s Hardware Store grew from its modest beginning serving Amish family needs to a major destination and superstore serving a bustling Amish community. It is also called upon by Hollywood today to come up with pieces to use for period films. The vast product line has plenty of traditional treats in addition to fascinating non-electric goods. A helpful staff is always eager to demonstrate these peculiar and effective tools if you can’t figure it out. This walk through history is like meandering a living museum.
Next door there is a regularly scheduled old-time auction house that draws mostly Amish men bidding on livestock and the like. It’s quite an experience to sit in and watch. Lehman’s also offers a café making it the ultimate “one-stop” just a stone’s throw from the old Lincoln.
Lehman’s isn’t the only one-of-a-kind retail gem along the Lincoln Highway through Wayne County. Other household names such as the original Everything Rubbermaid Store and J.M. Smucker Company are open for business as well.
Rubbermaid is a four-story building in the center of downtown Wooster, Ohio. This historic structure has that old worn wood floor charm and classic air chutes where cashiers would send payment up to the money men at a higher level. Then the change was sent back, all using air compression. Today, the old system is used to send kids’ Christmas lists to Santa Claus at the North Pole. Santa sends a little package of goodies back to confirm that the list was received, promising a very Merry Christmas.
In the small town of Orrville, Ohio is a big name – Smucker’s! And as we all know by now, “With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good.” That goes for their delicious wood-fired recipes cooked with the company’s ingredients in their café, too. This name brand dates back to the origin of the Lincoln Highway, so with their proximity, they were utilizing the historic road to move their tasty jellies, jams and other goods to store shelves as far as trucks would carry them. But before that, it was from the fruit of a tree that John Chapman (better known as Johnny Appleseed) planted that Jerome Monroe Smucker first pressed cider. And as they say, the rest is history. Today, their festive store offers many products and a custom, gift basket design center.
The Lincoln Highway portion that is now the four-lane Route 30 runs right next to P. Graham Dunn in Dalton, Ohio. This 160,000-foot manufacturing facility and store makes and sells wood carvings, furniture and other gifts popular the world over. And the world over has had a profound impact on its history. Peter Graham Dunn was raised by missionaries who lived in China. He traveled to India, Alberta and elsewhere. But his wife was from Wayne County, Ohio. So today, the pieces that P. Graham Dunn once sold personally in places like Greenwich Village in New York are now produced by “English” and Amish workers. “English” is whom the Amish refer to as non-Amish. In fact, while shopping on the upper floor, there are walls of windows overlooking the production line below.
Another must-stop along the Lincoln Highway in Wayne County, Ohio is the Cat’s Meow Village. You’ve seen those little wooden cutouts of your favorite places. Heck, you probably have some. Well, it all started with one simple wooden house that Faline Jones cut out on her grandfather’s saw in the loft of his hog barn. Fraline had lots of cats on the farm in case you were wondering about the inspiration behind her company name. Today, she and her team commemorate travelers’ favorite places by producing 3/4″ thick wooden keepsakes.
Adam Foss set up shop in Wooster, Ohio long before the Lincoln Highway opened its lanes of commerce. He produced handmade bristle paintbrushes, and so The Wooster Brush Company was born. No doubt shipments of these brushes bounced along the Lincoln Highway in its early days, too. Today, the manufacturing facility makes over 2,000 products for painters everywhere. You probably have one hanging in your garage, basement or shed right now.
Those are the anchor stores and stories of the Lincoln Highway through Wayne County, Ohio, some over a hundred years in the making.
But the biggest shopping extravaganza today is when Wayne County’s stretch of the Lincoln Highway swarms with bargain hunters looking for the deal of the century. Who wouldn’t want to be the next one to find Ansel Adams’ photos or glass-plate negatives worth millions of dollars but for sale for mere pennies. This annual event is called the Lincoln Highway “Buy-Way” Yard Sale. It takes place the second full week every August from Thursday through Sunday. In Wayne County, it is a booming success. There are about 200 individual yard sales across the county’s section of the historic byway. Also, there are about a half dozen mega sales. A mega yard sale is when one large stop like the county fairgrounds has dozens of individual sales clustered together.
“Be on the lookout for signs that point to yard sales deeper off the main drag, too,” said Martha Starkey, Executive Director of the Wayne County Visitors Bureau. “Often these lead to multi-family mega sales that aren’t in plain sight as you drive the Lincoln.”
This unique annual event is a magnet for the creative Pinterest types, the Amish community, many secondhand store owners, and all around bargain hunters. You’ll find an old ball glove that’s seen so much action it is now better served as a decoration. Or you can find a used carrousel horse now often used as a foyer centerpiece. In addition, there are many heirloom pieces such as immigrant trunks, vintage clothing styles, old technology to reminisce or display, and a wide variety of appliances – some just for show and some that still run. The plethora of resale items run the gamut. You can just imagine the possibilities.
Other events you may run into while venturing the Lincoln in Wayne County is an annual Jazz Arts Festival complete with dancing in the streets and New Orleans-style Second Lines. Food truck, crafter, and entertainer filled events litter the calendar throughout the year. But a major attraction like no other is the world-renown lyric theater company – the Ohio Light Opera.
Whether it’s Lincoln Highway events, restaurants, merchants, historical sites or ghost signs, there’s one stop that’ll get you to where you want to go – the Wayne County Visitors Bureau. Their website at http://wccvb.com/ specially marks everything listed on the Lincoln Highway across the county. You can also get a guide for your glove compartment that also marks all of the county’s Lincoln Highway stops. If you plan to stay the night along the scenic byway, you have a choice between campsites, rural cabins, economic motels and luxury boutique hotels.
“New tourism is taking off all along the Lincoln but especially here,” said Hocker. “A whole new type of traveler has a growing love affair for traveling these historic routes and scenic byways.”
America’s first road trip can be your next. And one of the best places to begin exploring a section of this first transcontinental roadway is through Wayne County, Ohio. There, you’ll discover that much of the route will remind you why it was first dubbed the “Main Street Across America.”
By Rocco Satullo, Your Tour Guide To Fun
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