A Blog Along The Lincoln Highway

All of this is about a public TV project about one of America’s great roads, and we’re hoping you might enjoy reading about some of our behind-the-scenes work. I’m Rick Sebak, and I write most of the tales. Bob Lubomski is our cameraman. And Glenn Syska has been traveling with us recently. He made the video blog entries in 2008. Back in 2007, Jarrett Buba did all that. A RIDE ALONG THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY first aired on PBS on October 29, 2008 at 8 PM. Check with your local PBS station to find out about repeat broadcasts. Or go for the DVD at www.shopwqed.org.

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Is that Willie Nelson singing in the background?

August 21st, 2007 · No Comments

Brian Butko and his bookWe are packed and out of WQED by 11:00, but I’ve arranged for us to stop at the Heinz History Center for a few quick words of advice from Brian Butko, author of GREETINGS FROM THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY. We pull into the little no-parking-anytime space in front of the big old ice-building, Brian comes down from his office, we do a quick interview and the sun comes out. We are late leaving, so Brian suggests we take the Ohio Turnpike if we want to get to the South Bend area by tonight. (See video of Rick’s interview with Brian.)
Bob and his camera

Bob says we’ve all brought too much stuff. The van is full. He says we can’t make any major purchases. No steerheads or furniture. No matter how tempted we might be.
Our first treats on the road are some big juicy ripe peaches that I got from my buddy Cathy Niederberger who makes an annual road trip to Virginia in August just to get these peaches at one certain market there. Jarrett and Bob agree that these are some sublime peaches.

Gloomy Tuesday as we zip through Ohio (see video of Rick starting his journey on the Lincoln Highway from Goshen, Indiana.)

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Day 3 Following the signs

August 23rd, 2007 · No Comments

OK. We’re tempted to stop at many places — that restaurant, that old service station, that barbershop — but we also want to keep moving, so sometimes we just have to keep driving. Folks in Illinois have done a great job of marking the original route of the Lincoln Highway, and sometimes (as in Aurora which we just passed through) the original path takes you down residential streets and through the middle of downtown. The signage is remarkably good and easy to follow. We stopped for lunch in Aurora at a Mexican restaurant called Cazadores. It was a good place, with good chiles rellenos and a friendly waitress who knew the path of the Lincoln Highway. She told us we hadn’t missed a turn, and we should continue on into North Aurora after lunch.

It’s been a beautiful sunny day so far but Bob says he can smell the rain ahead. Things look threatening along the horizon. (I’m typing this out on my iPhone in the back seat of the van.)

Storm Brewing There was a huge thunder and lightning storm last night. It started as soon as we got back to our rooms after dinner. We stayed in a Comfort Inn near the intersection of Route 30 with Interstate 55 in Joliet, Illinois. We tend to keep driving till it gets dark, then sometimes rooms are hard to find. And we eat late.

Hey! Suddenly the rain has arrived here on the Lincoln Highway. Not in buckets, but in huge supertankers full of water. The whole sky is falling fast and the wind is blowing fierce and monumental. It’s scary. Bob keeps shooting. It’s a show all right. We talk of the possibility of a tornado. Huh? it was so gorgeous just a half hour ago. The weather is bombing us now. It’s overwhelming. The rain is so thick and powerful and intense that Jarrett can’t see the road three feet in front of us. This is big rain. A colossal storm.

Storm WhiteoutIt gets too dangerous, so Jarrett stops and puts the blinkers on. Even Jarrett the daredevil driver can’t drive through this wall of water. The car behind us stops and turns on its blinkers too.

We’re not on Route 30 or any major artery. We’re on a stretch of the original Lincoln Highway called Kesslinger Road between Aurora and Dekalb. Not all of it is hardtop road. Long stretches are just gravel. It’s a genuine throwback to the earliest days of the transcontinental auto travel.

Gradually the rain lets up. We’re able to see again, the corn in the fields beside us stops swaying, and we start to notice the drainage gullies beside the roadway. They are all full. People’s yards are flooded. The road is swamped at many points. The sky is still dark and threatening, but the terrible punch of the storm seems to have passed. Call it the Great Kesslinger Road Downpour of August 2007. It seems monumental. We’re glad to be alive.

We just have to find the Lincoln Highway again. We drive by mistake straight into one farm’s driveway. Parts of the driveway are underwater too. Turn around, head north toward Route 38 which is the hardtop Lincoln Highway. When we finally get there, there’s a marker right in front of us, pointing left. The rain has stopped so we get out the camera and the tripod and take some high-def video and I snap some stills.

Whew. That was an adventure. I don’t know if I’ve ever lived through such violent rain and storming before. We’re all amazed. Glad it’s over.

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Signs and Markers

August 23rd, 2007 · No Comments

A cool old sign

historic markerLeft: A cool old sign from the “old section” of the Lincoln Highway.

Below: Historic marker.

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Already it’s Day 4?

August 24th, 2007 · No Comments

Driving into the SunsetLast night we drove into one astounding sunset. What looked like a tiny red light in the clouds near the horizon eventually expanded to fill the evening sky with bright red and orange light in front of us. After the mighty rainstorm yesterday (see Day 3), the beauty of the sunset was a grand sign. Red sky at night, Lincoln Highway traveler’s delight.

We crossed the Mississippi into Clinton, Iowa, as the last of the colorful sky was fading.

We found rooms at a Country Inn & Suites, searched for a non-chain restaurant, and ended up as the only customers in a Mexican place called La Feria over near the river. Mexican twice in one day. The food was good, the chips fresh and crunchy, the carnitas spicy, the two kinds of mole tasty.

We were tired after a long day.

Now let me try and get the DAYS list in order.
On DAY ONE we departed from WQED in Pittsburgh, stopped to get a few words of advice from Lincoln Highway author and guru Brian Butko (see Is that Willie Nelson..?), then we decided to pay no real attention to the state of Ohio (because we could make short trips there anytime) and hopped on the Ohio Turnpike. We started our old highway journey on an interstate! An interstate with a toll! And we ate lunch at a Turnpike franchisery. This was a reminder of how tedious and bland the big highways can be. So, we didn’t get on any road that was once the Lincoln Highway till we got to Goshen, Indiana.

We spent the night in South Bend, had dinner at a cool little Irish pub called Fiddler’s Hearth (where oddly enough we had stopped once before, when searching for a non-fast-food lunch several years ago when we were en route to Wisconsin while gathering video for A PROGRAM ABOUT UNUSUAL BUILDINGS.)

We stayed in a motel near the Notre Dame campus.

Too soon it was DAY TWO.
David HayThe Lincoln Highway Association has one of its national headquarters in South Bend, and I had called David Hay, the Executive Director of the Lincoln Highway, the only person who is currently employed full-time by the Association, and we stopped to talk to him. He has a good sense of humor, loves the history and potential of the highway, and he knows his stuff. And after the interview outside his building, he agreed to take us for a short ride, and he led us to lunch in one of his favorite vintage eateries, B&J’s American Cafe in LaPorte, Indiana.

Counter at B&J'sIt’s a old-fashioned storefront (“A Family Restaurant Since 1922”) at 607 Lincolnway with cool old counter and stools, a great tile floor, delicious beef noodle soup, wonderful pies (all made there on the premises) and lots of stuff to look at. A worthwhile lunch. We said goodbye to David there, and he was heading back to South Bend.

We were continuing westward. The day was bright and sunny, really hot. We stopped in Dyer, Indiana, to see some of the “Ideal Section” of the Lincoln Highway, a mile-long section of roadway, designed and built in the mid-1920s, that was supposed to serve as a model for how the highway should be built. It’s a busy, heavily developed stretch of Route 30 now, and doesn’t seem “ideal” for much of anything.

The Ideal Section of the Lincoln Highway The Lincoln Highway doesn’t go into Chicago, but sort of scoots through its outer southern suburbs, and we ended up looking for a place to stay the night near Joliet, IL. The Comfort Inn had rooms. We were bushed. We had driven only about 150 miles on Day 2, and we knew we’d have to pick up the pace a bit.

We had dinner there near the intersection of Route 30 and I-55 at a place called Diamands, sort of a big snazzy mega-diner-y sort of place, with lots of Greek specialties on the menu. Not bad.

Plainfield, IllinoisLincoln Highway and Route 66 When we got on the road on DAY 3 (just yesterday morning), we went only a few miles before stopping to get some shots in the town of Plainfield, IL, with a classic set of old shops in its small “downtown” along the Lincoln Highway. It’s also a little town where for a while around 1940, the Lincoln Highway and Route 66 used the same stretch of roadway for about 3 blocks. And Plainfield loves that historic distinction. They have signs and banners celebrating their bit of highway history.

Mayor Jim WaldorfI stopped in the Village Hall and asked Mayor Jim Waldorf to talk to us for a few moments. He was principal of the local high school before he became mayor, and he was in charge at the high school when a deadly tornado swept through this town in August 1990. 29 people in the area died. It was hard to imagine such bad weather on such a beautiful blue-sky-sunny day as this. We stopped in the mayor’s wife’s shop called Gourmet Creations, then paid a quick visit to the Lincoln Way Barbershop that traces its history back to 1881.

On one corner, a local travel agency has moved into a old gas station building, a beautiful vintage Standard Oil gas station that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

Old gas station in PlainfieldJarrett got out his small video camera, and we made a quick clip for this blog. We could have spent the whole day in Plainfield. (Watch the clip.)

But we drive on, following the excellent signs that have been put up to guide you along the old Lincoln Highway through Illinois.

After lunch in Aurora, we drive into a massive storm (see Day 3). We survive.

By 4:15 or so, we get to Franklin Grove, Illinois, where we know there’s another Lincoln Highway national headquarters with a souvenir stand and such. We have to wait for a long train at the crossing leading into town, and it’s 4:25 or so before we get to the handsome old stone fronted building that has housed the headquarters for several years. It’s closed. The kids sitting outside the Lincoln Way Cafe say that it closes at 4. Drat! So we decide to get some shots, but it starts to rain again, and we may just have to write this off as one of the quirks of unscheduled traveling.

Lynn and her husbandThen a truck pulls up, the driver asks what we’re doing, and he says he’ll go and get Lynn who runs the place. He’s pretty sure she’ll come over and open up for us. She lives only 3 blocks away. What good luck.

The guy came back, says Lynn is giving piano lessons, but her husband will let us in to see the shop. It’s pure small town hospitality, Midwestern good-neighbor behaviour. We’re happy to see inside the carefully restored old building. And Mr. Asp, the husband, says Lynn will be down in 45 when she finishes the piano lesson. We say we’ll wait.

It all works out for the best. We get some T-shirts and souvenirs, magnets and lapel pins, and I get a couple of books, free hand-outs and maps, the kind of Lincoln Highway printed junk I can’t resist.

Lynn with a Lincoln Highway sigeAnd after she finishes her piano teaching, we set up and interview Lynn Asp on the sidewalk in front of the building. Lynn is a volunteer here for the Lincoln Highway Association, and she has tales of unusual visitors, writers, and highway historians from around the world.

I say, “You must get a lot of goofy people just pulling up here.” She smiles and says, “And here you are.”

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Iowa is just too big. It’s Day 5.

August 25th, 2007 · No Comments

I’ve never considered Iowa a big state. But it’s taking us a long time to get across the 13 Lincoln-Highway counties of this lengthy (and very corny) state.

Yesterday morning, I wanted to write for a while (that Day 4 entry is long) so Jarrett and Bob went back to the Mississippi River and shot some of the bridges while I typed away at this computer. It was a drizzly morning.

It was noon before we were back on Route 30 heading west.

Greetings from the Lincoln HighwayThere have been several different routes for the Lincoln Highway, and the people who love this old road have done a great job of documenting how the road used to go. The signage was superb in Illinois, here in Iowa I have a great “Iowa Map Pack” that I bought at the National Headquarters in Franklin Grove, and we have Brian Butko’s GREETINGS FROM THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY (very valuable for anybody trying to follow the old roads), and we have a couple sets of trusty state maps from the AAA. We juggle all those guides and charts, and still we occasionally get lost. And Route 30 is usually not too far away if you want to try and zip along for a while. We are easily distracted.

We were tooling along on Route 30 when Jarrett suggested we try to go on the old Lincoln for a while, and he read that there were several interesting road-related things to see near Mount Vernon, Iowa, so we turned off 30, which tends to bypass the towns, and we went in search of old roadway. Three or four blocks off the bypass, we were delighted to find ourselves in downtown Mount Vernon. It was actually familiar territory. We had stopped in this town for lunch 5 or 6 years ago while shooting another show (I’m pretty sure we were on our way to Marshalltown for the Maid-Rites that we included in SANDWICHES THAT YOU WILL LIKE), and we had a terrible lunch back then here in Mount Vernon in a sort of sports bar that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

Lincoln CafeThis time, the Lincoln Cafe was open, and it was a gem. A small storefront restaurant with a big window on First Street, it had specials on a chalkboard (always a good sign) and not your ordinary fare. Yesterday’s lunch specials were a wild king salmon sandwich with horseradish aoli and a shrimp burger. We all three got the salmon and it was excellent. Great fries. (Bob said they were the best fries he’s eaten in years.) And for desert we had nectarine sorbet with pumpkin seeds. (Amazingly tasty.) Who expects to find such a place in a small town in Iowa?

Good French FriesWe met the young owner, Matt Steigerwald, and he said he has relatives in Pittsburgh, and he also claimed to be a cousin of Chuck Noll, the great Steeler coach. Matt said he came to Mount Vernon because his wife got a job at Cornell College there, and he admitted his food has gotten some national attention. He suggested we check out his website: www.foodisimportant.com. I may want to come back here when we have the time to do a restaurant story for this show. It was such a great unexpected lunch. One of the best joys of traveling without a plan.

Before we left the Mount Vernon area, we got some video of an old brick section of the highway, and the bridge next to it, which a guy in town had told me was reportedly the first bridge ever built for cars that was specifically designed to go over railroad tracks. I love stuff like that: when you have to be very specific about the distinction.

Seedling MileJust outside of Mount Vernon, we stopped to get a shot of the “seedling mile” that was marked with signs. Back in the early days of the Lincoln Highway (1913 to 1920), there were special sections of rural roadway that the Lincoln Highway Association paid to have paved so people could see how nice it would be if the road between towns was upgraded. The mile was just a seed, and the hope was that local governments would figure out ways to finance highway growth off of that seed, or seedling.

After that, we soon got back on 30, drove in a normal off-and-on rain for a while, got lost briefly, had to turn around and backtrack, and Jarrett was co-piloting, and he suggested we turn off 30 to see Belle Plaine on the original Lincoln which was now to the south of Route 30. I was driving, trying to put a few miles on our journey, and I hesitated, then thought, Bah! We may as well see as much as possible of the old road, and we turned south off 30 toward Belle Plaine.

Another Lincoln CafeAs we came into town, there was a sign painted on the side of the local restaurant: EAT HERE, and in giant letters: LINCOLN CAFE. Irresistible. I wish we weren’t so full of lunch from the other Lincoln Cafe. It’s frustrating that one can’t eat everywhere. We drove around town several times, getting moving shots from the van, then stopped to get some shots of the cafe from the tripod.

Farmers MarketIn the process we noticed a farmers market was happening in a small empty lot beside the Lincoln, and we decided to check that out. We decided to see if the women who were selling would mind if we got some pictures, then some interviews, and we soon ended up with banana bread, oatmeal raisin cookies, two bags of “homegrown” popcorn, some freshly squeezed lemonade and 4 or 5 quick interviews on tape that we hope will give us a story.

Gas station covered with signsBefore we left Belle Plaine we also stopped on the way out of town to get a few shots of the Preston gas station that’s covered with signs. Before he died, George Preston had become a Lincoln Highway legend as a gas station owner and storyteller, and he appeared a number of times on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. His old station deserves to be preserved. It’s a monument to gas stations, signage, and glorious clutter.

As we got back into the van, Bob said, Let’s see if we can get another mile under our belts. We just aren’t traveling very fast.

Lincoln Highway bridgeWe stopped in Tama (pronounced TAY-ma) to see the famous Lincoln Highway concrete bridge. The sides of the bridge are concrete block-letters (not concrete-block letters) that spell out LINCOLN HIGHWAY, and it’s an important landmark on the old highway. We soon noticed that the late afternoon light was fading fast.

No more stops today. We decided we had to get at least as far as Ames before stopping for the night. We zipped right past Marshalltown where we had done that story for our SANDWICHES program. And as we came into Ames, we found rooms at a Fairfield Inn.

Now it’s quarter to ten already on Saturday morning, the sun is out, it’s a beautiful day, and we’re off. I’ve never been in Nebraska, but I hope to get there today.

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Thanks to the interstates. Zipping along on Day 6.

August 26th, 2007 · No Comments

It’s overcast this morning here in Columbus, Nebraska.

Ah, Nebraska!

Never been here before, but we drove across the Missouri River on Route 6 from Council Bluffs, Iowa, into Omaha late yesterday afternoon. Drove past the University (where Bob yelled “Go Penn State!” out the window), zipped right past Boys’ Town, and got lost in suburbia trying to find an old brick section of the Lincoln Highway just to the north of Route 6. Eventually we got back on Route 30 near Fremont, and headed west.

Lincoln Highway sign on poleWe stopped at this Holiday Inn Express as we drove into the big-box-store section of Columbus. It was about 8:30 pm, and we’ve learned that we’ve got to stop driving around that time if we want to find a room, get some dinner at a non-fast-food and non-chain restaurant that’s still serving, and just unwind a bit. We considered pushing on to Grand Island, and I think Jarrett would have driven on till midnight if possible. But we stopped.

All the stuff you read about Nebraska seems to emphasize how big it is and how long it takes to cross it. We are scared because we found so many interesting things in Iowa, and we’d probably still be there if we hadn’t forced ourselves to keep moving. We want to get to San Francisco (or close to it) by Thursday night so we have 5 days to zip back across the country, mostly if not entirely on interstates. We figure we’ll have to drive about 600 miles a day to do that. No time for slowing down and enjoying all the sites in small towns.

But yesterday we were on Route 30 for much of the day, and it was excellent, never crowded and it was a magnificent day. We were alone much of the time on the highway. And I realized that we had to thank the interstates for that. Most of the traffic that used to clog this sort of highway is now out on the big limited access interstates, and we were able to enjoy the occasional town, the rare red light, the stores and funeral parlors, the silos and grain elevators, the houses, yard sales and people of the American midwest.

We never feel bored.

We see a lot of corn. But some of the fields are other crops and we’re never sure what the other stuff is. I wish farmers put out signs saying SOY BEANS or POTATOES or whatever. Handmade signs would be great.

Boone, IowaWe had bright clear blue skies till lunch. We had lunch in a little bar and grill called the Clubhouse on a corner in downtown Carroll, Iowa. Basic food, nothing great. I ordered a pork tenderloin sandwich (an Iowa classic) instead of the daily special, some sort of embellished hamburger. Always order the special.

Before lunch we had stopped for a few shots in Boone, Iowa, where there’s a concrete Lincoln Highway marker at the corner of State Street and Mamie Eisenhower Avenue. Mamie was born here in Boone, and we think we saw her house, but we stopped at the Courthouse to shoot the marker, and Jarrett and I shot a quick video postcard there.

Mamie signOld brick section of the highway
Bob (who’s 6 foot 5) noticed that the Mamie street sign was really low. He almost bonked his head.

After lunch we drove on down Route 30. While we were eating, the clouds came out. Now, there were hundreds, thousands of puffy white cumulous clouds all over the deep blue sky. And when the terrain is so flat, the sky seems huge.

WoodbineI read Butko’s book as we travel, trying to decide which detours might be worthwhile. His words about Woodbine, Iowa, made it sound as though we should stop. Woodbine still has a nice chunk of the original Lincoln Highway running through the town (locals call it “Lincoln Way”) and it’s still paved with the original bricks. It’s a handsome piece of the highway, and the bricks continue into the downtown part of Woodbine. It was empty but beautiful in the middle of Saturday afternoon. Bob and Jarrett set up the camera and tripod in the middle of the street to get a beautiful shot.

When we parked there in downtown, the Hallmark store directly in front of the van had big GOING OUT OF BUSINESS signs in all the windows. I walked in, had a nice talk with the woman who owned the place. She’d been there 12 years but couldn’t keep it going. She laughed and asked if I might want to buy the hundred year-old candy case there at the front of the store. And when I explained what we were doing, she said I shouldn’t waste my time there at her store. “Get over to the Brick Street Station before they close,” she said. “It’s in the old gas station one block down. You’ll see it.”

Marshall ScichiloneIt was closed, but it looked interesting, and it had some road signs and Lincoln Highway stuff decorating the outside, so Bob said he’d grab a few shots. I needed to see a man about a dog, so I walked across the street to the jiffy mart there. When I got back, Bob and Jarrett were talking to a distinguished looking guy on a bicycle. He was the owner of the Brick Street Station, and he agreed that we could try a little interview. The bicycle was a great touch. We started, and as always I asked him his name.
“Marshall Scichilone,” he said.
“Are you a Woodbine native?” I asked.
“No, but my wife is,” he told us. “I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.”
What? We laughed. We’re always encountering displaced Pittsburghers. A Sharpsburg boy, he went to school here in Iowa, met his wife and stayed. He teaches science in local schools, and he was the Woodbine football coach for many years. A good guy.

Before long, his wife Rita showed up too. Someone in the local grocery store had told her that her husband was being interviewed by a TV crew up in front of their station, and she had to come and see what was happening.

Marshall and Rita have a very cute little coffee shop and sandwich place, and they even have a window where you can pull your car in under the canopy of the old gas station and get some grub. I told them we would try to stop again as we were passing by on our return trip if it was at a busier time of the day. It seemed pointless to shoot inside the Brick Street Station when no one was there.

And they told us the Brick Street station is most renowned for the pies that Rita’s sister makes. Homemade pies of all sorts. Another great reason to try and get back.

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