Restored 1918 gas station in Rochelle, Ill.Photo courtesy of the Getaway Guys

Are we there yet? Every parent on a road trip with kids has endured the plaintive question. As the Getaway Guys discovered in 2010 while exploring the Lincoln Highway from Geneva, Ill., to Clinton, Iowa, “Are we there yet?” isn’t an inquiry uttered only by bored children in cars. Alan Barney (age 65) wanted to know the same thing.

Contrary to expectations, the Lincoln Highway is not (nor was it) a continuous ribbon of concrete connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific. In fact it was not (nor is it) continuous at all. The Lincoln Highway was more about hype than pavement and, as one wag said about the ballyhoo, “More printer’s ink was used than cement.”

Last year when the Getaway Guys explored this fabled highway they did not know beans about its history, where it was, where they were going or what they would see. Typically the Guys are bound for a specific location looking for museums, architecture and odd-ball stuff, but on this trip they were looking for a highway in addition. Unable to drive from New York City to San Francisco, they chose Geneva to Clinton, hoping to discover what all the fuss was about.

The Lincoln Highway was the brainy idea of Detroit car guys (the Lincoln Highway Association) trying to shame the U.S. Government into building all-weather highways across the U.S. so more cars could be sold in the early 1920s. In those days pavement typically stopped at a town line, and between towns was dirt or mud.

Zooming about in a Stutz Bearcat, terrorizing pedestrians and horses alike was fun, but a rendezvous with flappers and illegal hooch at a roadhouse was even better. Zooming was not confined to Sheiks and Shebas. Sober types wanted to connect too, if only in a Tin Lizzie.

Despite association ballyhoo, the Harding and Coolidge administrations turned deaf ears, surprising because the Harding administration was known to favor oil and grease. Silent Cal Coolidge hated federal spending, period. Not until the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration did paved roads become a priority. In 1919, a major in the U.S. Army endured a bone-rattling Army convoy journey along the alleged Lincoln Highway  to test America’s readiness for war, and he was “sorely” disgusted. His name was Dwight D. Eisenhower, and he became the father of the Interstate Highway System.

In 1912 at Indianapolis’s Das Deutsche Haus, the aforementioned auto tycoons “invented” the Lincoln Highway, which was not a bad idea. 

With the federal government uninterested, the association appealed to municipal vanity along its proposed route from New York to San Francisco.

An all-weather road from coast to coast would be a boon to local business, a way to promote commerce in a country rapidly becoming a nation on wheels.
The makers of Fords, Auburns and Buicks needed better roads to sell more cars, as did tire manufactures and refineries.

In the early ’20s average Americans did not have cars, although an increasing number did and were embracing tourism, which could be a cash cow. Proposing a highway and building it are different things, however. The Lincoln Highway was, and is, a meandering local patchwork.

Not interested in who paid for what, Neil and Alan were searching for remnants of the original route and landmarks such as tourist cabins, eateries, rest stops and gas stations. Instead, they found an abundance of restored buildings and preserved architecture.

With regard to the original route, sections no longer exist, but the resurrected Lincoln Highway Association has admirably marked its course where feasible. The Guys stopped in DeKalb, Rochelle, Franklin Park, Dixon, Sterling, Morrison, Fulton (all Illinois) and Clinton, Iowa, to explore what past travelers may have encountered.

Matters of interest to a Marmon owner have largely vanished, but today’s traveler will discover examples of preservation, restoration and adaptive re-use.

DeKalb, Ill.:  DeKalb is a university town with an ebb and flow dictated by 25,000-plus students needing the basics of college life. Home to Northern Illinois University (founded 1895), in the Roaring ‘20s its much smaller student population was no doubt less of an economic engine than now. 

In DeKalb, the Lincoln Highway is Illinois 38, (largely a strip of fast food joints), but in the heart of DeKalb’s former downtown is the Egyptian Theater (1929), one of a handful of Egyptian Revival structures remaining in the U.S. It was slated for demolition in the 1970s but saved in the ’80s and now hosts 125 theatrical events annually. Architecturally it is well worth a stop.

Rochelle, Ill.:  Through Rochelle the Highway is still Illinois 38, and the Guys stopped at a restored 1918 Standard Oil gas station (now Rochelle’s Visitors Center) at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and the Lincoln Highway.

Way back when, a place to purchase gas and fix flats, this former fuel oasis with two gas pumps and no frills exemplifies the spartan amenities of early road travel gas stations were not shopping plazas.

When next, the Guys toured the Flagg Township Museum located in a former firehouse and the town hall at 518 4th Avenue. The kind of place the Getaway Guys always hope to find, this gem is packed with artifacts and ephemera related to Rochelle’s history.

Heading farther west, Neil and Alan encountered Franklin Grove (what is left).

The Guys complete their journey in the RoundTable’s next issue.

Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.