By ANDREW MCGINN
Nothing much had happened along the Lincoln Highway in more than 60 years when Bob and Joyce Ausberger hit the road with cans of red, white and blue paint to mark the historic route on telephone poles across its 460-mile path in Iowa.
It was a primitive form of what design consultants would come to champion as wayfinding signage — but like most things undertaken by the Ausbergers, it was ahead of its time.
And the rural Jefferson couple played it up for all it was worth; Joyce drumming up publicity in each town by paying a visit to the local newspaper office as Bob got busy slathering the Lincoln Highway Association’s old “L” logo on a choice pole.
With any luck, the newspaper might send out a photographer to capture this farmer-turned-preservationist from Greene County marking the route — an act last done in 1928 by assorted Boy Scout troops, who had placed concrete markers along what was the nation’s first improved transcontinental highway.
Even in 1928, it was already in danger of losing its singular identity to a newfangled federal system of numbered highways.
What the Ausbergers started in the early 1990s finally, and quite unbelievably, culminated on Feb. 16 when the U.S. secretary of transportation officially designated the Lincoln Highway in Iowa a National Scenic Byway.
“Finally. It’s here. The designation we’ve been fighting for,” Joyce, 81, said upon hearing the news.
Sure, it was great when the state of Iowa in 2006 created the Iowa Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway, an act that put upwards of 1,200 new signs into service and rendered Bob and Joyce’s old painted ones virtually obsolete — save for photo ops for tourists seeking out authentic remnants of Americana.
But it’s one thing to be big in Iowa and another to be known nationally, and, thus, internationally.
Being designated a national byway — the route is henceforth known as the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway — puts the Lincoln Highway in Iowa on equal footing with Historic Route 66 in New Mexico, Route One along a portion of California’s Pacific coast and the road that ambles past Mount Rushmore in the pine-laden Black Hills.
You read that right: A national byway now runs straight through the heart of Greene County.
“It puts us on a different playing field,” said Jan Gammon, byway coordinator for Ames-based Prairie Rivers of Iowa, which manages the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway on behalf of the Iowa Department of Transportation. “The next step is bringing international travelers.”
International enthusiasts of Americana do, in fact, already find their way to the Lincoln Highway, but they’ll now begin to factor more prominently in the byway’s marketing efforts.
“Many Europeans know more about the Lincoln Highway than Americans do,” Gammon said.
While years in the making, the timing of the new designation is arguably perfect, with distribution of COVID-19 vaccines promising to shift into high gear in time for summer travel.
“Travelers by auto are going to be the first to rebound,” Gammon predicted.
But short of full vaccination, Gammon said that much of what the road offers can be appreciated from a safe, social distance.
Bob Ausberger, 81, is quick to note that the Lincoln Highway isn’t a National Scenic Byway in the literal sense. Little in Jefferson, Grand Junction or Scranton can compete (no offense) with the granite pinnacles of the Black Hills or with views of the Sierra Nevada farther west.
But as the nation’s first coast-to-coast road, the Lincoln Highway plays an important part in understanding the history of a people who made the car king.
Nebraska’s section of the Lincoln Highway was recently named a national byway as well. Illinois’ section of the highway was already a national byway. So with more than 1,000 miles of continuous byway now in three states, the Midwest is firmly positioned to tell the highway’s story best, much like the Southwest and Route 66.
“We hope the national designation will get people to travel this part of the highway, and see what’s left of the Lincoln Highway,” Joyce explained. “I think it will be a good tourism attraction. But, hopefully, towns will come to see that, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t tear this down.’”
That’s just it.
The Ausbergers may have started a movement 30 years ago, but the fight to save the Lincoln Highway from time itself will continue. Probably forever.
A lonely road
As long as progress is measured in new construction, and highway standards continue to modernize, there will always be old buildings to save and rainbow-arch bridges to defend.
Right before the pandemic, the Greene County board of supervisors stated a desire to demolish the dilapidated vacant motel — both dilapidated and vacant now for generations — at the top of Danger Hill that Bob says shows the evolution of Lincoln Highway lodging after campgrounds and cabins.
Across the state, in Belle Plaine, the Ausbergers are involved in a fight to save the Herring Hotel, a Lincoln Highway landmark on the National Register of Historic Places built in 1900.
It could be torn down come summer.
“They keep giving us one more month,” Joyce said of the city council in Belle Plaine.
Unfortunately, virtually nothing man-made along the road is guaranteed to last forever. Think of the road as an hourglass; its landmarks are the sands.
Cronks Cafe in Denison — a favorite since 1929 of Lincoln Highway travelers and even hometown Hollywood star Donna Reed — couldn’t survive the pandemic. It closed in 2020.
For the Ausbergers, saving bits and pieces of the Lincoln Highway has been, at times, a lonely road.
In Iowa, the 13-state Lincoln Highway — which starts at Times Square in New York City and ends at Lincoln Square in San Francisco — first took shape in Linn County with what’s known as the Seedling Mile. Constructed in 1918, it was the Lincoln Highway Association’s attempt to demonstrate the benefits of concrete paving to a skeptical populace. (Before the Lincoln Highway, roads were managed at the local level and were mostly dirt, which turned to gumbo when it rained.)
The Seedling Mile in Linn County was an appeal to the brain. In Iowa, though, the highway’s heart can be found in Greene County.
For starters, until 1924, the only paved rural sections of the highway in Iowa were in Linn and Greene counties.
“Greene County really is a hotbed for Lincoln Highway history,” Gammon said.
But what happened locally in the early 1990s set in motion everything that would come — including last month’s designation of the Lincoln Highway in Iowa as a National Scenic Byway.
That’s when Eureka Bridge, just west of Jefferson, emerged as the flashpoint in a brewing war between modern highway standards and historic integrity.
Constructed in 1913, the five-arch bridge over the North Raccoon River had been widened in 1924 for Lincoln Highway traffic. But by 1991, there were plans to bypass it altogether in favor of a new road.
“It dawned on me that wasn’t necessary,” Bob Ausberger said.
Bob resigned from the county board of supervisors to take up its cause. A preservationist was born.
To him, there’s little difference between saving our natural resources or our man-made ones. As a practitioner of no-till farming for more than 30 years, he’s been thinking about water quality about as long as he’s been thinking about heritage tourism — long before either became buzzwords in rural Iowa.
The fight to save Eureka Bridge led to the formation of a Greene County Lincoln Highway Association, then the rebirth of a national Lincoln Highway Association after 65 years.
It made the Ausbergers practical pariahs in the halls of the county courthouse and the Iowa Department of Transportation.
Joyce recalls visiting the DOT in Ames to talk with one state official about preservation efforts.
“I’m going to give you five minutes,” Joyce remembers him saying, “then you’re out of here.”
The DOT, Joyce beams, has since come around, even putting the iconic 1915 Lincoln Highway bridge in Tama — with the words Lincoln Highway spelled out in concrete for railing supports — on the cover of the official 2006 Iowa road map.
“Sometimes, when you live in it, you don’t really see it. You don’t realize the whole importance of it,” Gammon said of the fight to preserve the highway.
For a time, believe it or not, the Lincoln Highway was actually a part of school curriculum. When Joyce arrived in Jefferson in 1960 to begin teaching fourth grade at the “pink” school, their geography textbook used the Lincoln Highway to explore the United States.
The Ausbergers, of course, have a copy of that 1954 textbook, “Journeys Through Many Lands,” at their Lincoln Highway museum in Grand Junction. The chapter, “Across the United States on the Lincoln Highway,” is followed by chapters on the Amazon Basin, Egypt, “The Land of the Eskimo,” Australia and other locales.
“All of a sudden, it’s not going to be important anymore?” Joyce said.
The Lincoln Highway in Iowa passes through 13 counties and 43 communities — not all of which are gung-ho about the road.
Those communities nevertheless will still benefit from the highway becoming a national byway, according to Gammon.
It’s still not known how best to mark the road as a national byway, Gammon said. The state’s existing byway signs are among the best in the nation, she said, so it’s unlikely they’ll be scrapped.
Until then, the work continues as it always has. The Ausbergers are both now in their 80s, but they still have interpretive panels to place along the road, including a new sign at the Moss Markers near Scranton.
It’s there that a Civil War veteran named James E. Moss — who lost a foot in the Union’s rout of the Confederacy at Missionary Ridge in 1863 — donated the land for a curve in the Lincoln Highway and erected two monuments to his old commander-in-chief. Vandals in the 1960s broke off the busts of Lincoln that sit atop both, but they were restored in 2001.
“It’s been a big, deep hole. One thing led to another,” Bob said of their advocacy. “It’s all been worthwhile. We’ve had a lot of adventures, negative and positive.”
While the national byway designation is a victory, it’s also bittersweet. The Ausbergers lost their friend and fellow Lincoln Highway enthusiast Bob Owens in 2019 at the age of 92.
A Jefferson native, Owens lived and breathed the Lincoln Highway. Only naturally, he resided right alongside the route, complete with one of the Boy Scouts’ concrete markers from the ’20s planted firmly in his yard.
“Like Bob Owens always said, ‘It’s free. It’s already here. Let’s promote it,’” Joyce said, recalling Owens’ belief that the highway was a tourism draw in waiting.
The telephone pole at Lincoln Way and Oak Street in Jefferson is one of the few remaining with the red, white and blue Lincoln Highway logo painted on it. It was, maybe fittingly, the pole Owens painted and kept repainting through the years.
Owens would be excited about the Lincoln Highway becoming a national byway, Joyce said.
But like the evolution of ethyl-leaded gasoline in the first cars along the Lincoln Highway to tomorrow’s electric vehicles, some things are hard to believe.
A national byway?
“He didn’t give it much thought,” Bob Ausberger said, “because he didn’t think it was possible.”