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Journey Pauses At Vintage Gas Station

In Part 2 of our series "Pedaling Lincoln Highway," author Dan Libman stops at the corner of Lincoln and Lincoln in downtown Rochelle. There, he visits a vintage Standard Oil station - the first on Lincoln Highway in Illinois. Click the above "Audio" link to hear Libman's interview with Ross Freier, director of Rochelle Tourism, inside the filling station. Libman's essay continues below:

Lincoln Highway may no longer be an intact transnational highway, but it remains a well-marked route — with commemorative plaques, posts with red and white stripes, road signs, and even interactive gazebos. Most fun are the billboard-sized murals on the sides of buildings in the towns along the way. Heading east from Franklin Grove toward Rochelle, the original route splits away from the current Route 38 and becomes an easy dirt road between railroad tracks and farmland. This isn’t even a gravel road but hard, compact dirt — almost clay. On the cold March afternoon I pedaled on it, the road was frozen in spots and small patches of dirty snow remained. To my right were empty fields with stumps of corn stalks still waiting for the plow.

One of the nice things about being on this dirt road on a bicycle is that, for about three miles, it’s possible to even replicate the speed of the original Lincoln Highway. Despite the scarcity of long open roads, speed limits were as much on the mind in 1913 as they are to the motorist of 2013.

A popular single-reel comedy, “Matrimony’s Speed Limit,” released in 1913, told the story of a man desperately trying to get anyone to marry him before an appointed deadline so he won’t lose his inheritance. I won’t give away the ending, nor will I be able to share any clips of this film on the radio as it is, of course, silent. However, it is available in its entirety on YouTube. Although most municipalities already had local speed limits on the books, a national speed law had just come into existence a few years earlier, making the limit 15 m.p.h. License plates were first mandated in 1907, along with an increased speed limit of 20 m.p.h. By 1913, when Lincoln Highway was open, cars were permitted — though not recommended — to go at the ridiculously fast speed of 25 miles per hour.

Coming in from the dirt road, Ashton opens up to be another lovely Illinois town of homes and porches, lawns and trees, a small downtown featuring a bar and a restaurant or two, large grain elevators, and a mural right in the center of the commercial area. The art features the Lincoln Highway’s red-white-and-blue logo, and information on the “pavement jubilee” in 1921 — the paving of the Highway which, according to the mural, attracted more than ten thousand visitors to Ashton.

Continuing east toward Rochelle, the highway turns north for a bit and ascends a very low-grade hill, so low cars in 2013 barely feel a difference. On a bike, you notice the extra effort required to pedal and surely the cars in 1913 would feel the shudder of the extra gasoline required to get up that incline toward Chana Road and Flagg Center. At the top of the hill, today’s traveler sees for the first time a feature of the landscape that didn’t exist one hundred years ago: the twin cooling towers serenely puffing away from the nuclear plant in Byron.

Heading into Rochelle on Lincoln Highway, the farmland gives way to more industrial concerns; research stations and distribution centers fill the landscape. In 1915, the soon-to-be-famous writer Emily Post found herself traveling these same roads on assignment from a magazine to travel coast to coast. Outside Chicago, she and her crew decided to drive the Lincoln Highway only to find themselves hopelessly stuck in mud just outside Rochelle. It took two days and one helpful fire department to get Miss Post and her companions unstuck — 48 hours in which the writer found the Hub City to be, “the sweetest, cleanest, newest little town imaginable,” and she compared the Collier Inn, where she and her group stayed for the two days, to the Ritz Hotel in New York.

I found Rochelle kind of sweet as well. The Collier Inn is long gone but, as I biked the downtown area, I noticed that — like Sterling — waves of immigration have made Rochelle a vibrantly fascinating town. The Lincoln Highway takes a strange turn in the center of the downtown at the corner of Lincoln Highway and Lincoln Avenue. It’s reminiscent of where Route 66 turns toward California and crosses itself, making the notorious intersection of Route 66 and Route 66 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Here at Rochelle’s Lincoln and Lincoln sits a former visitor’s center converted from an old Standard Oil gas station. The new visitor’s center has moved to a tonier part of Rochelle, but the old edifice still stands — an ersatz memorial to a more nostalgic time when old buildings were routinely renovated to look like even older buildings. Four commemorative cement posts stand at the intersection, looking something like oversized rooks on a chess board, each with a Lincoln medallion and a blue directional arrow. I took pictures in front of them before ambling over to one of the saloons across the street to fortify myself for the next leg of the journey.

Dan Libman's journey continues Friday when he visits the Creston Opera House, and Lincoln Highway's first "seedling mile" in Malta.  Listen during Morning Edition after NPR news at 6:30 & 8:30. Then come back here for more pictures of the journey, and to read Libman's full essay.

Dan Libman is an author, teacher, correspondent, and adventurous host of the WNIJ podcast Under Rocks.
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