Consider the messages on a fat stack of 1940s postcards that I found at a garage sale: “Continuous flow of hot water to spigot.” “State Health Board approved water.” “Twin beds available.” “Mail and telegraph service.” “Where tourist needs are recognized.”
This is what reassured us about booking a motel room, before the arrival of Holiday Inn and other lodging franchises.
The card collector had obviously followed U.S. 71, which runs north-south from International Falls, Minn., to Krotz Springs, La. Chunks of the road today are being replaced by Interstate 49 in Missouri and Arkansas, a transition that seems to delight fast-lane locals, from what I can gather online.
The highway no longer is a mysterious frontier for four-wheeled explorers. It cuts across Route 66, the east-west highway of nearly 2,500 miles (Chicago to Los Angeles) that was replaced by interstates 55, 44, 40, 15 and 10 by 1985. Now we wax nostalgic about the quaint motels, diners and roadside kitsch of the old U.S. 66 and have resurrected parts as a National Scenic Byway.
So the great American road trip has a rich and fickle history; I suppose what once was commonplace is now unusual because we want everything to happen quickly. We fly instead of drive. We add mini TVs with DVDs to our vehicles, so we don’t get bored with scenery.
If you long for the simpler days of leisurely Sunday drives and days-long vacations by car, or wonder how we got to where we are today, check out “The American Road,” a new exhibit at the Harley-Davidson Museum, Milwaukee.
“We look at the road trip as a ritual and how that came to be,” explains Kristen Jones, senior curator.
What began as a way to get back to nature in the 1930s quickly evolved into a fixation with the Wild West’s motifs, cowboys and other stereotypes – regardless of the direction we traveled.
Like today, we sought to bring along – or find en route – all the comforts of home, be it in a motor court motel or RV. Billboards announced places to eat, visit, stay and refuel. Full-service gas stations touted “certified clean restrooms” as a draw.
Kristen refers to the 1950s and 1960s as a “golden age” when the advent and growth of these diversions and attractions mushroomed. We sought what we wouldn’t find at home, swimming pools to color TVs, the Corn Palace of South Dakota to Aqua-Rama shows in Lake of the Ozarks.
The first roadside giants – like a 20-foot-tall lumberjack or “Muffler Man” – aimed to amuse and amaze motorists. The three-dimensional effect of View-Master slides complemented our own snapshots.
Marquee items in “The American Road” include a late 1930s house car designed by Milwaukee native Brooks Stevens, a 1962 Country Squire Ford station wagon and a 1970 Chevelle Malibu with intricate, map-like artwork under the hood, created by cartographer Bob Waldmire.
Lots of little relics – like old-time souvenirs – also will amuse or astound, depending upon your age and exposure to life on the road.
“The American Road” stays in place until Sept. 1, and entry is included with admission to the Harley-Davidson Museum, 400 W. Canal St., Milwaukee. It’s $18 for adults, $12 for senior citizens and students with school identification, $10 for ages 5-17 and free for ages under 5. h-dmuseum.com, 414-287-2789
Nibble on MOTOR Bar and Restaurant fare while listening to guest speakers during this exhibit. Jeff Kunkle of Vintage Roadside, Portland, Ore., makes “Roadside Attractions” his topic on July 26, and photographer Tom Ferderbar concentrates on “Route 66” on Aug. 23.
Both of these “Road Sampler” events begin at 5 p.m., and the $55 ticket includes museum admission.
Some artifacts in “The American Road” show come from Ed’s Northwoods Petroleum Museum, 2141 Wykowski Rd., Three Lakes. Look for the big, old Mobil and Phillips 66 signs propped along U.S. 45, northeast of Rhinelander in Oconto County.
Thousands of items – gas cans and pumps, cars and globe signage – make up this collection. “The memories are as wonderful as full service and hand car washes,” asserts owner Ed Jacobsen, online. He used to operate service stations in Chicago.
Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and by appointment. northwoodspetroleummuseum.org, 715-617-0566
Need ideas for summer road trips? Brand USA, part of the U.S. Travel Association, helps plot 10 fun routes at discoveramerica.com (select “explore”). Driving themes are the Atlantic Coast, Great River Road, Hana Highway, New England Coast, Oregon Trail, Pacific Coast, Route 66, craft beer, blues music and Texas barbecue.
For details about National Scenic Byways, including Historic Route 66: fhwa.dot.gov/byways.