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Back roads back in time

How has Middle America changed in the last 50 years?

Illustration by John S. Dykes

Back roads back in time

With apologies to Katharine Lee Bates, I’ve written some parody words for the lovely poem she penned, which—when set to music—became “America the Beautiful.” Try these:

O beautiful for spacious hopes, / For persons grown or small, / In red and blue and purple states, / With life and work for all! / America! America! / God shed His grace on y’all, / And save our laws from grasping paws / In legislative halls.

Sadly, when The New York Times or The Washington Post sends reporters into the Midwest (“flyover country”), the stories they write sometimes seem less like Katharine Bates and more like a TripAdvisor rating of the fictional Bates Motel, made infamous in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho.

So last month I revisited by car 673 miles—20 percent—of a cross-country bicycle journey I had in 1971. Fifty years ago I had never traveled west of the Hudson River, never bicycled more than 5 miles at a time, never in my whole life slept outside. But I was graduating from college and wanted to explore.

Last month my wife and I visited her 96-year-old mom in Detroit and were heading to northwest Iowa to teach a World Journalism Institute course. I also wanted to write about the things we can see during summer vacations—if we have time to travel on state and county highways rather than interstates on which parents use the internet to save children from boredom.

ON MAY 14 WE GOT ON M-21, a trans-Michigan state highway, in Lapeer, which was once the site of a gargantuan Michigan Home for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic. Now it’s gone, with folks who would have resided there placed in small group homes: probably an improvement. Now two low-slung schools, a community college, and a marsh quack-full of ducks and geese occupy the land.

VFW posts still have tanks and howitzers outside. Flint, because of the Vietnam War that ended with American allies fleeing Southeast Asia, has a Hmong Community Hall. Small towns still have war memorials listing names of those who died in combat. Happily, relatively few names have been added since 1971.

Owosso, Mich., still shows off the city’s first residence, a log cabin that was home to Elias and Lucy Comstock, the first permanent settlers in what became Owosso. Comstock became a merchant, county clerk, judge, and Baptist deacon, and his one-room cabin also served as the first church building.

Today, new settlers also turn small buildings into churches: Just down the road is an Iglesia Baptista. But many older denominations have liberalized, and I couldn’t help laughing when an unintentionally humorous Congregational church sign in Greenville, Mich., advertised Sun Worship, along with a Sunday school class taught by Ms. Candy.

We saw in Muskegon that improved technology has its pleasures and costs. In 1971 I spent all night on a slow, dilapidated boat that took me across Lake Michigan from Muskegon to Milwaukee. Last month Susan and I traveled on that ferry’s replacement, the high-speed Lake Express, three times faster but also three times more expensive.

That tells us something about America in 2021, where children should learn that we are far richer in technology, housing space, and transportation ease than our forebears—but convenience carries a cost, as it did in Wisconsin 135 years ago, “When crash, and wails of terror / Were sent through the morning air, / Wails from the crushed and dying, / Caught in a cruel snare.”

That poem commemorates an 1886 tragedy: A hurtling train with the then-sensational speed of 40-45 miles per hour slammed into freight cars. Stoves and lamps overturned. A leaping fire turned 16 humans into charred remains buried in one grave of the Rio cemetery that I stopped at in 1971 and again last month.

Business away from the freeways hasn’t changed much in 50 years. Rio has Mark’s Market, not Walmart. It has Rio Hardware, Griggsy’s, and other local enterprises rather than chains. Small businesses in Rio and in Portage, Wis., the home of Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), show the continued validity of his “frontier thesis” that Westward ho! entrepreneurialism formed a strong American character.

Illustration by John S. Dykes

WHEN WE DROVE ALONG WISCONSIN ROUTE 16, the landscape frequently changed: sometimes marsh and swamp, sometimes rich soil, sometimes pasture grass, sometimes the edges of cranberry bogs. We saw white houses, red barns, the Wisconsin River, oak and pine. Then, amid towering sandstone cliffs, came the Wisconsin Dells, for generations the center of a small, secluded valley where people came to boat and fish.

The Wisconsin Mirror, a local newspaper, stated in 1856 that “the wild, romantic scenery of the ‘Dells’ will always make them a place of resort for seekers of pleasure.” But what kind of pleasure? It’s still possible on the outskirts to enjoy nature quietly, but the Wisconsin Dells Parkway is now known as “The Strip,” as in Las Vegas.

The Dells now has 18 indoor water parks, an upside-down White House, and statues of Bigfoot. It has the World’s Largest Trojan Horse, 65 feet tall with a go-cart track that runs through it. But for natural rather than artificial thrills, Wisconsin also has 56 bicycle trails, 55 more than the one that existed in 1971. I pedaled the 32 miles of that discarded railroad right of way from Elroy to Sparta, which now calls itself the Bicycling Capital of America.

Sparta’s street name signs display bike symbols. Its guides list B&Bs for cyclists. Its Space and Bicycle Museum unites the Wright Brothers and The Right Stuff astronauts. But the town’s top attraction is the FAST (Fiberglass Animals Shapes and Trademarks) Corporation field, where well-used, giant-sized fiberglass creations are laid to rest. We saw ice cream cones, dogs, and rodents at least twice our size, along with a giant Santa Claus, a realistic elephant, and a fiberglass Mount Rushmore.

Illustration by John S. Dykes

THEN WE CROSSED THE MISSISSIPPI and drove north alongside it for the most beautiful 26 miles of our trip: Late afternoon sun on the water, forested islands on the right, bluffs on the left. We headed west along U.S. 14 through Utica, Eyota, Owatonna, and Waseca, on the way to Mankato, a land of blue earth along the Minnesota River and the site of the largest joint execution in American history.

I studied in graduate school the Sioux Uprising of 1862, now called the U.S.-Dakota War, and read the The WPA Guide to Minnesota: The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to 1930s Minnesota, published in 1938. Let it tell the story: “At the conclusion of the Sioux uprising in 1862, over 400 Indians were tried; the 303 condemned to death were brought to Mankato to await President Lincoln’s approval of the verdict. Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38.

“The day of the execution, December 26, was bitterly cold. Large throngs of people, among them many armed men, milled through the streets of Mankato. Every vantage point for the hanging had been appropriated hours before. Two thousand Minnesota troops had been moved to the scene to prevent disorder. …

“Thirty-eight Indians were hanged simultaneously from a single gallows. They asked that the chains, by which they were bound in pairs, be removed so they might walk to the platform in single file. This was done, and, singing an Indian war song, each placed the rope around his own neck and continued singing while the cap was adjusted over his eyes. At the appointed time, W.H. Dooley, whose entire family had been massacred at Lake Shetek, cut the 2-inch scaffolding rope, and the entire number dropped to their death.

“In 1912 a granite marker commemorating the hanging stands on the site of the execution, on the northwest corner of Front and Main Sts.”

That 4-ton monument read, “Here were hanged 38 Sioux Indians.” It was there in 1971. Now it’s gone, replaced by a Reconciliation Park that includes limestone statues of a white buffalo and a warrior, a memorial that lists the names of the 38 men hanged, and benches that say, “Forgive everyone everything.”

The war’s overall death toll was 400-800 whites and an unrecorded number of Dakota tribespeople. We drove west from Mankato through a limestone-ledged valley to the New Ulm battle site, where a memorial obelisk lists the names of dead settlers but does not mention the dead of the other side. It’s the reverse of the memorial in Reconciliation Park, which does not mention the dead on the settler side.

A plaque placed in front of the Mankato Library in 1976 probably offers the most judicious summary: The war, which occurred while most of the United States was occupied with a larger incivility, was the “culmination of years of friction.”

In the most celebrated work of fiction by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie (1935), Laura asks her parents about the Minnesota war, but they do not give her any details. Forty years later, on the shoulders of a well-watched Little House on the Prairie television series, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Gift Shop opened in Walnut Grove, about a mile from Plum Creek where Laura and her family lived.

The city of Walnut Grove website includes a history page. It notes, “Hardships were common on the prairie. A grasshopper plague almost destroyed the settlement in the 1870s. Perseverance, hard work, and a strong Christian faith carried the community through the many hard times.”

Two blocks south of the museum, the Walnut Grove city park has a path with an ingenious series of nine signs. One shows parents how to “start your child on the road to reading.” (“Point to the letter painted on the ground. Say the sound each letter makes.”) Others show parents “how to get your child up and active … turn simple ideas into learning games … turn any time into story time.” (Look around for story ideas. See a bird? Say, “Once there was a bird named …”)

The Walnut Grove Veterans Memorial, which sits close to the children’s path, declares, “Whoever passes here, let him remember the brave men and women of this community who have in all times gone to the defense of their country.”

AS DR. SEUSS MIGHT EXCLAIM, the places we went, the signs we saw. Signs along M-21 in Michigan feature sharper political messages than seemed evident 50 years ago—“Our governor is an idiot”—but also traditional ones: “At the end of the road you will meet God” and “Don’t count the days. Make the days count.”

Some billboards display new concerns: “Don’t drive high” (Michigan has legalized marijuana use), “Stop texts, stop wrecks,” and “Spread hope, not COVID.”

A smattering of others: “Support Dairy … Dairy Strong … Evolution Dental Care … We Back the Badge … Yum Yum Thai Kitchen … Grateful Shed Truck Yard … Exotic Dance Wear … Romans 6:23. Let that sink in.” (“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”)

In Lake Benton, the westernmost town on U.S. 14 in Minnesota, we turned south, and headed to Sioux Center, Iowa, for our World Journalism Institute teaching. At the outskirts of Lake Benton stands a sign: “A Baby is a Baby. Born and Unborn.” The next morning we heard that the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to take a case from Mississippi that could lead to the overturn of Roe v. Wade, one of the two worst decisions (alongside Dred Scott) in American history.

It was great to see many pro-life signs along our trip (“Protect the preborn,” “Love the babies”) that weren’t there on my travels in 1971—two years before Roe. It will be greater in 50 years if they’re not there because the offense that generates them is on the scrapheap of history.

Almost a very cold day

In 1971 I decided to bicycle across the country because, while researching a college senior thesis involving late 19th-century history, I ran across an account of a coast-to-coast bicycle trip in 1890 by Frank Weaver, a member of the New Haven Bicycle Club. He was the sixth person to do it. It remained a rare adventure during the next 80 years. Wanting to be an explorer, I headed west on June 15, the day after graduation.

Weaver described his adventure in the June 13, 1890, issue of Bicycling World. One paragraph was about “a rather fresh young fellow who loosened the rope of his bulldog so that when the dog ran in front the rope came across the wheel, causing a dismount.” Weaver “showed a reliable .38 caliber and told him to get his dog out of the way if he wanted to take him home alive. That settled it.”

I didn’t carry a gun and still remember a hot, humid Midwest day lowlighted by a German shepherd who took too seriously his “Head of Farm Security” job description. He snarled so menacingly that I chose to outrun him. We pounded side by side for a mile, and I veered into the opposite lane of traffic. Happily, no cars came, and at the moment I could sprint no longer, he veered into underbrush.

Weaver wrote in the July Fourth issue about crossing a trestle when a train approached: “Giving my wheel a yank I swung it over the side and hung it to a cross tie, hanging by the saddle, and jumped off the bridge, landing fifteen feet below, fortunately without a scratch. If we had made the jump from the middle, where it was fifty feet, it would have been a cold day.”

That never happened to me, but I never braked on downhills and got up to 40 mph, passing trucks. One flat tire and it would have been a very cold day. —M.O.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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Very enjoyable, especially the references to the 1971 cross-country bicycle trip. I’ve had similar road races with over-protective dogs! I would love to hear more about that trip. What kind of bicycle did you ride? How long did the trip take? Tell me more!


Thank you. As a Wisconsin native now living in southeast Europe, this simple travelogue brought back fond memories.