Chasing history along Lincoln Highway

Author documents bike trip on America’s oldest coast-to-coast highway

Dan Libman. Photo by Dan Klefstad.

Dan Libman. Photo by Dan Klefstad.

Murals depicting historical events and hometown pride. Buildings restored to the grandeur of by-gone days. Big-hearted people in small towns, reflecting Midwestern ideals and values.

Dan Libman, an instructor in the NIU Department of English, says he found “something amazing” in nearly every town or village he visited along the famed Lincoln Highway.

“I found the site of the ‘seedling mile’ in Malta where the first cement was poured once the highway route was established. I was shown the inside of the now-closed Creston Opera House, and I got to go inside Rochelle’s Standard Oil station, which has been renovated back to its 1913 splendor.”

The award-winning author and avid cyclist marked the 100th anniversary of Lincoln Highway with a bicycle tour of a local stretch of this famed roadway. The idea came about after Dan Klefstad, host of WNIJ’s Morning Edition, interviewed Libman last summer for the program’s 2012 Summer Book Series.

Libman’s fiction collection, “Married But Looking,” was published last year. Winner of the Pushcart Prize for fiction and a Paris Review Discovery Prize, Libman has also authored essays and fiction for The Chicago Reader, Santa Monica Review, Columbia and numerous other journals and magazines. He has taught at NIU since 1998.

Old Standard Oil Station in Rochelle, Ill.

Old Standard Oil Station in Rochelle, Ill.

Klefstad was looking for something “beyond the usual news reports” for the highway’s upcoming centenary.

“This highway marked a significant change in our understanding of what travel means,” Klefstad says. “To drive home this point, I wanted to reach out to the community of local authors and get a storyteller’s perspective. Dan jumped at the opportunity, and he is the perfect guide for this journey. Our listeners are in for a real treat.”

Libman says cycling the route helped replicate what someone driving the route in 1913 might have experienced, at least in terms of speed.

He traveled between Sterling and just beyond DeKalb, looping up and back along the highway so he could see things from both directions and a variety of perspectives. Along the way, he met a Lincoln Highway expert and travelers who deemed the highway more interesting than Route 66.

Libman prepared for the project by reading Emily Post’s book, “By Motor to the Golden Gate,” written before she gained international renown as an etiquette guru. The travelogue, which recounts her 1915 cross-country journey, includes an account of two days she spent in Rochelle, Ill., after her motor car became stuck in the mud. Post was delighted with Rochelle and its people, and Libman says reading her descriptions of the homes, neighborhoods and people she encountered brought the town and the times to life for him.

Lincoln Highway mural in Creston, Ill.While many experiences left an impression on Libman, one moment early in his journey stands out.

“I don’t want to give away too much,” he says, “but at one point, just as I pedaled over the very first cement mile in Malta, a crew from IDOT came along and began filling in a pothole. They let me record them and spoke with me. It was, for me, a really serendipitous moment, to witness the regular maintenance on this small chunk of history.”

Hear Libman’s recording of this and other experiences along historical Lincoln Highway when the program airs this week, at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 24, through Friday, April 26, on 89.5 WNIJ’s Morning Edition.

by Deborah Fransen

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