Thursday, April 7, 2011

From Here to There from Then 'til Now

I was kind of hoping we were done with what my wife calls "home archeology." Put simply, it is the process of rediscovering, sorting, pitching and, in some cases, re-saving the piles and piles of pictures, documents, memorabilia, letters and other timeless flotsam that has attached itself to us as a result of the years and years that my family has lived in Galva. This time, her mission was a full-out frontal attack on a couple of antique catch-alls--A rolltop desk that once belonged to my grandfather and a giant cabinet called "the Bishop Hill desk," that was, according to family legend, built by one of my colony forbearers. Both are loaded with drawers, niches and even secret compartments that are perfect hiding places for a mixed-and-fancy plethora of items like the 1895 lease on my grandfather's optometry office, my dad's 1948 fishing license, and even our own 1974 tax returns.
I've gotta admit that if it was left up to me, I'd probably leave well enough alone and let the next poor suckers along the family tree worry about the whole sort-and-pitch process someday. But she is a kinder soul, plus she knows that if sons Colin and Patrick were given the job, they'd probably react in an understandable way.
Colin: "I always knew they were crazy."
Paddy: "I'm pretty sure this whole place would burn if we just used enough gasoline."
So we started digging.
Over the years, I've become a little more cold-blooded when it comes to keep-or-throw decisions, as I have finally come to the realization that it's not practical to keep every unidentifiable photo, every indecipherable scrap of paper and every aged-out document that ever came into my possession. I'm not quite desperate enough to want to sell my family's effects on Ebay, so I've been destroying the discards a pile at a time.
Of course, that still leaves the other mountain of stuff I want to hang onto.
Like the 1927 "Right Road Service" sheet her digging uncovered.
"Right Road Sheets" were a giveaway item that provided some info about local businesses on one side and driving directions on the other. The sheet in my possession was courtesy of the Hotel Best in Galva, a lodging and dining hotspot that existed from the late 1800s until it was finally torn down in 1997. Located at the south end of Exchange Street, it existed under various names, but probably enjoyed its heyday during the "Best" era starting in 1914. Among the patrons it served were the many salesmen who came here via the CB&Q and Rock Island trains that once made passenger stops in Galva. But by 1927, the automobile had also become a key means of travel.
But it wasn't always easy--or clear--just how to get from here to there.
The advertising on the back of the sheet indicated that the Parkside Hotel in Kewanee was a good place to stay, with rooms (strictly modern) starting at a buck and a half. The Route Number 7 Cafe in Sheffield claimed to be "a darn good place to eat," while Humprhey's Garage in Wyoming was an agent for Buick, Reo and Star cars that offered "first class mechanics" and a "towing outfit."
A few years earlier, both Galva and Kewanee were served by "The Cannonball Route," a Chicago-to-Hannibal, Missouri road that was marked with black cannonballs on poles, according to a Kansas City mapmaker that also proudly proclaimed, "We log and map roads that go somewhere."
By 1927, the state of Illinois had gotten involved in naming highways, with the federal government just behind. An online look at a 1927 Illinois roadmap showed road numbers like 28, 7, 2 and 30 in our area, along with a myriad of unmarked secondary paths, which could make the process of getting from point A to point B a little dicey.
That's where the "Right Road Service" sheets came in. Instead of a map, they provided written step-by-step directions from, in this case, the Hotel Best in Galva, to a variety of other towns, including Kewanee, Chicago and St, Louis, and many of the smaller burgs in between.
""Ask no questions," exclaimed the sheet, which would seem to indicate that, even then, drivers of the male persuasion preferred bumbling on to stopping and asking directions.
It also said, "We wish you good luck on your way," which kind of hinted that no amount of careful directions would fully guarantee an absolute trouble-free trip.
Some of the instructions are pretty simple, like the Galva to Kewanee route, which merely required hopping on Route 28. But going a little further afield could get a little more complex, especially after a hard rain. For instance the route from Galva to Bradford required the driver to leave the Route 28 "hard road" at about the spot where route 93 cuts that way now.
"Continue straight ahead east on dirt road to end of road. Turn right and go until you come to a church, then turn left and follow main traveled angling road through Elmira and on to Bradford."
Now, those of us who drive the backroads can probably guess just about where that route still goes, but the combination of dirt roads and terms like "main traveled road," which probably refers to the cowpath with the deepest set of wheel tracks, would have made the 26-mile jaunt from Galva to Bradford a bit of adventure in the wrong conditions. Ditto a journey like the one from Galva to Moline, which included a "short-cut when roads are good" that would save 20 miles for a daring driver, but add nothing but trouble for an unlucky one. As I read the description of each route, it was easy to figure that some of the lengthier passages described--like the 246-mile trip to St. Louis--would have been long, lonely and potentially harrowing.
But maybe not.
Long, yes, because none of those routes--even the "hard roads"--were built for speed. And it was probably easy to stray off those "main traveled roads" from time to time, but that even happens nowadays on the most modern byways, like the last time I challenged the Dan Ryan Expressway after dark.
But keep in mind that many of those 1927 travelers had experienced other, earlier modes of transportation in their lifetimes, as well. Compared to a slow, bumpy ride in the back of a horse-drawn wagon, even the roughest, most challenging auto trip was pretty slick, indeed. I'm betting many of those 1927 travelers were simply inspired by the newfound freedom car travel offered them. They went places. They expected an adventure. And often, that's what they got.
So, here's the plan.
I'm thinking a copy of that sheet might be a nice addition to the stack of maps and gazetteers I keep handy when I hit the road. I'd like to give some of those routes a try. It ought to be fun, though I suspect some of the churches and many of the country schools, corn cribs and barns they used as landmarks have vanished into history.
But hey, if I do get a little turned around and end up in, say, Sheffield some day when I'm really headed for Victoria, I'll just take a break and look up the Route No. 7 Cafe.
Word has it, they've got darn good eats.

1 comment:

  1. Think of a (local / state) college library with a need for original source material. I found some minstrel show scripts and supply catalogues and the Duke RBMSCL was glad to get them.

    1974 W2? (two words, one experience: ACTION SHOPPER!!)