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A Rural Roadtrip In Search of Lost Americana

As farming communities and small towns are dying, a photographer documents vanishing places.

This week I’m setting off like I normally do every few months, on a road trip documenting rural America and the little pieces of Americana I find along the way. I typically think of it as modern-day exploration. With exploring however you’re supposed to discover something new. I know what I’m going to find and it hasn’t changed for almost three decades now.

My journey this time is to follow the original 1913 route of the Lincoln Highway from its easternmost point in New York City’s Time Square, to roughly where it passes just south of Chicago. While Route 66 seems to get all the fame, the Lincoln Highway has a much older and much longer story behind it and I’m excited to travel it.

However what really fascinates me about the Lincoln Highway, beyond the fact it was America’s first coast-to-coast highway, is that despite starting off in New York City and then going through Philadelphia, it pretty much bypasses or altogether avoids some the major cities of then and now. Along the exact route west of Pittsburgh, you won’t find a city with a major professional sports team until you hit Denver.

The Lincoln Highway for all intents and purposes is a quintessential rural route. It almost purposefully avoided the cities that had regular rail service at the time and is therefore an absolute must travel destinations for me. Yet I know as I set out to complete the eastern third of this roughly 3,300 mile journey I’m only going to reaffirm a lot of what I have been writing about and photographing for the past 25 years. Small towns and rural areas are dying.

1916 map of Lincoln Highway (Wikimedia Commons)
American Flag barn along U.S. Route 30 in Clinton County, Iowa, just east of DeWitt, July 29th, 2010. (Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.)

I’ll carry on like I normally do, making a few dozen posts on different social media platforms as I travel along and in the weeks after. Filling them with little tidbits about the things I see, people I talk to, and the history of the places. Hoping I’ll find some compelling story of growth and resilience. Yet I can already begin to write some of these posts even before I’ve covered mile one or finished the research on places I’ll be visiting.

There will inevitably be the county seat that has been stagnant with population growth and the surrounding towns and villages that have witnessed population decline. More than a few folks will have moved from those towns to the biggest town in the county as it has held on to the most employment opportunities.

I’ll photograph a school building that has been abandoned, or is no longer functioning as a school. It was most likely built when the area was booming in the 1910s or 20s. Chances are it closed down sometime in the 1980s or 90s and consolidated with one or more neighboring town’s schools in the county. The town it was it in will for sure have seen population loss, or at least zero growth in the time since.

Just a couple miles north of the Lincoln Highway in Clinton County, Iowa is the former grade school for the town of Elvira. Vacant and in disrepair, it is the book end to the Twentieth Century’s trend of out-growing one room school houses, to shrinking to one school for several towns. (Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.)

One aspect that is ever present in most of my posts and writings is that there is both the trend of serious population decline and of the hollowing out of independent retail businesses in the majority of these areas across America.

I’m going to see that the Lincoln Highway on the ground today is vastly different than it was in 1913. And by that I do not mean that it is now paved, as opposed to being the dirt roads it started as, but that it has completely bypassed city centers and business districts. No longer is it going to have stoplights and the ability to turn down any side street as you pass through town. No, that way of traveling was abandoned in favor of bypasses, exit ramps and overpasses. Ironically realignment of the Lincoln Highway to improve travel distances and times started just a decade after it was built.

Now with parts of the Lincoln Highway looking more like an interstate, in some cases actually being part of the interstate, you can filler-up, drive-thru to get food and be back on the road in minutes.

This run-down apartment along the Lincoln Highway in Thomasville, York County, Pennsylvania, isn’t reflective of the overall community in the area which is actually growing, but as the Lincoln Highway continues west through mostly rural areas buildings and towns seeing decline are not uncommon. (Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.)

We’ve given up that way of traveling all so we can save a few minutes here and there. We’ve bypassed the journey for the sake of having more time at the destination. One could even say as air travel has increased, America has figuratively built one giant overpass for most of the country.

There for sure will be a post featuring a bunch of vacant storefronts on the main street in some of these towns that have had the Lincoln Highway rerouted around their business district.

While seeing a business district shift from a central location to a road that has exit ramps on a highway may still keep tax revenue and retail option in a given town, don’t underestimate the drastic affects being bypassed can have. Farther west along the original Lincoln Highway sits Medicine Bow, Wyoming. Once a fairly steady growing town of almost a thousand residents, Medicine Bow saw its fate tumble when the main highway through town didn’t just shift the route around the town’s center, but skipped it altogether and moved 20 miles south with the creation of Interstate 80.

While the Lincoln Highway still passes through Medicine Bow, the traffic doesn’t. In just a decade or so after I-80 was extended through Wyoming (1970) the town shrank by 59 percent. Currently it has about 260 people living there.

Today U.S. Route 30 is a four lane interstate like highway that curves around the town of DeWitt, Iowa. The original Lincoln Highway route cut right through town, where travelers would have been more likely to stop and spend at a place like Cups & Cones ice cream stand. (Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.)

I’ll be sure to stop in some lovely diners and restaurants that are hold-overs from the golden days of automobile travel. Still holding on in a town of a few thousand people, but sadly I know I’ll be writing about a few places that just recently closed down. They’ll fit a script of being run by the same person or family for years. A staple of the community and missed by travelers and locals alike, but the real news is the fast-food chain off the exit ramp is pulling in more profit in a week than those places pulled in in a month.

That story will repeat itself with the clothing store, the gas station and the corner grocery store. They’re all going to the way side as more of us choose to bypass them to save a little. As a culture we’ve not only succumbed to the idea of saving a few minutes on travel, but we’ve completely given up on taking time to explore.

When traveling we see the same golden arches and yellow discount smiling faces as we do in our home towns and that familiarity saves us from the hassle of exploring to find something different. The irony of it all is that as our parents and grandparents traveled they most certainly didn’t have mini computers in their pockets that would help them search out new and interesting places. They drove a road through a town and took a chance on a sign painted on a the side of a building, and later on a bright neon sign beckoning AC and a pool. They’d come home with stories about the best brisket or cutest little motel. Places you’d look for when you drove through, but could never find because they were gone now.

Roadside farm stands, like this one along the Lincoln Highway in Clinton, Iowa, were a welcome sight for travelers in the early days of the Lincoln Highway. Travelers were often referred to as tin can tourists on account of their main food source coming from canned food they packed before traveling and what they often left along the roadside as the traveled. (Part of the Lost Americana series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.)

Yeah, I’ll for sure be writing about the death of the mom-and-pop-owned business and how for every ten dollars they earned, seven of them went back into the community. But maybe what I should really be writing about is how to save five minutes and a buck or two, and we’ve been silently killing the places in-between while also lamenting their disappearance.

The people who traveled through many of these towns were an essential part of its economy. In a way, our former way of traveling for work or for pleasure, was as much an economic driver of small towns as the mouse is to Orlando. Today we spend our money while traveling at businesses that funnel those profits back to the headquarters in the large cities.

Just remember when we return from our trips this summer and talk about how things are changing and nothing is like it used to be, chances are we’ll be complaining about the quality of the food at the same chain fast food places we are so thankful to see off the highway exit. Going on about the amount of time we lost stuck in the drive-thru. Yet on our next trip, we’ll be right back there instead of taking a slower route and exploring the little bits of Americana that are still there.

Vincent David Johnson is a Chicago based photojournalist, filmmaker, and the person behind the Lost Americana documentary project. When he’s not working on Michigan Ave., chances are you can find him in rural America checking out a town you’re not going to see on a travel show.

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