Traveling history's highway
On the record ... with Kay Shelton
DeKALB – Have you ever seen the red, white and blue roads signs with the big blue L and wondered what they were? Kay Shelton knows, and well she should.
The signs mark the historic Lincoln Memorial Highway. Shelton, of DeKalb, is the national president of the Lincoln Memorial Highway Association, which has preserved the highway since it was formed more than 100 years ago.
When it opened in 1913, the Lincoln Memorial Highway was the nation’s first transcontinental highway, running from Times Square in New York City to San Francisco. Originally covering 3,383 miles, it has since been realigned to cross 5,872 miles through 14 states.
Shelton said she began with the association as a volunteer and became national president in 2012.
Born in Plainfield, Ind., Shelton earned double bachelor’s degrees in music and anthropology from DePauw University. She came to DeKalb in 1990 to study at Northern Illinois University, where she got a master’s degree in anthropology.
Shelton teaches anthropology at Kishwaukee College and is the program administrative assistant for library administration at Founders Memorial Library at NIU. She also works part-time at Walmart.
“This is an expensive town,” she said.
In her spare time, Shelton is president of the League of Women Voters of DeKalb County, a member of the Ney Grange, has served as secretary of the Preservation of the Egyptian Theatre, and is state director of the Illinois Chapter of the Lincoln Highway Association.
Shelton talked about the highway and the association with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson.
Oleson: What exactly is the Lincoln Highway Association?
Shelton: It’s a group that is involved with the preservation of the Lincoln Highway, and promoting the history of the highway. We produce a quarterly magazine about the Lincoln Highway, including historical research articles and current events. It is called “The Forum.” Many libraries have subscriptions to it and some of our members join, just so they can read the magazine. As president, I write a column for each issue. Sometimes, I write research articles; last year I co-wrote an article about the history of Mooseheart, which also celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.
The Lincoln Highway Association has over one thousand members from the United States and eight other countries, including Russia and Belgium.
Oleson: I’m curious why the national association building is in a little town like Franklin Grove.
Shelton: The building (we’re in) was owned by a cousin of Abraham Lincoln, H.I. Lincoln. He (Abraham Lincoln) never visited there that we know of. The building was originally a dry goods store. A group, Farming Heritage, owns it, and we rent it from them. The center of the highway is in Nebraska. This is close to the center (of the highway), but also to a more populated area.
Oleson: Where did the idea for the highway come from?
Shelton: Carl Fisher was the originator of the idea. He wanted to call it the Coast to Coast Rock Highway. But his friend, Henry Joy, the president of the Packard Motor Company, got him to change it. It was his idea to name the highway after Lincoln because his dad, James, was Lincoln’s boss as a young lawyer. He owned an Illinois railroad company.
The full name of the highway is the Lincoln Memorial Highway. It’s the world’s longest memorial to Abe Lincoln.
Oleson: Just how long is the highway?
Shelton: It runs from Times Square in New York City to San Francisco. When it was dedicated on Oct. 31, 1913, it was 3,383 miles. It has been realigned and is now over 5,000 miles. It runs through 14 states.
Oleson: Is it funded by the government?
Shelton: The association runs on private donations.
Oleson: Wasn’t President Eisenhower involved?
Shelton: In 1919, Eisenhower, a lieutenant colonel at the time, went on an army convoy to test the mobility of the military during war time, and to test the road. The convoy got stuck in the mud, and some of the heavy vehicles broke the wooden bridges.
That was one of the reasons to have a (transcontinental) road and to improve it by paving it. They identified muddy places here in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska. They raised enough money to pave sections of it, which they called seedling miles. It showed people what improved roads could be like. The first seedling mile was in Malta in 1914. Its anniversary is coming up this fall.
Oleson: So is everything paved today?
Shelton: There are still some sections that are still gravel.
Illinois was the first state to have all of its roads paved. Illinois had a lot of people involved in the Good Road Movement.
Oleson: Who were some of the others involved in the early development of the highway?
Shelton: William G. Edens was a banker by profession and a member of the Lincoln Highway Association. He never drove a car, but he became involved with the Good Roads Movement, which brought public awareness of what improved roads could be like compared to mud.
There was also S.E. Bradt of DeKalb. He was the father of Charlie Bradt, who passed away in DeKalb in 2011 at the age of 108.
Oleson: How did you become involved with the association?
Shelton: I became involved in 2000 after the historical marker for the seedling mile got erected. It was something important in my back yard.
Oleson: How did you become a national president?
Shelton: I kind of worked myself up as a volunteer. I started out on the newsletter. I was elected to the Lincoln Highway Association Board of Directors as the Illinois State Director in 2006. In 2011, the board elected me as vice president. It is not automatic that the vice president becomes the president, but in 2012, the board elected me president and I served as the president during the 100th anniversary celebration in 2013. The board re-elected me as president in 2013.
Oleson: What are your duties as national president?
Shelton: I run the four quarterly meetings of the board of directors, and the annual membership meeting and board of directors meeting held at the annual conference. I appoint committees and serve on all of them. I also answer a lot of email questions and telephone calls.
This past Saturday, I helped with a little spring cleaning at the National Headquarters in Franklin Grove.
Oleson: Sounds like a lot of work.
Shelton: Yes, it is.
Oleson: Anything new coming up?
Shelton: There’ll be a new program on Sept. 13 at the Egyptian Theatre, a documentary on Jens Jensen. He designed the concrete markers for the Lincoln Highway Association, one of which is at the Ellwood House. The Boy Scouts installed over 3,000 of them in 1928. The marker at the Ellwood House was originally along the Lincoln Highway in DeKalb. Jensen also designed an Ideal Section of the Lincoln Highway built just across the Illinois border in Indiana. The Ideal Section provided a park-like experience to early motorists. Jens Jensen also helped design what became Huntley Park in DeKalb.
We also have an annual yard sale in multiple states, from West Virginia to Iowa, Aug. 7-9.
We also have a new award this year called the Coast-to-Coast Award, and it is for anyone who drives the entire length of the Lincoln Highway, from New York to San Francisco. One does not need to be a member of the Lincoln Highway Association to apply for the award but there is an application available at www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org/news/.
All the maps are available for free on Google or our website, www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org. That’s something Route 66 doesn’t have.