History down the highway

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a monthly series on the history of Webster City and Hamilton County, written by local historian, Nancy Kayser.

Traveling by automobile across northern Iowa in 1912 required a sense of adventure, mechanical skills and the knack to follow a newly marked route called the Hawkeye Highway. Motorists would have packed extra gas cans, oil for the engine and a shovel to dig the car out of mud holes. Goggles or face masks to ward off the flying dust from the dirt roads along with camping gear and food supplies were also needed.

State records show there were only 824 licensed autos in Iowa in 1904. But when Henry Ford introduced the affordable Model-T in 1908, auto ownership expanded and cross-country travel became popular for every socio-economic level. The chance to explore other parts of the county, formerly limited to bicycle adventurists, was now available to everyone.

The bicycle industry, beginning in the early 1880s, lobbied for good roads to make their trips easier and safer. Auto owners quickly joined their push for better travel conditions.

Road maintenance was a local affair done by cities and counties – if there was funding available. Outside the cities, the chore relied on township funding and local farmers to maintain a passageway on the dirt roads.

Cities, with strong encouragement from their merchants, quickly realized that auto travel meant increased business for their town. Groups formed “Good Road Association” clubs in each town to aid in improving roads and to pressure governmental entities to give aid.

The Waterloo Reporter newspaper began the campaign for a border to border “dragged road” across northern Iowa in early 1910 to entice visitors to the state. Every town from Dubuque to Sioux City backed the proposal. An organization was formed, with an executive committee member from each county involved, to make the final route selection and promote the road. The new border to border route, which was to parallel the Illinois Central railroad line, was named “The Hawkeye Highway”. We know the route today as original historic Highway 20.

Each county selected a committee to choose the best route through their area. Webster City mayor H. M. Sparboe headed the Hamilton county group. There was notable squabble if a town, large or small, was omitted from the route. The Daily Freeman-Tribune reported in August of 1910 that “Duncombe was upset because the chosen route would go north of them”. The city stated that if the route came through their town, “they will do its part toward building and maintaining its share of the cross state speedway”. If it passed north of them, then “it will be up to farmers along the route to construct and maintain the road”.

Cities and towns not on the main route were encouraged to improve their roads and connect up to the main highway, thereby improving numerous roads in an area. Originators of the cross state speedway believed that this was the fastest way to transform all dirt roads into something more permanent. Good roads meant continued forward progress for the growing state of Iowa.

The Hawkeye Highway committee adopted “Drag and Drain No Extra Taxation” as a motto, encouraging every citizen and business owner to help fund the improvements.

Melchoir Huebinger, a German immigrant surveyor and mapmaker, and A. E. Nissen began mapping and selecting the final route in the late fall of 1910. The December 16, 1910 edition of the Webster City Tribune stated the mapmakers found “that the twenty-one miles between Fort Dodge and Webster City to be the poorest piece of the road between Dubuque and Sioux City”. The local newspaper explained that this particular piece of road was under stress from the summer’s drainage construction, but would be improved by spring.

Their findings promoted the Hawkeye Highway as a better route than any other as it was more gradable, had good drainage, fewer hills, more large cities and wider roadways with fewer railroad crossings and bridges.

The final 351 mile long route was marked with small signboards nailed to telephone poles. The Iowa Publishing Company of Des Moines issued Huebinger’s Map and guide for the Hawkeye Highway in 1912. Northern Iowa was on track to improve roads and attract automobile tourists.

The Good Roads movement grew. Tourism as a business began to flourish. Every city in the country seized on the importance of auto traffic. Organizations formed everywhere to promote their specific route from one side of the country to another. If a city neglected to support a route or failed to pay their route membership dues, the route was changed to include a more ambitious city.

The Hawkeye Highway was renamed the Grant Highway in the summer of 1919. The road, named in honor of General Ulysses S. Grant, began in Chicago and extended to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The first official Iowa road map from the Iowa Highway Commission was also completed in 1919 along with state laws setting up a Primary Road System with funding.

No matter the name of the road, it was still gravel. The Webster City Journal reported in June of 1923 that Hamilton County supervisors were letting the bids for graveling the west portion of the Grant Highway. “When finished, Hamilton County will have graveled the Grant highway all the way across the county”.

During the 1922 to 1924 era, competing promotional groups traveled the state generating support for their specific route. During this time, historic Highway 20 was also called the Rainbow Trail and the Custer Battlefield Trail. Ornate maps and promotional items were printed by each group to entice travelers to rely on their directions to find their way to somewhere. Rainbow Trail supporters used the slogan “You can open ‘er up and let ‘er sail, when you travel on the Rainbow Trail”.

By the mid-1920s there were more than 250 named routes in the United States. When the Federal and State governments passed legislation in 1925 and 1926 to number national and state routes, the fanciful names became less popular.

Official national routes were numbered with even numbers if they ran east and west, while odd numbered routes ran north and south.

The Hawkeye, Grant, Rainbow and Custer Battlefield trails eventually became part of the 3,365 mile long U. S. Route 20. The “0” in its route number signals that it is a coast-to-coast route. Some claim Highway 20 to be the longest road in the country. It was among the last of the Federal highways to be completed in 1940.

Today the interstate system has replaced much of the 1940 two lane Highway 20 road. The automobile tourist traveling on high-speed interstates no longer finds time to enjoy small-town hospitality on their way to somewhere.