New museum to trace the history of the Lincoln Highway
When the highway was completed in 1925, it was 3,389 miles long
August 16, 2012 8:00 AM
The Coffee Pot, a lunch stand in Bedford.
Dunkle's Gulf Station in Bedford is one of many colorful sites along the historic Lincoln Highway.
Saint Vincent flour made at the gristmill just outside of Latrobe and off Route 30.
Fine dining at Green Gables Restaurant in Jennerstown.
By Mary Thomas Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PG map: Lincoln Highway (Click on photo of historic gas pump for large version of map)
An organization dedicated to the Lincoln Highway has put down roots along one of the most storied roads in the country, affirming its commitment to the regional asset that defined "Sunday drive" for generations of Americans.
The Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor purchased an 1815 stone house on Route 30 a few miles east of Latrobe in November and is developing it into a museum on the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway built in the U.S., from New York City to San Francisco.
Called the Lincoln Highway Experience, the museum features a display of historic gas pumps and a series of black and white photographs of the highway taken in 1999. But there are big plans for the future, including an addition to shelter a lovingly restored, porcelain-fronted 1938 diner.
Olga Herbert, who has been executive director since 1996, said the organization's previous locations would fit in the space of the room now housing her office. A library and archive, a gift shop, galleries to exhibit the collection and a parlor where talks are given are all part of the organization's new site.
Approaching 100 years
Next year, the Lincoln Highway will celebrate the centennial of its launch. When the highway was completed in 1925, it was 3,389 miles long.
In Pennsylvania, the Lincoln Highway became Route 30 after the federal government exchanged numbered designations for road names.
The Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor focuses on the Pennsylvania section of the road in Westmoreland, Somerset, Bedford, Fulton, Franklin and Adams counties. The corridor is among 12 "heritage areas" designated by the governor to identify, interpret, conserve and promote cultural, historic, natural, recreational and economic resources. (The corridor organization has no affiliation with the national Lincoln Highway Association.)
In this early stage of the museum's development, admission is free and hours are limited to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday except for scheduled programs. Visitors are advised to call ahead to verify that the building will be open because the two staff members -- Ms. Herbert and part-time office manager/bookkeeper Kristin Poerschke -- may be away on corridor business.
What is on display now provides a preview of the standard of quality set by the corridor staff and board, made up of 11 volunteers from the six counties.
The gas pumps include a handsomely crafted 1905 Bowser pump from an Oakland mansion, restored and again functional; a 1916 Fry Visible Pump, so named because customers could monitor the amount of gas received through a glass element; and a 1950 Atlantic pump with a jaw-dropping price of 249/10 cents per gallon displayed.
"We hope to get one from each decade," Ms. Herbert said.
The acquisition of the photographs was more serendipitous.
Ms. Herbert was driving along Route 30 in 1999 and stopped to talk with a man who was taking photographs along the roadside. He was Joe Elliott, who had been commissioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to photograph the Lincoln Highway across the state. Before the hundreds of images he made were sent to the Library of Congress, Ms. Herbert was allowed to select 42 for the corridor organization's collection. She secured a grant to enlarge, mat and frame the photographs, which include orchards in Cashtown, Adams County, and The Coffee Pot, a novelty lunch stand built in 1927 in Bedford.
Other items on display include artifacts such as dinnerware and a chair with anchor pattern from the landmark Grand View Ship Hotel in Bedford County. The hotel was built to look like a full-size ship and was arguably the most recognized landmark of the Lincoln Highway. It was destroyed by fire in October 2001.
Several works by Bedford artist Kevin Kutz capture the highway that was and is. One depicts the restoration of The Coffee Pot, a project that was sponsored by the corridor organization. The picture is puzzlingly framed by two oversized insects.
"It was the year of the locust in Bedford," Ms. Herbert explained. "There were none here. But when we went to a meeting in Bedford and walked on the sidewalks, it was crunch, crunch, crunch."
Mr. Kutz's works also include the cabin-style Lincoln Motor Court, still operating, and the art deco-style Dunkle's Gulf Station, where you can still gas up.
"They still clean your windshield," Ms. Herbert said. "We need to support these places. People stop and take a picture and then go down the street to fill up their tanks because they can save three cents a gallon."
The restored 1938 Jerry O'Mahony diner was built in Elizabeth, N.J., and operated as Serro's Diner first in Irwin, then in Greensburg and Youngwood. Known as "the Cadillac of diners," it sports a mahogany refrigerator with mirrored insets and a 21/2-inch-thick marble countertop. Restored to Secretary of the Interior standards, the diner, currently in storage, will serve coffee and pie when it opens after the addition to the museum is built.
The museum's new building is part of the story.
"It was a stagecoach stop, so it has a transportation history," Ms. Herbert said.
The Johnston House served as the Alexander Johnston family residence and as a travelers' inn during its early decades. It has been owned by only two families, the Johnstons and their direct descendents until around 1980, when it was purchased for use as offices. The house is snug against Route 30, although the property comprises 14 acres.
Adapting to the historic home is a bit tricky, Ms. Herbert said. "The building is almost 200 years old, but the period we're interpreting is 100 years old."
But her focus extends beyond the stone walls and encompasses the 200-mile corridor, which sometimes departs from Route 30 and is identified by red, white and blue markers placed by the corridor association.
"How do we connect communities along the corridor? We don't want this to be the end-all site," she said. "The period of history [we address] is so cool, but look at all we have new today."
The organization has produced a Lincoln Highway activity book for young children and a Lincoln Highway board game distributed to all middle schools within the corridor. It also has initiated the Roadside Giants program, in which students from five high schools created sculptures permanently installed along the road.
Other projects include a Lincoln Highway Driving Guide and development of a QR code that smartphones can read to find localized information and extra-mile rewards. Ms. Herbert established a program called Handmade along the Highway, which sells juried work by corridor artists in the gift shop and at locations such as the Westmoreland Museum of American Art and the Omni Bedford Springs Resort.
The museum presents speakers twice a month on a variety of topics.
"Recently the subject was streetcars. Who knew that was such a hot topic? We had to go to two sessions," Ms. Herbert said.
Receiving rent from a second-floor tenant has bumped the organization's 2012 budget up to $181,000, supplemented by countless volunteer hours. Tops on her wish list, as the 2013 centennial of the Lincoln Highway looms, is to reinforce the volunteer base with "super volunteers" in each community who would be her "go-to folks" as programs develop.
"We're planning the Lincoln Highway in Bloom, which will provide small grants to communities along the way to plant red, white and blue flowers, the highway's colors. We expect several antique car cruises to be passing through. Our contacts could identify the local garden clubs."
Highway needs friends
She would like more people to become a Friend of the Lincoln Highway, particularly to support the new addition. Contributors of $250 or more may submit a vintage photograph of themselves, or in honor or memory of parents or grandparents, to be hung in the new building. (Donors may keep the original if they wish; the organization will make a copy.)
Donations of artifacts have increased since the house was purchased, Ms. Herbert said.
"We have a place to display things properly," she said. Among items of interest are "vintage signs that talk about the gas, food and lodging industry" and historic postcards.
"My biggest challenge, besides money and staff, is there's so much history here. Somehow the early 20th century history doesn't get enough recognition or respect. We're into the fun side of our history. The early days of the Lincoln Highway are like when America was a teenager."
Upcoming programs include Saint Vincent College faculty member Richard Wissolik on the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport at 2 p.m. Sept. 9; Johnston House family members speaking informally on Oct. 14; and Packard car owner Chuck Speicher on one of the highway's most enduring symbols on Oct. 21. Bus trips are scheduled for Sept. 5 on the Lincoln Highway into Pittsburgh and on Sept. 22 from Chambersburg to Columbia. The annual Road Rally weekend is Sept. 29-30. Admission to talks, which includes a "fabulous homemade dessert," is $10, $7 for Friends of the Lincoln Highway members; reservations required.