Bursting the nostalgia bubble

My old friend Michael is an occasional companion when I take to the road. We took our first road trip together a few years ago along the abandoned National Road in Illinois.

Along the way he asked me why I explored the old roads. I replied that it lets me enjoy imagining a time when drivers took it slow and enjoyed the scenery and people they encountered, something I wished for but found elusive. I said I wished I could hear stories about driving the old roads. Michael said, “I’ll bet Paul Ford knows about this old road. He lives nearby. Want to meet him?”

Of course I wanted to meet him! Anybody who’s ever worked in Terre Haute radio, as I have, knows Paul’s name. He built Terre Haute’s first FM radio station, WPFR, in 1962 and operated it through the early 1980s. Later, Paul started building a small network of Christian radio stations that he and his wife operate from their home on US 40 a few miles west of the Indiana state line and within sight of a strip of the old brick road. Michael volunteers at Paul’s stations.

Abandoned National Road

Paul dropped everything and sat down with us in his radio studio, which filled his house’s front room. He was tickled to hear that I had worked for WBOW in Terre Haute because he had too, many years before. He told a ton of great radio stories, including getting his first radio job in high school, how hard it was to get advertisers on FM in the 1960s, and how he got to interview former President Truman in Indianapolis just after he left office by going to his hotel and asking. It was great talking with him.

I asked him about the brick road. “Oh yes,” he said, “I used to drive on that when it was US 40 about the time my wife and I got married, which was in 1949. It was a dangerous road. People’d get behind a truck, and they’d get impatient as it’d go slowly up the hills. They’d look for a chance to pass, but there were so many curves, and the road was so narrow. Eventually, they’d lose their patience and pass even if it wasn’t safe. There were a lot of bad wrecks on that road.”

I was a jarred by what he said. I thought I’d hear him talk glowingly of Sunday afternoon drives in the sunshine with his family, waving and smiling at people in oncoming cars, stopping at a farm stand for an apple. Instead, I felt the bubble of my idealizations burst. Pop.

As we drove away, I felt unsettled and wondered what made me enjoy following the old road so much if my nostalgic visions were false. But I started thinking of reasons pretty quickly. I enjoyed feeling connected to the National Road’s history, following a path that had been in use for 170 years by generations of people making their way into the Illinois prairies. I also enjoyed seeing the road’s 1920s construction of a cement pad, recessed except for one foot on either side, bricks fitted without mortar. I enjoyed knowing enough general road history to predict that the road probably wasn’t even striped at first – because there were so few cars, people often drove up the middle and moved right when another car approached!

Abandoned National Road

But times changed in the postwar prosperity years during which Paul drove this road. Roads everywhere became more crowded as more people bought cars – for a time, demand for cars outpaced Detroit’s ability to build them. Also, through the 1950s cars became faster and more powerful every year. The old roads’ hills and curves just weren’t engineered to handle so many cars going so fast. Paul’s memory of the road made perfect sense. US 40 was soon rebuilt straight and wide, and later I-70 was built nearby with four lanes and limited access. Drivers undoubtedly welcomed the new roads without looking back because they could drive much faster and safer.

Reality certainly cast my nostalgia in the proper light. I realized that it represented something I very much want from life – a peaceful pace that lets me enjoy the journey. Even if the old roads never offered that to travelers in their day, I can see that they offer it to me now. On this trip, I got to spend most of the day with a longtime friend. We took it slow, averaging barely 20 miles an hour because of all our stops to explore. And I met someone interesting who taught me something new. Most of my old-road trips turn out this way. The very thing I imagined I missed, I can have today when I go out on the old road. Now that I know that, I will enjoy it much more.

I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.

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12 responses to “Bursting the nostalgia bubble”

  1. Leo Avatar

    It seems like you know quite a bit about radio on your blog. What do you make of WIBC switching to the FM dial? It seems odd to me that a talk station would go from AM to FM. Any thoughts?

  2. Leo Avatar

    It seems like you know quite a bit about radio based on what I read on your blog. What do you make of WIBC switching to the FM dial? It seems odd to me that a talk station would go from AM to FM. Any thoughts?

  3. Ward Fogelsanger--Gilbert AZ Avatar
    Ward Fogelsanger–Gilbert AZ

    Just looking at your pages again. Grew up in Casey and was friends with Wally Bruner’s kids when WKZI started in 63..we would hang out at the station. Another friend from home Mark Otteson worked at WBOW as a DJ and I think he went by Mark Christian on the air. I have been disappointed some of the times back in that area..Ambrosini’s looked pretty skanky and the Horseshoe Club out by St Mary of the Woods on RT 150 was closed the day we were there. Remember eating lunch at the Deming Hotel and Terre Haute House when I was a little kid and the first McDonalds I ever saw was on 7th st across from the old Wiley High School..I fly to IND a lot now from Phoenix as a pilot for USAirways..just spent two hours there yesterday.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I know of Wally Bruner but didn’t know his history except his time hosting What’s My Line, so I looked him up and was surprised to learn of his history with WKZI and with WTHI-TV in Terre Haute. Speaking of Terre Haute, it has been sadly in decline for a long time. I lived there in the 1980s and 1990s. When I visit, I’m saddened to see the condition of things.

  4. Ward Fogelsanger Avatar
    Ward Fogelsanger

    I know what you mean about decline…the downtown in Casey has seen better days and the really classy city hall built in 1907 was replaced by essentially a general steel building..what they haven’t torn down they have lost to fire. I remember when I was in grade school you went shopping in downtown on Wabash avenue-they were open late on Monday and Thursday…Meis and Roots and Schultz were the department stores. An interesting novel that captures a lot of the essence of the area is Some Came Running by James Jones–was made into a movie in the 50’s with Frank Sinatra…it was the movie of the week the week WTWO signed on the air in 65.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Meis and Roots had moved to the mall on South 3rd St. by the time I got there in 1985. Schultz was long gone. Downtown was long gone, too, and hasn’t improved. They even tore down the Terre Haute House a few years ago.

      1. Ward Fogelsanger Avatar
        Ward Fogelsanger

        Bummer..they must no have the Casey city planners. I think in the 60’s Ralph Tucker was mayor of Terre Haute and he was their version of Richard Daley in Chicago…

  5. Ward Fogelsanger Avatar
    Ward Fogelsanger

    This is kind of an odd question. I know growing up mynparentsntalked about how narrowband bad old 40 was in Clark and Cumberland county and I drove the old narrow road between Casey and Martinsville all the time. However my question is how narrow was it..I know that standard with now is two 12 foot lanes..have you ever measured the old US 40 slab . I have heard it was 16 or 18 ft wide…but my guess is it was more like 16 ft. That would be quite thrilling if meeting a Hreyhound bus or semi.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I’m guessing, but 16 feet sounds right. Look at my car on the road in the photo above. It seems to take up half of the road by itself. My car is 70 inches, or just short of 6 feet, wide.

  6. Ward Fogelsanger Avatar
    Ward Fogelsanger

    Boy I sure didn’t proofread the above.

  7. Ward Fogelsanger Avatar
    Ward Fogelsanger

    I know that by not building the eastbound lanes of “new 40” in the 50’s the state of Illinois preserved the old National road..but it might have been smarter to have used that same right of way and built I-70 on it in Clark and Cumberland counties and saved 10+ years, money and thousands of acres of farmland. As it was the last stretch of I 70 opened between Baltimore and Denver was from Marshall to Montrose in late ’71. Of course in Illinois all the money ( whats left of it) and political power are north of Kankakee..

    1. Jim Avatar

      Looking at US 40’s route between Marshall and Montrose, I think it would have been challenging to turn 40 into 70. Sure, it would have used less farmland, which would have been a good thing. But every one of those towns would have had to be bypassed, and all the crossroads along the way would have been stubbed or overpassed, massively disrupting travel patterns.

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