The National Road in Ohio: Wrapping up the trip in Preble County

Over Memorial Day weekend in 2011, my dog Gracie and I explored the National Road all the way across Ohio. That road is now US 40 in most places. I’m bringing the long trip report over from my old Roads site.

As we drive around on America’s highways today we encounter the usual fast-food franchises over and over again. McDonald’s is everywhere!

In the early 20th century, a McDonald’s sprouted up at the corner of US 40 and US 127, about 10 miles east of the Indiana state line. This was long before the first McDonald’s restaurant, of course. This was an entirely different McDonald’s.

Auto camps were sort of a precursor to the motel. In the 1910s and 1920s there were few services for drivers on the road. Cities had hotels and restaurants, of course. But sometimes the distance between two cities was more than could be traveled in a day, and some travelers wished to avoid hotel costs. So it was common to carry camping gear on road trips and just camp along the roadside. Sometimes a friendly farmer would let a traveler camp in his field. Sometimes a farmer recognized a revenue opportunity and charged for the privilege. Dedicated auto camps were created, and some built small, basic cabins and rented them at nominal rates. That had to be very welcome on a rainy night! McDonald’s Camp offered several cabins for rent.

A Marathon station stands on the corner of US 40 and US 127 today. But if you peek behind the station, McDonald’s cabins still stand. They appear to be rented out long term as sleeping rooms today.

McDonald's Camp

I would liked to have moved in closer, but people were loitering around the cabins and I didn’t want to attract their attention.

West of the Dayton metro, US 40 is just a two-lane road. The first McDonald’s Camp photo above shows the road paved in concrete. I found one very short old alignment just east of the Indiana line where a little of that concrete still exists.

Old alignment

This is an odd old alignment, as it creates two sharp curves. Current US 40 cuts right through the middle.

Imagery ©2022 CNES/Airbus, IndianaMap Framework Data, Maxar Technologies, State of Ohio/OSIP, US Geological Survey, USDA/FPAC/GEO. Map data ©2022 Google.

With that, my three-day trek along Ohio’s National Road came to an end.

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10 responses to “The National Road in Ohio: Wrapping up the trip in Preble County”

  1. Suzassippi Avatar

    I learned about the early auto camps through the newspaper archives. Interesting approaches to early automobile travel! I am amazed the cabins are still in use.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Looks like they are efficiency apartments or sleeping rooms. I’m surprised they’re still there too. They’re kind of out in the middle of nowhere.

  2. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Interesting! I didn’t know about auto camps, but it makes sense. I wonder if campgrounds like KOA are a remnant of that?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Perhaps they are. Early automobile travelers camped wherever they could. Then campgrounds sprung up. Then cabins were built on some campgrounds. Then cabins were connected to form early motels. Then purpose-built motels were built. There, 40 years of motel history in a nutshell.

  3. Kodachromeguy Avatar

    You have done an amazing job documenting these old roads and the cultural features that were along them. I admire your energy.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you! These early road trips were done in part because I was interested, but also because I was escaping the pain of my divorce. I still take the occasional road trip to press my mental reset button.

  4. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    127 caught my attention. Looks like this is almost exactly 4 hours south of me. My grandparents would have passed by on a number of occasions as that was their usual route from Michigan to Florida starting in the 1930’s.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      How awesome that you can make that connection!

  5. J P Avatar

    I have seen many a tourist cabin depicted in old movies from the 30s and 40s. The always seemed to be used by bad guys “on the lam”.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      By that time they were outmoded, and might have been considered cheap lodging much like the 1950s roadside motel is now.

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