Preservation, Road Trips

I brake for neon: The restored sign at the Artcraft Theater

I’ll pretty much always stop to photograph an old neon sign when it’s lit.

Artcraft Theater, Franklin

On our annual road trip Dawn and I made our last stop in Franklin, which is about 20 miles south of downtown Indianapolis on US 31. Actually, downtown Franklin is on old US 31, and as we approached from the south we made a last-minute call to follow the old road through town. We were very happy we did when we came upon the Artcraft Theater’s sign lit.

Artcraft Theater, Franklin

Our last visit to Franklin had been nine years before, almost to the day. I remembered the sign as being in rougher shape, so when I got home I looked through my photographs. As you can see from my 2008 photo below, I remembered right. The sign had been restored! Turns out the whole theater has been restored; see photos here.

Franklin, IN

The Artcraft was built in 1922 as a vaudeville house and to show silent movies. It operated as a movie theater through 2000, a remarkable run in the multiplex era. A nonprofit bought the building in 2004 and, through grants, restored it. Today the theater is used for special events and shows classic films every week.

Artcraft Theater, Franklin

As we passed through, old US 31 was closed in front of the theater as cars lined up, trunks and tailgates open, to pass candy to trick-or-treaters. It was the Saturday before Halloween.

Pentax K10D, 28-80mm f/3.5-4.7 SMC Pentax-FA

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Road Trips

Photographs that don’t show the best of Columbus, Indiana

I have given Columbus, Indiana, short shrift on my road trips. It is well known, prized even, for its stunning architecture and public art. (See some of it here.) Yet every time I visit I miss most of it.

It’s because on my road trips I stick to the old roads — and Columbus is served by a great one, the Madison State Road. It is one of Indiana’s first highways, from the 1830s, connecting Indianapolis to the Ohio River at Madison. It enters Columbus from the north on old US 31 and exits to the south on State Road 7. Also, it’s well worth exploring US 31 and its old alignments south from town, as well as State Road 46 laterally across town and then through some of Indiana’s loveliest scenery.

So I’ve been to Columbus several times, but I always pass through the same sections of town. Next time I’ll make Columbus a destination, get off the main routes, and come back with art and architecture photographs. Until then, you’ll have to make do with these photos of the heart of Columbus’s downtown. These first shots, starting with the Bartholomew County Courthouse, are from a trip I made in 2008.

Bartholomew County Courthouse

At the time, Columbus’s downtown mall, The Commons, was being renovated. It’s right across the street from the courthouse, where State Road 46 intersects Washington Street.

Columbus, IN

This was my first visit to Columbus, and on the ground Washington Street felt like the main downtown drag. So I walked it for a couple blocks.

Columbus, IN

Downtown Columbus feels like any other Indiana downtown — except that it’s remarkably tidy and every building is occupied. Most small Indiana cities are not so fortunate, with crumbling facades and entire vacant blocks. What makes the difference is the excellent employment available in Columbus: Cummins Engine is headquartered here.

Columbus, IN

The Crump Theater stood around the corner on State Road 46, looking a little worse for the wear. Its facade is of porcelain steel and Vitrolite (pigmented structural glass) panels.

Columbus, IN

On a return visit this October, the Crump was in much the same overall condition even though the deteriorated details had changed. A missing Vitrolite panel had been replaced with a board painted the same color, a boarded-up portion of the entrance had been reopened, and its marquee was missing some panels.

The Crump

At least this time we got to see some of the public art. This photo is a detail of a work called Chaos 1 by Jean Tinguely, who was Columbus’s artist in residence in the early 1970s. Weiging seven tons and standing 30 feet high, it’s inside the renovated The Commons mall. I wish I had thought to photograph the mall exterior, as it looks very little now like it did in 2008. And I wish there had been enough room for me to back up to get this entire kinetic sculpture in my lens.


Looking out from the sculpture, The Commons is a lovely public space.


Remarkably little had changed on Washington Street since 2008. I’m sure some businesses have closed and others have opened, but the street looks just as tidy as ever.


As we walked through, many of the trees were tagged with yellow bands like these. I couldn’t discern a pattern, but all of the tags had words on them. I’m sure they were part of a temporary public-art installation.


This Washington Street alley is also a public art installation called Friendship Way. I hear it lights up at night.

Alley in Columbus

Kodak EasyShare Z730 Zoom and Pentax K10D, 28-80mm f/3.5-4.7 SMC Pentax-FA

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Preservation, Road Trips

Sleep in a wigwam

The sign says, “Sleep in a Wigwam,” but these are actually tipis. A wigwam is a domed structure. But the fellow who invented this motel concept just liked the sound of the word wigwam better. Thus a name was born: Wigwam Village.

Cave City, KY

That fellow was Frank Redford, who built the first Wigwam Village in 1933 in Horse Cave, KY. It was so successful that he built this one in 1937 in nearby Cave City, KY, on the Dixie Highway, known today as US 31W. Frank licensed the design to Chester Lewis, who built five more around the country through 1949. Three Wigwam Villages remain: this one, and two on Route 66 in Holbrook, AZ, and San Bernadino, CA.

Cave City, KY

Each wigwam, or tipi, contains two beds and a bathroom with a sink, toilet, and shower. According to reviews on Yelp, these are small, basic rooms from a time gone by, and they show signs of their age.

Cave City, KY

When my sons and I planned our Mammoth Cave trip I considered staying here. I absolutely would have if I were traveling by myself. But my sons aren’t into old-road nostalgia like I am. On this trip, the spacious, modern, more luxurious hotels over by the Interstate were mighty compelling to them.


Imagery c 2015 Google. Map data c 2015 Google.

But there’s hardly an old motel anywhere as distinctive as this one, with its rooms arranged in a half circle around the big-tipi office. That’s an original alignment of the Dixie Highway behind the motel, by the way. Several old Dixie Highway alignments lurk around US 31W as it snakes through central Kentucky.

Cave City, KY

This old roadgeek yearns to explore them all. When I do, you’d better believe I’ll sleep in a wigwam.

(These are all film photos, by the way, taken with my Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80.)

Several great old motels line US 40 in Columbus, Ohio. Check out their great signs.

Road Trips

Return to Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace

I’m sure it’s common to be fascinated with Abraham Lincoln. From where I live in central Indiana, it’s easy to indulge that fascination: Lincoln’s childhood and early adult life played out across southern Illinois, southern Indiana, and central Kentucky. Monuments to Lincoln abound, all reached within one tank of gas.

So I’ve visited Lincoln’s Indiana and Kentucky boyhood homes, the place where his family crossed into Illinois, where he legislated in Illinois, and — three times now — where he was born in Kentucky. This third time was while my sons and I were on Spring Break earlier this month. Mammoth Cave is just 40 miles southwest, so we swung by on our way home from there.

A monument to Lincoln

Two numbers figure prominently into the monument to Abe’s birthplace: 16, because he was the 16th President, and 56, because he was 56 when he was assassinated. When you visit, you experience 56 first: count the steps.

A monument to Lincoln

Inside, you’ll find 16 windows, 16 rosettes in the ceiling, and 16 poles through which the guard chain threads. There’s just one cabin, of course, though it’s not the one in which Lincoln was actually born. Nobody knows what became of it. But this one is representative.

Replica cabin

My favorite detail on the monument building is the lions on the doors.

Lion knocker

This property is known as Sinking Spring because of a recessed spring. These steps lead up from the spring.


Abraham Lincoln had no memories of this place. His family moved when he was 2, to a nearby farm that is also a national park. It was closed this day, or we would have visited it, too. The Lincolns stayed there just five years before moving to Indiana.

Check out photos from my previous visit to Lincoln’s birthplace here.

History, Road Trips

Adding the Michigan Road to the modern Indiana highway system

Brace for impact: here comes a major road history post. I haven’t written one in ages.


The Michigan Road, highlighted in blue. Map © 2008 Google.

It was very late to the party: the last segment of the old Michigan Road to be added to Indiana’s modern state highway system.

The state of Indiana built the Michigan Road during the 1830s to connect Madison on the Ohio River to Michigan City on Lake Michigan via the new state capital in Indianapolis.

Indiana built other roads at about the same time, but none like the Michigan Road. Its right-of-way was enormous at 100 feet wide; the road itself used the central third. Even though the road was barely a dirt path at first, it was arguably the grandest road in Indiana. It was a major commerce route that opened deeply wooded northern Indiana to settlers.

The railroad’s rise in the late 1800s led the Michigan Road and all other major roads into disuse and disrepair. But around the turn of the 20th century, the bicycle and the automobile made good roads a priority. Indiana responded in 1917 with its State Highway Commission, which laid a fledgling network of highways over existing major routes and began to improve them, in turn from dirt to gravel to brick or concrete, and eventually to asphalt.

The State Highway Commission numbered just five State Roads in its first year. You might be surprised to learn that the Michigan Road was not among them.

Not in its entirety, at least. State Roads were laid out along portions of the Michigan Road in northern Indiana: from about Rolling Prairie east to South Bend, and then from South Bend south to Rochester.

The east-west segment was part of State Road 2, which followed the 1913 Lincoln Highway, a coast-to-coast auto trail established through the work of entrepreneur Carl Fisher. The north-south section was part of State Road 1, which continued south from Rochester along a new road that passed through Peru and Kokomo on its way to Indianpolis and, ultimately, the Ohio River across from Louisville.


Plymouth Pilot-News, March 27, 1919 (click to enlarge)

Naturally, all major Indiana cities wanted a good, direct road leading to the state capital, and towns in between wanted to be on those roads. A road would lead from South Bend to Indianapolis. Logansport wanted to be on that route. You have to wonder why the state chose State Road 1 through Peru and Kokomo over the Michigan Road through Logansport. The Michigan Road’s generous right-of-way would certainly ease future improvements. Perhaps the state wanted to provide good-road access to two towns rather than just one. Perhaps Peru and Kokomo had a more effective lobby.

Officials in Logansport went down fighting, agitating for the state to hard-surface the Michigan Road rather than State Road 1 south from Plymouth, as the inset 1919 newspaper article reports. They even claimed — incorrectly — that the Michigan Road was a little shorter.

Alas, State Road 1 was paved.

Indiana expanded its State Road system to more than 50 roads by 1926, adding most of the Michigan Road in the process. The portion from Madison to Indianapolis became State Road 6. The portion from Indianapolis to Logansport became State Road 15.

(By the way, State Road 15 continued northwest from Logansport through Winamac and La Porte to Michigan City, fulfilling the Michigan Road’s mission in much more direct fashion. The indirect route through South Bend had been a compromise — one South Bend certainly enjoyed — to avoid the Kankakee Marsh in northwest Indiana. In the 1830s, no road could be built there. A series of ditches built in the late 1800s through about 1917 drained the marsh, and then by 1922 the river itself was dredged. The direct route finally could be, and was, built. It is US 35 today.)

But the portion of the Michigan Road from Logansport to Rochester remained off the grid.


Maps courtesy Indiana University Libraries

The U.S. route system we know today was established in 1927. Several State Roads became U.S. highways. Indiana renumbered its State Roads to eliminate numbers the same as the new U.S. routes and to tame what had become a messy numbering scheme. The Michigan Road from Madison to Logansport became State Road 29 (except for a rural segment south of Napoleon in Ripley County, which the highway bypassed to loop in nearby Osgood and Versailles). Old State Road 1, including the Michigan Road from South Bend to Rochester, became US 31. The Michigan Road from South Bend to Michigan City became part of US 20.

Also in 1927, the State Highway Commission decided to build a State Road from Lafayette to Warsaw. To be named State Road 25, it would pass through Logansport and Rochester. At last, this segment of the Michigan Road would join the state highway system! It was added first, in 1928; the rest of State Road 25 was added in stages over the next few years. The state highway map segments above tell the story. In 1923, the Michigan Road didn’t appear between Rochester and Logansport. In 1927 a dotted line appeared to show that the road was approved to be added to the system. In 1928, the thick black line shows that the road was not only added, but hard surfaced, except for a small portion near Fulton. The broken line there and elsewhere on the map indicates a gravel road.

State Road 25 (the Michigan Road) heading northeast from Logansport

State Road 25 (the Michigan Road) in northeastern Logansport, heading toward Rochester

Logansport got its wish nine years too late, as by that time US 31 had become the dominant route to Indianapolis. Not that it mattered much in the long run — US 31 might have boosted Kokomo’s and Peru’s prosperity for a time, but US 31 was rerouted around both towns in the 1970s and traffic through these towns slowed to a trickle. All three towns experienced serious decline toward the end of the 20th century, for reasons bigger than rerouted highways. None is noticeably better off than the others today.

New! See an index of everything I’ve written about the Michigan Road here.

Road Trips, Stories Told

Avoiding Kokomo

One of the things that got me interested in the back highways was the city of Kokomo, Indiana. More accurately, it was avoiding Kokomo that helped spark my interest.

Long ago, US 31 went right through downtown Kokomo. But congestion became a problem, and so about 40 years ago a new four-lane US 31 was built to the east, bypassing the city. Businesses quickly sprouted along the bypass end to end – restaurants, gas stations, stores, even a mall. Stoplights multiplied like rabbits. Soon the bypass was even more congested than the original route through town had been.

Bypass on the left, old US 31 on the right

My dad let me have the spare car my senior year in college and at first I dutifully followed the route he always took when he drove me to school: US 31 from South Bend through Kokomo to Indianapolis, then I-465 west and south around the city, and then I-70 to Terre Haute. But I had to drive the Kokomo bypass only once to realize I didn’t want to do it again. The bumper-to-bumper traffic crawled along at 20 or 30 miles per hour, and I swear I stopped at every. last. stoplight.

It also didn’t help that the rest of the route was a crashing bore. Back then, Indiana’s maximum speed limit was 55 miles per hour. But both US 31 and I-70 were four-lane highways that begged for far greater speed.

So I began looking for alternative routes. I unfolded my Rand McNally map, which seems so quaint when I think about it now, and traced routes between my hometown and my college town. I found several suitable routes, all along two-lane Indiana state highways, and tried them all on my various trips back and forth. This was my first exposure to Indiana’s small towns and endless cornfields and I quickly became hooked.

Today, most of US 31 is posted at 60 MPH, and most of I-70 is posted at 70 MPH. I use these roads when I need to get somewhere in a hurry. But as much as possible I try to give myself plenty of time so I can enjoy driving through Indiana’s countryside.

Driving through Kokomo is still a drag, though. But not for much longer – the state is building another US 31 bypass even farther east of town. It’s a bypass of the bypass! This time they’re doing it right and making it an Interstate-style limited access highway. I’m sure I’ll try it out when it opens. But you’ll still be more likely to find me on a back highway.

And then there was the time I spun my car most of the
way through tiny Fulton, Indiana. Read that story