Road Trips

The Michigan Road Auto Trail in Ripley County, Indiana

In 2008, I surveyed the Michigan Road from end to end, documenting the road and its built environment. Here is an installment of that trip report.

At the turn of the 20th century, many roads were dirt and wide enough only for a horse and buggy. They washed out and became impassable in the rain. But large portions, perhaps all, of the Michigan Road had been bought by gravel companies after 1850, which surfaced them in gravel and charged a toll for traveling on them through at least the 1890s.

By 1880, bicyclists nationwide began to organize and advocate for improved roads that would let them enjoy their bicycles more. By the early 1900s, as the automobile became popular, the drive for good roads intensified. Private associations formed to build or, more commonly, link existing good roads. The associations gave them names, posted signs along them, and promoted them. The best known auto trail is arguably the Lincoln Highway, which stretched from New York to San Francisco, but there were many others, national, regional, and local. Towns wanted to be on these “auto trails” because of the commerce they’d bring.

Given that the gravel companies had improved the Michigan Road, and given that it still provided access from south to north, coast to coast across Indiana, it was a natural to become an auto trail. Signs went up along the route, probably attached to utility poles as was the custom then. My 1921 Rand McNally Indiana map (left image below) says the signs were white on black; my 1922 (right image below) and 1925 Rand McNally Indiana maps say black on white. Either way, seeing an MR sign reassured you of your route.

Auto-trails maps show the Michigan Road bypassing the original route through most of Ripley County in favor of a route that went through Versailles (pronounced ver-SALES) and Osgood. It was common in these days for towns and cities to lobby hard for auto trails to be routed through them for the commerce they would bring. So it is very likely that Versailles and Osgood successfully pushed for this rerouting.

And so the improved road went to Versailles and Osgood. According to the 1922 Rand McNally Indiana map excerpted below, all of the bypassed route was a dirt road, while only a small portion of the Versailles-Osgood route was not gravel or paved. You can see the original Michigan Road as it passes through Marion and Dabney, and the Michigan Road Auto Trail as it passes through Versailles and Osgood. (On the map below, a solid black line is a road paved in concrete, brick, or macadam; a dashed line is an “improved” road of gravel, crushed stone, or oiled dirt; and all other lines indicate dirt roads.)

For completeness’ sake, I followed the auto-trail route too. Rexville is the first dot on the map, and it is little more than a sprinkling of houses today. Just north of there is a junkyard mostly populated with old school buses.

School bus graveyard
School bus graveyard

The first big town on the auto-trails route is Versailles. Strangely, none of the three highways that cross this town reach downtown. US 421 enters from the south, just left of center at the bottom of the map below. At Perry St., which is US 50, it turns left and follows 50 west out of town.

The first, and it turns out the only, interesting sight along the way is the Moon-Lite Motel. (The Michigan Road bypasses the heart of Versailles, which is famous for its art-deco architecture. Check out this old church that I visited some years after I made this road trip.)

Motel in Versailles, Indiana

Shortly after leaving Versailles, US 421 splits from US 50 and heads north. The map below incorrectly shows 421 following the left fork of this split:

But since the map photo was taken, your tax dollars reconfigured this intersection. The fork is gone; US 421 is now a right turn off US 50. This northbound photo shows a tiny stub of old US 421 that provides access to to David Ln.

Former US 421 alignment

After you leave US 50, Kelley’s Bel-Air Drive-In appears at the top of the hill. It opened in 1957, so why the ’56 Chevy on the sign?

Kelley's Bel-Air Drive In

Osgood is the next town on the Michigan Road auto trail. It was laid out in 1856 along the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. The original town lay entirely south of the railroad. US 421 in Osgood is Buckeye St.; it was part of a plank road of oak that stretched from Napoleon south to Versailles. (Buckeye St. was paved with stone in 1898 and with brick in 1914 and 1915. The Indiana State Highway Commission later covered the bricks with asphalt.)

While US 421 between Osgood and Napoleon is almost certainly the descendant of that plank road, it seems likely to me that the plank road followed US 421 south of town only as far as Hasmer Hill Road, which I believe was planked to downtown Versailles. In the map below of US 421 south of Osgood, notice how Hasmer Hill Road follows straight from Buckeye St,. while US 421 curves more southerly.

Hasmer Hill Road dead-ends today at the lake inside Versailles State Park. But before 1955, when this lake was created by damming a creek, Hasmer Hill Road appears to have connected to Main St. in Versailles. You would think that US 421 would have followed the Main St./Hasmer Hill Rd. route to Osgood, given how highways love to go through downtowns, but my maps show US 421 and its predecessors, State Road 29 and State Road 6, following US 421’s present downtown-skipping route as far back as 1921.

The Ripley County Bank stands on the southeast corner of Buckeye and Ripley Sts in Osgood. This photo shows this corner probably no later than the 1910s. This photo shows the bank (front, right), Buckeye St., and the block north of it from about the same time.

Ripley County Bank, Osgood, Indiana

Across the street stands this great Rexall Drug Store. The building to the right is the Damm Theater. I had no way of knowing that, of course, since its sign was off the building, which was undergoing restoration. I visited later and found the sign intact; see it here.

Rexall Pharmacy, Osgood, Indiana

This photo shows the east side of Buckeye St. as it approaches the railroad tracks.

Osgood, Indiana

This building is interesting not just because of its great neon sign, but because of its balcony. The original Osgood fire station is to its left; this photo shows it in 1911, which was before the Tourist Liquors building was built.

Tourist Liquors

From Osgood, US 421 makes its way to Napoleon, where it meets the original alignment of the road.

Next: The Michigan Road in Napoleon, Indiana.

I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.

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Moon-Lite Motel

Moon-Lite Motel
Canon PowerShot S80
2009

You’ll find the Moon-Lite Motel in Versailles (ver-SALES), Indiana, on US 421. That’s also the Auto Trail alignment of the Michigan Road. I’ve seen other photos with the neon fully working — the MOTEL letters light up in pink.

You never know what you’re going to get when you choose to stay at an old motel like this. Thank heavens for Google and its reviews, which say that this is one of the good ones.

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Photography

single frame: Moon-Lite Motel

A neon motel sign in Versailles, IN.

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Road Trips

Sights and signs in Versailles and Osgood

US 421 through Versailles and Osgood in Ripley County, Indiana, was not originally the Michigan Road. The original alignment still exists, a little to the west. But in the early 1900s as the automobile came to prominence, the Michigan Road was rerouted so that these two towns could get in on the action.

As you enter Versailles from the south, you soon come upon the Moon-Lite Motel.

Moon-Lite Motel

This traditional old-style motel is still operating and its rooms are all said to be recently remodeled.

Moon-Lite Motel

Most of what’s worth seeing in Versailles is a few blocks off US 421. The Tyson United Methodist Church is probably the town’s crown jewel. I wrote about it before, here.

Tyson United Methodist Church

This art deco wonder still serves this congregation. They just added a lift on the side of the building to let people into the basement more easily.

Tyson United Methodist Church

Moving on from Versailles you quickly come upon Osgood. Its downtown is right on the Michigan Road. This Rexall drug store still operates.

Rexall

Probably the best sight in Osgood is the Damm Theatre, if for no other reason that it’s so much fun to say. “Hey kids, let’s go to the Damm Theatre!”

The Damm Theatre

Just before you leave town heading north, you come upon these curious metal sculptures.

Statue

Thanks to our signs, there’s no doubt you’re on the Michigan Road.

Byway sign

I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.

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Preservation, Road Trips

The beautiful Art Deco church in the small Indiana town

What was I thinking, photographing this Art Deco church building on expired slide film? I wanted beautiful photographs of my visit.

Tyson United Methodist Church, Versailles, IN

Beauty is, of course, subjective. If you enjoy the color shifts of expired film, you probably find these photographs to be lovely. I guess they are, in their own way. I just hoped for realistic color and clarity, as I wanted to share this church as you’d see it if you walked up to it.

Tyson United Methodist Church, Versailles, IN

It’s not that I couldn’t go back and photograph it again; Versailles (pronounced ver-SALES) is only about 80 miles southeast of Indianapolis. I’m sure I’ll do just that one day and get exactly the photographs I want.

Tyson United Methodist Church, Versailles, IN

This church is named for its builder, James Tyson, who made his fortune as the first investor in Walgreen’s drug stores. Completed in 1937, Tyson built the church as a tribute to his deceased mother, a charter member of this congregation upon its 1834 founding.

Tyson United Methodist Church, Versailles, IN

This carefully maintained building of brick, terra cotta, copper, aluminum, and glass famously contains not a single nail in its construction. Many of its materials were imported from around Europe, but the oak pews are of local timber.

Tyson United Methodist Church, Versailles, IN

I was inside for a meeting of the Historic Michigan Road Association; Versailles is a Michigan Road town. Two alignments of the Michigan Road pass through Ripley County, of which Versailles is the seat. The original 1830s alignment lies a few miles to the west, but the road was rerouted through Versailles at the dawn of the automobile era.

Tyson United Methodist Church, Versailles, IN

Such an architectural gem is unusual for a small Indiana town like Versailles. Tyson built two other Art Deco buildings here: a library and a school. The church is arguably the loveliest of the three.

Tyson United Methodist Church, Versailles, IN

Pentax Spotmatic F, 55mm f/1.8 SMC Takumar, Konica Chrome Centuria 200 (exp. 12/2003)

I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

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