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Laborers lay down cement on Lincoln Highway east of DeWitt nearly 100 years ago. 

In 1930, when Helmut Schnack took his father, Claus Jürgen Schnack, visiting America from Germany for the second time, to see the older man’s brother, Henry, who lived between Low Moor and Clinton, his father commented on the long road along which his brother’s farm was located.

He observed that the road was much longer than the sea lane from Hamburg to New York by which he had recently traveled on the ship. According to the journals he kept of his trips, he wrote in 1891-1892, and again in 1930, that it was the “main paved highway” of America, going all the way across the United States from New York to San Francisco. 

Claus Jürgen Schnack was my children’s great grandfather, so I read with intense interest his journals recently published in book form with lots of photos, by Anne Schnack Bousselot. Fantastic job, Anne!

It was the 1930 journal in which I read his comments about the “main paved highway.” The Lincoln Highway is that to which he referred. The significance of the Lincoln Highway has held with me almost since infancy, so his words struck a chord. 

I suppose it was because as a very little child, I sat on the front lawn of Grandpa Bohn Hoffmann’s last home, located just a bit south of DeWitt on the site where DeWitt Travel Mart stands today, and where the stoplight for the three-way intersection with Industrial Street is. Perhaps the road to the east at that stoplight was once Grandpa’s driveway; it seems to be in the same location. 

As I sat playing with my older sister on Grandpa’s lawn, picking clover blossoms, I was fascinated by the huge billboard located just on the other side of Grandpa’s fence. In huge letters it pronounced, “Welcome to DeWitt, Crossroads of the Nation.”

DeWitt was boasting that the only two transcontinental highways of the country intersected right there in its town center — near where our water tower now stands. The old crossing of Lincoln Highway and U.S. Highway 61, today is marked by the crossroads emblem embedded in the pavement. 

Research has shown that in ensuing years, several places in this country have taken the same title for the roads near them, but this was the first, and our town can lay claim to that! Although I have been unable to find photos, the billboard lingers strong in my mind. I wonder when and why it was removed. 

As for Claus Jürgen Schnack, who returned to Germany, before he would have known it, someday his sons and grandsons would be living along that same “main paved highway” by Malone, and that their very location had once been instrumental in the actual building of that highway near DeWitt. 

Malone, Iowa, where Chuck and Sandy Matthiesen have their butchering and luscious catering business today, was much more thriving in the old days, and the railroad which passes through there wasn’t just a fly-by as it is now. It maintained areas for shipping cattle and other business dealings. 

For the building of Lincoln Highway, it constructed a narrow-gauge rail system connection whereby ingredients for the construction of the paving were loaded into its hoppers and transported to the construction site from its location by Malone. In old photos can be seen the railway, the unloading of the narrow-gauge hopper cars, and the rigs that mixed the cement and deposited and paved it on site. 

Today, vehicles of all sorts zoom along our Lincoln Highway — renamed in 1925 as U.S. 30 to adhere to the federal numbering system required of all U.S. roadways — past mile marker 319 at Malone, Iowa, on a four-lane divided highway that stretched across continental United States, unaware of the history, the tough manual labor to build Lincoln Highway, and how much farmland and homestead property was ultimately consumed by the addition of those extra two lanes and the divider. Those additions made the road tremendously less muddy and bumpy than the one the settlers had to contend. 

The photos show first, the narrow-gauge railroad configuration at Malone, behind what is now the Schnack Farm, and its cars filled from the main train to carry up to the paving rigs. They show the supplies needed to construct that portion of Lincoln Highway (by the way, so named in honor of President Lincoln because he united the nation, as the new transcontinental highway was meant to do, instead of the original label of Coast to Coast Rock Highway).

The other photos I found show rigs and crews from 99 years ago in 1921, as they labored just east of DeWitt. 

The local history of the Lincoln Highway is fascinating. It’s good to learn of it and appreciate it. Most of those present when it was built are surely gone, and it is up to us to help preserve it, yet soon we’ll be gone. The older one gets and closer to leaving, apparently, the more important one’s history becomes. 

Wesley Fox, of Wheatland, has collected wonderful photos not only of building the Lincoln Highway there, but also the Wheatland area itself. Anne Schnack Bousselot is now doing amazing work on Clinton County country roads, and most certainly at the forefront in preserving our heritage is Ann Hazen Soenksen and the volunteers at the Central Community Historical Society right here in DeWitt, on Sixth Avenue, on historical Main Street.