Sunday, February 21, 2010

Picnic Area on U.S. 51

Because of some other writing projects, I may not write here for a couple weeks. But I thought I’d post this photo which I found among other pictures while I was looking for something else.

Along U.S. 51 between Vandalia, Illinois, which is my hometown, and Ramsey, Illinois, which also has family connections, you can find an earlier highway alignment that lies just west of the main road. When I was a little boy, this short stretch of old 51 featured a pleasant picnic area for travelers. Just north of the area was a quaint metal highway bridge that carried you across a stream before the road rejoined the main alignment. U.S. 51 was Illinois State Route 2 prior to 1926, and I wonder if this bridge dates from the 20s.

Back in the days of Rock City barns and roadside cafes, picnic areas were a common sight along the two-lane highways. They were such pleasant areas, basically a small park beside the road. A very nice picnic area once existed along U.S. 40 west of Vandalia, a few miles east of the intersection with IL 140 near Mulberry Grove, and I’ve written here about another such area along 51 near Sandoval, IL ("The Ways of Old Roads," 5/25/09). I remember a gorgeous little roadside park along Hwy. 40 where we stopped during our 1965 vacation to Washington, D.C. I think the park must’ve been in Indiana or Ohio, but I’ve not been able to find it during sporadic attempts. After all, so many years have passed; for instance, that stop near Mulberry Grove has been incorporated into a farm and is no longer recognizable.

Why would you have a picnic along a highway? Well, you’d probably have food and drinks packed for your trip! My dad certainly did; he’d have bottles and cans of soda and food for our trips. One year he fried a big batch of fried chicken to take along for a vacation. I remember my mother was angry at him because he cleaned the kitchen very inadequately prior to our several days away. We stopped at a roadside park--I don’t remember where---to eat our lunch, and I noticed all the messages people had written or carved into the table’s wood.

I suppose today you’d worry about stopping along a highway to relax; the real-life cousins of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit might jump out from the trees. But, of course, you can’t stop at all along interstate highways, unless you exit highway completely. Picnic areas seem as quaint as mom-and-pop restaurants, but they imply a pleasant, unhurried aspect of early- and mid-twentieth century road travel.

When I visit Vandalia I don’t usually drive north of town, but several years ago I happened to be driving that way and I rediscovered this little picnic area, so pleasant during my childhood. The place was quite overgrown. Not only that, but the old alignment was mostly closed to traffic, because the old bridge is, apparently, no longer sturdy enough. It is barricaded, but you can pull off the main alignment and stroll upon the old road. The narrowness of these original alignments always intrigues me, especially after I’ve driven multi-lane interstates for a while.

I took this picture of the bridge. It was a late fall day, and the resulting photo was more haunting than I’d planned. Where does that narrow road go? Actually just up the hill to the old picnic area, where future archaeologists may someday find chicken bones and bottle caps and arcane messages like “Tim + Mary” carved into wood.


  1. I lived between Vandalia and Ramsey -- my mom still does. I went to school in Vandalia, but our family went to church in Ramsey. I used to like it when we'd take the "back way" home from church or choir practice and turn off here and pass the rest area on our way home. Also along the way home there was a house with a mailbox support made out of bowling balls. I don't remember whose house that was, but I loved their mailbox!

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  3. Great! I also liked a certain silo along the road; during the 60s it was painted with a Miller High Life logo. The logo faded and disappeared over the years, but the silo may still be there--not sure.