Several miles from my hometown, I pass this uninteresting scene: a sign frame next to a mailbox, and a home along the road. But I know that the frame has been there for at least 42 years; it once held a sign for a veterinarian’s practice in the lower level of the home. In 1968 my parents and I acquired a dachshund puppy, whom we named Baron, and for a few years we patronized that vet for our dog's shots and exams. As I recall, we liked the vet but switched to a practice that opened closer to our hometown. So I don’t know how long the first vet was in practice, but the house is now just a house and only this metal sign frame remains.
I’ve always been fascinated by mundane sights that have significance, or at least a small story, which passers-by would not know. What kind of sign did that frame used to hold? What is the significance of this place, if anything? Near my hometown, on U.S. 40, is an everyday-looking intersection of the main highway and two country roads. But in pioneer days the place was widely known as Twin Pumps. Two pumps served people and horses traveling on the National Road. For many years nothing alerted you to the history of the place.
A few years ago, I read an essay in which the writer expressed curiosity about a large L that he saw in the mosaic at the entrance of an empty building in Queens. He passed the place on the subway. Those attractive mosaic entryways grace business buildings in small towns, too; I noticed one in Richmond, IN outside of what must’ve once been a clothing store. Research and serendipity finally led the author to identify the name of the department store that had existed in the building he saw. Only the mosaic L signified a nearly forgotten history.
Illinois state route 185 is pictured at the beginning of this blog. As I drive 185 along Four Mile Prairie, I think of family stories told as we visited Grandma’s farm. I knew where our family’s peach orchard stood before a 1920s winter killed it; where six sweet apple trees stood beside a fence row, and where the family grew Ben Davis, Maiden Blush, Snowflake, and yellow Early Harvest apple trees; that Grandma set out a group of maple trees during the 1910s. I knew approximately where my uncle found 75 mushrooms one year during the 1910s, beneath a tree across from “the old Frank Crawford place.” I knew where my great-great-grandfather lived during the 1890s, and where cousin Andy Rush’s barns had stood along a certain fence row. All these places were “secret” places, identifiable only by reminiscence.
In fact, just west of the sign in my blog picture, is a roadside tree. Sometime during the 1960s, a young man was killed when he crashed his car into the tree. I wonder who else looks at the otherwise nondescript tree and remembers that; perhaps someone still grieves their loss when they pass by this very common place.
Since moving to St. Louis, I purchased a book about the several U.S. 66 alignments through the city: the original, main, bypass, and city routes. Most of the places depicted in the book are gone. The main route, Lindberg Blvd, now looks nothing like the motel- and and restaurant-lined highway of the 1950s. I imagine people looking at the postcards in the book and saying, “We stayed at that motel during our 1952 vacation to Tulsa!”
Private memories, nostalgia, and highway history converge around a location that has changed.