Article originally published by The Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette on March 27, 1988.
Reproduced by permission of The Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. Permission does not imply endorsement by the newspaper.
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NEWMAN -- When dads were strong, moms were fearless and cars glided high above the road, it took more than a map to find the national highway. In this part of the country, it was called the "Ocean To Ocean Pike's Peak Road," and it took a stretch of the imagination indeed for it to reach any large body of water. It did carry the traveler from Indianapolis to Denver, though, with plenty of stops in such scenic spots as Tuscola, Murdock and Decatur. Raymond Sollers, born 79 years ago in Newman. remembers a few of those determined vacationers from the East Coast as they wound their way slowly through his hometown's one-lane highway. "We usually didn't see much of them besides their out-of-state plates on their Model Ts." he recalls. Often, though, travelers had no choice but to stop in towns they'd never heard of. Twenty years before Route 36 came through and 60 years before the interstates, the Ocean to Ocean road was a boon to automobilers, to businesses in towns like Newman and to farmers looking for something to do while their crops grew.
"YOU'D HEARD A lot of stories about cars stuck in the mud back then, and then they'd be glad to see the farmer and his team," Sollers says. As their flashy new roadsters slowly sunk into the muck, East Coast types were pretty much at the mercy of a cagey local, says a Decatur attorney who has made a study of the highway. "I've heard my parents talk about farmers hitched up and waiting," says Albert Hurt. "They hit 'em up for $15 and pull 'em out of the mud. Then that car would get another two miles and there'd be another farmer waiting." "It took a big car, one of the Reos with the big wood-spoke wheels, to clear the potholes around here," Sollers says. Some of that pioneerlug spirit went a long way years before rest stops, Dogs N Suds stands and 24-hour gas stations. "Back then, you had a good day if you made 50 or 100 miles, the roads were so bad," says Hurt, 68, who as a boy used to watch cars whiz by his western Illinois home.
THE OCEAN TO Ocean was not so much built as described, he says. Before the federal government got into the road-building business, counties and states were responsible for most roads. And before that, Hurt says, townships were. At each township line, the road could change from brick to corduroy (logs) to mud, and a federal directory would describe the circuitous route to stay on the "national road." With Newman, for instance, the directory - Hurt has one from 1903 and another from 1910 - guided autos into town from the north on King's Street, past the high school to the Presbyterian church, east to Broadway, south one block to Green Street, east a block to Howard Street and south a block to Lytle Street. Directories had critical information, such as where there was a well, or where someone knew how to fix tires. Otherwise, vacationers were on their own. The road was usually marked with triangles painted on telephone poles, Hurt says, whatever color the township chose. Sollers doesn't remember much in the way of signs in Newman. "There weren't stop signs or anything, you just held your arm up when you wanted somebody to pass you," he says.
THERE WERE FEW accidents on the one-lane highway, he says, because there weren't many cars on the road. Most people didn't drive across the country for fun back then. When they got to Newman, though, they were in for a treat. Where the asphalt's gone bare, you can still see the paving bricks laid by Soller's uncle, and a few other Newmanites who placed each brick by hand under the Central Illinois sun. Other townships weren't as meticulous. The Ocean to Ocean might turn into a mud puddle on a politician's whim, Decatur's Hurt says, or the township could take the quicker way and fell timbers crosswise for a corduroy road - with all the ruts that come with it. Confronted with the challenge of laying a road by hand, Newman never even considered a cheaper corduroy road. "Fact of the matter is, didn't have the timber for it!" Sollers says, laughing as he gazes at the flat expanse of farmland. And the road paid Newman back. Shelton A1len, who owns the hardware store in town, lived out in the country as a boy. He remembers coming into Newman and seeing all the filling stations and restaurants that a highway brings.
"THE CONOCO had a big sign that said 'Ocean to Ocean Filling Station' on it," he says, pointing out the empty white building around the corner. Sollers, who was water superintendent for two decades, can still trace all the businesses that came and went with the Ocean to Ocean and Route 36. Standing in front of the empty filling station, he recalls the crowds that used to come to Newman's downtown on Friday and Saturday nights. "On a good Saturday, you couldn't walk down that sidewalk." he says. Folks'd be out in the street crowding to the stores and places." There were three barbershops in the 1920s (there's one now) to take care of people from the outlying areas who came in for a big night, and they'd be cutting hair until 1l or 12 on those nights, he says. "Farmers, they'd bring the kids to town for a haircut, and they'd loaf around, and you'd think this was a big city," he says. "The roads brought people from all over." Just before the Depression, folks in Newman thought Route 36 would bring them even more business.
"PEOPLE THOUGHT 36 would change Newman, but it never did change too much, to tell the truth," he says. "The town's about the same size it was when I was a kid." Over at the hardware store, Shelton Allen is hoping that a proposed waste processing plant - welcomed in signs full of Newman friendliness on Route 36 - will bring back some jobs to this part of Douglas County. The company, Recontrek, will hold a town meeting later this month. The word is, a plant would create 200 jobs -- more jobs than there are unemployed in this town of 1,100. New jobs would bring people in from all over the county, he says. Hurt says roads will always lead to Newman and the other towns along the Ocean to Ocean. "It's just the easiest way across this part of the country," he says. "Cattle found the easiest way across, and the Indians built their trails on the same path, and then the settlers did the same. It's been the best way to go for hundreds of years."
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