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State Pushing Historic Highway as Tourist Attraction

Sat September 24, 2005 - Midwest Edition
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SOUTH VIENNA (AP) In Ohio, a stately red brick inn once frequented by presidents hugs the nation’s first federally-funded interstate highway.

In Pennsylvania, the road passes a French-and-Indian-War battlefield. In Indiana, travelers can stop at a cafe known for its pork tenderloin sandwiches.

Authorized by Thomas Jefferson in 1806, the road some call America’s Main Street stretches more than 700 mi. through six states, from Maryland to Illinois. States are increasing their promotion of the National Road, hoping its historic, cultural and recreational sites will lure tourists from the interstates where speed is the big draw.

Ohio and Indiana have produced travel guides, and Maryland is planting 60 interpretive markers along the road to enlighten travelers about the historic sites. Illinois intends to build 21 information centers and is working on a pictorial history. West Virginia has a video promoting its sites.

The publications, Web sites and videos are packed with facts about cities, businesses, bridges, farms, courthouses, rail stations, motels and wildlife areas along the highway, which is U.S. 40 for much of the way.

Glenn Harper, who co-wrote Ohio’s brochure, said the National Road is a visual history book for observant travelers.

“If people do their homework and prepare for this, they could have a very good experience,” Harper said.

Ohio’s guide points out such sites as astronaut John Glenn’s boyhood home, the Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery and the first Wendy’s restaurant. In Pennsylvania, there is the Fort Necessity National Battlefield. In Wheeling, there is West Virginia Independence Hall and Museum, and in Illinois there are the prehistoric Cahokia Indian mounds in the Metro East area.

Driving the National Road is a mix of long stretches with little traffic and brief encounters with heavier traffic as the highway threads through urban areas. It is a ride in the country punctuated by short bursts of city viewing. And unlike the interstates, there are traffic lights.

Doug Bast operates the Boonsborough Museum of History out of his Victorian home next to the highway in Boonsboro, MD.

The house is crammed with Bast’s private collection of religious art, pottery, the tusk of a wooly mammoth, a cane he said was carved by Geronimo and a collection of Civil War artifacts, including a Bible kissed by 10,000 Confederate prisoners who swore not to pick up arms again against the North.

“I never get rid of anything so it just keeps piling up,” Bast said.

Artists now operate out of frame rowhouses in West Alexander, PA, that catered to travelers during the road’s heyday in the 1870s. Buildings once used by blacksmiths and country doctors have been transformed into shops run by potters, jewelers and other artisans.

Travelers also can buy antiques, stained glass and miniature wood figures carved from twigs and bark. Lessons in making stained glass, pottery and wood carvings are offered.

Inside the Red Brick Tavern in Lafayette, OH, a white-tablecloth restaurant draws visitors to the left, and a tavern beckons to the right. Prime rib, beef liver and homemade cinnamon rolls are on the menu at the inn, once a stagecoach stop that was visited by six presidents. And diners can admire the original woodwork, a grandfather clock, a Victrola phonograph and china that dates to the 1800s.

The National Road also can take travelers to the homes and into the lives of residents and shopkeepers.

Colorful, handmade, two-seater benches for sale in Jim Wren’s front yard in South Vienna draw motorists to his workshop. Wren has spent his life next to the highway, where his father operated a filling station.

Down the road is a handsome, cream-colored brick home housing a business that bills itself as the largest lamp shop in the Midwest, carrying 5,000 lampshades.

Built in 1836, the house was a stagecoach stop and later a tourist camp, until Interstate 70 was built nearby in the late 1960s.

“Some nights it was bumper to bumper. You could just see them coming down the highway,” said Denna Johnson who with her husband bought the house in 1963. “We knew we would fill up that night.”

The National Road also is a window on the unusual and nostalgic: a sign that says “Rocks for Sale” near Harmony, OH, and the Melody Drive-In, a 1950s-era theater that hosts church services on Sundays in Springfield.

On the outskirts of Indianapolis people can stop at the Plainfield Diner for the lightly breaded pork tenderloin sandwich –– $3.50 apiece –– and a piece of the pie of the day.

The classic diner with a stainless-steel shell, two counters and 16 stools was built in 1954. It is operated by Ray Piercy who got his start just out of grade school working at a drive-in restaurant. By 16, he was the day manager.

Piercy said being on the National Road is good for business.

“It’s a high-traffic street,” he said. “And the history’s neat. I do appreciate it.”

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