Rumble of history heard in Wisconsin – Westerly road, the Yellowstone Trail, now seen as a route to draw tourists
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI) – Tuesday, September 3, 2002
Author: DON BEHM, Journal Sentinel staff
One of the nation’s first cross-country auto roads, the Yellowstone Trail, is Wisconsin’s version of Route 66 and has as much potential to attract tourists as its more well-known counterpart in the Southwest.
At least that’s what business owners along the old road and tourism boosters are banking on.
The 406-mile Wisconsin portion of the trail stretches from Kenosha to Hudson, and a series of activities is under way to bring attention to it.
In the next year, a trail promotion campaign in 13 counties, from Eau Claire to Winnebago and south to Racine, is expected to double the number of visitors to historic sites near the route, according to Tom Barrett, executive director of the Stevens Point Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Motorists retracing the trail could provide businesses and museums with an economic boost, said Barrett, who helped form the Yellowstone Trail Association of Wisconsin a few years ago and organized commemorative activities last year in Portage, Wood, Clark and Chippewa counties.
Early promoters of the Yellowstone Trail boasted that this northern transcontinental auto route provided “a good road from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound.”
A 1919 route brochure said the entire 3,754-mile coast-to-coast trip “could be made safely.”
“Tourists will not need to camp nor carry any supplies unless they desire to do so,” the brochure promised. “At no point need extra water or gasoline be carried. Good garage facilities will be found each twenty miles or so.”
Motorists in Fords and Chevrolets, as well as Wisconsin-made autos such as the Kissel from Hartford and Nash from Kenosha, would have been given free maps and road condition reports in the lobby of the Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee.
Hotel manager Ray Smith was president of the Yellowstone Trail Association in 1921 and 1922. The association was a trail promotional group that also raised funds to repair roads and build bridges in the years before most states and the federal government spent tax dollars on those projects.
Volunteers along the route to the trail’s namesake, Yellowstone National Park, guided early motorists across Wisconsin and a dozen other states with yellow-painted stones, round metal signs, or arrows painted on telegraph posts and roadside buildings.
In a June 1915 round-the-clock relay race from Chicago to Seattle, farmers and other landowners on the route north of Milwaukee built bonfires to light the way through the countryside, according to Alice Ridge of Altoona. Ridge and her husband, John, published a history of the Yellowstone Trail in 2000.
The race ended in 97 hours, generating national headlines and publicity, Ridge said.
By the late 1920s, most states had published their own maps and were building numbered roads, an innovation started in Wisconsin in 1918. In 1926, the American Association of State Highway Officials created numbered interstate routes, eliminating the need for named roads and the private associations that promoted them, the Ridges said.
The Yellowstone Trail Association closed its doors in 1930.
During the trail’s prime, from 1915 to 1930, cars would have followed Sheridan Road north from Chicago to Milwaukee, according to the 1919 brochure. The trail wound through Milwaukee on Kinnickinnic, Grand and Fond du Lac avenues before joining Highway 175 into Menomonee Falls.
North of Menomonee Falls, trail users in the 1920s were directed away from the steep hill at the Meeker crossroads in what is now the Town of Richfield, according to a brochure to be published next month for the multi-county trail promotion.
The detour took them north on Goldendale Road, or Highway Y, to what is now Highway 145.
At that intersection, a Viking gasoline station refueled autos and sold 1-cent candy bars to their occupants, said Bob Kuhn, a Menomonee Falls resident who grew up on a farm across the road from the station.
The route then followed Highway 145 northwest to what is now Highway P. A few miles north on P, motorists would have turned west on Sherman Road to rejoin Highway 175 at Ackerville.
Today, a replica sign stands at the Sherman Road intersection within a mound of yellow-painted stones. John Lamm, owner of a nearby landscaping business, and his daughter, Laurie, created the display to draw attention to the trail, Lamm said.
Travelers stopped there to refill gas tanks or repair tires at a garage built by the Gumm family about 1920. A competing station was built across the road by the Ollinger family in 1926. Motorists then drove west to Highway 175 for the trip into Schleisingerville, the village now known as Slinger.
Farther north on 175 at the crossroads hamlet of Addison Center, the owner of a general store and gas station sold chili in tin buckets to northbound travelers on weekends in the late 1920s, said Suzanne Fish, owner of the Addison House Bed & Breakfast.
Travelers dropped off the buckets on their return trip, she said. At that time, Fish’s building was home of the Wig-Wam saloon. Fish has placed a trail sign on her building.
Much of Route 66, the nation’s first interstate highway, has been abandoned or has disappeared. But what’s left continues to draw tourists. Last summer, Albuquerque, N.M., attracted thousands of visitors with a 75th anniversary celebration that included art and film festivals, car and motorcycle shows and other events.
That’s what people such as Stevens Point’s Barrett wants to see for the trail in Wisconsin.
“The trail has a colorful past,” he said. “With the growing public interest in historic sites, we’re looking for some economic impact from the people who will be retracing the route of the trail and staying in communities along the way.”
To that end, the trail in southeastern Wisconsin is being re-marked, with replica signs posted at two Germantown locations: Lohmann’s Steak House on Highway 175, and the intersection of Highway 175 and Lannon Road.
A Yellowstone Trail Park will be dedicated Oct. 18 on Highway 175 at Highway OO in the Village of North Fond du Lac, said Village Administrator Karen Matze.
The half-acre park, to be marked with a yellow-painted stone and a sign, is close to two historic trail attractions at the intersection — the former Yellowstone Garage, now a battery store, and the demolished Yellowstone Tavern , Matze said.
Among the targeted modern-day trail riders are Harley owners gathering in Milwaukee a year from now for Harley-Davidson’s 100th birthday, antique car clubs, and aging baby boomers seeking a cruise on back roads.
“Wisconsin could use some more road trips, especially with the Harley group coming next September,” said Linda Klusak, executive director of the Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We expect people will hop on their cycles or into their cars and follow the trail off the beaten path.”
— The 406-mile Wisconsin portion of the Yellowstone Trail stretches from Kenosha to Hudson.
— During the trail’s prime, from 1915 to 1930, cars would have followed Sheridan Road north from Chicago to Milwaukee, according to a 1919 route brochure.
— The trail wound through Milwaukee on Kinnickinnic, Grand and Fond du Lac avenues before joining Highway 175 into Menomonee Falls.
— See map on 5B for more details of the trail