Road sign
This rare sign dates to 1910 and marks the route of the first automobile highway across the state of Iowa.

Dear Doug: Many, many years ago, I found this old sign while playing in a ditch near my cousin’s farm outside of Davenport. I’ve somehow managed to hold onto it all these years, and it now hangs in my garage. I just wondered what you could tell me about it.

Thank you!

C.J.K., Davenport

Dear Mr. K: I think most people would have pitched this old dinged-up highway sign.

Whether by conscious forethought or pure luck, you’ve saved an important part of Iowa motoring history and a piece of memorabilia I wouldn’t mind adding to my own collection.

Back in the early days of the automobile, the only rural roads to traverse were dirt horse-drawn buggy paths. If not blanketed with an inch of dust in mid-July, they often were a quagmire of mud militated by rain or a rut-riddled disaster after drying up. A trip across the state, or even to the next town, could be a perilous adventure. Travelers were not only at the whimsical mercy of Mother Nature, but the few roads that existed were a seemingly unorganized mess of unmapped paths to nowhere.

In 1910, however, a group called the Iowa Good Road Association created a plan for a 380-mile route across the state, from the Mississippi to the Missouri rivers. The challenge was answered by 10,000 farmers and businessmen throughout Iowa who worked without pay to transform the old dirt trails into safe and solid thoroughfares.

With a team of horses and the use of a primitive, yet improved, split-log road grader known as a King Road Drag, these men could remove big clumps, grade the path smooth and even crown the roads for water runoff. The improvement not only made traveling less trepidatious, but it was also a boon to rural mail delivery and mail-order businesses such as Sears Roebuck & Co.

Called the River to River Road, it ran from Davenport to Council Bluffs. Its primary route was laid out over the already-existing stagecoach line, which, beginning in 1844, had connected the state capital in Iowa City to Fort Des Moines.

When Iowa began numbering its highways in 1920, the route became Iowa Primary Road No. 7, and the River to River Road officially ceased to exist entirely in 1925 when it became a segment of the lofty-sounding Detroit-Lincoln-Denver, or DLD, Highway. Meanwhile, Congress approved a national road numbering system, and it was renamed U.S. Highway 32 the following year. Finally, in 1931, it became U.S. Highway 6, which it remains today. Stretching from Cape Cod, Mass., to Long Beach, Calif., it was at one time the longest continuous east-west route in the United States.

Therefore, your sign is one of the last remaining vestiges of the first automobile highway across the state of Iowa. I don’t know how many were made originally, but when the road became part of the far-reaching DLD, they began painting over the top of the signs with the new markers. Of course, they probably were all removed by 1926 and replaced with U.S. Highway 32 placards.

Honestly, I have not seen another sign like this one, but one man’s travels are not the end-all statement in regards value and rarity. Nonetheless, there are many auto enthusiasts in Iowa more than willing to drop several hundred dollars for your ditch find.

The Iowa U.S. Route 6 Tourist Association is preparing for the 100th anniversary of the River to River Road in 2010. They are hoping to add signs marking the historic route and looking for people who can share stories and photographs of its former days. Anyone wishing to offer memories, become a member or volunteer for upcoming events can find out more by visiting their Web site at www.route6tour.com.

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