Discovering the New Deal on the Lincoln Highway–and Beyond

The New Deal has been my chief area of research for over 40 years, but I also study old roads and their development and effects on the landscape – especially early auto highways. I grew up near the Lincoln Highway, which runs through New Carlisle, Indiana, where I attended the high school. It ran down Main Street, which was the Michigan Road before it became part of the Lincoln Highway some 80 years later.  

My high school, with its gymnasium, laboratory classrooms in the basement, and a bandroom behind the stage (so well remembered!) was a PWA project.  I only discovered that after the school was demolished, right about the time I was beginning my research. Oh well. But this has led me to notice New Deal projects no matter what other quest I may be pursuing.

Over the last year, I followed the Lincoln Highway eastward into New Jersey and westward through Illinois. Starting out in Ohio heading east, I soon passed one of my favorite WPA projects, an early nineteenth century brick house transformed into Massillon’s stunning public library (and, originally, its museum). The heirs of the Dunn house had donated it to the city for use as a museum in 1930, then along came the New Deal to enlarge it and include a library. Designed by architect Herman J. Albrecht, it was completed in 1937. The museum moved in the 1990s and the library now occupies the entire structure.

Massillon [Ohio] Community Library

Post offices are often located on main streets, which is usually where the original Lincoln Highway was routed. One I found in Everett, Pennsylvania boasts a sculptural mural rather than a painted one: a relief depicting the “Signing of the Constitution” by Hazel Clere.

Signing the Constitution by Hazel Clere, Everett, Pennsylvania post office

New Deal post office in Fulton, Illinois

Post offices are the likeliest New Deal buildings to be spotted along the Lincoln Highway. A fine example stands about 750 miles west along the Highway in Fulton, Illinois.

Heading east out of Everett, the Lincoln Highway goes through Caledonia State Park, where stands the Thaddeus Stevens Blacksmith Shop.  I discovered it was renovated and restored by the Works Progress Administration in 1938. The original had been built in 1837 but was destroyed during the Battle of Gettysburg.  Rebuilt after the war, it remained in business until the 1890s, after which it languished until the New Deal came along.

Thaddeus Stevens Blacksmith Shop, east of Fayetteville, Pennsylvania

There are a variety of examples around the country of the WPA or other New Deal agencies creating historical replicas. Projects with an educational component were highly favored, and we have the New Deal to thank for several early restorations and replicas. And, let us not forget also that the Historic American Buildings Survey [HABS] was also a New Deal project, putting many starving architects to work to document historic buildings dating from before the Civil War, preserving, at least on paper, much of our architectural heritage. 

In my home state of Indiana we have Lincoln Pioneer Village in the Ohio River town of Rockport, located in the same county in which Lincoln resided in his boyhood years. Largely the work of noted sculptor George Honig, Lincoln Pioneer Village started as a FERA project, and continued under WPA the following year, completed in 1936. It’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1940s postcard of Lincoln Pioneer Village

My very favorite of these types of WPA projects, which I saw when I was eight years old and never forgot, is outside Rapid City, South Dakota. Of course, I did not realize then it was a New Deal project. Dedicated in 1936, Dinosaur Park was certainly intended as a tourist attraction to travelers pouring into the Black Hills to see Mount Rushmore.  But, the lifesize concrete figures, created by sculptor Emmit Sullivan in consultation with noted paleontologists, were intended to represent those dinosaur fossils found in the West. I, for one, am delighted that Dinosaur Park is listed in the National Register and hope that the renovation it is currently undergoing maintains the historic integrity of the site.

1940s postcard of Dinosaur Park
Glory-June Greiff is a public historian based in Indianapolis. She has been researching the work of New Deal for 35 years.

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