Roads built America, but many of the country’s first roads – like the Lincoln Highway from New York City to San Francisco – have been eschewed by motorists for the zoom of interstates. America’s Byways is a federal designation for 150 routes across the country.
There are thousands of miles of historic and scenic roads across America that are part of our national heritage. Each one of them gives you a glimpse of our country in its own special style.
My route includes stretches of some of the longest and most legendary roads in the country.
- The Haines Shoe House in Hallam, Pa., is the ultimate roadside attraction. While you can’t live there, you can tour the five-story, three-bedroom boot-shaped abode built to promote the products of “shoe wizard” Mahlo N. Haines. Don’t miss the shoe doghouse and the new ice cream parlor on the “sole” level.
- Another perfect stretch of the highway connects historic Gettysburg, Pa. – part of it goes right through the battlefields – with New Oxford, Pa., not just the Antiques Capital of Central Pennsylvania, but home to gorgeously preserved architecture in numerous styles.
- You’ll get a kick out of the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame & Museum, in a historic brick firehouse in Pontiac, Ill. It’s home to thousands of artifacts and memorabilia about the Mother Road, including gas pumps, gas station toys and road signs – plus a good gift shop.
- The 30-foot Gemini Giant dwarfs the clientele at the Launching Pad Diner in Wilmington, Ill. The statue was one of many large-scale “Muffler Men” used to advertise the car part in the 1960s. Today they’ve been repurposed. The GG man, one of the most famous, holds a rocket instead of a muffler and sports a space suit and helmet.
- Springfield’s claim to fame is Abe Lincoln, and you can visit his tomb (rub the nose of his bronze bust near the entrance for good luck) in the Illinois capital. Another must-see is Shea’s Gas Station Museum, where you can fill up on gas station and oil company history and collectibles.
- The 2,200-acre Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois is the largest, most sophisticated prehistoric Native American site north of Mexico. The mounds are made of earth transported in baskets from nearby pits. It was used for homes, burial sites and landmarks. Walk among through this UNESCO World Heritage site, and don’t miss the indoor museum, which is exceptionally kid-friendly.
- If you’re traveling south on National Road toward Cahokia, hang onto the steering wheel as you near Collinsville, Ill. You’re not hallucinating: that is the world’s largest ketchup bottle looming above the trees. It is a 100,000-gallon water tower, built in 1949 at the Brooks Catsup bottling factory.
Recommended Detour: Ohio Small-Town Museum, Ashville, Ohio. Quintessential small-town, right down to the locals who still hang out in the former barber shop. There’s an amazing collection (including a rocket-like stoplight prototype) and worth the 30-minute drive from the Historic National Road in Columbus, Ohio.
Great River Road, Illinois and Mississippi
- Popeye not only made spinach a household word (and side dish) – he also put his birthplace of Chester, Ill., on the map. Cartoonist Elzie Segar drew inspiration from this river town to create the sailor man in 1929. Make Spinach Can Collectibles and Popeye Museum your first stop; then take the Popeye Trail to visit statues of the whole gang through town.
- Clarksdale, Miss., is the epitome of Deep South, and the town was the crucible for delta blues. The Delta Blues Museum, right beside the railroad tracks, is as rough and atmospheric as the music itself. A must for an overnight is the Shack Up Inn, built out of sharecropper shacks and cotton bins on the site of a former cotton plantation.
Natchez Trace Parkway, Mississippi
- Tupelo may be famous as Elvis’ birthplace, and you can visit his small home and museum, but two other musts sit at this halfway point on the 444-mile road: the Natchez Trace Headquarters, right on the route, plus the Tupelo Automobile Museum, a cavernous and eye-popping jaunt through (appropriately enough) our love affair with wheels.
Recommended Detour: Ivy Green, Helen Keller’s childhood home in Tuscumbia, Ala., is a 20-minute drive from Florence, Ala., off the Natchez Trace. Be ready for goosebumps and a few tears at this moving and inspiring house-museum. On your way, you can also stop at the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard in Colbert County, Ala.
See tips for traveling America’s scenic and historic routes.