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Antiques Along the Highway
by Bob Brooke
 

 

Structures like the Show House sprang up in the 1940s and 1950s along roads like the Lincoln Highway, the first automobile road to cross the United States.

Mahlon Haines, also known as “The Shoe Wizard” and founder of a shoe manufacturing and sales empire in central Pennsylvania and northern Maryland that included more than 40 stores, built the Shoe House in 1948 at the age of 73. He had a flair for outlandish advertising, calling himself "Colonel" Haines and offering money to smokers if they promised to quit. He also gave money to those who could identify him in a crowd. But the shoe house was his ultimate gimmick.

Located on Shoe House Road, three miles east of York, Pennsylvania, off Old Lincoln Highway (now PA Route 462), the 48-foot-long by 25-foot-high Shoe House, constructed of stucco over a wood and wire framework, featured seven rooms–a honeymoon suite (the living room), three bedrooms, two baths, and a kitchen–but there was really only enough space for couple. The shoe motif is everywhere, including a stained-glass window with an image of Haines in it on the front door.

At first, Haines offered the house to elderly couples, who could live for a weekend like a "kings and queens" at Haines' expense. After 1950, he offered it to honeymooners who had a Haines shoe store in their town. After his death, it served as an ice cream parlor but deteriorated until Annie Keller, Haines' granddaughter, bought it at auction. She restored it, briefly operating it as a tourist attraction. Ruth Miller purchased the Shoe House in 1995 and operated it as an antique shop.

When Haines built his Shoe House, the Lincoln Highway was already 35 years old. Entrepreneurs like Haines saw the road as a great marketing opportunity and erected larger than life structures that looked like what they advertised or sold.

The idea for a coast-to-coast highway originated with Carl Fisher, founder of the Prest-O-Lite Company, maker of the first dependable automobile headlights. However, he’s better known for developing the Indianapolis Speedway and then paving it with bricks, and later gained notoriety for developing Miami Beach out of swampland in south Florida.

In September 1912 Fisher presented his idea to the leaders of the automobile industry, who enthusiastically adopted it. Their acceptance of a transcontinental route came not only from the chance to sell more cars, but also from a sense of adventure and an honest desire to get Americans out on the road. Travel between cities, even on the new Lincoln Highway, was mostly on gravel or dirt roads.

In 1913, Fisher established the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) "to procure the establishment of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all description without toll charges . . . in memory of Abraham Lincoln." The plan linked existing roads into a 3,389-mile cross-country highway through 12 states from New York City to San Francisco. The organizers hoped local governments would improve their own sections although this took quite a while.

From all across the country, people paid $5 to join the association. Many ordered souvenirs–pennants, “official" radiator emblems, guidebooks and maps. Other companies also got in on the act, offering Lincoln Highway cigars, sheet music, automobile tires, and gasoline pumps. In fact, anyone with a product to sell seemed to borrow the Lincoln Highway name.

The LHA marked the Lincoln Highway with red, white, and blue emblems, each with a large L. At first, they simply painted the colors on telephone poles, but soon erected porcelain enameled steel signs to mark the route. Finally, in 1928, the Boy Scouts of America erected cement posts with bronze medallions bearing a profile of Lincoln and the highway’s familiar red, white, and blue emblem every mile along the road.

To attract the attention of passing motorists, entrepreneurs all across the country set out building fantasy structures which resembled lighthouses, teapots, ducks, windmills–and, yes, shoes.

Dutch Haven is one of these rare mid-20th-century roadside structures, easily identifiable by its tall Dutch windmill. Original owners, Roy and Alice Weaver constructed the windmill around a previous building in 1946 to offer Pennsylvania Dutch cooking and a gift shop with souvenirs. Dutch Haven’s current owner, Paul Stahl, bought the business in 1991 and now offers crafts for sale in its windmill-topped building along with its famous shoo-fly pie, a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch dessert.

The SS Grand Viewpoint Hotel, west of Bedford, Pennsylvania, was a river steamer built along the Lincoln Highway in the Allegheny Mountains. Herbert Paulson, Dutch immigrant who left Holland in the early years of the 20th century to work as a twin dye maker in the mills in Pittsburgh, built the hotel in the mid-1920s above the Grandview lookout. In 1931, Paulson decided to enlarge his hotel and decided on a ship motif. The unusual structure required 63.5 tons of steel costing $125,000 borrowed at 16 percent interest. The contractors went broke digging down 32 feet to find bedrock into which to “anchor” the ship. The result was an authentic steamer, complete with observation decks ringed with life preservers and telescopes for enjoying the view. Paulson called his upstairs rooms First Class and his budget-priced rooms on the lower floors Second and Third Class. The employees living on the bottom floor joked that they lived in steerage. Today, it stands quietly awaiting it’s next moment in history.

The way people travel has changed greatly since the Lincoln Highway was a collection of muddy roads. People once traveled for the sake of traveling. They looked forward to staying in tourist cabins, to eating in diners, to seeing the attractions along the way, and to buying souvenirs in gift shops.

Along the Lincoln Highway, just east of Exton, Pennsylvania, stands what remains of Williams’ Deluxe Tourist Cabins, built by Leon H. Williams in 1937. Over the years, he added more of them but sold the complex in 1964, when they became the Tudor Motor Inn. Today, they’re boarded up and waiting for someone to develop the land. Fortunately, they’ve been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Several miles down the road to the east stands the Frazer Diner, a 1940 O. Mahoney diner. It’s been completely restored inside and out and serves good old-fashioned diner food. Sitting at the counter is like being taken back in time to the 1940s.

The coffeepot, also along the Lincoln Highway west of Bedford, is another of these unique roadside eateries. It used to be covered with metal and nicely landscaped. Today, it’s painted red and white and is no longer sheathed in metal. During its lifetime, it served as a lunch stand, Greyhound station, and most recently, a bar, but it's been closed for a long time.

The world's largest teapot was originally built as a Hires Root Beer barrel advertisement. Wilfred Devon moved it to Chester, West Virginia, in 1938 and converted to a teapot to attract customers from the newly rerouted Route 30. At the time, Chester had become a pottery manufacturing center. Devon served ice cream and other refreshments from the red and white teapot and sold art ware, pottery, and souvenirs in a building behind it. It changed owners a few times after being sold in 1947 and fell into disrepair. The phone company eventually bought the property and gave the teapot to the residents of Chester, who have since restored it.

Like many antiques and collectibles, the Shoe House, the Chester teapot, and the Dutch Haven windmill have been lovingly preserved, but other examples of roadside architecture, falling in the wake of “progress,” haven’t been so lucky.



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