By Dennis McCann
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
June 3, 2001
I was motoring west on a segment of the old Yellowstone Trail the other day, thinking that if I had time to go all the way to Owen I would stop at Pat & Twink's Bar to see the letter R on the outside wall in the faint paint.
As it turned out, I didn't have time, but when next I do, I will stand and admire it. If an R can be historic, the one at Pat & Twink's is it. Once upon a time, when automobiles were few and highways were fewer, it was painted on the wall to tell westbound adventurers it was time to turn if they were serious about reaching Yellowstone Park instead of, say, Withee, WI.
To explain the revival of the Yellowstone Trail, it is necessary to explain the beginnings, which are hard to imagine in the paved-over highway-heavy, four-lane age in which we live. In the early 1900s, horseless carriages were becoming more and more common, and some were dependable enough to take on the open road, the problem being that there were almost no open roads.
"They weren't just bad, there weren't any," said John Ridge of Altoona, who with his wife, Alice, has exhaustively studied those days. "They wanted roads, and if they improved a road it attracted people to drive it. They were called tourists."
And, often, they were as lost as stubborn men today. Wisconsin, as was often the case in its Progressive-led days, was the first state to establish a State Highway Commission and had the first numbered roads by 1918. Other states followed our example, but before that it was left to private groups to promote highway development. One of the first such associations came up with the Yellowstone Trail-"A Good Road from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound"-and it went right through Wisconsin.
It began in 1912 with J.D. Parmley of Ipswitch, S.D., who with other business leaders in the area wanted a decent road to Aberdeen, some 25 miles away. That task accomplished, the highway was extended to other cities in each direction, thus establishing what many consider the first transcontinental automobile route in the United States.
The trail was marked with signs or symbols on rocks or telephone poles-and yes, bars-and the Yellowstone Trail Association sponsored occasional "trail days" where volunteers would go out to improve roads in their area. The association worked much like AAA does today, disseminating maps and advice at travel bureaus. Milwaukee's Pfister Hotel was the home of one Yellowstone Trail travel bureau, helping motorists navigate the 406 miles of trail roads that ran from Kenosha to Hudson through 18 Wisconsin counties.
Eventually, of course, with continued improvement of national highways under government direction, private groups were no longer needed. The Yellowstone Trail Association went out of business in 1930, and for the next 65 years the old trail fell deeper and deeper into the memory bin.
In the mid-1990s, however, the trail was not merely remembered but revived. Hoping to lure tourists off the main roads, Aberdeen, S.D., published a guide to the old trail. A few officials in Minnesota grew interested as well, in Wisconsin, a member of the historical society in Thorp began painting yellow stones n the old route.
The Ridges, retired professors, grew so absorbed in the trail's story that they, well, hit the trail, driving its entire original route from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound to research what would become a book on the Yellowstone Trail's history.
But it must not have been an exhaustive history, because a sequel is now in the works. The Ridges have left on their fifth end-to-end explorations of the old trail, the better to nail down missing details.
"It depends," Alice said when I asked how long this trip would take. "We stop at every nook and cranny, we stop at every little museum to do our research, and now we're stopping at all the little museums to sell our book."
A couple of months, is what she was saying.
In Wisconsin, four counties—Wood, Portage, Clark and Chippewa—have created a guide to the old trail for modern motorists who want something more than green interstate signs for scenery. The guide emphasizes buildings and sites that would have been enjoyed by those early motorists as well, such as the 1857 Stevens Point Brewery; the 1880 Marshfield mansion that once house former Gov. Upham Smith; the world's largest round barn, also in Marshfield; Tiny's corner Service in Thorp, where Al Capone was said to stop on his way north; and Moon Memorial Library in Stanley, built 100 years ago this year.
"It's historic travel," said John Ridge, "which is one of the leading reasons people travel these days."
Plans are under way to increase the revived Wisconsin route, with identifiable markings, through all 18 counties. And as would seem right for an old route, old cars are finding their way along it again. On Aug. 11, Marshfield will host a modern version of the old Yellowstone Trail Day, a celebration that will feature vintage cars arriving from both east and west.
For information, contact the Stevens Point Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-236-4636.