Posts Tagged ‘gumbo mud’

Iowa Gumbo Snared Lincoln Highway Travelers

January 16, 2018

LINCOLN HIGHWAY NEWS IS A BLOG BY BRIAN BUTKO

Early motorists writing of cross-country journeys had little to say east of the Mississippi; once on Iowa’s dirt roads, they couldn’t stop. Iowa was notorious for “gumbo” mud, a result of the land between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers once having been submerged. Superb for crops, that same rich soil stymied cars when wet.

Making matters worse, Iowa’s roads were improved at the county level, where voters preferred minor overall improvements over diverting more funds to the Lincoln Highway. LHA president Henry Joy took the state legislature to task in a scathing article for Collier’s in 1916: “Not a wheel turns outside the paved streets of her cities during or for sometime after the frequent heavy rains…. Millions of dollars worth of wheeled vehicles become, for the time being, worthless.”

LH_IA_Joy_UM1964_bb.jpg

Henry Joy in gumbo near La Mouille, Iowa, June 1915. [UM 1964]

That article followed a 1915 trip that Joy made with LHA secretary Austin Bement and Packard mechanic Ernie Eisenhut in a new Packard 1-35 Twin Six, the first 12-cylinder production car. His photo album, with hundreds of snapshots from the muddy 2,885-mile journey, can be found at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Library. The captions themselves are often entertaining:

“Nearing Tama, Iowa, our rear wheels threw gumbo higher than the telephone poles.”

“The natives took reserved seats to watch us work their roads.”

“Three hours were spent in this mud hole near Tama.”

“Four hours were needed to dislodge us from the Lincoln Highway east of Marshaltown.”

“He pulled us out for $3.00 and a drink of whiskey.”

In By Motor to the Golden Gate (1916), future etiquette writer Emily Post wrote, “Illinois mud is slippery and slyly eager to push unstable tourists into the ditch, but in Iowa it lurks in unfathomable treachery, loath to let anything ever get out again that once ventures into it. Our progress through it became hideously like that of a fly crawling through yellow flypaper…. Our wheels, even with chains on, had no more hold than revolving cakes of soap might have on slanting wet marble.”

By 1920, with more than 430,000 registered vehicles, Iowa still had only 25 miles of paved roads outside of cities. The 1924 LHA guide warned, “It is folly to try to drive on Iowa dirt roads, during or immediately after a heavy rain.”

Dry spells brought horrible clouds of dust but it was the gumbo that was forever remembered. George Schuster said it best in his recollection of Ogden, Iowa, during the 1908 New York–to–Paris race: “It rained all day, the mud is nearly hub deep. We slid from one side of the road to the other. We covered more miles sidewise than ahead.”