A road trip my wife Sherry and I took on Saturday, June 18, 2016, across Iowa on Historic Route 6 was inspired by “River to River, Iowa’s Forgotten Highway 6” (highway6movie.com). That’s a nostalgic DVD documentary produced by Quad-Cities-area filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle.
The documentary deals with the path the coast-to-coast U.S. Route 6, known as the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, took across the Iowa counties of Scott, Cedar, Muscatine, Johnson, Iowa, Poweshiek, Jasper, Polk, Dallas, Guthrie, Adair, Cass and Pottawattamie, going through or near some 50 communities.
Before the U.S. Highway System came into being in 1926, roads in Iowa were maintained and promoted by local organizations that sought to drive traffic into their communities.
Dating back to 1910, Iowa’s southern Great White Way and northern River-to-River Road connected Council Bluffs and Davenport. They eventually merged into the Whiteway-7-Highway, which followed the Great White Way from Council Bluffs to Des Moines and the River-to-River Road from Des Moines to Davenport.
When the U.S. Highway System was created, Whiteway-7-Highway was designated U.S. Highway 32. It was renumbered as U.S. 6 in 1931 when it was extended to the West Coast.
After Interstate 80 was built near U.S. 6, the highway’s importance as a cross-state route was diminished. Least-traveled sections of the route were moved onto I-80, and control of the vacated sections of highway went to local jurisdictions.
Interest in the original U.S. 6 corridor, however, has grown in recent years, thanks to people who once again hope to bring traffic back into their communities. They are marking the original route with brown and white Historic Route 6 signs. With the possible exception of the Des Moines area, the Historic Route 6 route across Iowa is very well marked.
Our Historic Route 6 road trip was Sherry’s idea, but I was all for it because we both love travel and tourism. We had a wonderful time visiting many of the roughly 50 communities along the way.
Rather than backtracking to Davenport, our river-to-river road trip on Historic Route 6 began in Walcott, where we live. Here are some of the many highlights:
• Atalissa’s welcome sign reads “Est. 1856, Pop. 271 and 2 Grumps.”
• Ladora is birthplace of Mildred Wirt Benson (1905-2002), author of the Carolyn Keene and Nancy Drew books. Her father, the town doctor, Dr. J. L. Augustine, delivered her at home. The community also has a fine restaurant in a former bank building. More on that later.
• Brooklyn is known for its Avenue of Flags, a permanent lighted display with a huge U.S. flag and the flags of all 50 states and the Armed Services. Also, 35 flags of various countries line Brooklyn’s downtown streets.
• Newton is the home of Valle Drive-In, Iowa’s oldest drive-in movie theater.
• Colfax is where we stopped for lunch. We dined at the Cratty Shack, a small sandwich and ice cream shop. Open April through October and operated by a husband and wife, it has both photos of family members and Bible verses pasted on the napkin dispensers. Menu items are named for family members and include Pizza Patty, Bradley Burger, Ken-derloins, Papa Parfait, Daphne Dippers, Dakota’s Choco Delight and Toni’s Turtle. I ordered the Superman, which is a hamburger and root beer float. Sherry had a Cratty Patty and E (onion) Rings. In addition to friendly conversation, Mrs. Cratty also invited us to sample a new item, pineapple ice cream. It would have been impolite to say no.
• Dexter is the home of Dexfield Park, about 3 miles north of town on what is now called Dexfield Road. An amusement park from 1915 to 1933, it is a Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow historical site. After a gun battle with lawmen in Platte City, Mo., Bonnie and Clyde, Clyde’s brother Buck, Buck’s wife Blanche and an accomplice, W.D. Jones, arrived at Dexfield Park on July 19 or 20, 1933. Buck and Blanche Barrow were wounded, so the gang hoped to hide out until the two recovered enough to travel. They camped out in the woods, but on July 23, a local farmer discovered their campsite by accident and reported it. About 50 lawmen surrounded the encampment, and there was a gun battle. Bonnie, Clyde and Jones escaped on an unguarded path, stole a car at a nearby farm and fled. Buck Barrow, too seriously wounded to go on, stayed behind. Blanche Barrow stayed with him and both were captured. Dexter also marks the beginning of what’s called White Pole Road, a 26-mile scenic byway that connects the communities of Adair, Casey, Menlo, Stuart and Dexter. The route is lined with more than 700 white-painted utility poles.
• Stuart is where you are welcomed by a sign that notes the town is the “Home of 1,700 Good Eggs and a Few Stinkers.” Also, when Bonnie and Clyde returned to Iowa, they robbed the still-standing First National Bank there on April 16, 1934.
• Menlo has a famous sign known as the Gas Station Man advertising White Rose Gasoline.
• Adair is perhaps best known for the smiley face on its water tower, but just outside this community is the place where on July 21, 1873, the Jesse James gang committed the first train robbery in the West.
• Lewis is home to the 1856 Hitchcock House, a National Historic Landmark and a station on the Underground Railroad.
• Council Bluffs was our final destination. We arrived at 6:15 p.m., about 9 1/2 hours after our road trip started and having driven 345 miles. That included 38 miles that we went out of our way because I missed a turn outside Adel. We crossed a bridge over some railroad tracks, close to the Missouri River, then spotted a no-frills, old-fashioned motel, the Deluxe Inn, and took a room. We ate dinner next door at an authentic Mexican restaurant, Puerto Vallarta.
The next morning, Sunday, June 19, we drove to the nearby riverfront and crossed the Missouri River on a bridge that took us to downtown Omaha. Our Historic Route 6 experience complete, we turned around and headed back to Iowa.
For our trip back east, we took Interstate 80, but we made a couple of stops. One was in West Des Moines to visit Scratch, a “cupcakery” Sherry had heard about. After enjoying a tasty cupcake and some exotic coffee, we drove to a nearby theater and watched “Finding Dory.”
Established in 2008, Ladora Bank Bistro is located in a nearly 100-year-old building that had been home to Ladora Savings Bank. It’s nine tables and four seats at a bar are placed among still-intact tellers’ cages. The bistro serves 40 varieties of beer from around the world, and many of its 85 varieties of wine are stored in the former bank’s vault. It is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 4-9 and Sunday from noon until 6. Reservations are a recommended.
Sherry ordered Angels on Horseback, seared scallops wrapped in bacon and served with horseradish marmalade. I had Shrimp Scampi Crostini, sauteed shrimp in a butter, lemon, garlic and white wine sauce with tomatoes and chopped parsley, served with warm sourdough bread.
The meals, $15 each, were very good, and we washed them down with Millstream Beer, which is brewed in Amana. Once back home, we had logged 659 miles for our two-day road trip.
Copyright 2017 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece ran as a column in 2016 in The North Scott Press, Eldridge Iowa.