After Ike: On the Trail of the Century - Old Journey that Changed America

After Ike: On the Trail of the Century - Old Journey that Changed America

by Michael S. Owen


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On a sunny July morning in 1919, some 300 military personnel and 81 heavy vehicles assembled on the south side of the White House in Washington DC. The convoy was about to embark on a historic trip over the Lincoln Highway. Their destination was 3,200 miles away in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. There were no maps for the route out west, no service stations, and the convoy relied on the limited knowledge of a handful of earlier pioneers. The convoy was a huge national story, cheered on by millions of people who lined the route. Among the 300 members of the convoy was a 28-year-old lieutenant colonel named Dwight Eisenhower.

Utilizing the convoy’s official daily log and other secondary material, author Michael Owen drove the exact route of the convoy over what are now lonely backcountry roads or dusty tracks across open western landscapes. Owen relates the particulars of the convoy’s historic trip and chronicles the myriad changes along the route over the years. After Ike is the story of a century-old trip that changed the United States and continues to impact us all.

About the Author

Michael S. Owen is a retired US Ambassador. During his 30 years as a Foreign Service Officer he worked in numerous countries across Africa and Asia. Now that he’s back home, he’s delighting in traveling around his own country and has driven over the Lincoln Highway several times. He has published several short stories in literary journals, but After Ike is his first full-length book. He lives in Reston, Virginia, with his wife, Annerieke, and their cat, Rusty.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781457570421
Publisher: Dog Ear Publishing
Publication date: 07/22/2019
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 223,324
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.47(d)

Read an Excerpt



"Travelling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller. Travelling offers you a hundred roads to adventure, and gives your heart wings. Travelling gives you home in a thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land."

–Ibn Battuta

I churned on up through the maelstrom of traffic that defined Wisconsin Avenue, through Chevy Chase and Bethesda, traffic clogged on all sides, even early in the morning.

Chevy Chase, Maryland, was first developed in the 1890s by the Chevy Chase Land Company. The company was partly owned by Senator Francis Newlands of Nevada, who evidently generously supplemented his senator's salary with active off-line real estate dealings in the Washington area. The first houses began appearing in the late 1890s, and by the time the Convoy passed through in 1919, Chevy Chase was a lively suburban settlement of upscale housing. Newlands was an avowed racist who ran his 1912 presidential bid on a proposed constitutional amendment to disenfranchise black men and limit all immigration to whites only. Chevy Chase remained all-white until well after World War II.

The Convoy continued up what is today Maryland State Highway 355 through the town of Friendship Heights. At the time of the Convoy, 355 was known as Rockville Pike, an extension of Wisconsin Avenue. This stretch of road dates way back to colonial times and was used as an escape route for Washingtonians fleeing the capital during the War of 1812. I followed it northward, alternately through leafy residential areas and towering office blocks, toward Frederick.

Downtown Bethesda nowadays is a mélange of high-rise office buildings, apartments, and honking traffic. And a string of interesting-sounding shops as well: Massage Envy, Seoul Spice, Red Bandana Bakery, Shangri-La Indian-Nepali Cuisine. The Villain and Saint: Drink, Dine, Music. That name alone made me want to stop in, but alas, it was early morning and it wasn't open yet. There's also the classic old Bethesda Cinema, now featuring live entertainment, and a couple of nineteenth-century stone buildings that Ike and the Convoy would have passed right by. But also this: six-story buildings being clobbered down into rubble, to make room for even taller structures. I wondered how many generations of buildings have lined this portion of the Convoy's route, and what they saw when they passed.

North of Bethesda, on through Rockville and Gaithersburg. In my Rand- McNally Atlas these are all shown as distinct towns, but I could never tell were one stopped and the other started, amidst the relentless suburban sprawl. Sushi Bars and Pizza Huts. CVS Open 24 Hours! Popeye's, Taco Bell, Wendy's. Gas stations and acres-wide car dealerships.

The only true respite through all of this was the beautiful campus of the National Institutes of Health. NIH was founded back in the 1870s, and its primary campus is in Bethesda and Rockville. It's the US government agency with the chief responsibility for biomedical and public research, and is today the largest biomedical research institution in the world. The current site was not utilized until the late 1930s, so when the Convoy passed through Bethesda and Rockville, the NIH campus was open farmland.

A short distance beyond the Maryland state line, at the Washington beltway, I-270 begins, just to the west of the Convoy's route. Up to ten lanes of hurtling traffic. Mercifully, I did not have to drive it, but in Gaithersburg I detoured over slightly just for a short look. Trucks, cars, and campers barreled forward at 80 mph-plus in all lanes. The freeway is lined with new bedroom commuter communities, squarish dark office buildings, and still more automobile dealerships. A large sign announcing "I-270 high-tech corridor!" loomed up. All ten lanes rampant with traffic but still whizzing by at 80 mph-plus. And then a huge billboard for a politician running for office: "Time to widen 270 now!!" I quickly retreated to the relative tranquility of Rockville Pike and pressed onwards.

I have groused from time to time about slow Washington traffic, but I've had work colleagues who commuted into downtown Washington from Frederick and environs every day, and it was rare that I failed to hear a word from at least one of them about the abysmal traffic. "Everything was totally clogged!" "Took me an hour and a half to get here!" "There were times when we were only going 15 miles per hour!" But consider this: on the Convoy's first day of travel from the White House to Frederick, Elwell Jackson's trusty daily log of the trip reports that a trail mobile kitchen broke a coupling, a fan belt broke on an observation car, and a broken magneto coupling on a cargo truck meant the truck had to be towed into camp. Nonetheless, Jackson's log notes, "Roads excellent. Made 46 miles in 7.5 hours." That's an average speed of a little over six miles per hour for the entire day, and this on some of the best roads the Convoy would encounter for the entire trip.

Just beyond Gaithersburg I turned off northward on Highway 27, following the Convoy's route, and was suddenly liberated from suburban sprawl. Open countryside, passing through little towns with sonorous names like Cedar Grove, Damascus, Friendship. Ancient lightning-scarred sycamores; old clapboard churches; spreading orchards, the trees aligned as perfectly as marching soldiers. There were crumbling lonely houses boarded up and for sale, and on some even the "For Sale" signs were crumbling. But there were also picturesque old white farmhouses, set way back from the road on rolling green hillsides, with gingerbread lattice work on the front porches, where rocking chairs stood waiting.

Near Damascus I stopped to walk through a cemetery with gravestones dating from the 1890s. Names like Burdette, Watkins, Brown, Moxley. The Convoy passed right by. I eventually visited several cemeteries all along the route, and always wondered if the Convoy's members had relatives buried in any of those cemeteries. With 300 men from all over the US, it seemed entirely possible. Did they ever stop to visit a grave site? No record.

Just south of Friendship I pulled over and got out, just to stand and look. Not another car in sight, just the open countryside, and I thought, for the first time since I pushed off from the White House, "Yes. This is what they saw, what they passed through." A century ago.

I turned back west on Highway 144, which is also the Old National Pike. The National Pike was the nation's first federally funded highway, begun in 1811. It ran from the Potomac River at Cumberland, Maryland, out to central Illinois, and was intended to "open up the West." Much like the original Lincoln Highway, large portions of the original National Pike are now long abandoned, but I drove this portion all the way into Frederick. Through more beautiful open countryside: goats and chickens rooting down by an ancient red barn, "Farm Market Apples," "Firewood for Sale," and then the Full Gospel Church. I passed through the exquisite main street of New Market, lined with nineteenth-century buildings and antique shops galore. The Convoy passed right through this as well. And approaching Frederick, the Blue Sky Bar and Grill — another place I couldn't visit in the early morning, before opening time.

At Frederick, I turned off the highway into the serenity of Jefferson Street, right up through Patrick Street and the middle of a beautiful downtown, exactly where the Convoy had passed in 1919. First settled by German colonists in the 1740s, Frederick's natural beauty has long been celebrated by writers. In his Civil War poem, "Barbara Fritchie," John Greenleaf Whittier writes: "The clustered spires of Frederick stand, green-walled by the hills of Maryland." I walked along the Carroll Creek Promenade and then chatted with a very helpful assistant named Maria in the Frederick Visitor Center. I asked her about the Emmitsburg covered bridge, which was damaged by the Convoy. According to Elwell Jackson's journal: "Unsafe covered wooden bridge, one mile south of Emmitsburg..... two hours delay..... necessitating detours and fording. Mack Machine Shop #5 damaged top of low bridge."

Maria told me that the original Emmitsburg Road Bridge that the Convoy had passed through and smashed up had eventually been torn down and replaced by a concrete bridge in 1923. Only three covered bridges still remained in all of Frederick County, she said, and two could be visited. "The other one was damaged a few weeks ago," she said, "when a truck that was too big tried to pass through it." Even after a century of driving, some mistakes persist.

But at least the Convoy had some semblance of a bridge in this case. Drake Hokanson writes that in the early days of the Lincoln Highway, "Bridges were another problem .. .No matter how steep the sides, no matter how rough the streambed, a dry arroyo or stream was seldom honored with a bridge."

At the Frederick Public Library, I read the July 8, 1919, edition of the Frederick Register, which had a front-page story: "America's Heaviest War Truck Unit Ever Assembled in Motion." The article begins with "Into this little town through which the wagon trains of Lee's defeated Army crawled southwards 56 years ago ... yesterday rolled the ... United States Motor Transport Corps on the first leg of its ocean to ocean run. The great carriers travelled from Washington to Frederick on Maryland's unexcelled highways." Union Pride and Civic Boosterism!

I drove out along Patrick Street to the east and stopped at the fairgrounds where the Convoy spent the first night of their trip. This is where Ike and his pal Sereno Brett joined the team after skipping out on the speeches at the opening ceremony.

Frederick has a long and fascinating African American history. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the crowded All Saints Street neigh borhood was a hive of activity for African Americans throughout Frederick County. During a time of systematic discrimination, All Saints Street was a thriving and completely self-contained neighborhood, with shops, banking, medical care, and a lively entertainment scene on weekend nights. Just one example: Ulysses Grant Bourne came to Frederick in 1903 and practiced medicine there for half a century. He founded the Maryland Negro Medical Society, was the first African American on the staff of the Frederick Memorial Hospital, and co-founded the Frederick branch of the NAACP. His practice was going strong when the Convoy passed through.

I followed the Convoy's route up Highway 15 to the north of Frederick, through more rolling green countryside filled with cattle and, to my surprise, the occasional llama. Just to the west of Thurmont lies Catoctin Mountain Park, some 6,000 acres of gorgeous hiking trails through dense, steep oak and pine forest, and more importantly, the site of the 120-acre Camp David compound. Franklin Roosevelt first made this a presidential retreat in 1942, and named it Shangri-La, but Ike subsequently named it Camp David after his father and grandson. Ike was the first-ever president to convene a cabinet meeting at Camp David, in November 1955, and it's been a regular presidential getaway ever since. For security reasons Camp David's precise location is secret, but there's a large empty area on the Catoctin Mountain Park map that gives you a pretty good idea. In late 1919, just a few months after Ike and the Convoy passed through, Prohibition became the law of the land, and all of Catoctin Mountain, including today's Camp David, became a bootlegging hub.

I paused briefly in Emmitsburg to visit the site of the covered bridge over Tom's Creek that the Convoy damaged and then repaired. Elwell Jackson reported in his log that the Convoy suffered a two-hour delay due to "unsafe covered bridge," and that the Convoy's "engineers rendered valuable work in bridge inspection." Always looking on the bright side, Jackson wrote at the day's end, "Roads excellent with exception of two detours on account of unsafe bridge and repairs. Made 62 miles in 10.5 hours." According to the May 6, 1922, edition of the Frederick News, a county commissioner deemed the covered bridge "faulty and dangerous to traffic" and recommended its replacement "as soon as possible." By late 1923 the covered bridge had been demolished and replaced by a modern concrete structure.

I continued onward along the path of the Convoy and passed into Pennsylvania just south of Gettysburg.



"The road stretching over the horizon has represented a sense of possibility and freedom, discovery, and escape, a place to get lost and find yourself."

–David Campany

Crossing over into Pennsylvania on Highway 15. Right away a hand-written sign:

Farm fresh eggs! Laid by Happy Chickens!

I meandered on through beautiful green countryside: pastures and cattle and no-doubt many happy chickens. White farmhouses set back neatly on flowing hillsides, and red barns gleaming in the sunlight. A pig-tailed blonde girl riding a tricycle next to a white clapboard house and carefully trimmed hedges.

Crossing into Pennsylvania the Militor was already proving its mettle. Elwell Jackson writes: "Militor pulled Class B Machine Shop (ten tons) out of mud ... after two Macks in tandem had failed ... Militor made Piney Mountain on 3rd speed, with tow. Class Bs had to use 2nd speed. Mack trucks had difficulty making this grade in low gear. Packards also lazy on hills." The Militor was in the command of Edward Reis, the only civilian driver in the official Convoy, and he quickly earned the respect of everyone for his tireless efforts all along the route. But it was most frequently driven by Sergeant T. E Wood, who did yeoman's work.

Highway 15 intersects Highway 30, the Lincoln Highway, at the main square in downtown Gettysburg. An historic spot: the nearby Gettysburg Train Station was where Lincoln arrived on the evening of November 18, 1863, and the David Wills House on the square was where he spent the night and polished his renowned speech before delivery the next day. Ike and the Convoy drove past here on July 8, 1919, but, much to the regret of Gettysburg citizens, did not stop for the night. The Convoy instead pushed on to Chambersburg, some 30 miles to the West. The ensuing July 9 headline in the Gettysburg Times read, "Military Convoy Did Not Stop Here — Efforts of Citizens Wasted."

Gettysburg and environs are replete with historic markers, signs, and souvenir shops marking the historic battle. A short distance west of downtown's square on the Lincoln Highway, through gorgeous open countryside with perfectly zig-zagging split-rail fences, I discovered a particularly noteworthy marker at McPherson Ridge: The Union Second Brigade horse artillery, Battery A, with a grand total of six three-inch cannons, under the command of Lieutenant John Calef, here fired the first Union shot of the decisive battle of the Civil War. Calef and his brigade had arrived from Emmitsburg the evening of June 30, 1863. So they had followed exactly the same route that I followed and Ike and the Convoy had followed some fifty-six years after the battle. Through the same Emmitsburg covered bridge, the same Route 15 dirt road to Gettysburg. Ike followed the same route, past the first shot, not far from his future one and only house, the house where he lived and died after his presidency.

Ike yearned desperately to see action in Europe during World War I, but instead he was assigned to Camp Colt at Gettysburg, in charge of training of the army's nascent tank corps. He chafed at what he considered a hum-drum domestic assignment, and at war's end wrote, "I was mad, disappointed, and resented the fact that the war had passed me by. At times I was tempted, at least faintly, to try my luck as a civilian again." After the war Ike was reassigned to Camp Meade in Washington DC. There was no housing for families there, so Mamie and their one-year-old son, Icky, had to move out to Denver to live with her parents, the Douds. Ike had to pack out of the Gettysburg house by himself, and Mamie would not see any of their possessions for years. When she finally unpacked them years later, she discovered the coffee percolator was still full of coffee grounds.

But then the fateful moment came. Ike: "Major Sereno Brett and I heard about a truck Convoy that was to cross the country from coast to coast, and we were immediately excited. In those days, we were not sure it could be accomplished at all. Nothing of the sort had ever been attempted.... I promptly reported that I would be glad to make the trip." So it must have been with some satisfaction that on July 9, 1919, Ike could gaze out at his former training site of Camp Colt as the Convoy proceeded westward, toward San Francisco, on a route that was adventurous and highly uncertain to say the least.


Excerpted from "After Ike: On The Trail of the Century-Old Journey that Changed America"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Michael S. Owen.
Excerpted by permission of Dog Ear Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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