Highway 41 Revisited

May 31, 2012

Route 66 is the mother road and mother lode of American auto travel mythology.  Wisconsin is not on the fabled route that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, but we are not without a mythic highway of our own.  You can’t get your kicks on Route 66 here, but you can get it done on Route 41.

That’s what millions of travelers have been doing ever since 1926 when the federal government pledged to expand funding for a modern “trunk” highway system that would run from coast to coast and border to border.  East-west roads received even numbers, ergo 66 for the Chicago-Los Angeles route. North-south roads were odd-numbered, ergo 41 for the route that ultimately connected Copper Harbor in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Miami, Florida.  It was one of only a few highways  in the country where a traveler could spot a moose at one end and an alligator at the other–with no more than  2,000 miles in between.

Sign at the northern end of Highway 41 near Copper Harbor.

A ribbon of smooth concrete, with two lanes divided by painted stripes visible in the dark, and with identifying signs mounted within reasonable distances to keep drivers from getting lost, the 1920’s U.S. highway system was state of the art for its day.  Much has been written about the primitive state of American roads prior to the construction of the Interstate System in the 1950s. We all know the story of how President Eisenhower, recalling an all but impossible cross country journey with military vehicles in 1919, vowed to build a new system once he moved into the White House.  American roads were terrible in 1919, but had Ike made his road trip ten or so years later, his opinion might not have been so negative and our current highway system might not be the same.

The difference between 1919 and, say 1929, was federal funding.  Realizing that the automobile required better roads than horse-drawn wagons and that the states could not be relied upon to create a uniform system of roads, the federal government first offered the carrot of regular funding in 1917.  The program was expanded throughout the 1920s. Wisconsin, for example, told the feds it would need money for over 5,000 miles of urban, rural and cross-country highways and, eventually, got it.

Route 41 was number one in Wisconsin. It connected the most populous part of the state, starting at Kenosha and Racine, then north through Milwaukee and on to Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Appleton, Green Bay and Menominee. Then it was on to the wilds of the UP and down to the shore of Lake Superior.

It was a vacationer’s route. Chicagoans heading north to the Wisconsin lakes came up 41, then turned off onto adventurous  state routes to Waupaca, Oneida, Vilas and other resort counties.  Snow birds went south, through Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia, down to Naples on Florida’s Gulf Coast. There 41 turns straight east across the Everglades to Miami, still two lanes, still flanked by ditches filled with waterfowl and ‘gators easily spotted out the car window.

One difference between the highways of the 1920s and the Interstates of the 1950s, is that the highways ran through villages, small town and cities. Their purpose was to link downtowns to downtowns.  In Chicago, for example, Highway 41 was and still is Lake Shore Drive.  Appleton ran it down College Avenue. Milwaukee followed a different course, choosing to run its stretch of 41 on 27th Street. It wasn’t on the lake, but still in the heart of the city.

Historic Highway 41

Small towns vied to bring the new highway down their Main Street. The term bypass, unheard in the 1920s, first reared its ugly head in the  early 1930s and bits and pieces of Route 41 were moved to the outskirts. The death knell for down town commercial districts started to sound as soon as the highway moved out of town. It was only a matter of time before the Interstates demolished and/or carved up  urban neighborhoods and pulled downtown stores to malls positioned off the exit ramps.

It you look carefully you can still see relics of the old Route 41 in Wisconsin.  The heavily remodeled or tumbled down remains of cheese stores, root-beer stands, gas stations that sold only gas, and mom and pop  motels with a string of rooms fronting the road and the “office” in the family home nearby.

Route 66 has a legion of fans who preserve its history. Route 41 has one too, at least in Milwaukee. The annual gathering of Historic Highway 41 will take place on Saturday, June 2 on 27th Street.  Go to http://www.historichwy41.com. Get it done on 41.


Wisconsin School of the Air Lives On

December 30, 2011

To fulfill a requirement for a course on distance learning, doctoral student Megan Murtaugh decided to create a web lesson about the Wisconsin School of the Air.  Designed for use in primary and secondary classrooms, this radio-based education series grew out of the Wisconsin Idea, a philosophy maintaining that all Wisconsin residents should have access to the university’s services. Or as the motto goes, “The boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.”

Fannie Steve hosted an award-winning WSA program for young children. Photo: Wisconsin Public Radio.

WHA broadcast Wisconsin School of the Air in various forms for forty years, between 1931 and 1971. Megan got in touch with me regarding vintage WSA audio she found on Portal Wisconsin. Along with these audio files, the lesson she created includes an audio overview of the WSA; a blog post composed by a former student in a WSA classroom; images; an assessment and more.

Until I listened to Megan’s web lesson, I hadn’t really thought of Wisconsin Public Radio as a pioneer in distance learning. I usually associate that term with big schools offering entire degree programs online. But of course, distance learning encompasses a sweeping range of experiences–from full-on virtual campuses like the University of Phoenix, to the individual courses or portions of courses that you can find on PortalWisconsin.org, to the training webinars I sometimes view from my desktop.

In a way, Wisconsin School of the Air lives on in Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television–both based at the University of Wisconsin-Extension. University of the Air, a descendant of the WSA, still airs Sunday afternoons on WPR. Through programs like University of the Air, University Place (WPT’s virtual lecture hall), and many, many others,  we have access the state’s best thinkers–poets, politicians, scientists and scholars.

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By the way, I was curious how Megan Murtaugh, a Florida graduate student, came to select the Wisconsin School of the Air as a project focus. She told me she came across the story of the WSA while researching for another class. She says she was also motivated by her husband Jimmy: “He lived and went to school in Wisconsin for a good portion of his academic career. I thought it would be fun to investigate some of Wisconsin’s history and then see if he knew about it. It turned out this project was an educational experience not only for me but for my entire family, my friends and my peers as well.”

How’s that for above and beyond the Wisconsin Idea?

Link to Megan Murtaugh’s Wisconsin School of the Air web lesson.

–Tammy Kempfert


Remembering Mildred Fish-Harnack

November 7, 2011

A new WPT program premiering tonight has all the suspense and romance you’d find in a Hollywood thriller — but this one is a real Wisconsin story, with a genuine hero and a tragic ending. Wisconsin’s Nazi Resistance: The Mildred Fish-Harnack Story tells the tale of  Milwaukee-born Fish-Harnack, who joined the resistance movement in Berlin and paid for it with her life. In fact, she was the the only American woman executed on the personal orders of Adolf Hitler.

It was at UW-Madison where Mildred Fish met her husband Arvid Harnack–she a student and teacher there, and he a Rockefeller Fellow from Germany. With him, she moved to Germany in the late 1920s, and they soon witnessed Hitler’s rise to power. At great personal risk, the couple worked with other activists to oppose Hitler’s Nazi regime: distributing literature, helping Jews and transmitting intelligence information about the Third Reich to the American and Soviet governments.

In 1942, the Harnacks were arrested along with a number of other resistance fighters. Within months, Arvid was sentenced to death and hanged at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin. Mildred, originally sentenced to six years of hard labor by the Reich Court Martial, was sent to the guillotine in February 1943 after Hitler revoked the judgment and ordered a second trial.

Actress and Greendale native Jane Kazcmarek narrates the documentary, which airs Monday, Nov. 7, at 8 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television and Milwaukee’s MPTV. WPT has also launched a companion website that provides a wealth of video, documents, photos and a timeline.