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Column: An old-time road trip down the Hammond Highway Trail

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columns Worthington, 56187
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WORTHINGTON -- "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?...

"...Imagine Rueben when he meets his Pa. He'll kiss his cheek and holler, 'OO-LA-LA!'...

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"How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?"

I heard a chorus singing that on Wednesday. Veterans Day. One of the good old songs from World War I.

In truth, it was not Paree that was giving the boys an itch. The thing that had them wound up was the U.S. Army's trucks and big, shiny staff cars. When Rueben saw those -- when he thought how he could use a truck and a car back on the farm -- he wanted one of each. He could roll into town without the horses. OO-LA-LA!

Ninety years ago this afternoon -- Nov. 14, 1919 -- the tiny Minnesota Highway Department authorized creation of Hammond Highway Trail. This cleared the way for having a gravel road wide enough for two cars all the way from Worthington and --

"...thence via Counties of Nobles, Jackson, Cottonwood, Watonwan, Blue Earth, Le Sueur, Rice and Goodhue to Red Wing" 

Nobody in the world could guess it, but the route which would become Interstate 90 was being scratched for the first time. Those doughboys coming back from France would have a place to drive those automobiles that sent shivers up their spines.

New routes were being allowed all across Minnesota. There was the Mississippi River Scenic Highway, the Yankee Doodle Highway, Theodore Roosevelt International Highway, Jefferson Highway. Many more.

None of these was a highway as we think of highways today. They were called highway trails. They curved and meandered, and dust from the trails lifted high. If there was no dust, if it had been raining, the trails turned to mud. The young veterans pushed and spun wheels and sometimes walked to a neighboring farm to borrow a team of horses to pull their cars from the muck. Through parts of every winter the highways were impassable. Today we would label them Minimum Maintenance Roads.

Highway trails were not yet financed by the State of Minnesota. Funds for gravel and grading came from counties along the routes, and sometimes from towns. Every trail followed down the main street of every town.

The thing you wanted to watch for on the Hammond Highway Trail, which began at Worthington (or at Red Wing), were square, red enameled signs along the route with a white oval at the center and the letters HH, also in red. Those signs were your clue that you were holding to the highway -- you knew you were in the right place when you saw an HH sign.

Those returning young soldiers spurred a great deal of highway development around Worthington. The first stirrings for the Hammond Highway began in 1917, even before the Armistice. U.S. 60 was also emerging. U.S. 60 from Worthington to Windom was The Yellow Trail. Yellow Trail signs were a yellow band on a black background. The highway trail which one day would be U.S. 59, twisting from Worthington to Slayton to Itasca was the Nelson Trail, a yellow circle with the letter N in black at the center.

The talk of the region was 5.1 miles of concrete pavement -- the first -- between Worthington and Rushmore. A number of doughboys coming home from The War found jobs as part of the Rushmore paving gang.

Henry Ford rolled out the first manufactured Model-T in 1908. Sales were huge but very many young drivers were rolling along in do-it-yourself cars, a wagon or a buggy with a gasoline engine.

Frank Klenken and Peter Spartz built a car on the Klenken farm east of St. Kilian in 1906. The car had one cylinder and one seat. Klenken remembered many years later, "It never worked too well."

In that same year of Ford's first Tin Lizzie, the St. Kilian men, working in a farm shop, built a second car -- two cylinders, two seats. The next year they built a third car.

There is still is no law against homemade automobiles. Auto parts are available for not much money. If you think carefully about this, however, it seems reasonable to check the car lots for a factory-built Chevy.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.

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