Road Scholar | Pittsburgh City Paper

Road Scholar

When he's not editing Western Pennsylvania History magazine for the Heinz History Center, Brian Butko is on America's byways, documenting their diners, motels, two-story-high dinosaurs and the roads themselves. CP checked in with Butko from ... where else? ... on the road, in the middle of Missouri. Butko updates us on his latest books, Greetings from the Lincoln Highway: America's First Coast-to-Coast Road and Roadside Giants (co-written with his wife, Sarah), as well as the state of the nation's roadside.


Roadside Giants is a great compendium of all the 20-foot-tall muffler men, super-size fish and cafés shaped like coffee pots that a traveler could hope to spot. Do you have a favorite?

We really like the giant-hot-dog restaurant that's in Colorado. We just revisited it a week ago, because it had moved two miles down the road. It's not re-set up yet, but already there was a steady stream of people stopping by.


It's a common theme in the things I write about ... seeking out people and places that care and made an effort. It says a lot about a business that realizes: We're not just waiting for the customer to come to us; we're willing to do something interesting or outrageous to get their attention.


Some buildings and signs that might have been considered vulgar 50 years ago are now considered stylistically interesting. When you drive around, do you speculate on what future travelers might appreciate in our seemingly bland landscape?

I've always liked things that I considered well designed, or done well. On this trip, I noticed a sort of rustic style, Northwestern ski-lodge style, is popular; in the Southwest, we've seen a lot of the adobe look.


I try not to get too critical of everything that's out there today. Fifty years ago, the same critique could have been made by farmers who said, "Our quiet area is being wrecked. There are three gas stations and a motel on the corner."


The difference now is the scale. Where you might have had a couple motels and a gas station, now one Wal-Mart quadruples the area that just those three businesses would have taken up. And once you get that one anchor store in there, then sprawl just goes in all directions instantly.


I was surprised to learn that the Lincoln Highway, which was this incredible feat ... paving a road from New York City to San Francisco ... wasn't built by the government, but by a consortium of interested private parties.

The government was getting into road-building back at the turn of the 19th century, but then privately run canals, railroads and turnpike roads came along. Then in this century, there was the rise of the automobile, and the Lincoln Highway folks thought, "Well, there's no one else to build it, let's do it ourselves." Imagine trying to do anything like that today. ... You'd instantly run into regulations, but at the time the government was in favor of it.


We certainly take roads for granted.

It was the old memoirs that interested me about long-ago road travel ... all that talk about the dirt and dust, patching inner tubes every 20 miles, having to open gates. Even yesterday, crossing Kansas on US 24 ... a beautiful ribbon of highway ... I thought how funny that just 80 years ago they couldn't even get one ribbon of road across the country. I don't think people realize how hard it was for our grandparents to cross the state, let alone the country.


How many commuters even know that Bigelow Boulevard is a piece of the historic Lincoln Highway?

Certainly one main reason I do the books is to document smaller places, because that's the kind of thing that historians typically stay away from. When you go to an archive for photos or documents, you can almost never find anything on diners or old highways and gas stations, though that's starting to change now.


Like Islay's ... that's a pretty special story [told in Butko's 2001 book, Klondikes, Chipped Ham and Skyscraper Cones: The Story of Islay's]. But these subjects are also a way to tell the broader story of what's happened in the past century with business and commerce.

When I was growing up, Isaly's were just everywhere. Then all of a sudden, they were nowhere and so I wondered, if everyone loves them so much, why did they disappear? That's what I set out to solve. At mid-century, they were the world's largest family-owned dairy company, but by the '60s, that business model was no longer in step with the times. But I try not to complain or get too nostalgic because you can see the logic in what happened.


So, you're not a nostalgic purist?

No. I love these old places, their histories and finding them. We stumbled on a great drive-in restaurant yesterday but I have to say it wasn't the greatest food. But it was the greatest neon sign.