By Jim Force, Special to Wausau Pilot & Review
The St. Paul Norwegian Lutheran church stands empty along Willow Road west of Curtiss. Flies buzz in the summer heat. Weeds line the crushed stone road. A lone horse and buggy march smartly past.
But 100 years ago you might have seen great touring cars–Overlands and Model Ts–motoring by, loaded with families and supplies, headed across the country following the Yellowstone Trail.
Created and supported by local businesses and community groups to promote travel and tourism in the new era of automobiles, the Trail spanned the nation from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound. It sliced diagonally across Wisconsin, from Kenosha to Hudson. A portion of it ran along the western edge of Marathon County, following present-day Highway 13 from Marshfield to Abbotsford, then west through Curtiss, Owen, Withee and the other small towns along Highway 29.
In several places, yellow and black trail signs mark the old road. In front of the small community center in Curtiss, a weathered display illustrates the route and adds several facts.
South Dakota start
“Small town businessmen from South Dakota formed the Yellowstone Trail Association to ‘get out of the mud’ and pressure counties to build usable automobile roads,” the display reads. “They named the road Yellowstone to draw tourists to the national park. Roads and autos were crude and travel was tough. With no maps, tourists relied on guidebooks and yellow rocks to find their way.”
The display was designed by John and Alice Ridge, Wausau natives and retired professors at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who have researched and written two books about the Trail, with a third on the way. They have also supported the Association’s “Arrow” newsletter, made over 50 presentations, and have served as Association officers.
“The road got started in 1912,” John said. “The Wisconsin section came into being around 1915.”
By 1917, the Trail connected both coasts.
Farm-to-market section roads were often designated as part of the trail, and the route was changed as roads were improved. Community groups sponsored “Fix up the Trail” days. In the West and Midwest, the route tended to follow railroads.
New state highway systems, with maps and road numbers, as well as the Great Depression brought further development the Trail to an end around 1930. That’s when the original Trail Association closed its Minneapolis office.
You can still follow the route, though, finding the marker signs and sometimes bright yellow rocks, like those preserved in Hudson. A better way is to follow maps published on the association’s website, www.yellowstonetrail.org, or by obtaining a printed booklet titled “Driving the Yellowstone Trail…A guide to traveling Wisconsin’s Historic Auto Trail,” published by American Road magazine.
The Ridges’ books, including their first–“Introducing the Yellowstone Trail”–are in the Marathon County Public Library.
Some of the landmarks are gone. Both the Old Curtiss Hotel and Ray’s Market in Unity–a storehouse of historical data including Trail information–have burned.
But you can find the Yellowstone Trail Park in Thorp, Mauel’s Dairy in Owen, the Thomas House Center for History in Marshfield, the Yellowstone Recreation Park in Hewitt, and a number of sites in Stevens Point, including the Old Whiting Hotel.
The trail didn’t go through Wausau, but it came close.
The Wausau Pilot newspaper of June 1, 1915, reported:
“The trail as laid out through Wisconsin at the present time is via Chicago, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, Waupaca, Stevens Point, Marshfield, Chippewa Falls and on to St. Paul and Minneapolis,” The Pilot story read. “We at Wausau cannot see how the venture can be made a success without injecting into it a goodly amount of the Wausau spirit.
“However if the powers behind the movement do not want this, we will have to put in a crushed granite road to Stevens Point, which ought to have been done long ago, and join the procession there. There is no use to worry over the fact that Wausau is not on the line, but rather let us rejoice that we will be so near a good thoroughfare across the continent, one on which all may go and see the sights of our country, in a $5,000 car if you are so fortunate as to own one, if not in a much less pretentious one, even on a motorcycle, and the poor editor can make the trip on his ever-trusty bicycle…”
The scenic view
In recent years, non-stop speedballers have driven from New York to Los Angeles in 28 hours or less, their sightseeing limited to exit ramps and McDonalds’ signs.
It was much more scenic for motorists on the 3,700-mile-long Yellowstone Trail.
County Road HH east of Stevens Point remains a pleasant example, rolling through hills and fields, past woods and farmsteads. You can imagine people waving, drivers stopping to clarify directions or cool a radiator, curious horses coming to the fence.
It’s exactly that charm that motivates John and Alice Ridge and others carrying on the memories.
“It’s been a pleasure studying it,” Alice said. “We’ve spent days, months, studying old newspapers, visiting the archives in all the little towns.”
Adds John, “It’s a very pleasant experience to drive off the Interstates, and take the gravel roads. You can relive what life was like in 1912 or 1915.”