When one is doing research of pioneers of transcontinental travel and the Lincoln Highway, the two names that pop up immediately are Carl Fisher and Henry B. Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company. Carl Fisher, owner of the Prest-O-Lite (headlight) Company, supplied almost all of the headlights to the Detroit car manufacturers. He had already developed the Indianapolis 500 race and thought a “Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway” would be a good way for people to have a place to drive their cars. Plus it would help car sales! He enlisted the help of auto makers and Henry B. Joy became a very strong supporter as well as the first president of the newly formed Lincoln Highway Association. They renamed the route as the Lincoln Highway to pay tribute to President Abraham Lincoln because a memorial to him did not exist yet.
But today’s writing is about a lesser known pioneer for the Lincoln Highway, Henry C. Ostermann, the first Field Secretary of the Lincoln Highway Association. According to an article in the Palimpsest (Volume 58, Number 3, May/June 1975) entitled “DUSTY DOUGHBOYS ON THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY: THE 1919 ARMY CONVOY IN IOWA, “He (Ostermann) was born in Indiana in 1876 and Henry was supporting himself as a newsboy in New York City by the age of six. At 14, he joined the Navy for a three-year hitch and thereafter drifted around the United States as orange picker, employee of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, rancher, railroad worker, inventor and businessman. Crank case oil was in Henry’s blood. From early in the century he enjoyed long distance travel and thought nothing of being stuck in a mud hole for 24 hours.
After a business setback, Ostermann accepted employment with the Lincoln Highway Association in 1914. In small groups or large audiences, in country store caucuses or board meetings with industrial magnates, Henry held a mystic power when it came to the promotion and improvement of the Lincoln Highway. He kept abreast of the latest automotive and highway technology and offered sound advice with tact and geniality. At least twice a year, field Secretary Ostermann endeavored to contact every Lincoln Highway Consul in person, which required 500 personal visits and 15,000 miles behind the wheel. But Henry loved driving. A certain aura followed him as he drove the latest equipment, usually an open Packard touring car, through the towns and across the countryside of America in the cause of better roads.” Read more at: http://iagenweb.org/clinton/places/linchwy.htm
His first transcontinental trip was in 1908 and again in 1912. He estimated that by 1912, maybe a dozen trips had been made across the nation by various individuals. After the Lincoln Highway was designated in 1913, the LHA enlisted his help and trusted his knowledge of the land.
During the winter of 1917, Ostermann helped lead military convoys up and down the east coast (as road signs were few and far between since traffic was usually just the locals). That got him to thinking about the Lincoln Highway and military vehicles. It was his suggestion to military officials that led to the 1919 Army Convoy on the Lincoln Highway. He traveled ahead of the convoy and promoted “good roads” in those communities. Promotion was a skill he developed from his time with Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show. He would meet with residents and get the communities excited about the convoy coming through. On this famous convoy was a young Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would later become President of the United States and get his idea for the interstate system from his time in this convoy and his military experience in Germany traveling the Autobahn.
By 1919, Ostermann had traveled the New York to San Francisco route more than any other man- completing 18 trips. But on his 19th trip, on a fateful day in June, 1920, as his wife was in Tama waiting for him to return from an early morning meeting in Marshalltown, he took a curve too fast and lost control – tumbling down an embankment near Montour, Iowa, and lost his life.
Without this man and his courage and sense of adventure, the Lincoln Highway might not have developed as fast as it did. There probably would not have been a 1919 Army Convoy. Maybe even Eisenhower would not have thought of his idea for the interstate system! Roadways of today could have a whole different look, if not for Henry C. Ostermann.
So as we celebrate the 1919 Army Convoy this summer/fall with TWO re-enactments traveling across the nation, let’s remember to tip our hats to Henry C. Ostermann- pioneer, explorer, and promoter of transcontinental travel.