Marion Heritage Center shines light on roads and travelers of the past

MARION ? A new exhibit at the Marion Heritage Center allows visitors to walk the roads of Marion?s past and with those who traveled them.

The ?Good Roads? exhibit opened Sept. 30 and runs through April 29. Admission is free. Researching and compiling the information took David and Lynette Brenzel, who run the center, two years.

When Lynette Brenzel started at the Marion Heritage Center, 590 10th St., in 2012, she said board members suggested a Lincoln Highway exhibit. However, Lynette Brenzel said when she and David began researching Eastern Iowa roadways in the 1910s, stories brought them further and further into the past.

It wasn?t until the couple found a quote by Henry Joy, one of the founders of the Lincoln Highway Association, saying the road through Marion and into Cedar Rapids was one of the best routes through Eastern Iowa, that they delved deeper.

?We thought, ?There?s got to be another story we can tell,? ? Lynette Brenzel said.

The road through Marion, a territorial highway, was part of the first transcontinental road that connected Iowa City ? then the state?s capitol ? to Marion. It then headed up toward Prairie du Chien, Wis., where it connected to roads along the Great Lakes and then to New York, David Brenzel said.

Starting in 1913, the road through Marion also was part of the Lincoln Highway until about 1925 when Mount Vernon Road was finished, he added.

?By 1925, they had finished bridges and paving and grading on Mount Vernon Road,? David Brenzel said. ?People forget how close that road is to the Cedar River. Every time the Cedar River floods, it floods all of the mouths of those tributaries and that destroys the road.?

So for about half the 19th Century and a piece of the 20th Century, the world?s travelers on cross-country trips went through Marion and into Cedar Rapids with walkers coming through as early as 1868 and bicycles as early as 1884, David Brenzel said.

?We found out that we were the tried and true route,? Lynette Brenzel said. ?We were the route that did a dozen endurance speed contests and relay races.?

?No one was talking about it,? David Brenzel added.

Featured in the exhibit are stories and photos of the first endurance walkers who gained popularity by placing bets on how long and how far they could walk. It began an entertainment fad of the late 1800s.

The first bike in Iowa is featured in the exhibit with a front wheel more than 50 inches in circumference. The first automobile used on the west side of the Mississippi River also is featured, as are the stories of multiple early motorcyclists.

Iowans also are prominently featured, such as Albert V. Roe, a one-armed man from Grinnell, lauded by local newspapers as a spectacle. Roe had challenged a family trying to cross the country in their automobile, which kept breaking down, that he could beat them by riding his bicycle.

He did, David Brenzel said.

The exhibit title may be a bit of a misnomer.

?Is it about roads or is it about people?? David Brenzel said. ?Roads are just the entry point. It?s really about people.?