By Jerry Alger, Fruitport, MI, JHA Board Member
from the Newsletter of the Jefferson Highway Association
Hello, my name is Jerry Alger. I have in recent years become an enthusiastic fan of the Jefferson Highway and in 2015 was elected delegate-at-large to the JHA board of directors. But before explaining how I “found” the highway, I’ll say a little bit more about myself. I was raised in Fruitport, a small western Michigan village of about 1,300 people, and have lived there ever since. This was a great place in which to grow up. I’ve been a trustee on the village council for many years and am proud of my accomplishments there.
I have also lived along a vintage two-lane highway all my life—US 16, which carried travelers from Detroit to Yellowstone Park. After 1963, the highway bypassed Fruitport, but the village didn’t die, and we now have more cars passing through than ever before, many originating in nearby towns and suburbs.
Fruitport has a lot of interesting history, some of which I’ve undertaken to tell with stories inscribed on interpretive panels placed around the village. Fruitport’s name came from all the fruit (mainly peaches) shipped from the shores of Spring Lake, whose waters reach Fruitport. My pride and joy is a steel “peach tree,” about eight feet in height, for which I raised donations and that was constructed by a local craftsman in a park fronting the lake.
But now, on to my discovery of the Jefferson Highway. Every year since 2004 my wife Lynda and I have taken a month-long road trip along a historic highway. Our trips have taken us through all 48 lower states.After driving the length of Route 66 for the fourth time in 2011, we went on to San Francisco to begin our return trip following the route of the Lincoln Highway. Lynda had done a lot of research on places and sights along that route, and we greatly enjoyed our journey eastward. Eventually we came upon some intriguing cement markers with Lincoln’s bust on them out in the corn fields . . . we were in Iowa. It was also time to eat, so we were looking for a restaurant. The next one up happened to be Niland’s Café at Reed/Niland Corner in Colo. We pulled up and went inside.
The first thing that caught my eye in Niland’s was the 1939 Cadillac coming out of the corner of the dining room. I owned a 1939 Cadillac 60 Special just like that one! Then we looked around at the pictures and historical exhibits on the walls. At that point, I had never heard of the Jefferson Highway, so the Jefferson Highway stuff still didn’t sink in. But while waiting for my Reuben sandwich to be served, I picked up a JHA brochure from the counter and began to read it. Finally it dawned on me to look into the Jefferson Highway. We loved Reed/Niland Corner, and once we were back home, we joined JHA, I began to research the highway, and Lynda began to lay out a plan for a future trip along the highway.
In 2012 we finished the Lincoln Highway trip to Times Square and then drove down the Jersey Shore to Ocean City, MD, where we picked up US 50 and followed it to Indiana. In 2013 we finished US 50 to its end in Sacramento, returning via Route 66 (our fifth complete trip on that highway). But in 2014 the time had come for a tour of the Jefferson Highway. We had only the map from the JHA brochure, which didn’t tell us what roads were the old Jefferson alignment, but Lynda prepared a route guide by listing all the cities and towns on the Jefferson and then identifying the two-lane roads connecting them. This is what we used as our basic map, but I had also succeeded in locating some JHA members—first, Glenn Smith, who hooked us up with Scott Berka, who in turn put us in touch with Lyell Henry—who provided additional information about portions of the old route.
In September, 2014, we drove to Winnipeg, found the beginning marker of the Jefferson Highway, soon were on our way, and . . . three weeks later, we were in New Orleans. That trip down the Jefferson Highway was about as exciting as it gets. Lynda and I agree: this was one of our favorite road trips, and it certainly has left us both as enthusiastic fans of the Jefferson Highway. I now look forward to helping the highway become better known so that more people will jump in their cars and enjoy driving portions or the full length of it.