Emily and I always enjoyed knowing that our family lived along the old plank road in Racine County, Wisconsin. Eventually our portion of Highway A was officially named Plank Road. Other official “Plank Roads” exist throughout the Midwest, including the Watertown Plank Road in Milwaukee County and the Old Plank Road Trail in northern Illinois, along with businesses and organizations named after such roads, past or present.
However, some Midwestern plank roads have almost completely vanished from memory as well as from sight. For example, while I have lived in Porter County, Indiana, for twenty-five years, I learned only recently that I travel to school every day over an old plank road. According to a June 25, 1914, Chesterton Tribune article, an early settler named Ben Little recalled that the plank road that ran north from Valparaiso through the village of Calumet (later renamed Chesterton) was built in 1850-51 as “the great highway for the farmers to haul their grain to the vessels at Michigan City. . . The road was built of oak plank, made from virgin timber that grew along the road. The plank was nine feet wide, and two inches thick.”
Last week in Chesterton I saw a remnant of one of those massive oak planks on display in the Westchester Township History Museum. An 1858 plat map identifies as the “Plank Road” the street that is called Calumet Avenue today. A little square alongside the plank road is identified as the “Thomas Hotel,” and south of the hotel is a square marked “Toll Gate.”
I wonder whether the hotel keeper’s family and the toll gate keeper’s family were as neighborly as the Mathers and the McEachrons of Plank Road Summer. Because inns and toll gates were necessities along the plank roads, friendships like that of Florence and Katie could have occurred anywhere along the thousands of miles of plank roads in the United States. There may well be untold stories about a plank road near you.