On the Flip Side | Newberry

On the Flip Side

So on the cover stands this kid, looking at the camera as he shows off what he has built: a structure of wings and tail attached to his body. The general air of the picture puts it well over a hundred years ago, during the great era of invention. I assumed it was a picture of some nameless boy who broke a few dozen bones and settled down to a quiet career in grocery store checkout.

Not so. This is a photo of the fourteen year-old Carl Bates, in 1898, when he used this contraption in the first man-carrying glider flight seen in the state of Iowa. He went on to build the first operational airplane with an air-cooled gasoline engine. He won the first airplane race in America (apparently because none of the other planes got off the ground) and has been in the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame since 2002.

But this is not a column about Carl Bates, and what I was looking at was not a book about Carl Bates. It was the 1999-2000 Iowa Transportation Map.

I was unaware that road maps went into this sort of information. (For that matter, I was unaware that there was an Iowa Museum of Aviation and hall of Fame.) I knew they had maps, of course, and that fascinating chart to calculate the distance between, say, Mason City and Algona. It never occurred to me that there would be space for much text.

I was looking through a collection of Iowa Transportation Maps, going back to 1964, when they were still just Highway Maps. It was being done even then. The business side of the map was, of course, a map of the state, showing highways, rivers, and state parks. Charts and larger scale maps of cities were on the back, along with a guide to signals used by signalmen on the roadway (apparently they were trusted with more than just a sign which said STOP on one side and SLOW on the other.)

But above all of these things is a photo essay on highway construction, showing off the big machines on what looks to be a pleasant summer day with cloudless blue skies. The pictures cover nearly a fourth of this side of the map: another sort of article I didn’t expect to find on a road map.

The rest of the maps from the sixties had little more than small, antiseptic photos of the clean, modern rest areas offered along the highway: just the sort of thing to tuck into that awkward triangle above the chart that lets you calculate the distance between Marshalltown and Chicago. They backed off even from that in the early seventies, using the space for a paragraph describing the picture on the cover of the map, only loosening up to the extent of adding a message from the Governor on the back.

In the eighties, though, they returned to the wordier tradition. They began with a celebration of Iowa’s seven unique vacation areas. (I can’t find out what these were, or who counted them, but they used this a couple of years, so there must BE seven.) We are urged to get Seat Belt Fever! (I don’t remember this ad campaign) and the map boasts that Iowa now has Logo Signage (instead of saying FOOD or GASOLINE, road signs would now say McDonald’s or Shell.)

Adding a calendar of events in 1985, they made this explode in 1989, until it takes up four pages on the back of the map, spelling out the Festivals, Attractions, Natural Resources, and Information Sources for Eastern Iowa (top third of those four pages), Central Iowa (central third), and Western Iowa (bottom third). The map, see, had been enlarged, allowing some of those large scale city maps to go on the FRONT of the map, which left more space to be creative.

Through the nineties, you can read about Suggested Tours of Iowa (with attendant maps), or read an illustrated article on Iowa’s State Parks (1995) or Historic Sites (1998). The Tourist Bureau came up with something every year, celebrating Iowa’s Ethnic Heritage (and tourist spots where you could spend money on it), the History of Iowa Transportation cited above, or scenes of natural beauty touting Iowa’s Environmental Stewardship.

Suddenly, in 2002, this all dropped by the wayside, and road maps, threatened by the advance of GPS, concentrated on the maps. The distance chart is still there in the most recent map in this collection, but all the announcements and pictures have been replaced by web addresses.

I looked it up, though, and Iowa does still produce a printed map. I see that it includes a salute to the 100th anniversary of Iowa State Parks (as the 1995 map here salutes their 75th). So I assume article writing depends on who’s in charge, and the phenomenon has been renewed until another administration decides to cut back.

It’s a fascinating run of information. And yet I wonder if this was what they meant in grade school when we took all those classes in map reading.


Where's Iowa?
Somewhere west of East Dubuque.

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