Yellowstone Trail: Transcontinental Road through Wisconsin

Back in 1912, some businessmen in South Dakota decided they wanted to create an automobile route across the US. This was long before the advent of state or federal highways.
Mark Mowbry described it as a "transcontinental automobile route that ran on a patchwork of public roads supported and maintained by local businesses and groups … organized in 1912 to attract tourists traveling through towns on their way to Yellowstone Park." I came upon a small portion of it quite by accident, and learned about it again quite by accident by bumping into a man I happened to know from having done another story on a different subject. This is a story of coincidences and discovery. This will be a short story. I hope to build on it as I explore more.

June 29, 2017


I was driving from Hudson on the St Croix River due east of St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota, back home to Wausau. I had been exploring the St. Croix River and its meeting point with the Mississippi River. I was away for a few days, I ran through some heavy-duty thunderstorms in the western part of the state, and was anxious to get home.

I had been on I-94 traveling east out of Hudson and jumped on Hwy 29 east of Menominee as I knew it ran straight into Wausau. After going through Chippewa Falls, I decided I had had enough of Hwy 29, which I find boring, and hopped on CH X in Chippewa County. I passed through Cadott and then CH X. I stuck to CH X and passed through Thorpe, now in Clark County.


Jut prior to arriving in Cadott's town center, I spotted a fabulous barn scene on CH X, close to 250th Street. The owner saw me taking some photos and walked over. I told him I was taking photos for my Wisconsin Central web site, he laughed, and asked me if I remembered Fox Run Equestrian Center. Of course I did. He was Bob Calmes who owned the equestrian center, and ultimately sold it. I took photos there back in 2006 and published a story. You'll see Bob training a young lady to ride horses. Anyway, what an amazing coincidence, out here, way out here, and I took the road by chance and stopped at the barn by chance, and here he is!

Bob asked me if I saw the yellow painted stone on the corner of his lot. I told him, "No." He said that marks this road as part of the Yellowstone Trail. My response is the common response of anyone you ask about this trail— never heard of it or about it.


I walked over and looked, and sure enough, there was a yellow painted stone and a clear marker, on the corner of CH X and 250th Street. In the background you see a white fence where Bob keeps some horses, still in love with them. Bob then went on to explain what the trail was about.

This is how describes the trail:

"In 1912, a group of small town businessmen in South Dakota undertook an ambitious project to create a useful automobile route, the Yellowstone Trail, across America. This was at a time when roads weren't marked, there were few maps and slippery mud was the usual road surface.

"The Yellowstone Trail Association located a route, motivated road improvements, produced maps and folders to guide the traveler, and promoted tourism along its length. It became a leader in stimulating tourist travel to the Northwest and motivating good roads across America.

"Today, almost all of the route of the Yellowstone Trail is on slower, less traveled roads. Some sections of the Trail, especially in the West, have remained little changed and are a delight to visit."

Joseph Parmley of Ipswich, South Dakota, was the founder of the trail. He was actually a native of Miffin, Wisconsin. He is considered the "Father of the Yellowstone Trail." He served in the South Dakota House of Representatives and on many state commissions and boards, ultimately serving as the South Dakota Highway Commissioner. After buying his first car in 1905, he tried to undertake developing a road policy. It was met by ridicule. By 1910 he developed the transcontinental concept and in 1912 the first conference to organize the trail was held. He was elected president of the Yellowstone Trail Association.


In 1915, Parmley jumped in a Studebaker Six furnished by W.C. Nissen, the Studebaker Distributor in Aberdeen, South Dakota.


He drove from Lemmon, South Dakota to Ortonville, Minnesota, considered in those days an impossible feat. Nothing was marked, there were no maps and he drove mostly on mud. He intended to make the trip in 16 hours, over 349 miles. He left at 4 am and planned to complete the trip by 8 pm. He got to Ortonville, car covered in mud, at 8:15 pm, an astonishing accomplishment.

Parmley would not give up. By 1915, the Yellowstone Trail extended from Chicago, Illinois to Seattle, Washington, a distance of 2,445 miles. By 1916, the plan included placing a yellow circle with a black arrow pointing the way on rocks and utility poles along the track used by motorists — Route Signs! This photo shows a Yellowstone Trail painted rock marker in Glenwood, Wisconsin.

The trail was completed in Ohio by 1921. The Eastern states were not as enthusiastic about the trails as was the case in the Midwest and West, largely due to the fact that roads there were in much better shape.


Nonetheless, the Association used those roads as segments of the trail and bragged that it stretched from Plymouth, Massachusetts to Seattle, Washington. A few streets and roads retain the Yellowstone Trail name in the East, and some former sections remain as unimproved roads.

The bottom line is the Yellowstone Trail was America’s first coast to coast highway through the upper tier of states. And here I was, unwittingly on CH X in Clark County, Wisconsin, using part of the trail.

By 1918, Wisconsin created the first system of numbered roads in the world. In 1926 the federal government mandated all roads be numbered. By 1930 that spelled the demise of the Yellowstone Road Association.


This map shows the overall route of the trail through Wisconsin. There is a marvelous magazine on the internet about the trail, entitled, "Driving the Yellowstone Trail 1912-2012," by Sara Bush. It is focused on driving that part of the trail in Wisconsin but also talks to the history of the trail across the nation. I highly commend using this publication if you wish to go out exploring. Little did I know for the all the time I was in St. Croix County, I was on the trail.


I could have stayed talking with Bob Clames all day. He offered to give me a tour of his homestead, but I was in a rush to get back to Wausau. Of course now the Yellowstone Trail was firmly in my mind. As I drove through the village of Cadott, I came across another trail marker at the corner of N.Central and CH X, in front of the Village of Cadott administrative center, police station and fire house. This is a photo of that marker.

While I suppose there are more exciting things to do in life, frankly this old man was really having fun with all this.


I pressed ahead on CH X through Stanley and Thorp. And guess what? Yep, just east of Thorp there's another marker on the corner of Gorman Ave. and CH X. I believe technically it is in the town of Withee. This marker is most interesting.

There is the Yellowstone Trail marker. But behind it is another marker, one commemorating "Kolonia Pozen." It reads:

"Kolonia Polska 1889
"Gorman Clark County Wisconsin
"In memory of the Polish Immigrants who
settled this area and called it Poznan."

This area around Thorp was an important logging region. Large hardwood forests existed between Thorp and Withee. As a result the region between the Black and Chippewa Rivers became populated. But by the late 1880s the valuable trees had been harvested. That left the region with little value, and in many areas quite ugly from the remnants of the logging operations..

Nonetheless, in about 1885 land speculators came to the area and bought up land from the lumber companies. Two Polish land agents, Felix L. Piotrowicz and E.I. Slupski from Milwaukee, began selling 40-acre plots of "farmland" to Polish and Lithuanian immigrants. Part of the deal was to plan the town of Poznan, about four miles east of Thorp. The town never materialized, and little is known about it.


When people, largely from Milwaukee, came to the area, they found it denuded and not good for farming. Nonetheless, they worked hard to develop the land and settlers continued coming. The History of St. Hedwig's Parish provides interesting perspectives. The Parish of St. Hedwigs was established in a town then known as Sterling, but moved to an area about two miles east of Thorp. It stands there today.

It turns out there was considerable turbulence between the Polish settlers, the clergy and the land agents, and the town of Pozen never developed.

There is a lot more to discover about the Yellowstone Trail. Some have driven the distance. I think that's a neat idea.