John Steinbeck's Truck Stop

Sunday, 10 October 2010 02:53 PM Written by 

MAUSTON, WISC. -- US 12, American Legion Post 81

"This is what we called a 'skinny road,' " Bob Rose said Saturday night.

Bob was referring to US 12, the "skinny" two-lane road outside the Legion Post's front door. The skinny two-lane road John Steinbeck took from Chicago to Mauston 50 years ago.

Whatever Bob said about highways, trucks and what it looked like in 1960 Mauston, I believed.

He had credibility. Not only had he been a truck driver for 47 years, he racked up enough road-warrior miles -- 5 million -- to go around the earth 232 times. I didn't check his math, because, like I say, I believe everything he said.

If he said the truck stop/coffee shop where Steinbeck camped the night of Oct. 10, 1960, was Ernie's Truck Stop, then it was.

Ernie's is long gone now, along with all the other truck-servicing businesses that flourished on US 12 in pre-interstate Mauston.

Until the interstate -- I-94 -- pulled the trucks off US 12 in the mid-'60s, US 12 was the main freight route from Chicago to the Twin Cities. Now all the truck stops are at Mauston's I-94 exits.

Mauston, a town of about 4,400 compared to 2,100 in 1960, was Steinbeck's first stop after leaving Chicago.

He wrote a letter to his wife from Mauston, saying, "I am camped in a cornfield behind a truckers service area and coffee shop." (He also wrote that he had listened to World Series Game 5 on the radio, which the Pirates won, 5-2: "There is great joy here in the Pirates," he said, and people talked about baseball, not politics.) 

In "Travels With Charley" Steinbeck mentions Charley's delight in finding piles of manure that had been cleaned out of cattle trucks. And he says he walked to a valley and looked down at a sea of turkeys being raised for America's thanksgiving dinners.2010-10-09_18.40.56A

I had found Bob and his wife Dona (with one "n") at the legion hall, where they had come to dance to the music of, no typo, Shitz & Giggles.

They both were born and raised in Mauston and lived in places like Chicago and Minneapolis. Now he's retired and living back in Mauston (except that he winters in Yuma, Ariz., where shoveling snow is not a seasonal requisite).

After hearing what Steinbeck said in his letter and weighing their local knowledge, Bob and Dona agreed it had to be Ernie's Truck Stop.

Ernie Schmoker and his wife Anne ran it. "On Sundays we'd go there from church for lunch and pie," Dona said. "Anne made the best pies -- all homemade."

Bob and Dona concurred that there was a turkey farm in the area in 1960. And cattle trucks would occasionally have to be cleaned at one of Mauston's several truck stops. But Ernie's didn't have manure piles near it and provided no view of the turkey farm.

Steinbeck no doubt used his dramatic license to create a composite truck stop based on his Monday night at a Mauston truck stop and his stop the next night near Detroit Lakes, Minn., where he told his wife in a letter there were cattle trucks and a valley full of turkeys nearby.

Bob worked for Consolidated Freightways from the time he got out of the Korean War in 1951 until 1998. He's now 81 but he can still tell you what it was like to drive every mile of just about every US and state highway in the USA.

He took aluminum from Oswego, N.Y., to St. Paul, cattle from Billings to Minneapolis and cast-iron woodstoves from Wisconsin to Pittsburgh -- which, now that I think of it, was like carrying coal to New Castle. In the early years, he wore a collared shirt and a tie while he drove.

After the sun went down, and after the leader of Shitz & Giggles generously sprinkled salt on the dance floor for the Roses and their fellow dancers, I drove over to where Ernie's Truck Stop used to be.DSC_0109

It's about a mile south of town -- where the busy and prosperous Brenner Tank Services operations are and where two dozen tanker trucks are haphazardly parked. Behind Brenner's garages and offices is a corn field, its stubble cropped to within about a foot of the dirt.

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