Most scenic highway designations originate from state tourism or highway departments, or local chambers of commerce in a bid to get more travelers to visit their area. Not so with the Hiawatha Pioneer Trail. It was the brainchild of the American Petroleum Institute (API). The goal, of course, was to get more people into cars, burning more gas, to further enrich the oil companies. This was not the first tourist trail API created—they had also devised trails further east, like the New England Heritage Trail, George Washington Heritage Trail, and Lincoln Heritage Trail. This time, they were focused on the states of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
The API invited the four states to submit lists of 20 attractions each. API marketers then drew a long, meandering route along existing roads, connecting all of the attractions listed. API pledged nearly $1 million to promote the new tourist route. The organization got the four states to agree to post the route on their roads. The highway departments in these four states began posting a distinctive marker along the route. It depicts two men, a pioneer and a Native American, looking into the distance. With that done, the highway was dedicated on May 15, 1964.
After the API money dried up, the highway began to languish. Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin were left with thousands of signs scattered across the 2,400 miles of highways making up the trail. Illinois was the first to pull out of supporting the highway; they removed their signs in 1972. Shortly thereafter, Wisconsin quit maintaining their signs, allowing them to remain posted but not installing replacements. Iowa and Minnesota both continued to maintain their installs until 2008, when both states removed all existing markers.
With the retirement of the Hiawatha Pioneer Trail, original markers that were posted along the route have become scarce. That’s why we’ve brought it back to life, reproducing every detail of the original artwork using photographs of previously-installed signs. The fonts used in the creation of this sign exactly match those specified in official federal standards. Our recreation makes an excellent display piece for your garage, den, or man cave, for anyone with fond memories of seeing these familiar markers while traveling across the Upper Midwest.
Our Hiawatha Pioneer Trail sign is flat printed on heavy 14-gauge steel. You can choose between four sizes: 12, 16, 24, and 36 inches square. Its durable non-reflective finish will look great, indoors or outdoors, for years to come. (Looking for a version in a different size? Or perhaps a sign for a tourism route elsewhere in the world? Please ask Jake, as he can certainly make one!)