DUBLIN, Ind. — Long before railroads linked the nation, stagecoaches and wagons hauling settlers bumped their way west along the first U.S. interstate highway — some 700 miles of what was initially little more than a dirt road.
The National Road, or U.S. 40, turns 200 this year, and residents along its east-west course hope to lure tourists with small-town charm, festivals and historical sites such as brick inns that once catered to road-weary travelers.
The bicentennial events include the Historic National Road Yard Sale, an everything-must-go sale spread out along 824 miles of the road's modern course, from Maryland to Illinois.
Carol Stewart, president of the Franklinton Historical Society in Columbus, Ohio, said people are delved into attics and basements to find items for the sale held the first Sunday in June.
"My daughter cleaned out her closets and said `Mark it cheap enough so that it doesn't come back,'" she said, adding they had "lots of things for a quarter."
But Stewart, who documents the history of Franklinton — a staging point for American troops during the War of 1812 — hopes people also take away an appreciation of the road's rich history.
The National Road, the first federally financed interstate, helped open the land west of the Appalachians to settlers and commerce. President Thomas Jefferson commissioned it on March 29, 1806, although it took decades to finish.
A difficult but passable route through dense woods and across rivers and prairies, it sparked trade with the vast expanse of the nation's midsection, then called the Northwest Territory, said Bill Withuhn, curator of transportation history at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
"If you're going to have people go out there and settle the wilderness, you need a commercial artery to connect the settled area with the new frontier. That's what the road was all about," he said.
Today, weathered stone mile-markers still dot the old National Road, which ran from Cumberland, Md., through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana to Vandalia, Ill.
It was later lengthened, paved and renamed U.S. 40, but was eclipsed in the 1960s by Interstate 70, a parallel superhighway. Stung by the closure of motels and diners along what for many was their Main Street, dozens of towns turned to festivals and events such as the yard sale — now in its third year — for extra cash.
In Dublin, about 40 miles east of Indianapolis, cars lined the road's grassy edges this week as shoppers scanned tables loaded with children's clothing, Depression-era glassware, toys and boxes filled with a hodgepodge of old tools, postcards and brass doorknobs.
In front of one home, 90-year-old Darlene Darter sat at a card table manning a cash box as her daughter, Soozi Worley, organized merchandise on tables she had set up under a shade tree.
Darter, who's lived in the town of 700 since 1937, recalled U.S. 40's glory days before Interstate 70 siphoned away much of the traffic in Dublin, which is in a section of U.S. 40 often called Antique Alley.
"This used to be a busy place — just filled with cars going along, back and forth. And whenever there's a wreck on I-70 and the police redirect the traffic, it's bumper to bumper again," she said.
In Centerville, Ind., 20 miles to the east, the road is lined with quaint brick row houses listed on the National Register of Historic Places that were built in the 1820s and 1830s with connecting archways.
The town of 2,400 residents, founded in 1814, also boasts the only surviving original log courthouse from the days of the Northwest Territory.
Brenda St. Claire, a retiree from Akron, Ohio, explored the town's antique stores after visiting several yard sales.
"Every chance I get I'm on the back roads, touring. It's just a different space and time," she said. "People need to get off the interstates and enjoy the real America."