Bellefontaine, Ohio is a small town like most small towns. With a population just over 13,000, weathered brick store fronts lining each side of Main Street, and the bell tower of the Logan Country Courthouse standing tall over the surrounding buildings, Bellefontaine calls itself Bell Fountain and wears its history with pride. It seems on every corner you can find a plaque, a marker saying, "Something important happened, and it happened here."
It's easy to miss markers like that. The font is too small and you're driving too fast, and that thing so important flies past you before you even realize there was History there. But there's a marker in Bellefontaine you couldn't miss, even if you tried. It's the oldest concrete street in America, and it's this small town's star attraction.
Maybe it surprises you that the oldest concrete street in the country is in Ohio. I know it surprised me. If you had asked me I would have said New York City, or maybe Boston - somewhere in New England where the industrial revolution was really kicking. And maybe if George Bartholomew, inventor of cement paving, had established his paving company in a more expected area, I would have been right. But the Buckeye Portland Cement Company could not have lived anywhere but Ohio, and in 1889 Bartholomew came to the people of Bellefontaine and promised to build them a better road.
Not that it was an easy get. Bartholomew had to commit to donating all of the materials needed to produce the road, and had to promise to pay up to $5,000 in repairs were the road damaged in some way. This was at least a decade before the first automobile drive, so the road would only be open to foot traffic and horse and buggy, but considering that $5,000 in 1889 is practically Oprah money, that should speak to how little faith the people of Bellefontaine had in this newfangled cement road idea.
But George knew. And in 1891 Court Avenue became the first concrete street in the country. With the town impressed by the quality, the surrounding roads were quickly paved with concrete, and as news of these amazing new streets spread, so did Bartholomew's reach. Now, over a century later, most of George's first streets have been covered over, refinished with asphalt. But Court Avenue remains. And in the shadow of the Logan County Courthouse, a statue of George Bartholomew stands proud before his legacy.
Looking down at the pavement beneath my feet, I can see where the years are beginning to show, where the thousands of feet and hooves and wheels have left their marks, though the paving is still holding strong. I wonder what it felt like, what it must have meant to be a part of something that was so revolutionary in such a quietly significant way, to unknowingly give permission to the transportation industry to be something bigger, something better. Something more.
Concrete roads. I wonder if he knew.
Learn more about the city of Bellefontaine at their website.