Honk if you like historic highways

People Thought I Was Crazy

John Ton’s mural at House of Blends coffeehouse, 115 W. Liberty St.,  commemorates Alice Ramsey’s 1909 cross-country drive.

John Ton’s mural at House of Blends coffeehouse, 115 W. Liberty St., commemorates Alice Ramsey’s 1909 cross-country drive.

Photo By David Robert

John Ton, his breath visible in cold February air, explains the genesis of the mural he’s painting at the corner of Sierra and Liberty Streets. With neatly cut but windblown silver-gray hair and beard, Ton looks like he’d enjoy working outside, but a flannel jacket with a little paint on it and a warm café mocha only kind of protect him from the icy breeze.

The House of Blends coffeehouse is his canvas. He’s standing in the parking lot. He’s telling the story of Alice Ramsey, a 22 year old from New Jersey who accepted a challenge from a car sales manager and packed a few pals into her Maxwell touring car in the summer of 1909.

Fifty-nine days later, she arrived in San Francisco, the first woman to make the 3,800-mile, coast-to-coast car trip along the route that would later be dubbed the Lincoln Highway. (About two dozen men had made the distance, the first in 1903.)

Fifty-two years later, Ramsey published the story of her adventures. Her 1961 book, Veil, Duster and Tire Iron, circulates online from $150-$450. A version called Alice’s Drive is in print and sells for much less.

Forty-three years after that, Ton, a professional sign painter with a growing resume of outdoor murals to his name, happened across a mountain scene outside House of Blends that needed updating.

Part of a muralist’s job is to be a mediator and come up with a design solution that works for both clients and the public. In this case, the coffeehouse owners—who’d been searching for a Nevada-themed image—and Ton—a member of the Lincoln Highway Association—agreed Alice Ramsey would make a good subject.

It’s not the monetary compensation that lures this painter to this particular task. The café supplies the paint and, says Ton, “if I’m working on the mural, they feed me and give me coffee.”

Ton’s most notable murals are the one on the Santa Cruz, Calif., boardwalk and a 344-foot-long scenic painting that runs along a bicycle trail in Pacific Grove, Calif. Ton notes on his Web site, “The infamous Pacific Grove Arts Commission actually paid more for their self-commemorating bronze plaque than I got for the mural!”

Over the last few months, sagebrush, sky and a dirt road road have appeared on the coffeehouse’s outdoor wall. There’s the detailed body of a 1909 Maxwell, with a steering wheel not yet attached to a column, and four (so-far) phantom figures with fancy hats riding in it. The painting is in the process of becoming a depiction of Ramsey and her touring companions driving across the Nevada part of what would officially become, in 1913, the Lincoln Highway. (The historic highway entered the state north of Great Basin National Park, near Ibapah, Utah, and mostly followed the route of what is now Nevada Highway 50.)

“People thought I was crazy,” wrote Ramsey in her book, so that is the title of Ton’s painting.

The mural is nearing completion now that the weather is kinder to the paint—which doesn’t work well frozen. So now’s your chance to wave to Ton, who’ll likely be standing on a ladder painting, as you drive by the busy corner. Honk if you like 1909 Maxwells. Or coffee. Or historic highways.