The Restless Viking: The First Roadside Table

This article was written by Martha Hayden and originally appeared on the Restless Viking website on September 26, 2023.

Just south of Saranac in Ionia County sits the first roadside table. Allan Williams’ vision in 1929 has enhanced our travels even today. Join my husband, Chuck, and I as we stop at this site and learn more about how a single individual can make a difference for our nation.

The First Roadside Table is located near the corner of Grand River Avenue and Morrison Lake Road.

 Early Travel

One may call this ‘early overlanding.’

With muddy road ways and frequent breakdowns people often had to put their survival skills into practice as automobiles had become a new method of travel. When 1916 University of Michigan engineering graduate, Allan Williams, witnessed these travelers parked alongside the road an idea began to brew like coffee in a pot.

Guardrails Repurposed

As an engineer on the Ionia Road Commission, Allan Williams pursed his lips as he eyed a pile of old guardrails. He instructed his crew to build a picnic table.

Placing The First Roadside Table

As the snow melted and the ground thawed in 1929, Allan and his crew placed the table on a spot of state land along U.S. 16 south of Saranac. This location would be an ideal stop for people traveling between Grand Rapids and Lansing.

U.S. 16 had once been a native trail stretching 210 miles from Muskegon to Detroit. As automobiles traveled this trek, resting spots would assist in the journey.

Summoned To The State Road Commission

Within a short time, Allan had been summoned to the State Road Commission Office.

“My dad thought he was going to get a bawlin’ out for using that planking,” son Colin Williams, 84 recalled to Garret Ellison, an MLive reporter.

With worries about being reprimanded Allan approached the building. To Allan’s surprise, the State Chief of Highway Maintenance greeted him warmly. The Chief had received praise from travelers about the roadside table. He had genuinely been excited about this hospitable idea.

More Tables Were Ordered

The Chief ordered more tables to be built and placed along the roadways of Michigan. Allan Williams led the construction of over 100 tables which were then dotted along Michigan’s roads.

Photo Credit:

As travelers experienced these thoughtful tables, letters of gratitude began arriving from all over the country. Allan Williams partnered with his co-worker, Jacob Moore, and the duo proceeded to oversee the construction of a thousand more picnic tables.

Colin Williams, one of Allan’s and Esther’s seven children, recalled, “I can remember them out in the yard making those tables.”

Eventually as demand for more tables grew, the State of Michigan Highway Maintenance took over the task. Other states in our nation began to install roadside tables, too.

Allan Williams’ idea had branched out across our nation linking our highways with convenient spots for a break. By the 1960’s rest stops had become a normal convenience for travelers trekking all over our country! But that’s not all Allan had achieved . . .

Allan Williams

Allan Williams’ son, Colin, had stated “I think the table was just another thing to him. He was involved with so many things.” Colin continued, “He would work Saturday and Sunday and often go back to his office at 6:30 p.m. to work until 10 p.m.”

Innovations for safe, efficient travel had been a key to Allan Williams’ mission. He helped to create the first official Michigan roadmap. The diamond-shaped signs, which designate trucking lines, had been his invention, too. As well, he had initiated the use of angled, concave and straight-lined front-mounted snow plows to make winter travel safer.

Not only had Allan Williams worked for 43 years at the road commission, but he left a legacy in Ionia County. He had served as the Ionia County Free Fair president for twelve years. He helped engineer Bertha Brock Park as well as the Ionia County Airport.

Allan Williams lived 87 years on this Earth until 1979. His son, Colin, and wife, Eleanor, pass by the first roadside table often on their way to and from their Saranac home. “Every time, I think about him,” Colin Williams said.

Allan Williams Photo Credit: Michigan Department of Transportation

A portrait of Allan Williams hangs in Lansing’s ‘Michigan Department of Transportation’ building. Allan Williams was inducted into the Michigan Transportation Hall of Honor in 2006.

Take Note

Please take note that the littlest ideas can make a big impact! Stay curious and offer your creativity to make our world a better place.

Chuck and Martha Hayden, aka The Viking and Poppins, enjoy going on adventures off the beaten path. They also like to share their explorations with others. The Viking is a retired expedition leader while Poppins is a retired teacher. The two offer independent views of their journeys showcasing places, people, and cultures as they explore the world. Visit and follow them on their website and social media accounts. Website | Facebook | Instagram |YouTube

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