Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Promoting Eco-Tourism Along Highway 83's Prairie-Lands


The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center for Great Plains Studies
has kicked off a new campaign “Visit the Prairie,” and has been releasing a series of tourism posters online that will soon be available for purchase.
The campaign focuses on eco-tourism rather than the region’s rich history to lure visitors off the interstates.
“This work tries to promote ecotourism as a strategy for preserving the enormous and precious biodiversity of the Great Plains grasslands,” its website explains.
And that’s a great thing. For those who saw my series of book talks this year for The Last American Highway: The Dakotas, read this blog, or are members of the Fans of U.S. Route 83 Facebook page, I do my best to promote travel on Highway 83 specifically, and the Great Plains and all backroads in general. The beauty of the region is a running theme in all these writings.
This campaign is sorely needed. Let’s face it. Our nation has given the prairie lands short-shrift when it comes to habitat preservation. This began in the 1800s with the wonton destruction of the American bison, continued with the Army Corps of Engineers’ damming of our rivers and the ecological destruction brought on by mono-agriculture and overgrazing.
Even in these more enlightened times — with groups like the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund becoming more involved in the region — there is a lot of room for improvement.
How are we going to encourage travelers to either make the Great Plains a destination unto themselves, or at least stop for a day or two on their way to or from the Rockies or Black Hills?
Let’s look at some examples of what can be done along Highway 83 in Nebraska. From Valentine to McCook, the topography surrounding Highway 83 is beautiful from beginning to end. North of North Platte, it travels through the Sand Hills, which are not only Nebraska’s best-kept secret from tourists, but the nation’s. Yet the state has done virtually nil to promote them as a destination. Give me just one “Visit the Sand Hills!” sign on Interstate 80, please!
Highway 83 is the main conduit taking travelers from I-80 through the stunning and unique Sand Hills to the Niobrara River, the Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge and Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve there — one of the state’s prime eco-tourism destinations.
On the way is the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. It has some nice kiosks explaining to motorists about the area's eco-system. That’s a good start. But what we need is a serious interpretive center, well-developed walking paths and auto tours through the heart of the hills.
It should be as impressive as the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge on Lake Audubon on Highway 83 near Washburn, North Dakota. I stopped at both refuges in April and there is a jarring difference.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Audubon Refuge and spent a morning there soaking in the sounds of dozens of bird species. It was an amazing symphony. But that lake isn’t even supposed to be there. It was a creation of the Army Corps of Engineers. Its relatively new center has displays, a gift shop, knowledgeable rangers there to answer questions, a nice walking path in back, and auto trails for those who can’t get around as well as they once did. 
Meanwhile, the Sand Hills has no dedicated interpretive center to explain their creation, eco-system or the importance to the nation of the Ogallala Aquifer that lies underneath. The money to build and staff such an interpretive center would come from the federal government. That means Nebraska’s congressional delegation needs to make this happen. And that means their lawmakers' constituents need to encourage them.
Meanwhile, Nebraska Public Power District wants to string ugly, giant electric towers right along Highway 83 on this main road taking travelers to the two refuges, and the little talked about, but stunningly beautiful Dismal River Valley. They would run from Stapleton to Thedford.
I have written Letters to the Editors, and posted my opinion on NPPD's comments page, written a letter to Valentine’s own Sen. Deb Fischer. I’ve only heard back from the landowners who would be affected.
Where is the outrage from the rest of the state? Where is the groundswell of opposition from those who care about the Sand Hills and eco-tourism? I’m not hearing it.
But NPPD is still taking comments. The first “P” stands for “Public.” I hope the public cares about the state’s vista-scapes and starts a ground-swell of opposition to this boneheaded plan before it’s too late.
Farther north in South Dakota, here is what you see when entering the Fort Pierre
Photo by Stew Magnuson
National Grasslands. A sign reading: “Fort Pierre National Grasslands.” The next thing you see is a sign that says: “Leaving Fort Pierre National Grasslands.” Not a single kiosk, or anything in between. There are some wooden boxes where you can pick up a map, but they are hard to spot. Again, no interpretive center on par with what the prairie deserves.
The Kansas Department of Tourism, meanwhile, has a scenic byways campaign that includes a long stretch of Highway 83 on its Western Vistas Historic Byway route. It has setting up some kiosks explaining the region’s natural history south of Oakley. I haven’t been there since they were installed, but I’m looking forward to seeing them next year.
This column was intended as food for thought for those wanting to promote travel in the region, rather than travel tips for those wanting to see some of these sites centering around eco-tourism on Highway 83. I’ll leave that to another column. 
I hope the Center of Great Plains Studies really starts a movement. To preserve our natural heritage, people must care about it. They must have opportunities to emotionally connect with nature, and eco-tourism is one means to do so. 
Whether it’s hiking, camping, canoeing, biking, hunting, fishing or simply “taking a drive or a ride” on a road like Highway 83 and soaking in the topography, connecting
ourselves to the land in these modern times is more important than ever.

The UNL Center of Great Plains Studies’ “Visit The Prairie” campaign is a great idea. I’ll be the first to buy the bison poster when they go on sale.  

 

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at Amazon.com and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. 

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Excerpt From the Upcoming book, The Last American Highway: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma


The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma, scheduled for publication February 2015. It takes place as the author drives into McCook, Nebraska, September 2009.

One of the first newspaper editors described McCook as being along  the “verdant banks and silvery waters” of the Republican River. The main street goes north perpendicular from the river up a sharp hill, and for good reason. The “silvery waters” of the river used to rise out of its banks and transform into a roiling black mass of death.
Highway 83, south of McCook, Nebraska
May 31, 1935 must have seemed like Armageddon to McCook citizens. Just as a devastating floodwaters rushed downstream killing several residents, a tornado dropped from the sky west of town and wiped out an entire farm family, including three children. The flood killed five. 
The Republican was one of those untamed Missouri River tributaries that the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s dammed up in order to save the folks downstream who insisted on building homes and businesses on flood plains. Indeed, the spot between Omaha and Denver may have been somewhat inauspicious. An earlier tornado in 1928 flattened or severely damaged 147 homes. (Miraculously, no one was killed.)
Some of the worst weather in the world takes place in the skies above me as fronts fight it out in the atmosphere over the continent’s vast center. “When
The once mighty Republican River today
elephants fight, the ants get trampled,” is a saying I learned when I lived in Southeast Asia. It refers to the plight of peasants when warlords clash. But it works for weather systems and the humans down below. Floods, tornadoes, blizzards and hail have wreaked havoc in McCook, and every community along the northern sections of the road.
Vivian, South Dakota, on Highway 83 made worldwide headlines the summer of 2010 when the largest hailstone ever recorded dropped from the sky. The local man who found the chunk of ice in his yard put it in his freezer, and at first thought about making a daiquiri with it, but decided to take it to the post office to weigh it instead. It came in at a world record 1.9375 pounds, and a U.S. record for width at 18 inches. The storm brought Vivian national notoriety for a day or two, along with a lot of insurance claims, for other smaller hailstones punched holes as wide as coffee cans in roofs and cars.
And although I am intentionally driving the highway in the late summer, I can’t forget the snowstorms. The Blizzard of ‘49, still talked about in these parts, buried the Great Plains in yards, not feet, of snow. It was actually a series of storms, not one event, that lasted for five months from November 1948 to April 1949. It created monstrous drifts from thirty to forty feet high. Towns like McCook were cut off from rail, highway and phone lines. The first storm in November left the town communicating with the outside world via short-wave radio to a station in Denver. Nebraska had already suffered three blizzards, two of them around Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the monster storm hit on January 3, 1949. It continued for sixty hours, left two to three feet of snow across portions of states with winds reaching fifty miles per hour. No other blizzard has topped it in severity in more than sixty years. More and more snow came within the following weeks, with only a few short days between storms for people to dig themselves out. This prompted President Harry S. Truman to declare Operation Snowbound to save millions of cattle and humans on the plains by delivering emergency supplies by airlift or any means possible. There was so much snow, drifts didn’t melt for months and folks out in the country were making ice cream from them as late as July.
The so-called Children’s Blizzard may have been worse in terms of the death toll. Mother Nature sometimes throws sucker punches in the winter by creating some unnaturally balmy days before all hell breaks loose. That was the case on the morning of January 12, 1888, when schoolchildren in dugouts, sod houses and other rudimentary settler dwellings left their homes wearing light coats, or no coats at all, for one-room schoolhouses. Even if there were accurate weather forecasts back then, there was no means to communicate what was about to hit. Just as the children were leaving school on their long walks home, a cold front moving faster than a steam locomotive swept in from the northwest.
As a wall of Arctic air rushed down the plains from the north, it collided with warm moist air from the south. In the morning, the people of North Platte and McCook were enjoying the unseasonably warm weather coming from the south. But within hours, the watery air rose over the curtain of cold air, feeding moisture into the system, and the two became a monster.
Weather watchers in Bismarck were the first to report a rapidly falling temperature and gale force winds at 6 a.m. Five hours later, the storm struck McCook. The temperatures in Nebraska dropped an average of 18 degrees in three minutes.
It did not come gently like a snowfall that starts with some light flakes and then slowly builds in intensity over the next few minutes or hours. This one came like a tidal wave, and those who witnessed it never forgot that inky black wall coming for them out of the northwest.
On the Rosebud Reservation, a teacher walked out the schoolhouse door and was nearly knocked on her feet by a gust of wind. She had only ventured a few yards, but almost didn’t make it back.
Descriptions of the storm were remarkably similar to those seen during the Dust Bowl. It was a black cloud rolling toward them.  Instead of carrying topsoil, this black cloud was all ice.
Survivors likened the snow to sand. The particles were so fine, each was like a little sting against the face, and they encrusted the skin within minutes. The particles struck the eyeballs forcing the victims to shut their
Blizzard of '49 aftermath
eyes. Some died within a few feet of their doors. Cattle suffocated as their nostrils froze shut. That night, the wind chill dropped to 40 degrees below zero.
The cold air mass was felt from the Dakotas to the tip of Texas, affecting every mile of the land around what would one day be U.S. Route 83. By the time it reached Abilene, Texas, it was an ice storm that covered the city in a glaze. When it ended the next morning, hundreds of victims lay dead in the snow, more than 100 of them school children.
Red Willow County, where McCook is located, had an earlier disaster in the 1870s, two years after the duke had come on his hunt.
The locust swarms that swept out of the mountains are almost inconceivable today. There are no living souls who remember the phenomena, and the insects that caused the destruction are now extinct. Similar in appearance, but much more mobile than the grasshoppers that are stuck in the grill of my car, they came from the Rockies in the billions. The larva hatched in the soil in numbers that reached millions of per square acre. The nymphs ate everything in sight, molted five times before sprouting wings, then flew off together, riding the currents east to the lush prairies, where they dropped out of the sky, began the cycle again, and grew exponentially in numbers and began to swarm again. If this wasn’t bad enough for the farmers who watched helplessly as their crops were destroyed, the plagues most often occurred during times of drought. The Rocky Mountain locust used the Great Plains low level jet, a 200-mile-wide stream of air centered in Kansas and Oklahoma that pushes air at altitudes of up to 1,000 feet in the spring and late summer. Separate insect clouds rose from the Earth and converged in the stream to create swarms of Biblical proportions.
Why the mass of insects collectively dropped out of the sky to denude certain areas of land while bypassing others was a mystery. The earliest pioneers of Frontier and Red Willow Counties watched as what appeared to be a black cloud approached from the west. The sunlight reflected off their wings making the mass glimmer as it approached. They came down like hail and the crawled in mass on man and beast. They ate the clothes off farmers’ backs, stripped wood, and cannibalized their own as nothing would sate their voracious appetite.
General Ord, still commander of the Platte in 1874, sent one of his officers west to Red Willow County to ascertain the situation in the aftermath of summer’s locust plague. Of the some 800 residents, he reported that two-thirds were on the brink of starvation and might not make it through the winter. Ord began a campaign to free up stores of military rations sitting in warehouses that could be distributed to the newly impoverished farmers of Nebraska and Kansas. It was a months-long, protracted bureaucratic battle that required congressional approval, but the general prevailed. Not only were food stocks released that prevented a famine that winter, it sparked a massive relief effort that helped the farmers get back on their feet the following spring by providing seeds.
The swarms are hard to comprehend today because the locusts went extinct—mostly likely destroyed when their habitat succumbed to the plow.
McCook was also on the northern edge of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. The choking clouds of fine dirt that swept over most of Western Kansas and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles in the 1930s were felt as far away as the East Coast, but the extreme drought that sparked the so-called black blizzards stretched along Highway 83 from McCook to the Red River in Texas. The mother of all dust storms occurred on April 14, 1935, and like the Children’s Blizzard, began with a cold front rolling down the plains from Bismarck. There was no warm, moist air in this case, though. By this
Black Sunday on Hwy 83, Perryton, Texas
time, the drought had spread to the northern plains states, and the savage wind picked up the loose topsoil and created a two-hundred mile wide cloud of topsoil that struck as churchgoers were returning home from Sunday services. Sixty-five –mile-per-hour winds pummeled the unsuspecting victims with freezing temperatures and grit. Unlike the blizzard of 1888 and the locust plagues, this was an era when common folks owned cameras. There are dozens of pictures of the black wall of dirt that hit the day known as Black Sunday. Southwest of McCook, a twenty-five year old man, Glen O’Brien, his vision impaired by the dust, collided with a truck and was killed instantly. His girlfriend and the truck driver survived with minor injuries.
“The story of human misery from dust continues as stifling and killing storms swept portions of five states,” said the April 15 McCook Daily Gazette article that reported the death.
The unbelievably glorious late summer weather I’ve experienced since I arrived at Westhope two weeks ago still holds as I turn off the co-signed highways and drive up Norris Avenue. I park the car at the top of the hill. No tornadoes, blizzards, floods, prairie fires, dust storms or locust plagues today. The effects of some of these natural disasters have been mitigated. Blizzards and tornadoes are unstoppable, but the Weather Service can at least warn us in advance. The Army Corps of Engineers placed dams on the Republican to stop its semi-regular floods. The Rocky Mountain locust has gone the way of the carrier pigeon, the last swarm was in 1902. Except for a few entomologists, no one misses them. 
The Oglala Aquifer is still beneath my car wheels. Geologists were just beginning to understand its magnitude during the 1930s drought years, and they couldn’t take advantage of this vast underground resource. Today, gas-powered pumps draw its fossil water out of the ground, ensuring that crops will be watered in the hottest, driest summers.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at Amazon.com and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. 

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com



Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Mystery of The Great Plains Highway (Partly) Solved

Note: Since this blog was first published on Aug. 26 I have received lots of new information from readers.  I believe this information will lead to many of my questions being answered. Thanks to all who tracked down the information for me or provided tips.  I hope to dig up some documents and maybe more maps of the Great Plains Highway.


By STEW MAGNUSON
For years I searched for the Great Plains Highway.
Before the United States had numbered, federal highways, there were named “trails,” usually informal routes crisscrossing the United States such as the Lincoln Highway, Bankhead Highway, Dixie Highway and hundreds of others. The government had little to do with them. The Good Roads Movement created these routes to promote travel through their towns. The movement comprised both captains of industry—oil, tire and car companies specifically—along with small-town chambers of commerce members who wanted to improve their local roads and connect their towns to the world via the automobile.
 Early in my research about Highway 83 for The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83 I came across a reference to the Great Plains
Highway on a map of Cherry County. It showed it to the west of Brownlee, Nebraska, roughly where State Highway 97 is today. That was back in 2009.
Then I found another reference in an article in a South Dakota newspaper.
Then nothing. Internet searches came up empty. I searched eBay for items, and never found anything. I would occasionally return to my search, but never turned up anything online.
More recently, I came across a third reference in a book about the Fleagle Gang, a group of murderous bank robbers that will be a chapter in the Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma Last American Highway book coming out in February. The author referenced present-day Highway 83 where the gang had committed one of its murders as the Great Plains Highway.
That reference renewed my desire to find out if anything new had popped up online. Many old newspapers are now available on the web that weren’t there five years ago. But again, nothing.
Then about two weeks ago, something miraculous happened. A member of the Fans of U.S. Route 83 page on Facebook  Russell S. Rein (aka ypsi-slim) posted a 1930 map of The Great Plains Highway on the page.
You can imagine my eyes popping out of my head the morning I opened up my iPad and saw that.
There it was, my white whale. The exact route of the Great Plains Highway!
It wasn’t long before I connected with Russell on the phone. It turns out we are kindred spirits and he is an avid collector of memorabilia connected to the old named highway trails. He is also the co-author of an Images of America book, Dixie Highway in Indiana, available on amazon.com.
Where did he get the map? Was my first question. eBay, of course. It was put up for auction when I wasn’t paying attention, and no one else bid on it.
He graciously agreed to send me the map in exchange for a copy of The Last American Highway. (He will be on my comp list for the next two books as well.
Now that I have the map in hand, what can be learned from it?
For one, interestingly, the map is from 1930, and shows Highway 83 in its early iterations. It was published at a time when the old named roads were falling away in favor of the numbered roads system we know today.
The Great Plains Highway for the most part followed present-day Highway 83 from Minot, North Dakota, to Abilene, Texas, some 1,235 miles. 83 is numbered today up to Swan River, Manitoba. The Great Plains Highway veered northwest to Regina, Saskatchewan. After Abilene, the Great Plains Highway went south through San Antonio before terminating in Laredo.
In 1930, none of the highway was paved, according to the key, except, one would imagine, as it passed through major towns.
Highway 83 was also disjointed. Its origins were in North Dakota. But after Pierre, South Dakota, it reappears farther south in bits and pieces.
As for the Great Plains Highway, I still have many questions. When was the association inaugurated? Did it pre-date the creation of the federal highway system in 1926? Whose idea was it to connect Regina and Laredo? And why?
Most of these trails had a logo or symbol to help guide drivers. Was there one in this case? It's not on the map.
The map includes the names of officers in towns along the road. Its headquarters was in North Platte, Nebraska. I am including a picture of the list in this blog. I’m hoping the descendants of these chamber of commerce types may have some information sitting in a closet or an attic somewhere. I already recognize one name on the list. W.B. LaMaster in Perryton, Texas, who went on to become active in the U.S. Canada Highway 83 Association. I spoke to his grandson in Perryton several years ago. It’s not a stretch to believe that the Great Plains Highway Association became the U.S. Canada Highway 83 Association later.
As a side note, can you imagine in those days with only the U.S. mail and telegrams to communicate, creating an association that spanned 1,889 miles of unimproved road? I wonder who was the first to drive it.
I’m certain that newspapers in these small towns ran stories when the association kicked off. But going through microfilm of old newspapers in archives is a painstaking, needle-in-a-haystack process, and I will need some kind of tip to know what dates to start a search. I’m also wondering if there was an earlier Great Plains Highway map that pre-dates 1926.
I’m hoping this blog is read far and wide and those with information can contact me at stewmag (a) yahoo.com. I won’t be able to publish the full story of The Great Plains Highway Association in the Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma version of The Last American Highway because I am putting the finishing touches on that manuscript now. But I hope to have a full picture of the association and its history in the Texas version, which I hope to publish in 2016.
 I’m also going to publish a Wikipedia page in hopes of raising its profile. Because if it’s not in Wikipedia, it doesn’t exist. Now thanks to Russell S. Rein, the Great Plains Highway may live again in the historical record.


Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at Amazon.com and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. 

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com

Monday, July 21, 2014

Highway 83 Community Brownsville, Texas, to Enter Space Age



Credit: SpaceX
When it comes to transportation history, Highway 83 has it all.
The first keel boats to traveled up the Missouri with the Lewis and Clark Expedition and touched the lands near present day Washburn, North Dakota. Bismarck, North Dakota, and Pierre, South Dakota, were major ports for the steamboats that followed. 
Railway buffs will find plenty to explore in hubs such as Minot, North Dakota, and North Platte, Nebraska. Almost every town on Highway 83 owes its existence to a railroad.
Excellent air museums can be found in Minot and Liberal, Kansas. McCook, Nebraska, and Childress, Texas, are two spots where one can see the remains of World War II airfields.
And Highway 83 itself is a tribute to our national road system and the automobile age.
But did you know that Highway 83 will soon add space travel to this list?

History was made this week when it became known that the company SpaceX  had apparently selected a site northeast of Brownsville, Texas, as a future launch site for its Falcon rockets.
SpaceX was founded in 2003 by billionaire Elon Musk, who, at age 29, had just sold his interest in PayPal to eBay and was looking for a new challenge.
I have a small claim to fame as a journalist, having got the scoop that Musk intended to enter the space business. 
In 2002, I was working as a freelance reporter in California, when I was assigned by the business weekly publication Space News to cover a panel on “space entrepreneurs” in Palo Alto. It was a lightly attended affair with presenters talking about their entrepreneurial ideas. Many of them were long shots, I recognized. Sending anything into space is a wildly expensive proposition. Such projects are normally carried out by large defense contractors with the U.S. government footing the bill. 
The moderator then introduced Musk, whom I had never heard of. But when he mentioned that he had recently sold his interest in PayPal, my ears perked up. This young man, I realized, had a buttload of money.
Credit: SpaceX
He announced that he intended to get into the space business. He said he had three basic questions before starting a venture. Is it intrinsically interesting? Is there a possibility of changing the world for good in some way? And is there a return on investment?
After the panel, I went up to him and pressed him for details. He only said that he was thinking about either building satellites or launching rockets. That was surprising. This was the realm of giant contractors such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. 
And launching rockets is a huge deal. Lowering the cost of sending payloads into space had been a huge technological challenge. Every pound lofted costs hundreds of dollars. 
I called my editor the next day and told him about the big story. I had looked into Musk online and noted that he had attended small groups of like-minded space dreamers — Mars Society types — who met informally in coffee shops. He was also worth one billion dollars! What is a billionaire doing hanging out with the space nerds? I wondered. 
My editor was cynical — and rightly so. One Texas billionaire banker Andrew Beale had the same idea. He spent millions pursuing the dream of launching rockets, test-fired engines and built a launch pad in Texas, but found he couldn’t make a business out of it without government contracts. His venture had closed down the year before. My editor consequently rewrote my lead paragraph about Musk, buried that news in the story 16 paragraphs down, and placed it on page 16 of the publication. 
Within a few short years, Musk was launching rockets based on innovative designs and manufacturing processes that would reduce the cost of launching payloads into space. Today, SpaceX has government and commercial contracts to launch satellites, including one with NASA to resupply the international space station with a reusable spacecraft. It is launch business, and employs 3,000. 
Musk is now as close as one can get to a household name. His Tesla Motor electric car company recently released its patents for any company to use “in good faith” to spur green car development. It manufactures about 30,000 cars per year.  
Although it has not made a formal announcement, SpaceX has reportedly chosen a site north of Brownsville as its new launching pad for nongovernment payloads in the wake of Federal Aviation Administration approval. It will be the world’s first privately owned vertical launch site, according to the Brownsville Herald, which reports that SpaceX is buying up land near the site. It beat out more established locations such as the space coast in Florida.
Rockets being sent into orbit can be seen for hundreds of miles and soon residents along Highway 83 and on nearby South Padre Island will be able to watch them. One can imagine increased tourist traffic on U.S. 83 as spectators make their way to watch the rockets lift off. This may be the beginning of Brownsville becoming a “space city” with other like-minded businesses sprouting around it. 
Alan Bean painting at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum
By the way, this is not the only space related story found along Highway 83.
Alan Bean, the fourth man on the moon, was born in Wheeler, Texas.
A Navy test pilot, he was a member of Apollo 12, and first walked on the moon November 19, 1969.
Bean is also an accomplished painter, and is known for his oil paintings of moonscapes.
Highway 83 as it passes through Wheeler is named after him.




Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at Amazon.com and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. 

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com

Thursday, June 5, 2014

South Dakota Filmmaker to Explore Life of Rodeo Legend Casey Tibbs


Ive said that the Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, is history written by serendipity. There is no better example of this
Credit: Lee Jeans Archive
than Casey Tibbs. Born and raised in a big city in the 1970s, I had never heard of Tibbs prior to 2009. When traveling down U.S. 83 that year, I came across his statue in Fort Pierre. Then I looked up the hill and discovered the newly opened Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center. I was lucky to have arrived when I did. The paint was barely dry.
I spent several days that winter in the Library of Congress researching Tibbs's life through newspaper and magazine articles. (This was before an autobiography Casey Tibbs: Born to Ride by Rusty Richards was released in 2010.)
I came across the story of how a young Tibbs and a pal hitchhiked down Route 83 to White River, South Dakota, to take part in a rodeo. The story not only connected this larger than life man to Highway 83, but showed the grit and determination that would make him a superstar in his sport. It ended up being a chapter, The Babe Ruth of Rodeo, in the Last American Highway book.
Documentary filmmaker and Midland, South Dakota, native Justin Koehler is in the throes of putting together a film, Floating Horses: The Life of Casey Tibbs. Koehler, who now resides in Denver, is best known as the director of “The Buļ¬€alo King: The Man Who Saved the American Bison,” an award-winning documentary that aired on PBS stations. It recounts the life and times of South Dakotan James "Scotty" Philip. He has worked in the Denver production scene for the past nine years on projects that aired on History, Discovery, Weather Channel, HGTV, as well as historical films for the National Park Service, and the upcoming 2014 PBS series, Civil War: The Untold Story.
He recently took the time to answer for the Highway 83 Chronicles blog some questions about the new documentary.

Why did you choose Casey Tibbs as your next project?
My overall objective as a filmmaker is to shine an insightful light the remarkable history, characters, and stories within South Dakota. I chose Casey Tibbs as my next documentary subject because he encompasses all three of those points to the hilt. Casey made history with every venture he pursued, was one of the most colorful characters in rodeo, South Dakota, as well as the 1950s American pop-culture, and his rags to riches story is one that all Hollywood writers crave to produce on paper.

What makes him intriguing enough to devote an entire film to this subject?
Casey has endless intriguing qualities: Handsome, charismatic, jocular, fearless, untamable, confident, lavish, and charitable. Casey is a storytellers dream. He had the ups and downs of life that will keep an audience entertained and engaged throughout the entirety of a film.

Where did you come up with the title, Floating Horses?
The title Floating Horses came from the groundbreaking style that Casey displayed while riding an outlaw bronc. Casey believed in floating a horse rather than anchoring himself in the saddle by pure physical strength. His timing was flawless, his balance was unbreakable, and he made it look as if we all could be crowned a world champion rider. Casey once said, You fall into a rhythm, and its like dancing with a girl.

For people in my fathers generation, especially those who grew up in rural areas, Tibbs was a household name. What have you found nowadays?
There was a time in history when the name Casey Tibbs was not only a household name, but a worldwide name! Caseys name and feats remain well-known within rodeo and South Dakota, but beyond the borders of those two entities, it seems his achievements are fast becoming forgotten.

We have to remember that Caseys superstar status swelled to unthinkable heights because he appealed to all walks of life, not just rodeo fans or South Dakota residents. When Casey graced the cover of Life Magazine in 1951, he singlehandedly lifted the sport of rodeo to national attention. He was one of the most captivating athletes in American sport history, and I believe he will capture the attention of the masses once again through Floating Horses: The Life of Casey Tibbs.

This is the second time you have gone to the well in this part of South Dakota for your documentary subjects. What is it about his region that you find so interesting?
What I find interesting about the South Dakota region is that its flooded with intriguing history. You need a lifeboat and ample food supply just to make it through the overflow of compelling people and events! I was born and raised on a South Dakota ranch, so I aspire to tell stories about South Dakota that are entertaining and educational, but also entice travelers to visit the state. I am hopeful that someone or some business will collaborate with me, and together we will showcase South Dakotas long and illustrious history for years to come.

What is the timeline for this project? What have you accomplished so far?  
We plan to start filming interviews this summer and into the fall. Our reenactment scenes with two-time NFR qualifier, Cole Elshere, will likely be filmed next spring. If all goes well, we could have Floating Horses completed by fall of 2015.

I have spent the past 11 months researching Caseys life and the events surrounding his life. All of this acquired information, facts, and stories are vital within a documentary film. In addition, I have been contacting individuals who will help tell Caseys life on-screen. We have interview commitments from: Larry Mahan, Charlie Daniels, Buck Taylor, Gail Woerner, Red Steagall, Baxter Black, Dean Smith, Rick Le Fevour, Cleo Harrington, Johnny Western, John Duffy, and many other notable names.


And how long before we can see the documentary?
Winter of 2015 is our target date for the release of Floating Horses: The Life of Casey Tibbs. Many things will have to fall into place for us to reach this goal, however. Our main hurdle is fundraising for the film. We have a lot of interviews to conduct, and that involves travel expenses, lodging, food, production equipment, crew, and many other costly components.  

If anyone would like to contribute to Floating Horses, please contact Koehler via Facebook: www.facebook.com/CaseyTibbsFilm or email: jzkoehler@hotmail.com or contact the Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center in Fort Pierre, S.D. at (605) 494-1094. All contributions, large or small, are greatly appreciated. Click here to order The Buffalo King on Amazon.com.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available online and at the Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center giftshop, Prairie Pages Bookstore, in Pierre and the South Dakota Heritage Center and State Capitol giftshops in Pierre. 
To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Morning Exploring Some Mysterious Grain Bins Found on Old Highway 83


For a road buff such as myself, figuring out where U.S. Highway 83 once traversed is a constant pursuit.
The federal highway system was created in 1926 — not really that long ago in the course of human history — but in many cases we have already collectively forgotten the original paths of these old routes.
That is not the case for the old alignment for Highway 83 from North Platte, Nebraska, south to the town of Maywood. It is well marked. An “Old Hwy 83” sign is at the corner of every quarter section on this gravel road.
I had the opportunity on a spring Saturday morning to explore Old Highway 83 for the first time. It was not hard to find. I headed east on East Sate Farm Road south of North Platte until arriving at Old Highway 83 a couple miles later.
Exploring this old stretch of highway is worth the time, if for no other reason than to stop at what is surely the most unique antique store on the 1,885 miles of U.S. 83 (old or new sections), which about four miles south.
Grain Bin Antique Town is worth the stop for those on the hunt for collectibles, or interested in our agricultural past.
Placed in a row overlooking a scenic valley are 15 Depression-era wooden grain bins, restored and repurposed to serve as small antique shops.
The octagon structures are still a bit of a mystery.
Owners Lori and Pat Clinch bought 14 of them from a farmer near Imperial, Nebraska.
It is thought that the government sent the easy-to-assemble kits to farmers so they could store grain in the countryside, but the Clinch’s and other researchers haven’t found much in the historical record to confirm that. The original owner had them since the late 1930s.
Pat is a builder, so after acquiring the first batch he installed larger doors and windows. The boardwalk along the bins came from recycled wood from an old school. Then they acquired a 15th bin from a farmer north of Stapleton, Nebraska, who had read about the Clinches in the local paper.
Most of these bins fell into disrepair over the years, and finding so many in good shape was a small miracle, Lori explains. Some were converted into tool sheds or served other purposes. The seller in Imperial had kept his in great shape.
“The oil from the grain protected the wood and gave it a natural beauty,” Lori explained.
A farm cat escorted me as I walked down the boardwalk. The bins are crammed with country antiques. I scored a quilted doll blanket for my daughter for $15.
I continued down the road south. The county had come by and plowed up the ditches, overturning the dirt and allowing me to walk along and hunt for old bottles.
One can imagine an archeologist 1,000 years in the future excavating the shoulders of these old roads, and making all sorts of assumptions about our society. Getting caught with an open container of alcohol was frowned upon, they could surmise. And others were just too lazy to dispose of our trash properly.
I find a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can recently unearthed by the county plow in remarkably good condition. It advertises the new “pull tabs. “No Opener Needed,” which makes it a circa 1963 can (the year I was born). I leave it there for that future archeologist to find.
It’s curvy. It’s loose gravel. It’s really not all that safe to drive at high speeds. In other words, it’s what traveling down 83 would have been like in its early days decades before it was paved from end to end.
Old Highway 83 dips and rises, with some sharp curves, and serves as a good reminder of what highways were like before they were paved, and straightened out. That, coupled with the drinking and driving, must have cost a few lives.
My father, who was from Stapleton, Nebraska, 30 miles north of North Platte, must have traveled this road many times on his way back and forth from McCook, where he attended the community college and played football.
The land here is flat enough for farming, although it is too early to see what are going in this year. I take pictures of wild turkeys and a beautiful ring-neck pheasant, who apparently knows that it’s not hunting season. He barely budges as I stop the car and begin shooting (with my camera, of course.) All these farms nearby and their loose grain, along with the shelter belts, makes the a pheasant-wild turkey paradise.
Drivers might get lost when arriving at East Echo School Road, don’t go straight. Go east one section to pick up Old Highway 83 again.
My trip ends with my car coming over a crest into the Medicine Creek Valley, where the town of Maywood is located.
Maywood, population, 261 at the last census, is equidistant from North Platte and McCook, and its quiet on a Saturday morning. Most businesses are located seven miles to the east in the town of Curtis, which is three times its size. Many of the residents here commute to one of those two cities.


Grain Bin Antique Town is open Wed.-Sat., 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Check out its Facebook page at: 
https://www.facebook.com/GrainBinAntiqueTown

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, (available at A to Z Books in North Platte and Common Scents Greenhouses and Nursery in McCook) and winner of the 2009 Nebraska nonfiction book of the year: The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder.





To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com







Thursday, May 8, 2014

Stop Nebraska Public Power From Destroying the Beauty of the Sand Hills on Hwy 83



By STEW MAGNUSON
Easter Sunday morning last month, I woke up in Stapleton, Nebraska, at 5:30 a.m. so I could get on the road going north early.
I knew I had one of the most beautiful drives in the state ahead of me. Indeed, the morning light bathed the one of Nebraska’s great secrets and treasures, the Sand Hills, in soft morning light as I drove up U.S. Highway 83.
Imagine something like this..
I had to stop about once every mile to take a picture of this unique landscape.
Just the night before one of my cousins had told me of the Nebraska Public Power District’s plan to plant giant power lines along this scenic highway. “Surely, that can’t be true,” I thought.
.... planted across the beautiful Dismal River...
... or strung along a landscape like this. Photos by Stew Magnuson
Unfortunately, it is. NPPD’s R-Project would install giant power line towers along the road. This is actually its “preferred” route. There are alternatives away from the highway.
Nebraskans, lovers of the prairie, fans of our nation’s scenic highways must unite to defeat this ill-conceived plan.
Many, sadly, don’t know what is at stake.
The proposed power line route hugs the highway so closely it is actually impossible to distinguish the two on the map NPPD provides. (Link to map here). The monsterous lines will be clearly visible from the road.
Along with scarring the natural beauty of the Sand Hills, the towers would mar one of the most beautiful river valleys in the state, the Dismal River.
I remember meeting a motorcyclist at the scenic overlook at the Dismal River in 2009.
“It’s not so dismal,” he told me.
The Dismal was named because early settlers found it so treacherous to cross. It has nothing to do with its natural beauty. In that regards, it is a total misnomer. If this plan goes forward, motorists will gaze down from the overlook and see steel towers carrying power lines.
The biker explained that he had ridden up Interstate 80 on his way to Colorado a half dozen times, but had never ventured north. He was amazed at what he had been missing.
So too will other travelers. There was once a U.S. Canada Highway 83 Association that encouraged motorists to take this Great Plains highway, and spend some of their dollars in the small towns along the way. The association is long gone, but the idea lives on. Other states such as Kansas are declaring some of their roads Scenic Byways, and heavily promoting them as a way to encourage motorists passing through to get off the Interstate and come see what its communities have to offer.
This is what Nebraska should be doing — not destroying the natural beauty of our prairie lands.
Highway 83 from the Kansas border south of McCook to the South Dakota north of Valentine should be declared a Scenic Byway and developed for tourism.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Nebraskans from both parties joined together to stop the Bureau of Land Reclamation from damming the Niobrara River. (Does anyone today regret fighting that fight?) A similar alliance helped steer the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline route out of the Sand Hills.
We can all come together again to defeat another bad idea.
Nebraskans, and anyone who travels this federal highway, must speak out to defeat a poorly thought out plan to string ugly power lines along one of the state’s most stunning landscapes.
Leave comments on the NPPD’s website (LINK HERE), speak out at the public hearings, write letters to lawmakers and authorities.
Stop the R-Project’s Preferred route through our beautiful Sand Hills.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and winner of the 2009 Nebraska nonfiction book of the year: The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com