Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Memorial Day Tribute to Staff Sgt. Edwin L. Magnuson of Stapleton, Nebraska

Edwin L. Magnuson
There are undoubtedly hundreds of war heroes who hail from towns found along Highway 83.
Marine Corps Corp. Harlan Block, one of the six portrayed on the Iwo Jima War Memorial, was from Harlingen, Texas. Medal of Honor recipient Army Master Sgt. Jose Medoza Lopez was from Mission, and a statue commemorating the day he single-handedly repulsed a German infantry attack stands in Brownsville.
I would like to take this Memorial Day week to record the story of my second cousin Army Staff Sgt. Edwin Lloyd Magnuson from Stapleton, Nebraska, who earned the silver star for his bravery in World War II.
Lloyd, as he preferred to be called, grew up in the Sand Hills town, a terminus for a Union Pacific spur line, long before the highway reached it.
He was the son of my grandfather’s older brother, Guy.
He enlisted in the Army at age 19 on Sept. 25, 1941, and after bootcamp was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, a topography and climate about as different as it could be from the arid Sand Hills. He waited almost a year to be deployed.
He wrote a letter home to his mother Mable Magnuson during his waning days there, expressing his frustration. His unit was wiling away the days guarding airplanes at a nearby Army air base to keep busy.
“I would rather be on the front lines fighting,” he wrote. Meanwhile, he was at risk of not going at all. He had an inflamed tendon cord and if it got any worse, the doctors would operate on it, and discharge him. But that didn’t come to pass. He wrote that they had recently received orders to clean out their footlockers of all unnecessary items, and to toss everything except what they had been issued. The time was near.
At some point during that year, he had returned to Stapleton on leave. That was the first memory my cousin Elaine Barner — about four years old at the time — has of her brother. She saw him standing on the bathroom shaving. “I expect that you’re my brother Lloyd,” she said.
“I expect that I am,” he told his baby sister.
Magnuson (far left) digs into some steaks at Ft. Lewis, Wash.
Elaine has some pictures of what we presume is his time in Washington. One is of his unit in what looks like a mess hall. The soldiers have big, thick cut steaks. It’s doubtful they featured that at every meal. However, despite the jokes made about Army chow, many from humble beginnings such as  Lloyd probably never ate so well.
Eventually, Private Magnuson received his wish. The letter is undated, but if he was indeed deployed shortly after writing it, it was mailed October 1942. A month later he would find himself in the North Africa campaign fighting German troops as the 3rd Infantry Division swept across Morocco. We know little about his time there. One record I have found says he specialized in radio communications. And by the time he was 20 years old, we know he had been promoted to sergeant — remarkable for someone that age.
Eventually, the 3rd Infantry under the newly formed Fifth Army found itself in the Italian campaign. First came the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. A little more than a month later, allies landed at the toe of Italy. In September 1943, somewhere on the Italian mainland, he earned the silver star for gallantry in action.
His citation reads:  “On the 13th of October, 1943, while his company was engaging
Gen. Mark Clark pins the silver star on Magnuson.
the enemy, Sergeant Magnuson observed that the left flank of his company was endangered by several of the enemy firing machine pistols from a ditch by the road.
“He worked his way toward them, taking advantage of all cover, until he had approached to within 20 yards of the enemy, he then opened fire with his sub-machine gun, killing three of the enemy and capturing the other four.”
Elaine has a picture of Lt. Gen. Mark Clark pinning the silver star on Lloyd. He had also by this time earned a Purple Heart for wounds sustained in action, although we have no details how or where we was hurt.
Next for the Fifth Army was the beach landing at Anzio, known as Operation Shingle. Its ultimate goal was to capture Rome, some 40 miles to the northeast. The landing took the Axis troops by surprise, but Commanding General John P. Lucas failed to take advantage of the situation, preferring to establish a strong beachhead as a base instead. The decision to stay put allowed German troops to rally, and the Battle of Anzio would continue for another month.
It was two days after the first landing, January 24, 1944, when Lloyd was killed in action.
We currently don’t have any details about the circumstances of his death. Elaine remembers reading a letter written by a fellow soldier to her mother that said he died instantly and didn’t suffer, but she doesn’t have a copy of the letter now.
Staff Sgt. Edwin Lloyd Magnuson became the first from Logan County to be killed in action in World War II. The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #8258 in Stapleton is named in his honor. He is buried at the Fort McPherson National Cemetery east of North Platte.
Lloyd was just one of 42,310 Americans who lost their lives or went missing in action during the Fifth Army’s 20-month-long Italian campaign.

My thanks to Elaine Barner for sharing these photos and newspaper accounts of her brother.

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

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  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Asian-Americans in Valentine, Nebraska: New Stories of the 'Prairie Mosaic'

For Sale at Plains Trading Co, Valentine, NE
Readers who have finished my two Highway 83 books may have picked up on a running theme. It’s best summed up in the words: the “Prairie Mosiac,” a term that speaks to all the different cultures that contributed to the development of the Great Plains. In The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, there was the story of the Negro League's Satchel Paige and integrated baseball being played in Bismarck years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues; the Jewish settler Harry Turnoy and his homestead east of Wilton; the German-Russian Welk family; the founder of Minot, Norwegian Erik Ramstad, as well as the story of the BrulĂ© Lakotas who reside at Rosebud.
In the The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition, there is the story of the African-American DeWitty/Audacious settlement in the Sand Hills. And Garden City, Kansas, today, which has invited and absorbed waves of immigrants from all over the world to work in its meatpacking plants.
Hollywood in the 20th century largely brainwashed us into thinking the West was lily white. In fact, census records show there were Native American, black, Asian, mixed-race families in towns all over the Plains, especially in railroad towns. A typical "cowboy" on the cattle trail was more likely to speak Spanish or Swedish than English. 
When I passed through Valentine, Nebraska, in 2009, I encountered two Asian-Americans, one by design, one by accident. The vignettes show that the idea of a "Prairie Mosaic" is not part of history. It's part of life there today.
The first was the Korean-American Bum Song, who was selling bonsai plants by the side of the road. His life story is in the book. 
Bum Song, 2009
The second was an encounter I had planned. Years before, I ate at a Chinese restaurant on the south side of Valentine. I returned there in 2009 on my research trip to find out more about the family. I was curious as to how they coped in a town where there were few, if any other Asian families. When I arrived, I discovered that the first Chinese family had moved on. The Guans had taken their places.
This is a “cutting room” floor blog. I decided not to run a picture of Bum Song in the new book because it didn’t meet my standards for composition. For those who would like to see him, here is a picture!
I cut the story of Fei Guan out of the manuscript for pacing reasons. I felt the narrative was lingering too long in Valentine, and I had to move on. But I’m posting it here:

The China Cafe

The last stop on Highway 83 leaving Valentine is the town’s only Chinese restaurant, which is simply named the China Cafe.
There’s nothing fancy about the brown, square building made of corrugated steel. The interior is plain as well, with a few Asian knickknacks, posters and booths upholstered in cracking vinyl.
Fei Guan works the wok while his wife Sui waits on tables.
China Cafe, Valentine, NE, 2009. All photos by Stew Magnuson
The Guans are the town’s only Chinese family.
For Fei, it was a long journey from Hong Kong to the middle the prairie. The 40-year-old with a medium build and dark hair sticking out the back of his baseball cap left the former British colony shortly before the Chinese took the territory back in 1997. As many Chinese emigrants have since the Gold Rush days of the 1840s, he ended up in San Francisco, where he bought a restaurant. He ran it for thirteen years until his landlord just about put him out of business. Every year, he raised the rent until it came to about $6,000 a month.
It was about that time he saw an ad in a Chinese language newspaper offering a restaurant for sale in Valentine, Nebraska. Of course, he had never heard of the town, and never been to the nation’s vast interior. He had lived in two of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, but had no experience in small towns. But he was intrigued. First, there was no competition. Drive 100 miles in any direction and there are no other Chinese restaurants. Hell, in San Francisco, you can’t walk five minutes without finding Chinese food. And not only was the business for sale, so was the property. No longer could a landlord put the squeeze on him when it came time to renew the lease.
So he bought the restaurant from the Chinese family who had owned it for seven years and moved his family to the town on the edge of the Sand Hills.
That was two years ago, and he hasn’t taken a day off since.
He closes for a half day on Christmas, but otherwise works seven days a week, including Thanksgiving.
“I want my customers to know that I’m always here.”
He gets up in the morning, brings his kids to school, and then has about two hours to fish the Niobrara River.
“I meet a lot of people when I’m fishing,” he says.
Fei Guan, 2009
The exterior and interior are plain, but the food is not. The chicken and black mushrooms is delicious and tastes more like the authentic Chinese meals one finds in San Francisco than the oily congealed food one finds in most rural Chinese restaurants. Fei doesn’t believe in the ubiquitous “Chinese buffet” that one finds in about every town nowadays. He does one on Fridays for lunch, but that’s the only concession he makes.
I tell him that the 1910 census that I had read at the historical museum shows that there was one Chinese family living in Valentine. The Cahotas ran a boarding house. Later, the family ran a five and dime store downtown. Fei is genuinely surprised, although we both agree that the name sounds more Japanese than Chinese.
Has it worked out? I ask him.
“The economy is slow, and business is down a little bit. But I can still make a living,” he says.
The End

Addendum: The fall of 2012, three years after this encounter, I had a chance to make a quick trip down Highway 83 from the Rosebud Reservation to Oakley, Kansas. I stopped in to say hello to Fei Guan and get a bite to eat. The sign was still up, but when I walked in the restaurant, it had been totally gutted. A woman came out of the kitchen and informed me that she and her husband had bought the building a few months ago, and they were going to open a gun shop in its place. The Guans had left town. She didn’t know where they went. I wonder how the Guans and Bum Song are doing, and where life has taken them five years after our paths crossed.  

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. And The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are for sale at Plains Trading Co. in Valentine, Nebraska.

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  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nazi Sympathizers in Scott City, Kansas? No. Just Lumps of Coal: The Stories That Old Pictures Tell Us

I had my eye on the picture of a giant black dust cloud descending on the town of Scott City, Kansas, for at least four years.
The picture dated 1935, photographer unknown, was in the Library of Congress collection. It could be seen online as a thumbnail, but it had not yet been digitized in a large enough size for publication. The library has millions of photos and only enough employees to digitize so many of them, so not everything is readily available to the public.
“That would be an awesome, probably never before published, historic photo for my Highway 83 book,” I thought.
And so I waited. Photos that have not been digitized are still available to be printed, but for a fee. As work on the manuscript dragged on, I had no motivation to order the picture in advance. Maybe it would be digitized at some point and then it would be free for me to take and publish, I reasoned.
Well, finally last summer as I began to gather up all the material for The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma, I decided to pay the $50 fee to have a technician at the library print an 8x10 black and white hard copy.
Scott City, Kansas, Photographer unknown. Library of Congress photo.
About a week later, the photo mailer arrived at my home. I eagerly opened it at the dining room table as my wife looked on curiously.
I pulled out the picture, and there it was:
“Holy cow,” I said. “There’s a Nazi swastika in this picture!”
As some townspeople stand and watch the monstrous cloud come rolling down the avenue, to the side there is a giant billboard with a swastika. I definitely had not noticed that on the tiny thumbnail image online.
What the flippin heck? Was my first thought. Were there Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s living in Scott City, Kansas? Before World War II broke out, Adolf Hitler did have some admirers in America.
But the short answer is: No.
This turned out to be a great example of the history one can uncover in old images.
And I probably should have known from the beginning that there were no Nazis in Scott City. As I young man I traveled extensively in Asia. The Buddhist swastika, which pre-dated Nazism by a thousands years, is a common sight on temples even today.
The swastika before the Nazis co-opted it was a symbol of good luck in Hinduism and Buddhism. The word originates in sanskrit as “lucky object.” It appears in other cultures as well, and the first appearance in the archeological record dates back to an etching on a 10,000 year old mammoth tusk.
Native American cultures used it as well, particularly the southwest tribes such as the Hopis. A swastika within an arrowhead even appeared on early Arizona highway signs.  By the late 1930s, the state of Arizona’s road department was hastily taking down these signs and scrapping them. The symbol of good luck, was tilted a bit, then in a short time became a symbol of hate and tyranny.
So what about the swastika on the Scott City billboard?
This was actually an advertisement for coal. The Swastika Fuel Company was located in a town named Swastika next to a coal mine in New Mexico, according to a website
“Coals for all Uses, Domestic, Steam, Swastika coals do not clinker, most heat for your money,” said matchbook cover advertising the company I found online.
A movie theater slide — the pictures they showed on the screen before the film ran — is online at a website — advertising the J.E. Kirk Grain Co. of Scott City, Kans. — exclusive dealers.
“Why not Economize on your COAL BILL by using SWASTIKA?” it reads.
“Sign of good coal.”
J.E. Kirk Grain Company is on the side of the building.
As soon as the World War II broke out, and the swastika became stigmatized, the mining town changed its name to Brilliant. The company and the town no longer exist. And one would imagine the J.E. Kirk Grain Company employees tore down that billboard fairly quickly.
I published the picture in The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma on the pages about Scott City even though it no longer fit the story. I wrote about the Dirty Thirties in other chapters in the book, but I stuck it in there anyway. It was too interesting a photo to leave out.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition and The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at 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  For signed copies, contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

May 10, 1926: A Newly Established Great Plains Highway Association Clamors for a North-to-South Road

Look for the new book Feb. 9!
“The peppiest bunch of good road enthusiasts ever assembled in southwestern Nebraska is now within our gates—and they will not be denied their goal—a state-federal highway from Canada to the Gulf, running more or less north-south through McCook,” said the evening edition of the McCook Gazette.
It was the May 10, 1926, when some 200 businessmen from South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas converged at the Keystone Hotel in McCook, Nebraska, to put together the Great Plains Highway Association.
The Good Roads Movement was in full swing and about to have its greatest success. Local and national associations for decades had come together to create auto trails that would connect their towns. It was an alliance between corporations who had a vested interest in promoting car travel—automobile, tire, cement manufacturers—and local businessmen who wanted the same. By 1923, Ford was cranking out more than 2 million Model Ts per year. Motorists were clamoring for better driving conditions.
Such associations had been popping up everywhere. The Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental road. The Bankhead was the second, but took a more southerly route.
Between cities and small towns, there was little in the way of actual roads, just ruts in the mud. Some of these associations made logos they put on signs to help guide motorists. Many of the trails converged and associations competed to draw motorists to their trails. 
By 1926, there were some 250 named trails in the United States. Many of them were aspirations—just lines on a map with no real backing or improved roads.
The Good Roads Movement’s ultimate goal was to cajole the federal government into doing more to build highways. And in that, it had already succeeded by 1926. The American Association of State Highway Officials, with the blessing of the federal government, had already released its draft proposal of numbered highways and their routes. The committee tasked with creating the new system had long decided to do away with named auto trails. The descriptive, colorful names—the Dixie Highway, the Blue Pole Highway, the Pikes Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway—would not be official names.
The final list would be released in November, and it would mark the beginning of the state and federal partnership to standardize roads in America, the Good Roads Movement’s ultimate goal. The logos would soon be replaced by the federal shield sign still in use today.
That was undoubtedly known by most of those attending, but it didn’t damper their enthusiasm for a Great Plains, north-to-south highway. At that point, there were no highways going north to south between Kansas City and Denver. The closest was the Meridian Highway, which hugged the state lines to the east (present day U.S. 81). McCook good road promoters had succeeded two decades ago helping to develop the O.L.D (Omaha Lincoln Denver) trail across the bottom half of the state. By 1926, it had expanded to the D.L.D., the Detroit-Lincoln-Denver trail.
The businessmen came together in the afternoon to adopt a constitution and bylaws and to elect officers. The president would be Charles O. Woods of North Platte; vice president, A.B. Whitney of Murdo, South Dakota and the secretary-treasurer was V. Barbazette of McCook.
One by one the attendees stood up to add their support to the growing chorus of those who thought there needed to be a north-to-south road. When it came to highways, the country was still following in the footsteps of the Conestoga wagons on their east-to-west journeys. When the first draft of what would be the federal highway was released in 1925, there were no north-south roads in the middle of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. That could not have sat well with the citizens of Minot, Bismarck, Pierre, North Platte, McCook, Oberlin, Garden City and Liberal.
Connecting the prairielands to the ports in South Texas was one of the new association’s stated goals.
The guest of honor at the meeting was Nebraska State Engineer Roy Cochran. Nebraska had already put in place a taxation system that favored the sparsely populated part of the state. Some $1.5 million had already been spent improving the road between North Platte and McCook, he said. From North Platte to Valentine, the heart of the foreboding Sand Hills, there was almost nothing, he said. The state was bogged down in the sandy soil as the Blue Pole Highway— a Fremont to Chadron east-to-west road—stretched westwards. Only 25 miles had been completed in two years in Cherry County.  
“The construction difficulties and the expense is so great that the progress has been quite slow,” Cochran said. The fact remained, that most commerce was still moving east to west, he told the audience. Nevertheless, he endorsed the idea of a north-to-south road as long as funding was available.
Some of the largest contingents at the meeting had come from the Sand Hills—towns such as Stapleton, Gandy, Tryon, Thedford and Brownlee—to lend their voices. Forty of the delegates came from Stapleton alone. The Sandhillers were a gloomy, pessimistic bunch, according to their dire warnings about road building in the dunes. Years of trying to traverse them had no doubt left psychological scars.
John Turner of Thedford had been trying to develop an east-to-west  “Potash Highway” (present day State Highway 2) for years, but to no avail.
“If you take a trip through the Sand Hills you will be surprised at [the] roads because there are none,” he said. He warned about the terrible, shifting sands.
“For God’s sake, give us a road,” he said.
A Mr. Christensen of Valentine did his best to dispel his town’s Wild West reputation  as he encouraged delegates to visit his fine city.
“We don’t have so many saloons and not nearly so much gambling…We want you to come up there fishing I will show you that if you come up there fishing you will get some fish,” he said.
“When I came down here today I was tired and a little bit discouraged until I saw all these men and I am very much enthused about this road and I am going back to Valentine very glad I came down.”
A Valentine to North Platte road tentatively called the Kinkaid Highway had been proposed a decade earlier, but nothing came of that effort, either.
The Keystone Hotel — only two years old at that time — served more than 600 meals that day. After the meeting adjourned, the McCook High School Boys Band under the direction of Leo Kelly provided entertainment in the afternoon.
At the packed banquet room that evening, a trio of Robert Boles on flute, Charles McCarl on the violin and singer Miss Lucile Hiler, provided the music.
After the meal was served, the constitution and bylaws were formally adopted. The terminal points would be Regina, Saskatchewan, and Mexico City, Mexico.
There were no delegates from Canada or North Dakota noted in the reports of the meeting. John McCurdy from Sweetwater, Texas, had traveled the longest distance to be there at 900 miles.
The meeting ended on a high note, with a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism. But the fact of the matter is that by May 10, 1926, the end was near for the auto trails. The federal highway system final draft released only five months after the establishment of the association would show the beginnings of Highway 83 from just east of Bismarck down to Pierre, South Dakota.
The association in about 1929 published a map of the final route from Regina to Laredo.  It would more or less follow present day U.S. 83 from Minot to Abilene, Texas. Eventually, a U.S. Canada Highway 83 Association would emerge.
As for those poor Sandhillers, it would be more than a generation before a dependable road would cut through the dunes. The last part of Highway 83 to be paved was from Thedford to Stapleton in September 1959.
Sources: McCook Gazette, May 10, 1926 and May 12, 1926 editions.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. And The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition to be released Feb. 9.

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  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

New Book Celebrates Highway 83 Town’s Cowboys' Christmas Ball

The weekend before Christmas 1885, the owner of the Star Hotel in the sleepy little ranching town of Anson, Texas, cleared out the tables and chairs in his dining room, rounded up some musicians, and threw a wingding to celebrate the marriage of a local couple, and to spread some cheer in the town during the dreary winter months.
Cowboys, ranchers, and their families attended the dance, which became a yearly tradition.
Attending the dances was the nephew of a wealthy ranch owner, Lawrence Chittenden.
Like many of the Eastern scions of wealthy families who came West to invest in the cattle trade, Chittenden fell in love with the land and the lifestyle. Spending his winters on his uncle’s ranch, he regularly attended what become known as the Grand Ball.
Chittenden’s hobby was poetry, and he went on to publish a book, Ranch Verses, which contained the poem, “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.”
Chittenden was not the first of the so-called “cowboy poets,” but as Paul H. Carlson points out in his new book, Dancin’ in Anson: A History of the Texas Cowboy’s Christmas Ball published by Texas Tech University Press, he was the first commercially successful one. Ranch Verses was wildly popular and the poem about the ball emerged as Chittenden’s most famous work.
The hotel burned down and the Grand Ball didn’t return until 1934. During the Depression years, the locals again needed something to cheer them up, so the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball was revived after almost 40 years. Once again, families and lonesome cowboys from the Jones County ranches made their way to town on the last Saturday before Christmas to celebrate the season. Just as 1950s sockhops became popular in the 1970s, and “Disco Nights” were revived in the 1990s, the attendees came in 1880s dress. The music and dances of the 1800s were recreated.
The ball has been held in Anson every year since with traditional dress, music and dance steps a mainstay of the celebration.
Carlson’s book not only delves into the history of the dance itself, it puts the ball in context. Dancin in Anson provides an excellent history of how the region was developed, from the earliest buffalo hunters to when cotton began to supplant ranching. It has a biography of Chittenden’s life, a good rundown of the cowboy poetry tradition and its origins, and an analysis of the poem itself.
This broader look at the Christmas ball and its roots makes for entertaining and informative reading.
Country music entertainer Michael Martin Murphy, a student of traditional cowboy poetry and music, began performing at the ball in 1993. Murphy provides an informative Foreword in the book. The event is now an all-weekend affair held in a purpose-built dancehall that attracts attendees from all over the world. Cowboy poetry readings are held in the afternoon at Anson’s beautiful Opera House on its town square.
Anson's Opera House was built in 1907. Photo by Stew Magnuson
There is an ironic part of this story that Carlson only touches upon.
Anson for decades outlawed dancing within the city limits. Devoutly religious residents believed dancing led to sin, and banned it. The town had to pass a law to make an exception for the Christmas ball, but generations of high school students in the town never experienced a senior prom.
A clash between residents who wanted to lift the ban and those who wanted to keep it broke out in the 1980s, just about the time when a popular Hollywood movie, Footloose — about a similar town that outlawed dancing — was released. The national media’s discovery of a real-life Footloose plot put the spotlight on Anson. Ironically, Anson became known for two reasons: a big yearly dance and not allowing dancing.
The fight to lift the ban was recounted in an equally excellent book, No Dancin’ in Anson: An American Story of Race and Social Change by a University of Texas-Austin professor, Ricardo Ainsle, published in 1995. It is out of print, but worth seeking out and reading.
2014 marks the 80th consecutive year of the “Lively Gaited Sworray,” as Chittenden called the ball in the poem, and the 21st year Michael Martin Murphy has taken part in the festivities.
Dancin’ in Anson: A History of the Texas Cowboy’s Christmas Ball is available at Texas Tech University Press and other book retailers.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. And coming soon: The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma.

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  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Effort Underway to Preserve Historic Hotel near Hwy 83 in White River, SD

Photo by Stew Magnuson
The following is a press release submitted to the Highway 83 Chronicles blog. I welcome submissions of this nature as well as guest bloggers! SM

In an effort to create jobs and revitalize the White River, South Dakota, community, former and future resident Penelope Seitler is planning to renovate the 100 plus year old White River Hotel.  
This is a multi-purpose project with social and business aspects. The plan is for the hotel to hire employees from an interesting source — people coming out of rehab. 
Seitler says there is no place for people to continue their recovery, and businesses are leery of hiring such individuals. By working with counselors, she says they can determine what an individual would be best suited to, and how many hours a week would be appropriate. The employees can stay in substance free dorm style housing at the hotel, until a group home is created. 
“By providing jobs, we are giving people a hand up instead of a hand out,” Seitler said.  The income from the hotel will also add to the tax base of the City, as well as increasing the income of local area merchants. 
A few years ago, a structural engineer took a brief look at the hotel, and pronounced her solid, although in need of extensive repairs. The most recent photos show that the roof, foundation, windows, and doors are not sagging at all; and the rubber roof applied a few years ago is still holding strong. Many community members would like to see something done with the old building, and will support the renovation, while others are interested in tearing it down, making this a time sensitive initiative. The building itself is rich with history, including two stints as a hospital during flu epidemics.  Many local residents remember it from staying there during the school week. One local hunting guide said he could fill the original 11 rooms every night of the year.  The renovation will turn it into a seven-room bed and breakfast with Restaurant open to the public.  “While we would love to realize the guides estimate, we are working with a much more conservative estimate of occupancy,” said Seitler.
“A Hand UP in the Heartland” is the name of the crowd funding campaign started to make this project a reality.  At the campaign site, people can make donations to fund this project, and get something in return.  
“Perks” are items given in thanks for supporting the project with donations that range from various types of art works, to dinners in the restaurant, and free stays at the hotel. Once up and running the bed and breakfast will continue to work within the community to fund other worthy projects, giving others a hand up, instead of a continuing cycle of handouts. 
Crowd-funding has become an important tool for starting or growing businesses, without taking on debt, or are unavailable from a bank.  
For more information, or to fund this project you can go to the web page here:   
You can also find more information at the website:  and the Facebook Page: .

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at 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  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)

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 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  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)