Wednesday, June 24, 2015

How Long Before Driverless Trucks Are Plying Highway 83?

Look carefully at this picture.
That driver doesn’t have his hands on the wheel. The truck is driving itself.
This isn’t science fiction. It’s reality. It might not be too long before 18-wheelers such as this Freightliner are passing through towns and cities along the 1,885 miles of U.S. Highway 83 and the 150 or so miles it extends into Canada.
In fact, one organization is actively seeking to make Highway 83 a testbed for driverless trucks.
The Central North American Trade Corridor Association is promoting Highway 83 as a road where such trucks could operate.
As someone who has driven every inch of the U.S. section of Highway 83 — and a defense technology writer — I might be uniquely qualified to comment on this plan. (It’s true. I don’t make a living writing regional nonfiction history books about Highway 83 and the American Indian Movement. I have a dayjob as managing editor of National Defense Magazine based in Arlington, Virginia.) As such, I have been following the progress of robotic vehicle technology for the past 10 years. In fact, I wrote an article in the July issue of the magazine with its readers in mind. (LINK HERE)
As for the readers of this blog, who live on Highway 83, there are many issues to consider. By my count, there are 128 communities along its way. Some large, some small.
Some — like my Dad’s hometown of Stapleton, Nebraska, are off on a spur road. A robotic tractor-trailer wouldn’t come directly through town, but it would pass by a dangerous intersection.
Some big cities like Abilene, Texas, and Garden City, Kansas, have bypasses. Others like North Platte, Valentine, and McCook, Nebraska, have none at all. The driverless trucks would go right through town with many stoplights, pedestrians and turns to contend with.
Some towns cities like Bismarck, North Dakota, Pierre, South Dakota, and Laredo, Texas, the two state capitals, have partial bypasses. In both cases, the trucks with have to deal with city traffic on some stretches. Some towns have wide thoroughfares as Highway 83 also doubles as its Main Street such as Scott City, Kansas, and Perryton, Texas. On the southern reaches, there is the 83 Expressway that bypasses the towns. I have to tell you: traffic flies on that four-laner. The robot trucks will have to contend with a lot of speeders and reckless drivers.
Highway 83 in Minot, North Dakota
All these challenging scenarios might be why Highway 83 would be a good testbed. It certainly will be more difficult for a robot to negotiate than a relatively straight Interstate that doesn’t have stoplights, intersections, bicycles and pedestrians.
Many of the technological challenges of driverless vehicles are being worked out. Some cars are already driving on the streets of Nevada and California. As I said the National Defense Magazine column: “Robots don’t need to sleep. They don’t drive drowsy. Robots don’t require health insurance. They don’t have to take drug and alcohol tests. They don’t develop bad backs from hours and days spent sitting in a truck and need to apply for workers compensation.
They don’t go over the speed limit. They don’t take chances during a snowstorm to make it home by Christmas. When a winter storm hits, an order to pullover and wait it out can be sent via satellite link.”
You can see why trucking companies, who are always facing a shortage of drivers, might be interested in investing and lobbying for these trucks to begin plying U.S. Highways.
But you can also see why the residents of the towns along the way should be concerned.
I posted the column on the Fans of U.S. Route 83 Facebook page I administer. There were a variety of responses from the members: Some of them basically said “Hell no. Not in my town.”
There were some interesting points made. One member brought up hacking. Is there a system that hackers can’t break into? The short answer is “probably not.” Someone taking over control of the truck for nefarious purposes can’t be discounted.
What about severe weather? Driverless trucks outfitted with the proper sensors can see through fog, snow and rain better than a human. And robots, unlike humans, are not risk takers. If the conditions become too dangerous, they will pull over and wait out the storm.
What about hijackers, one member brought up. I don’t know much about the tactics and techniques of highway thieves. That is a valid question for the trucking company and its insurers. 
I wonder about some towns along Highway 83 passing their own legislation banning such trucks from entering their town or city limits. Or even an entire state. Wouldn’t that torpedo this whole idea?
I also worry about the longer-term trends of automation. Driving trucks is a good, middle-class job that doesn’t require a college degree. Such jobs are becoming more rare. Machines replacing humans at work has been taking place since the beginning of the industrial age. Driverless vehicles will inevitably lead to more machines replacing humans. On the other hand, from what I have read, there is not a long line of youngsters signing up to be truckers. Even during times of high unemployment, there are still shortages of big rig drivers.
My take is that driverless vehicles are here. They’re coming. Probably sooner than most people think. But there are a lot of questions about policies, laws and community acceptance that have to be answered before this technology makes its way to the towns and cities along Highway 83.

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)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Group Raising Funds for Nebraska Historical Marker on Highway 83

Spot near North Loup River on Hwy 83 in where the marker may be placed.
 Descendants of a legendary Sand Hills settlement, the Cherry County Historical Society and a Nebraska-born author are teaming up to have a historical marker placed along Highway 83.
The Nebraska State Historical Society recently approved a roadside historical marker for DeWitty, the longest lasting, most successful African-American rural settlement in Nebraska.
DeWitty — in later years called Audacious — was first settled in the early 1900s by a group of homesteaders along the North Loup River in Cherry County, just west of present-day Brownlee. They were taking advantage of the Kinkaid Act of 1904, which allowed settlers to claim 640 acres of land, or one square mile, in the 37 counties that comprised the Sand Hills.
Now that the marker has been approved, the group is trying to raise the $5,100 the state historical society requires to pay for it.
Donations can be mailed to or dropped off at:
Security First Bank
PO Box 480
Valentine, Nebraska 69201
Make checks payable to: “DeWitty Historical Marker Fund.”
The first group of DeWitty settlers came from Overton, Nebraska, in Dawson County. But they were originally from Kent County, Ontario, where many escaped slaves and free people of color resided. One of the first to claim land near the North Loup was the family of Charles and Hester Meehan, an interracial couple, who had met and fell in love in Canada. Charles was a first-generation Irish-American, and Hester Freeman, of African decent. Others from different parts of the country joined them. The barber, Robert Hannahs, had been born into slavery. DeWitty had a baseball team and band. Both played all over the Sand Hills. The settlement placed a high value on educating its children, an ethos they had brought from Canada. More than 100 families lived in the settlement during its roughly 20 years of existence.
The homesteaders of DeWitty were just that —Audacious,” says Catherine Meehan Blount, one of the Meehans’ last two living grandchildren. “They were Audacious for believing that the American dream belonged to them, too, and they were Audacious for committing all they had to attain that dream.  Remembering DeWitty pays homage to those who confronted barriers in the pre-civil war United States, in Canada and in the Nebraska Sand Hills with a ‘we can’ attitude. Remembering DeWitty gives anyone who knows their story a reminder that they can, too.”
Joyceann Gray, great granddaughter of DeWitty homesteaders William Walker and Charlotte Hatter, says:
“When we can clearly mark where our ancestors have been — and by name — we can ensure the full story will be told and we can then better understand the purpose of our journey.”
Example of Nebraska State Historical Society marker
“This is really the tale of two communities: DeWitty and Brownlee,” says Stew Magnuson, former Nebraska nonfiction book of the year winner, and author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma, which has a chapter on DeWitty. “Relations between the two communities were by all known accounts, excellent. The mostly Danish settlers of Brownlee and the African-Americans in DeWitty held a July 4th picnic together every year. Some of the one-room schoolhouses were integrated. There is a photograph in history books that shows the Brownlee residents on the day they came to help build the DeWitty church. People had to depend on each other in that remote, harsh land,” says Magnuson.
Blount added: “My dad, Bill Meehan, was born in Overton but spent most of his youth in DeWitty.  He told the story of DeWitty’s renaming to Audacious with much prideful laughter because, he we certain, it had been renamed for him when he was about 12 years old.”
Magnuson first encountered the DeWitty story in a Nebraskaland Magazine article he found in his grandparent’s home in Stapleton, Nebraska, when he was a teenager.
“The thought that there was a black settlement in the Sand Hills blew my mind because I had been raised on a diet of Hollywood westerns and TV shows that portrayed the American West as populated only by white folks and Indians. The towns and homesteads were in fact far more multi-cultural and racially integrated than the media and history textbooks have portrayed. I hope the sign does a little to dispel that myth,” he says.

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)