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)

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 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, 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.

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
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) 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 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)