Thursday, July 23, 2015

Victory! We have Raised $5,100 to Build a Roadside Historical Marker for DeWitty, Nebraska!

I’m happy to report that after about two months, we have managed to raise the $5,100 required to install a historical marker on Highway 83 for DeWitty, the longest lasting and most successful rural black settlement in Nebraska!
Back in the spring of 2009, I had an idea pop into my head to write a book about U.S. Highway 83 and some of the forgotten history one finds alongside it. Not more than a few seconds later, the words “Like that black town near Brownlee” came to mind.
I had known about an African-American settlement in the heart of the Sand Hills since reading an article about it in high school in Nebraskaland Magazine. I had been fascinated that such a place once existed 80 miles north of where my grandparents lived in Stapleton, but didn’t know much about it.
After doing some research into the town at the Library of Congress, I realized that there was lot more to the settlement known as DeWitty than the curiosity of a black community in a land settled mostly by whites. This was truly a remarkable community with a remarkable story and people. 
So the chapter, “A Place Called Audacious” in what would become The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma was a special one for me.
Years later, I was driving by the Brownlee Road turnoff, and thought: “Why isn’t there one of those historical markers somewhere near here to tell folks about DeWitty?” Then I let that thought go, like so many miles on the road.
As I was putting the final touches on the book in 2014, I was fortunate enough to get in contact with Catherine Meehan Blount, a granddaughter of two of the early DeWitty settlers. At one point in our correspondence, I brought up the idea of a roadside marker. She was all for it. The next question became “What do you gotta do to get one of those things installed?”
Short answer: You have to apply. Specifically, with the Nebraska State Historical Society. So I put together the materials and sent them in along with letters of endorsement from the Cherry County Historical Society and The Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha.
The acceptance of the applications was a shoe-in. One, because there is no doubt about the community’s historical significance. And two, it turns out the NSHS historian who approves the applications had already tried to get a marker for DeWitty and three other sites in Nebraska, but couldn’t get the Unicameral to fund them.
And therein was the catch. The Historical Society approves the markers, but applicants have to pay for them. The full-size marker is $5,100. Fundraising was something I had never done before, so that sum was a bit daunting.
The most satisfying part of the whole endeavor was the many communities who contributed.
There are many we would like to thank. I say “we” because many contributed to the cause.
First and foremost, were the descendants of DeWitty — now spread out all over the country — who chipped in to acknowledge the sacrifices their forbearers made carving out better lives for themselves in that harsh land. One descendant who prefers to remain anonymous donated $500. Albert Riley Jr., who grew up in Valentine after his family moved off the homestead and into town, stopped by the bank while in town for his 50th high school reunion, to chip in. Joyceann Gray and Marcia Thompkins,
Goldie Hayes in her Classroom. Courtesy of Joyceann Gray
relatives of Goldie Walker Hayes, a DeWitty schoolteacher and principal who remained in Cherry County to teach, were avid supporters. There were many others.
The Cherry County Historical Society, especially Joyce Muirhead, were enthusiastic about the idea, and helped set up the bank account, along with a monetary contributions. Cherry County and Valentine residents stopped in the bank to put their money in the pot as well. A big thank you to the staff of the First Security Bank in Valentine for taking the donations.
The North Platte Bulletin, North Platte Telegraph, Valentine Midland News, Stapleton Enterprise, Lincoln Journal Star and KVSH in Valentine all helped get the word out in the media, which garnered donations from throughout the state.
Many of my friends and family contributed just because I asked them to. It’s great to have such wonderful cousins, parents and friendships that go back years. I took $300
Maurice Brown. Courtesy of Catherin Meehan.
out of the profits from The Last American Highway books for the cause.
Members of the Fans of U.S. Route 83 page on Facebook also donated amounts small and large. These are people who love the backroads of America and all the history found alongside it, especially U.S. Route 83, the border to border highway. The biggest donation from this group came from member Bruce Hoffman and his wife Debbie, owners of the Common Scents greenhouse and nursery on Highway 83 south of McCook. They mailed in $500! Stop in and thank them the next time you’re in McCook.
What’s next? It is all in the hands of the state of Nebraska. The Nebraska State Historical Society will coordinate the purchase and installation of the marker and the Department of Roads will decide the best spot to place it — keeping in the mind the safety of motorists.
Look on the Fans of U.S. Route 83 facebook page for updates. And thank you all again.

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, July 22, 2015

Trip to Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge Evokes Sand Hills Memories

The Niobrara River. All photos by Alan or Lori Kehr
By Alan Kehr
In May, we got to visit the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge near Valentine, NE. After a short drive through the prairie dog town and the pasture lands we were able to hike down into the Niobrara River valley. It brought to mind the first time I’d been there as a child.
We lived 30 miles west on a hill a mile outside Nenzel in the midst of the Sand Hills, which are huge dunes covered with a thin veneer of grass. They’re a few rain drops sideways from an official desert, made habitable by the Ogallala Aquifer.  If a break in the grass develops, the wind carries away the sand below to create a blowout — a place of play for young boys.
We couldn’t build sandcastles, because the sand in the blowouts was as dry and sere as Frank Herbert’s Dune world, but reengineered by us to a world of massive construction projects, or battles between knights of old, or WWII gyrenes, or more commonly between cowboys and Indians fueled by the movies of the day – blood-thirsty savages trying to steal the land from bona fide owners by right of European heritage. Our earth moving equipment – shingles and a kitchen spoon – transformed the flat bottom into contoured hills and battle grounds. Firecrackers from the 4th of July celebration at Grandma’s supplied our demolition requirements. Our minions were twigs and the battalions pieces of wood scavenged from a remodeling job.
The landscape we devised in the sandy blowouts was most similar to the Middle East, but sectarian violence was unknown to us and our understanding of Arab culture based
on Three Wise Men from the East – probably even beyond Omaha.
On other days, my brother, Garry, and I played two man baseball with a ball battered to the firmness of cotton candy and covered with soft leather partially held in place with a few remaining stitches. One pitched and the other hit. Homeruns were frequent because they consisted of a run to first base and back before the pitcher fielded the ball and tagged the runner.
Days were hot with the smell of dry hay, and, if the wind was in the right direction, a hint of desiccated barn yard. Many days, it carried sand with the taste and feel of grit between the teeth.
Nights were cool and dawn was best with a slight breeze and the song of nearby meadowlarks standing on fence posts. Dew on the grass brought the smell of moisture to the desert air, full and fresh. The clear sky had a slight red tint. The future was bright and the prospects for adventure boundless.
Highlights of the summer were trips to the Niobrara River, 11 miles south of Nenzel in a valley filled with verdant pine and cedar and a narrow stream with a current swift and sure, so filled with sand that a submerged hand disappeared as absolutely as in the black of night. A few minutes in that current was enough to remove the grime of hard-playing boys all the way to spotless fingernails.
Fall was a magic time in the valley of the Niobrara. We would descend with aunts, a horde of cousins, buckets, and pails. We filled them with wild plums, currents, choke cherries, and grapes. Back home we crushed the fruit, strained the juices, and Mom made the jams and jellies to sustain us through the winter, transforming her daily fresh baked bread from a wondrous delight into sheer heaven.
One year, Dad reserved part of the wild-grape juice to make wine. He fermented it in the large crock Mom used to make laundry soap from lye and the fat rendered from the slaughtered fall pig. Precleaning must have been an effort.
In later years, Mom said that the wine had a high alcohol content. Dad was the drinker in the family, buying an annual bottle of whiskey for New Year’s Eve and, with the help of neighborly card playing visits during long winter evenings, finishing it off in time for the following New Year’s celebration.
According to her story, a few months after the fermentation had started, she decided to see if the wine was ready and pulled a small glass, which she deemed satisfactory. Unfortunately, the priest made a visit that morning – a very rare and unexpected occurrence – and she believed that he caught her in a state of inebriation. Not one to keep good gossip to himself, I suspect that her worries were unfounded because I never
heard the story from another soul.
But then, our story has drifted afar from the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, hasn’t it?
The Visitor’s Center has been modernized and the ranger we talked with was delightful and full of information. The prairie dogs were active with the babies running around, but sticking close to mom. With all the recent rain, the river was full and moving fast. Flowers were abundant and the forest smelled of spring with sunbeams drifting through the leaves and lighting the path.
Afterward, we drove back into Valentine and had an Americano for me and a latte for Lori, the smell of fresh coffee good enough to bring tears to the eyes and strong enough to propel us on to our next stop in South Dakota – I don’t think that coffee was available in my youth.

Alan spent his early years in Nenzel, graduated from North Platte, received a degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and now lives in Austin, Texas.

Fort Niobrara NWR is located about fives miles east of Highway 83 at Valentine, Nebraska, on U.S. Highway 12. A visitor center, with displays and exhibits, a bookstore is open 8:00 am – 4:30 pm daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and Monday through Friday during the rest of the year (except for Federal holidays). 

For more on what to see along Highway 83, read The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, by Stew Magnuson, available at, 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, 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.
Note: It appears that we have reached our goal, or are very close to it! No need to send donations now. Thank you to all who contributed!

 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)