Thursday, February 4, 2016

Highway 83's Laredo Goes All Out to Celebrate George Washington’s Birthday

By Stew Magnuson

“I get that question all the time,” says Veronica Castillon, “What are a bunch of
Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez and some of her creations
Mexicans doing celebrating Washington’s Birthday?”

Indeed, the city of Laredo has made a pretty big deal out of acknowledging the United States’ first president since 1898.
Of course, what Castillon, former president of the association that produces the annual event, meant was “Mexican-Americans.” Laredo was founded by the Spanish in 1755, and later became part of Mexico when it broke free of colonial rule.
Long after it became part of the United States, the residents held onto their traditional Latin festivals and holidays. The city leaders wanted to balance that out, so they settled on a distinctly American holiday, Castillon explained.
Now, there is currently no other city in the America that goes all out for G.W. the way Laredo does. It has been doing so for 119 years.
The celebrations take up several weeks in February each year — when the weather is much milder compared to the summer months.
Washington’s Birthday Celebration events attract nearly 500,000 residents and visitors, and contributes an estimated $14 million every year to the local economy, according to the association website.
This year includes the annual parade, concerts, fireworks, an air show, a car show, and 5 K race, Jalapeno Festival, a 10-day carnival and the highlight: The Society of Martha Washington Ball where 13 young women and their escorts, representing the 13 colonies, attend in resplendent gowns and period costumes.
At the home of Laredo native Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez, I had an opportunity of
Gown details
seeing some of these gowns. Gutierrez is one of the city’s best known dressmakers, who can spend months working on one of the pieces.

How much does she charge to produce one of these one-of-a-kind gowns?
That’s confidential, she says. She has never revealed how much one of her clients pays. Once made, they become treasured family heirlooms.
While the ball is a big night, in Gutierrez’s mind, the most important ceremony is the International Bridge Ceremony, where two boys and two girls, each representing both side of the border, meet on a spot over the Rio Grande River and embrace. The big parade begins soon after.
Another reason Washington’s birthday is celebrated here is because of the respect the founding father commands in Latin America as a leader who threw off the yoke of European colonialism.
“Respected as the forerunner of such Latin American liberators as Mexico’s Father Hidalgo and Simon Bolivar, Washington’s esteem is not limited to the United States,” the celebration’s website says.
Bridge ceremony photo courtesy of WBCA.
The Princess Pocahontas Pageant and Ball where a local woman in a resplendent beaded costume “presides over a spectacular pageant that is as much a part of the Washington’s Birthday Celebration as it is a homage to the Native American culture. The Princess Pocahontas Pageant presents the Native Americans in a setting that is both mystical and natural, “ the official website says
The Society of Martha Washington Ball, where Gutierrez gowns make their public debut, is one of the most famous events in South Texas and was featured in National Geographic.
For a list of George Washington Birthday Celebration events check out the website HERE.
For those who can’t make it to Laredo in February, there is a small Washington's Birthday Celebration museum on the southwest corner of San Augustin Plaza, which has a display of some of the elaborate gowns and costumes.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 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, January 19, 2016

Exploring the Historic ‘Streets of Laredo’ Along Highway 83

San Augustin church. Photos by Stew Magnuson

It’s the first Friday night of the month in Laredo and the CaminArte (art walk) is underway.
Families, young couples and folks on their own like myself — with a special map in hand — are making their way around the town center’s streets to check out the local galleries. About nine sites are opening their doors to sell paintings or crafts, and the town’s famous San Augustin Square is surrounded by vendors for an artisan’s bazaar.
One of my first stops is Gallery 201, a contemporary art gallery, where a handful of local artists have set up tables.
Erika Lamar Buentello happens to be selling prints of local iconic neon signs. Two of them, the Evelyn Motor Inn and Pan American Courts Café (and Hotel) are out on Business 83. Those signs have been there since before there was an expressway, and hark back to the Golden Age of road travel in the 1940s and 1950s.
“Sold,” I say. It’s as if she knew I were coming. She knocks five bucks off, $35 for the pair, and I get to take some great Highway 83 memorabilia back home with me.
Find Buentello’s art on this Etsy page.
Another highlight on the walk is the Laredo Center for the Arts, which has an ongoing exhibition and local artists there to do some painting as visitors watch.
Prints by Erika Lamar Buentello
Casa Ortiz, just off the square, is open to visitors. The building has been here since about 1830 and features a beautiful courtyard. Five generations of the Ortiz family lived there before it was sold, but someone has been there since then, making it the longest continually occupied home in Texas. Nowadays, Texas A&M University owns the building, and lets students stay there. Enrique Botello is one of the students and shows me around. He’s originally from the town of San Ygnacio on Highway 83, a community south of Laredo on the banks of the Rio Grande, which was established before the American Revolution. From Casa Ortiz, visitors can see the river. This was a good spot with a wide view and made it harder for Apaches on Comanches to sneak up on the residents, Botello explains.
San Augustin Plaza is where the vendors are set up.
I’m amazed at the low prices. I’ve been to plenty of artisan bazaars in my day, and I would have never found a beautiful lapis-lazuli necklace for my wife for a mere $22 at any of the others. Another vendor is offering hand-stitched, homemade postcards, each one unique and nice enough to frame. She doesn’t charge more than $12 for any of them.
San Augustin Cathedral next to the square has been here since 1778. The Gothic Revival church is open and features a beautiful collection of stained glass.
La Posada Hotel takes up the entire south side of the plaza. The building the lobby is in was once a high school and bits of the structure dating back to 1916 remains. The hotel was built around three other historic buildings. As a hotel, it only dates back to the early 1960s, but with two courtyards, swimming pools and palm trees, it seems like you’re stepping back in time. The four-diamond hotel is one of the best bets for casual or more upscale dining on the plaza.
A vendor on the art walk selling hand-stitched postcards.
Also on the south side is the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum. The building headquartered a short-lived movement to carve out a new nation here in 1840, when locals chaffed under Mexican rule. During the republic’s short 10 months, it created a flag, which is why the flags of seven nations, rather than six for the rest of Texas, have flown over Laredo.
Another item visitors might notice are the “City of Generals and Saints” banners hung on streetlight poles. The names of Laredo’s streets in the historic district alternate between famous generals and Catholic saints, hence the nickname.
Just two blocks away, is a reminder that Laredo is a border town. A steady stream of border crossers walk across the Bridge of Americas where a line of shops on Convent Street cater to them. Laredo is only surpassed by New York and Los Angeles in terms of trade. Some $280 billion of goods passed through its ports of entry in 2014, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics.
San Augustin Plaza taken from La Posada Hotel.
For decades, the U.S Canada Highway 83 Association advertised the road as a great route to “Old Mexico.” It held its annual convention here in 1963. The city once worked hand in hand with its sister city across the bridge Nuevo Laredo to attract tourists under its “Two Nations. One Destination” slogan, but sadly violence fueled by the drug trade in Mexico forced Laredo to shut that campaign down and separate itself from its neighbor, explained Blasita Lopez, director of the Laredo Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
They are indeed different worlds apart in that respect. As the numbers of local families and young couples exploring downtown during the art walk showed, downtown Laredo is as safe as any city of its size in the United States. It would be wrong to say the city is crime free — no place can make that claim — but it is also wrong to lump it in with what’s happening across the border.
Visiting historic downtown Laredo is a highlight on any trip along Highway 83, and shouldn’t be missed.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 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)

Monday, January 11, 2016

Dedication Ceremony for DeWitty Historical Marker Set for April

Marker site on Hwy 83 near Brownlee turnoff
A dedication ceremony for a new Nebraska State Historical Marker in Cherry County commemorating DeWitty, the state’s longest and most successful African-American rural settlement  in the state is scheduled for Monday, April 11 at 10 a.m. at the site of the marker, near the Brownlee turnoff road on U.S. Highway 83.
The ceremony will be held in the Cherry County Historical Society Museum in Valentine in the event of inclement weather.
The ceremony is expected to draw descendants of the original DeWitty settlers from all over the nation.
“I’ve already heard from descendants from as far away as Delaware, Virginia and California who are planning to come,” said Stew Magnuson, the author of two books about Highway 83. Last year, Magnuson, the Cherry County Historical Society and DeWitty descendants coordinated efforts to raise the $5,100 needed to pay for the marker.
North Loup River just south of marker site
“Donations came from descendants, Cherry County residents, history buffs in Nebraska and members of the Fans of U.S. Route 83 page on Facebook. It was a wonderful gathering of different people who believed that this unique community should be remembered,” said Magnuson.
Black settlers first arrived in the area about 1907 to take advantage of the Kinkaid Act, which granted homesteaders 640 acres of land in the counties that comprised the Sand Hills of Nebraska. DeWitty, also known as Audacious, grew as more settlers came to take advantage of this offer. The Homestead Act only granted 160 acres of land. Some settlers had roots in Canada and were the descendants of escaped slaves. Others came from big cities to try their hands at farming. The town barber, Robert Hannahs, had been born into slavery.
View of Sand Hills west of marker site
They built homesteads along the North Loup River, extending some 14 miles west of the town of Brownlee, a mostly white settlement. Relations between the two communities were excellent, Magnuson says. They came together to celebrate Independence Day, shared one-room schools and helped each other whenever needed.
“This is really the story of two communities: DeWitty and Brownlee. The marker text notes the bond the communities shared,” says Magnuson, who wrote a chapter about DeWitty in his latest book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska,Kansas, Oklahoma.
Joyceann Gray, a DeWitty descendant now living in Sterling, Virginia, said, "My sister Khadijah and I are so excited to attend the DeWitty-Audacious Historical Marker Installation ceremony. What an humbling honor to be a part of recognizing our ancestors, their struggles, and their lives."

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 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, December 16, 2015

Laredo, Texas: A Birder's Paradise on Highway 83

A kiskadee on Las Palmas Trail in Laredo, Texas.  Photos by Stew Magnuson
Nestled between bustling downtown Laredo, Texas, and the banks of Rio Grande is a wide thicket of palm trees, grasses and assorted vegetation where some 140 bird species have been spotted over the years.
Tom Miller, director of Laredo Community College’s Lamar Bruni Vergara Science Center, is leading a group of writers, including myself, down a path into the dense vegetation on a cool early December morning as a light fog lifts off the river.
The Las Palmas Trail — populated with native and non-native grasses and palm trees — has survived fires, floods and urban development and emerged as a prime spot for “birders.”
(Don’t call them ‘bird-watchers as that is a bit of a faux-pas.)
“Birders” are well known for keeping detailed records of the species they have spotted and many come here for the white-collared seedeater, which Miller describes as the trail’s “signature bird.”
But it’s only 7:30 a.m.
Tom Miller
“Actually, I think the white collared seed eaters are late risers. They’re a little lazy,” he says. “It seems that the best time is 10, or so. They would rather to sleep in late and wait for it to warm up a bit.”
Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley as Highway 83 travels south of here to Brownsville, has long been known as a Mecca for “birders.” Its southern locale brings in species that don’t travel far north and is also a popular stop for migrating birds. The city holds an annual Laredo Birding Festival in early February. Attendees recorded 165 species in the region last year.
Blasita Lopez, Laredo Convention and Visitor’s Bureau director, estimates that 1,000 to 2,000 visitors from all over the world travel to the border city every year just for birding. This is one of nine prime birding spots or trails within the city limits.
Miller takes out his binoculars and scans the tree branches.
“Three kingfishers have all been seen here the belted, ringed and green,” he says.
In January 2010, a female Amazon Kingfisher was spotted for the first time in North America in this spot, which by itself brought in hordes of birders as it took up a two-and-half-week residence, according to a visitor’s bureau brochure.
“There!” Miller says. “In the top of the tree directly ahead of us is an Audubon oriole.”
Golden-fronted woodpeckers
One avid birder in the group, a University of Texas-Austin professor, gets to add that species to his list. Later he will send a simple text message to his brother in a game of birder one-ups-manship. “Audubon oriole,” he wrote. That elicited an immediate response from his sibling, who is also an avid birder. The hobby can be competitive, I find out. The professor is most excited about a group of red-billed pigeons that are reportedly hanging out at a municipal golf course north of town.
That’s on the itinerary, Lopez assures him.
We spot green jays in some other branches sticking out from the cane. I had no idea that they came in colors other than blue.
Mixed in with the distinctive call of a kiskadee, we hear a lonesome train whistle, and Spanish coming from a megaphone across the river trying to lure shoppers into a store Only these sounds reminds us that we are in the middle of two large cities.
Next, we spot a pair of golden-fronted woodpeckers.
“That’s one I hadn’t seen yet this fall. So that’s a good bird for me,” Miller says.
The professor is the first to see a yellow-bellied sapsucker.
Along with birds, those who hike the path are likely to encounter members of the Border Patrol. They have ground sensors here, and have cut a path wide enough for vehicles to traverse on one part of the preserve.
“We’ve had to negotiate a little bit … but they’re working with us,” Miller said. The agency has promised to do their best to keep ATVs and other vehicles out of the sanctuary.
Indeed, a pair of agents in their green uniforms come down to check us out. But it’s pretty obvious that we’re a bunch of hikers. They’re friendly, chat about some of the birds they’ve seen, and leave us be after awhile.
We at last come to a cove near a water treatment plant, where some neotropic cormorants and other waders reside. The treatment plant is scheduled to be demolished, which may open this area up for more visitors.
On the way back to our bus, Miller sees a white-collared seedeater scurrying across the path. I’m standing right next to him, but I didn’t see it. We crouch still for a minute hoping it will come back, but it doesn’t.
I feel a little frustrated that I missed it. I’m starting to understand why many are attracted to this hobby. It appeals to those of us who like to hunt, but only want to shoot animals with a camera lens. On your worst day, you’ve taken a nice walk in nature.
Rio Grande at Laredo
Highway 83 is the perfect road for birders. Heading north from the birders' paradise that is the Rio Grande Valley, they arrive at the wetlands of the Great Plains and all its diversity. They can then take a detour a few miles east to see the Sandhill crane migration on in the Platte River Valley in Nebraska. In the heart of the Nebraska Sand Hills is the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge.
North Dakota and its Prairie Pothole Region is called North America’s “duck factory.” And then there is the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Audubon at Coleharbor, North Dakota, where some 200 bird species have been recorded.

The Laredo Birding Festival takes place Feb. 3-6, 2016. Registration is now open (link here). Other times of the year, local tours can be arranged by contacting the LBV Science Center at 956-764-5701. A list of birding spots in or near Laredo can be found here.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 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)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Effort Begins to Build Interpretive Center for Pueblo Indian Ruins near Highway 83 in Kansas

Photos by Stew Magnuson
North of Scott City, Kansas, on Highway 83, there is a stretch of land south of the Smoky Hill River Valley that appears to be mostly flat farm fields, seemingly devoid of geological features.
But just to the west, five miles out of eyeshot is a beautiful valley where the 1,280-acre Lake Scott State Park, is a literal oasis in this otherwise dry land.
And in this state park are the Pueblo El Quartelejo ruins.
When I’ve shown pictures of the ruins to audiences outside of Kansas during my Last American Highway presentations, many are surprised.
Pueblo Indian ruins? In Kansas?
It turns out that a small tribe of Pueblos first came to this spot from their traditional homelands to the west at about 1640 to escape harsh Spanish colonial rule. Spanish soldiers later forced them back. Another group came in the later part of the century, and were also turned back. The foundations of a seven-room adobe home is the only structure that can be seen today.
Along with the Pueblos, the Plains Apaches also took shelter in the valley to take advantage of its springs and abundant game. One would think the valley was occupied on and off for thousands of years by peoples whose names are now forgotten.
There is now an effort underway to build an enclosed interpretive center over the Pueblo.
The ultimate goal is to bring back all the artifacts from the site that are now scattered around the country.
“We don’t have a single shard here, and this is our heritage,” Jerry Thomas, who is leading the committee that is setting out to build the new enclosure, said in a phone interview.
Thomas, a well-known artist who specializes in Western themes, is one of Scott City’s most famous sons. In town, he spearheaded the effort to build the El Quartelejo Museum and Jerry Thomas Gallery and Collection building. He more recently helped raise funds to build an interpretive kiosk for the Smokey Hill River Valley on Highway 83.
As for the Pueblo, there were several digs on the site over the years — the first in 1898 conducted by a University of Kansas professor. The university and other institutions now house the artifacts including the Smithsonian, the Kansas State Historical Society and the University of Northern Illinois.
The Scott State Park and Historical Committee expects to raise $1 million through private donations to fund the center.
On Oct. 19, Thomas was joined by Gov. Sam Brownback, state and local officials, park rangers and a member of the Taos Pueblo tribe for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to kick off the effort, according to the Garden City Times.
C. A. Tsosie, a Tiwa-speaking tribal elder, traveled to the ceremony and gave his blessing for the endeavor. The site will be “a sanctuary for all of America,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.
When the enclosure is built, it is hoped that the institutions that now have the collections will return or loan items to be displayed there, Thomas said.
The digs uncovered items from the Taos Pueblos, Apaches, nearby tribes such as the Wichitas and European trade items suggesting that this was a popular spot for plains nations to meet and trade. Other structures were found hundreds of yards away from the seven-room Pueblo. The stones that make up the foundation seen today were uncovered then later reburied by the archaeologists. In 1970, they were dug up and placed back to where records taken by the Kansas University professor indicated that they had been found.
The seven-room pueblo probably didn’t have any windows or doors and occupants exited and entered through a ladder at the top of the roof. It was undoubtedly cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It is believed that the original structure was destroyed by fire.
Eventually, the last Native occupants of the valley, the Plains Apaches, were pushed south by their main rival, the Comanches.
Decades later, the Northern Cheyenne passed through here during their dramatic escape from Indian Territory in 1879. The last battle between the Northern Cheyenne and the U.S. Army in Kansas took place near here, at the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork.
Thomas said there will have to be a final archaeological investigation to make sure that the new building doesn’t damage or destroy items that the other digs missed. That will hopefully take place in the spring. Thomas hopes the doors open to the new facility in about two years.
It is certain to be a must-stop for those traveling on Highway 83.
Meanwhile, visitors to the area can stop and see the ruins at the park, or learn more at the El Quartelejo Museum/Jerry Thomas Gallery & Collection in Scott City.

The park entrance is three miles west of U.S. 83 on K-95. There is a $6 per vehicle fee for daily visitors.
El Quartelejo Museum/Jerry Thomas Gallery & Collection is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Sunday in the summer season and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Labor Day to Memorial Day. It’s about a half mile west of the intersection of Highway 83 (main Street) and K-96 in Scott City. Free but donations are appreciated.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition.Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83, including the El Quartelejo Museum and Jerry Thomas Gallery and Collection in Scott City and the Buffalo Bil Interpretive Center in Oakley, KS.

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, October 8, 2015

Effort to Preserve Garden City’s Windsor Hotel on Highway 83 Moves Forward


The Windsor Hotel. Photos by Stew Magnuson
There are many grand old hotels along the 1,885 miles of Highway 83 that date back to the golden age of rail travel.
When it came to travelers, the railroads lost out to the automobile and airplanes early last century. Hotels in the center of bustling downtowns consequently lost out to the motels — motor hotels — out by the highways.
One of the grandest of these old hotels one encounters on Highway 83 is the Windsor  in Garden City, Kansas.
It’s a majestic building that dominates the downtown as one approaches on what is now Business 83 from the north.
The Windsor closed its doors to customers in 1977. Like many old buildings in the prairie climate, it began to deteriorate. Its placement on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 was important, but that designation doesn’t do anything to guarantee the survival of such a large building.
After visiting Garden City recently, I’m happy to report that the community’s effort to save this beautiful old building is gaining momentum.
The Finney County Preservation Alliance, which owns the property, has hired its first full-time employee, Brian Nelson, as its executive director.
I found him in one of the first floor storefronts, which is now open to the public.
The alliance is taking a step-by-step approach to preserving the building.
A recent campaign to raise $39,000 to save the hotel’s iconic cupola surpassed its goal with an extra $3,000 to spare, Nelson reported.
His hiring was another important step, as was a new board of directors that has settled on a long-term vision for the building. For many years, different boards had different ideas about what to do with the hotel, Nelson said. Now, that vision is more settled.
It’s certainly a building worth saving, historically and architecturally.
The Windsor's cupola
Town founder John A. Stevens opened an opera house next door in 1886 and the hotel in 1888. With its 125 rooms, elegant cupola, three-story atrium lit by natural light, and mahogany trimmings, it became known as the “Waldorf of the Prairie,” according to an article in the Spring 2015 Kansas Historical Society magazine, Reflections.
His rival was the town’s most famous resident Charles Jesse, “Buffalo” Jones, who opened a block-long hotel to the north.  
It was built in the Renaissance style of native stone and locally made bricks and became a center of social life in the city with its ballroom hosting events and famous restaurant catering to well-heeled travelers and local businessmen. Buffalo Bill Cody was one of its many famous guests. The well-heeled stayed in the finely appointed three-room President’s suite on the top floor.
The Windsor changed hands many times through the years. When it closed in 1977, it was by order of the local fire marshal, for not having a sprinkler system. After that, the building began to decline. 
Down the street from the Windsor is the markedly less interesting — at least architecturally — Warren Hotel. This was where writers Truman Capote and Nell Harper Lee stayed while doing research into the Clutter murder case in nearby Holcomb. The result was the book, In Cold Blood. (For more of this story and Buffalo Jones, read The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83:Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma, available online or at the Finney County Historical Museum gift shop.)
The Warren, which also ceased being a hotel decades ago, has been preserved with businesses on the first floor.   
Across the street, Garden City has another project to renovate the State Theater into a multi-purpose entertainment and community center.
Nelson said the next step for the Windsor is to open a small antique mall with about eight booths in the first floor storefront where he works. He’s applying for grants to change the fluorescent lights to something more appropriate for the Windsor.
As for the long-term plans: “That’s something we’re continuing to look at,” Nelson said. The upper floors maybe converted to apartments or the building may even return to its roots as a hotel.
To find out more about the Windsor or donate to the cause, check out the alliance's website. Click HERE. Or for updates, join the Save the Windsor 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. 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, September 16, 2015

A Ghost Road and Two Ghost Towns in Northern Kansas

By Shirley Darby

Editor’s Note: Commissioned late in the creation of the federal highway system in 1942, Route 383 was an auxiliary spur of Highway 83 that ran only 175 miles in Nebraska and Kansas. Parts of it were co-signed with present-day Highway 83, from Oakley, Kansas, to just east of Selden. It was decommissioned in 1980, and is Kansas Highway 383 today. Circa 1938, the federal government switched present day Highway 83 and present day Highway 183. Prior to this, maps show Highway 83 running from Norton to Dresden, where it intersected with 183 (See maps below) Guest blogger Shirley Darby grew up along this “ghost road” as a child but only recently discovered that it was Highway 83 long before she was born. She shares her aunt’s memories of life along it in two towns in Norton County that have now all but disappeared, Dellvale and Oronoque.

My aunt Murel Ankenman Davis grew up a short distance west of Dellvale, and her memory, concerning how it looked and what was there, is phenomenal. As a youngster in the 1930s, she actually rode on that unpaved “highway” to Oronoque — a few miles northwest of Dellvale — for grocery shopping, and remembers every directional turn and distance between them. The ghost town is now located on County Road O.
Since part of the “highway” was later the access lane from present day State Highway 383 to my family’s home, I was a bit incredulous when Aunt Murel recently told me that this was once U.S. Highway 83. The route was extremely familiar as she described it, but I thought maybe there had been a different road in the vicinity.  After some research looking at old maps, I confirmed that our house was built on a turn of the defunct southern leg of U.S. 83!
Pre-1938 map showing Highway 83 in Norton County, Kansas.
Even when the bridge was usable in the 1960s, traffic was pretty thin on the route as Oronoque had by that time also gone the way of the ghost town, with only a few homes and the church still in use. Its school was moved to a spot east of Dellvale, and in 1946, Oronoque and Dallas Rural School students consolidated at Dellvale School. The school closed in 1965.
Dellvale’s post office was established in 1890, and remained in business until 1961. The building was originally on the north side of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific railroad tracks.
On that side also were the depot and east of that, a tin grain elevator and a “stockyard,” actually a holding pen, for farmers’ cattle waiting to board the train. Boxcars were parked near the stockyard as sleeping quarters for railroad men. A section house was also nearby.
Mr. Maxwell had the general store, most likely opened in the 1920’s, across the road west from his home. The store was very small, described by a former resident as “similar to my folks’ chicken house,” in size and appearance. I concur, having seen both buildings, neither having paint and both having the size of a one-room cabin. The store building remained in its original location for many years after closing. At age eight, I asked my dad what it was, and was told it had been a store. Another source actually explored the building at about that same time, finding merchandise receipts and boxes of mysterious content. That’s all we know about Maxwell’s General Store. Mr. Maxwell was also the postmaster for a time.
Dellvale did not ever have large buildings, except for a good sized house or two and the tin grain elevator next to the depot. No hotel or restaurant, no bank or church. 
Oronoque had all the trappings of a real town, and people went there, or to Norton or Clayton, for town activities, and their main grocery shopping.
A large frame house, still standing, in the 1920’s and 1930’s belonged to Mr. Maxwell. It is set back north from the tracks and Railroad St. This large home, built about 1905,  housed the family of the area game and land manager for the state Forestry, Fish and Game Commission, starting in 1965. It has most likely housed park rangers since the late1980s.
1945 map showing decommissioned U.S. 383
There were four other homes that could be considered to be in the village, and four on the periphery, within a mile or so, prior to the state taking over family lands to create Prairie Dog State Park and Keith Sebelius Reservoir. Two of those eight are standing. With the coming of the waters of Norton Reservoir, and the Kansas Fish and Game Commission’s need for wildlife refuges, longtime resident families were forced out of their homes, including the one now owned by the government, and two others. The remainder were on the south side of Hwy 383, out of the state’s desired area.
As for the post office, at some point it was moved south. This move may have been associated with the closing of Maxwell’s store, which most likely occurred in the 1930s, “the hard years.” The post office building, with its mail pigeonholes and wood floor always salted with red sweeping compound, shared space with a general store after it moved. This was a community center, where you might run into just about anyone from miles around. Rural delivery existed, but there were always reasons to stop in. Groceries, of course, or, if you were lucky enough to have a nickel, a Hershey bar, a bag of peanuts, or bottle of Coca Cola or orange Fanta from the Coke machine. Those are early 1960’s prices, by the way. The USPS closed the Dellvale Post Office in 1961, and the store closed soon after.  When the reservoir was opened, and Prairie Dog Creek re-opened, for fishing, the building was a bait shop for a few years. It is gone now.

Shirley Darby (nee Ankenman) grew up in a farmhouse along what was once Highway 83 in Norton County. She graduated from Norton Community High School in 1973 and later moved to Topeka, Kansas, with her family. Contact her at shishijoy (a) 

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)