Monday, July 24, 2017

Highway 83 Town of Stapleton, Nebraska to Have its Day in the Sun

By Stew Magnuson
Photo: By Stew Magnuson
To say that Monday, Aug. 21, 2017 will be the biggest day in the history of the Highway 83 town of Stapleton, Nebraska, may be an understatement.
That will be the day when it will be one of the Top 10 best spots in the nation to see the Great American Solar Eclipse.
Estimates of the numbers of folks who will flock to this town of 299 souls range anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000, but the truth is, no one really knows how many to expect.
Stapleton is what I consider my second hometown. My father and uncle were raised there and I spent many summers and holidays visiting my grandparents, who were lifelong residents. The VFW Post is named after my cousin, Staff Sgt. Edwin L. Magnuson, who died fighting in Italy in World War II.
Its previous claim to fame was being profiled as a typical small town” in the Jan. 2, 1971 New Yorker, in an article title “A Peaceable Town.” I devoted a chapter to Stapleton in my book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83; Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma.
Now the spotlight will be on this quiet village again.
Town leaders have known about the eclipse for years, and at first were promoting it with banners on light poles and thinking up fund-raising opportunities. A local expert and eclipse fanatic was brought in to brief them on the type of crowds to expect. They moved the annual county fair and rodeo to the Saturday and Sunday prior to the eclipse as visitors from around the world were expected to come in advance (See schedule below). There will be TV crews from as far away as Poland there to report the event live.
The fairgrounds and local golf course will be charging a small fee to those who want a good spot to watch. Excitement for the prospects of Stapleton’s “day in the sun” is turning into apprehension. The eclipse has so far garnered little attention in national media, but the hype machine will soon be ramping up as the day grows closer.
Stapleton has one gas station/convenience store and one small co-op grocery store and one restaurant — no motels.
As my cousin recently told me, every inch of the town is spoken for when it comes to accommodations. I for one will be pitching a tent in a cousin’s yard the evening before. On any other night, I could show up unannounced and have a place to stay. Not on Aug. 20 though!
Those who plan on traveling to Stapleton should come with a full tank of gas, food, water and sunscreen to last the day. Make sure you have IPO certified glasses to view the eclipse.
Travelers should plan on getting there in plenty of time. One can envision traffic jams on Highway 83. Those who don’t make it in time will probably just pull over to watch, which might exacerbate the problem. 
I know the people of Stapleton have been working hard to for several years to accommodate the huge influx of visitors expected. But they can only do so much.
Visitors should come prepared. It would be great if they can spend a little money to help the town defray its costs — buy a t-shirt, a grilled hamburger, watch the eclipse from inside the fairgrounds, etc., but keep in mind that there are no Wal-Marts, Walgreens or 7-11s around. Those are 30 miles to the south in North Platte.
Respect private property and don’t trespass. Dispose of cigarette butts properly. It’s a dry country.
All that being said, it should be worth the trip and the advanced planning.
For many, this will serve as an introduction to traveling on beautiful Highway 83 in Nebraska and the alluring and stunning Sand Hills.
A total solar eclipse is said to be a near spiritual event and for most — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Experiencing it in the wide-open Sand Hills will be amazing.

Friday August 18

Noon - Craft Fair and Flea Market
7:30pm - Logan County Rodeo: $15/Adults, $5/Ages 6 - 11
Saturday August 19
7:30am - 5K Eclipse Run/Walk: $25/person
8:00am - 11:00am - Pork Breakfast at the Fairgrounds
10am - 6pm - Craft Fair and Flea Market
Entertainment throughout the day: For young and old alike, games and activities for kids
2pm - Parade in downtown Stapleton
Food Vendors - On site throughout the day
6pm - Mutton Bustin' and Chicken Scramble for kids ages 3-15 at the Fairgrounds
7:30pm - Logan County Rodeo: $15/Adults, $5/Ages 6-11
8:00pm - 1:00am - Street dance and beer garden in downtown Stapleton, $10/person
Sunday August 20
9am - non-denomination church service at the fairgrounds
10am - 5pm - Craft fair and flea market
Noon - Working Ranch Rodeo at the Fairgrounds: $3/person
Food Vendors - On site throughout the day
Sundown (approximately 8:30) - Eclipse Presentation by Derryl Barr
Monday August 21
Eclipse viewing at the Logan County Fairgrounds! $10/person, ages 5 and under free. Includes viewing glasses, water bottle and entry into the "After the Eclipse" Bash.
Craft fair and flea market, food vendors on site throughout the day.

Join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 Facebook page HERE.

Stew Magnuson is the author of the Highway 83 Chronicles, a series of three books about history and life found along U.S. Route 83. The final book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83 in Texas was released in March 2017 and follows The Last American Highway: The Dakotas, and The Last American Highway: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma, edition.
All three are available ONLINE or in bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83.
For signed copies or retail opportunities contact him HERE

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Costner, Brando and Tom Hanks: A Cinematic History of U.S. Highway 83


U.S. Highway 83 — cutting right down the middle of the nation and traveling 1,885 miles from the Canadian border all the way to Mexico — might seem as far away from Hollywood as it gets. The movie industry has come to Highway 83, though. Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn, Kevin Costner, Tom Hanks and Dianne Wiest — all Academy Award winning actors — are among those who have filmed movies in the communities or lands along the Last American Highway.
Here is a cinematic history of U.S. Route 83.

Dances With Wolves. The most honored movie to be filmed near Highway 83 is undoubtedly 1990’s Dances With Wolves, the first Western to win the Academy Award for best picture since 1931. One buffalo hunting scene as well as the Fort Sedgewick scenes were filmed at the Triple U Buffalo Ranch near the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.
Those were the days before computer generated imagery took over and the buffalo hunting scene was reportedly one of the hardest to pull off, according to a June 14, 2014 article in the Capital Journal, which looked back at the 25th anniversary of the film.
Several extras and experts in the Lakota language were recruited to work on the film from the Rosebud Reservation, which also sits on Highway 83.
Dances with Wolves introduced filmmakers to the beauty of prairies and blue skies that go as far as the eye can see,” the article said.

Casey Tibbs
Born to Buck. In 1967, rodeo superstar turned Hollywood actor and stuntman Casey Tibbs needed to move a herd of horses off a nearby Indian reservation. He hit on the idea to make a documentary about the trail drive. He wanted to show audiences raised on phony TV westerns the “real West,” while using the beautiful South Dakota prairie as a backdrop. Tibbs was well known in Hollywood (He dated actress Katherine Ross for two years), but couldn’t secure funding. Using his own money he hired a film crew to follow a trail drive, according to the biography Casey Tibbs: Born to Ride by Rusty Richards. He had his pal Henry Fonda provide the narration. Tibbs doubled for Fonda and appeared with him in the move The Rounders. The trail drive ended with a rodeo sequence in Fort Pierre. The independent film did quite well financially and is still available today on DVD. The Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center in Fort Pierre is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its release this year. A documentary about Tibbs’ life, Floating Horses, is currently making the rounds at film festivals.
Independence Day. Don’t confuse this movie filmed in Anson, Texas, in 1983 with the 1996 alien invasion blockbuster. It is instead a little remembered gem from the 1980s with a cast of actors who would go on to great careers. Anson stands in for an Arizona town. The movie is a realistic study of small town life that avoids Hollywood stereotypes about those who choose to live their lives in such communities. Its characters ring true. Look quick for the Highway 83 sign in the opening credits. Several scenes were filmed on the road or along it. Anson’s charming town square is in several scenes and one of the main characters lives in an apartment overlooking the highway. Dianne Wiest would soon star in Hannah and Her Sisters, for which she won an Oscar. She was overlooked in this role as a battered housewife. For years, this movie was only available on VHS, but last year it was rereleased on DVD. Worth seeking out! 
Anthony Quinn and Marlon Brando
Viva Zapata! Legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan knew he was up against the clock. He had the money to make a movie about the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, but had to get it done before the studio bosses changed their minds. This was 1952 and the McCarthy Era when movies about socialist revolutionaries were frowned upon, especially in Mexico, which wouldn’t let him film there. But he discovered Roma, Texas, where the historic 19th century buildings by the Rio Grande provided the perfect backdrop. He signed Marlon Brando to play the title character. Brando was little known to movie audiences, but during production the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire came out, and he would soon be a star. Co-star Anthony Quinn — playing Zapata’s brother — was the only major cast member who had Mexican roots.
The cast stayed in a hotel in Mission, Texas, and had to travel in an unconditioned station wagon to Roma on Highway 83 every day in full costume and makeup. The trip on 83 was even longer for two scenes filmed near another 83 town, San Ygnacio. Quinn would win a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance. Brando and screenwriter John Steinbeck were nominated.

Cast Away. Highway 83 was portrayed in the 2000 movie starring Tom Hanks. How did Highway 83 end up in a movie about a FedEx executive stranded in the middle of the Pacific? SPOILER ALERT! He gets off the island. (It’s a 17-year-old movie, don’t get mad at me!) At the end of the film he reaches a real and figurative crossroads in the Texas panhandle. The mystery woman he meets on a lonely stretch of highway identifies the road as 83 and says if he heads north, there’s a “whole lot of nothing.’” Obviously I disagree with that statement.
However, that’s not actually Highway 83. In the background, viewers can clearly see Texas Farm-to-Market signs, not federal Highway 83 signs. However, the scene was filmed in Hemphill County at the intersection of FMs 48 and 1268. Interestingly, the first book ever written about Highway 83 was by photographer Maarten Laupman and writer Rob Daniels from The Netherlands. They took that phrase and named their book, “A Whole Lot of Nothin.” Link to an article about the book HERE.

Some famous film actors who hail from towns along Highway 83 include: Matthew McConaughey and Dale Evans, both born in Uvalde, Texas. Singer/actor Kris Kristofferson was born and raised in Brownsville, Texas. He stars in a new movie, Hickok, about the famous gunslinger, which is out on July 7. And if you saw the recent animated movie Cars 3, you heard the voice of Cristela Alonzo portraying Cruz Ramirez. She is from a small town near Highway 83 in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Hidalgo.

Stew Magnuson is the author of the Highway 83 Chronicles, a series of three books about history and life found along U.S. Route 83. The final book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83 in Texas was released in March 2017 and follows The Last American Highway: The Dakotas, and The Last American Highway: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma, edition.
All three are available ONLINE or in bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83.
For signed copies or retail opportunities contact him HERE.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

Life and Death on Highway 83

Roadside memorial on Highway 83, Seward County, Kansas
It’s not uncommon to be driving along Highway 83 and to spot a roadside memorial with plastic flowers — and perhaps a wreath — marking where a deadly accident took place.
Friends and families place these memorials at the last place on Earth where their loved ones were alive. In South Dakota, the state places permanent “Think” signs at these spots when driving while under the influence, or without a seatbelt, are involved.
On my travels, I have sometimes pulled over to take pictures of these memorials, shaken off the prairie dust, put that vases upright and wondered about what happened there.
While I love Highway 83, these roadside markers are a constant reminder that it is a place of heartbreak for some.
I have kicked around the idea for this column for eight years, but never gotten around to writing it. I decided that it was time. That’s because Highway 83 made national news the other week, and for all the wrong reasons. Thirteen people lost their lives when a truck slammed into a van driving home elderly members of a church in Texas’ Hill Country. It is alleged that the driver of the truck was texting at the time.
The week before, some poor soul on the road between Anson, Texas, and Abilene decided that life was no longer worth living. He got out of his car and walked into a semi in an apparent suicide.
Since I have the search terms “Highway 83” set on Google, I see all of these tragedies on this road in my news feed. There are sadly, too many to mention in this column.
As someone who has kept tabs on this over the years, I urge everyone to be especially careful on Highway 83 from Interstate 70 on south through Garden City and Liberal. Locals have been asking lawmakers in Topeka for years to improve this dangerous stretch of road. But their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The number of 18-wheelers and cars on this hazardous stretch is growing and it’s a crying shame nothing has been done about it.
Hughes County, South Dakota
Highway 83 from Laredo south to where the expressway begins near Mission was also once notorious, but I was glad to see that improvements were being made to the road the last time I passed through in December 2015.
Making a road wider isn’t always a guarantee that it will be safer, though. I was in the emergency room at a hospital in Bismarck (for a non-life threatening case of poison ivy, not an accident). The ER nurse, after hearing about my project, told me that they saw a lot of car-wreck survivors from the four-lane section of Highway 83 that runs from Minot to Bismarck. That surprised me. The fact that drivers are allowed make left turns onto side roads was the culprit, she said. They go to make a turn and don’t see or misjudge oncoming traffic. They lucky ones make it to her.
Tragedy struck my extended family as well when a cousin driving under the influence of prescription painkillers on Highway 83 north of North Platte wrecked the car, killing her daughter and causing severe injury to her granddaughter.
Depressing. But Highway 83 is no different in these regards than any other road. Last year marked the highest death toll recorded on America’s roads in more than a decade with about 40,000 losing their lives in accidents. Overlooked are those who suffered serious injuries in car accidents: 4.6 million over the course of 12 months, according to the National Safety Council.
But I see other stories in my newsfeed. Some are more heartening.
The first was September 22, 2009, when Jennie Goodwin was rushing to the hospital in Minot with her birth coach behind the wheel, according to the Minot Daily News. Her daughter Mollie made her appearance on Highway 83. The official birth took place in the hospital parking lot.
A pregnant Sheila Nobles was traveling with family from Orange, Texas, to North Platte. Nebraska on December 2, 2010, but had the OK from her doctor to make the trip because her due date was still a ways off, according to the North Platte Telegraph. She started having abdominal cramps when they crossed the Nebraska border. By the time they reached Prairie Mart south of North Platte, the pain became unbearable and her mother pulled over. While in the restroom, Sheila became incapacitated. Her mother got the key from the store manager and entered in time to catch the baby falling out. She named the girl Isabella.
Lynda Oldenkamp approached me after I gave a presentation about Highway 83 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She was born on Highway 83 in 1948.
She later emailed me details of the story: “I was born in the back seat of an uncle’s car on December 20, 1948 on the way from Murdo to the Pierre hospital.  My folks’ car was broken down so they had planned to use my uncle’s car when it was time to get to the hospital in Pierre. 
“It was Saturday night when I decided to start the labor pains, and my dad had to go find my uncle who had gone out for the night with his car so that delayed their start to Pierre. They/we didn’t make it and had to stop about 18 miles south of Pierre on the older/original road for the delivery.”
And that is life and death on Highway 83.

Stew Magnuson is the author of the Highway 83 Chronicles, a series of three books about history and life found along U.S. Route 83. The final book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83 in Texas was released in March 2017 and follows The Last American Highway: The Dakotas, and The Last American Highway: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma, edition.
All three are available ONLINE or in bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83.
For signed copies or retail opportunities contact him HERE.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Highway 83 In Texas Book Now Available

U.S. Route 83 is like no other highway in Texas. It extends from its northernmost border at Oklahoma, passes through the ranchlands and oil patches of the Panhandle, hits a big speed bump in Hill Country, then follows the Rio Grande Valley all the way to Brownsville.
Award-winning author Stew Magnuson set out in 2009 to chronicle the past and present along this historically rich highway, traveling its length in May 2010 with the idea to publish a book about what he discovered. Like Highway 83 itself, it was a long road that took nearly eight years, but it ended on March 27 with the publication of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83 in Texas.
Magnuson calls The Last American Highway in Texas a hybrid history-travel book.
“Every town has a story to tell,” he says.
A massacre in Menard marked the beginning of the end for the Spanish Empire in America. Wellington is where the notorious criminals Bonnie and Clyde sent their car careening into the Red River. On a ranch just east of Brownsville, Ranger “Rip” Ford led the charge at the final battle of the Civil War.
Magnuson uncovers the stories of the famous, the infamous and the forgotten as he explores a road like no other in America.
The Last American Highway in Texas is available on and bookstores and gift shops along the highway.
Over the past eight years, Magnuson has carved out a place as the foremost expert on the fifth longest federal highway that runs 1,885 miles from the Canadian border to Mexico. He founded and administers the Fans of U.S. Route 83 page on Facebook, which now has more than 3,300 members. His website serves as a place for travel tips for those who want to explore the road. He writes the Highway 83 Chronicles blog about current events.
He successfully published two previous books about the road, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83:The Dakotas and; The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma. He has appeared on South Dakota Public Television and Nebraska Public Television, and done dozens of book talks and radio spots extolling the pleasures of traveling what was once called the Great Plains Highway.
Magnuson is also the author of The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns. Published by Texas Tech University Press, it was named the 2009 Nebraska Nonfiction book of the year, a finalist for the Center of Great Plains Studies book of the year, and was recently named one of the Nebraska’s 150 most important literary works to mark the state’s sesquicentennial this year. He also penned Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding, a brief account of the Wounded Knee occupation.  
The Last American Highway in Texas is also sold at: Prairie Pages, Pierre, SD; PLains Trading Co., Valentine, NE;  Kimber's Convenience Store, Stapleton, NE; A to Z Books, North Platte, NE; Buffalo Bill Cultural Center, Oakley, KS; Keystone Gallery, Scott City, KS; El Quartelejo Museum, Scott City, KS; Finney County Historical Museum, Garden City, KS; Museum of the Plains, Perryton, Texas; Gageby Country Store, Canadian, Texas; Texas Star Trading, Abilene, Texas and Frontier Texas! in Abilene.
For signed copies or retail opportunities, Email Stew Magnuson HERE.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Proposed Sand Hills Wind Turbines Pose Threat to Endangered Cranes

Whooping cranes. Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
 Who in the Sand Hills hasn’t heard the otherworldly sound of a flock of cranes as they slowly make their way south in the fall? Shading one’s eyes and looking up, one can see the silhouettes of the Sandhill cranes as they use the thermal drafts and southerly winds to migrate through Nebraska.
This may be a sight the people of Cherry, Thomas and Logan Counties will only be able to tell their grandchildren about if the plan moves forward to populate the region with wind turbines.
A careful reading of two government-funded reports on the effects of wind turbines placed in the paths of North America’s two crane species—the sandhill crane and the endangered whooping crane—spells out the possible fate of these birds in the counties along Highway 83.
The first, a 2009 report produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, describes the dangers to the delicate whooping crane population, which at last count in February 2015 numbered only 442 wild birds.
“The principal known cause of loss [of whooping cranes] during migration is collision with utility lines … Additional power line construction throughout the principal migration corridor will increase the potential for collision mortalities,” the report said. 
“Based on the known threat of wind turbines to other migratory birds, and to their large body size and low maneuverability, it is reasonable to expect that whooping cranes could be killed by turbine blades, given the number of existing and proposed wind turbines within the … migration corridor,” the report said.
Cranes fly at about 1,000 to 6,000 feet so at first glance, there seems to be little risk for collision until one takes into account the many different scenarios where mortality can occur: when they are ascending and descending, when they occasionally fly at night, in poor weather and when searching for wetlands to rest. (Wetlands are found throughout Cherry County.)
Further, there was some evidence in the 2009 report that the birds may adjust to the existence of wind farms. In other words, they will begin to fly miles out of the way to avoid the towers. They then end up in stopover areas that they do not normally use. That puts them at risk of exhaustion, predators and so on.
The sandhill crane was used in this report as a stand-in species because of the whooping cranes’ small numbers.
Six years after this report, another produced this year by the U.S. Geological Survey said there was further research backing up this behavior.
Wind farm south of Minot, ND along Highway 83. By Stew Magnuson
That report, “Wintering Sandhill Crane exposure to wind energy development in the central and southern Great Plains, USA,” at first glance seemed to be good news to windmill proponents, as it found only a 6 percent overlap between the more common cranes and wind farms. That is until you drilled down and got beyond the headline. The future is much less certain.
Six years of research since the 2009 report found more evidence that cranes may begin to take different paths miles out of their normal routes to avoid turbine blades, the report said. This should be alarming to the people of Kearney and Grand Island. UNL's Bureau of Business Research in a report this spring found that the bird watchers who come to the Platte River valley to see the annual migrations in spring and fall contribute $10.33 million yearly into the state’s economy. One wonders how these legions of birders will feel about the State of Nebraska when the first report of a flock of sandhill cranes is found dead underneath a wind turbine — or even more horrifying, whooping cranes. Can anyone claim it will never happen?
Yes six percent doesn’t seem like a lot, but the Geological Survey report only studied existing wind farms. The placing of windmills as far as the eye can see in the Sand Hills was not included in this report.
“A continuation of this seeming compatibility of wintering cranes and wind energy development will depend upon the placement of future towers in locations not highly preferred by cranes,” the U.S. Geological Survey report clearly said.
Here are some other points from the 2009 Fish and Wildlife study.
“Wind farms should not be built near traditional whooping crane stopover locations, and should be placed as far away from the centerline of the whooping crane migration corridor as feasible. Wind farms should not be constructed in areas within a wetland mosaic suitable for whooping cranes to use,” it stated.
Let me spell it out for those who are not from the area: Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.
I keep staring at the maps I’m finding online that tracked GPS-banded whooping cranes and their migration routes and wondering how these projects can go forward. And in Custer County? That’s even closer to the paths. 
And here is something for those investing in these projects to chew on.
“If a whooping crane were to be killed by a wind turbine, [Fish & Wildlife] could request that the wind farm cease operations during all or portions of the spring and fall whooping crane migration periods.”
It continued: “Companies should factor in the scenario of a possible required cessation of operations when selecting a wind farm site.”
The arguments I’ve heard from windmill proponents that housecats kill millions of birds is irrelevant and sad. Besides, I’d like to see the house cat that can take down North America’s tallest birds. Unfortunately, cranes are no match for these windmill monstrosities.
The issue of wind farms in the Nebraska Sand Hills has not yet gone beyond “Not in My Backyard,” or NIMBYism. But it’s time that the citizens downstate and the millions of birders around the world understand what may be in store for these magnificent creatures if these projects go forward.

Stew Magnuson is a proud Nebraskan residing in Arlington, Virginia, whose family roots are in the Sand Hills.  He is the author of two editions of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83. His book The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder, past winner of the Nebraska nonfiction book of the year award, was recently named one of the state's 150 most important literary works. Contact him at stewmag (a)

Friday, August 5, 2016

Two New Photos of DeWitty Emerge: What Message Do They Have For Us?

Courtesy of Sharon Hughes

 Earlier this year, some 200 people gathered on the side of the Highway 83 in Cherry County to dedicate a new roadside historical marker commemorating DeWitty, Nebraska.
DeWitty, also known as Audacious, was the longest lasting and most successful African-American rural settlement in Nebraska, and was spread out in the Sand Hills along the North Loup River west of Highway 83. It lasted from about 1906 to the mid-1930s.
Within its 184 words, the marker mentions the close relationship between the black settlers and their white neighbors, which included the town of Brownlee. (For the complete text of the marker, scroll down to the end of the blog.)
As a result of the publicity surrounding the campaign to install the marker, two previously unpublished photos have emerged that confirm much of what authors such as myself have been saying about life back then in the Sand Hills: despite racial differences that were then plaguing the wider world, pretty much everybody in the Sand Hills got along fine.    
The marker reads: “On Independence Day, residents of DeWitty and nearby Brownlee would come together for a rodeo, baseball game and picnic.”
A few weeks ago, Helen White of Thedford, Nebraska, passed on a photo that a friend Sharon Hughes had found recently in a shoebox full of pictures. Hughes’ family once lived nearby DeWitty, north of Seneca, although she now resides in Grand Island.
The photo says “Ballgame at Brownlee, July 4, ‘14.” (The “4” is cut off on the image but it is also written on back.
For the first time, we have a photograph of one of these Independence Day activities. There are at least two known photos of DeWitty men dressed in their baseball uniforms, but in this photo we actually see a game being played. The DeWitty team was known as the North Loup Sluggers.
There is a lot to be gleaned from this picture.
Courtesy of Catherine Meehan Blount
Ron Lee, a Brownlee resident, whose family has been in the town since its founding, has passed the photo around to other residents, and the consensus is that the game took place on a field northwest of the town, close to where the paved Brownlee road is now. The church steeple near the baseball player’s elbow is a clue, but also caused some confusion. That church was apparently torn down or moved later in the decade and its replacement is configured differently. There is some disagreement among residents, Lee said, however, the spot northwest of town is where the town’s oral history indicates that rodeos and ballgames took place.
With all the backs turned away from the camera, identifying individuals with certainty is nearly impossible. Catherine Meehan Blount thinks the man (second from the left) might be her grandfather, the white Irish-Canadian Charles Meehan, because he  enjoyed smoking a pipe. Meehan, with his black wife, Hester Freeman, were one of DeWitty’s first residents. The tale of this interracial couple is just one of the many fascinating stories about this unique settlement.
Two men down from the man smoking a pipe, another fellow is wearing chaps. Was he participating in the rodeo later? Another charming part of the picture is the horse sticking its nose in the frame on the right — an early example of photobombing!
As for the baseball game itself, the most prominent player, or perhaps a base coach, is holding up two fingers. It’s hard to see him among the crowd, but there appears to be a batter with his hands in at his waist, warming up to hit. Is he reminding the batter that there are two strikes or perhaps two outs? And if he is batting, that sure is a dangerous spot to be a spectator. There appears to be at least two other players in uniform in the crowd, one walking behind the batter and another with his arms crossed. We also see the leg of another player on the far left. Is that a pitcher winding up? There are two white spots in the grass, one close between the two spectators on the left, and another one closer to the edge of the far crowd. It would appear that the closer one is third base and the farther one first base, but then where is the pitcher, first baseman, third baseman and so on for the opposing team? So maybe this interpretation is wrong: those aren’t bases, the man isn’t batting but is a center fielder and the figure on the left is an infielder.
In any case, we have a picture of the North Loup Sluggers playing baseball, and the two communities coming together in celebration of Independence Day.
DeWitty descendants at the marker dedication
The communities coming together is a reminder of what happened on April 11 this year — almost 102 years after this photo was taken — when eighteen descendants of the DeWitty settlers came from six different states to dedicate the historical marker. They flew or drove from Delaware, Virginia, Colorado, California, New York and eastern Nebraska to honor the memory of their ancestors. Descendants of the Meehans, Browns, Rileys, Walkers and even DeWittys, the first postmaster for whom the town was named, traveled to see the marker. There to greet them were some 180 Nebraskans, including two TV crews, a reporter from the Stapleton Enterprise-Thomas County Herald, State Senator Al Davis, and representatives from the Nebraska State Historical Society, and the Cherry and Thomas County Historical Societies. 
Overflow crowd at the Brownlee Community Hall
When the baseball picture was taken, Brownlee had about 100 residents. Today, a sign says “Population, 20, or so.” But the tiny community, which includes nearby ranchers, went all out to welcome anyone who came, inviting them to a potluck lunch at the town’s community hall. More than 100 people came to eat the lunch and hear a presentation from Humanities Nebraska speaker Vicki Harris, an expert on Nebraska’s black settlers, traveled from Arizona just for the presentation. It was a homecoming as well for Brownlee descendants such as the White family, whose old family general store still stands.
Later, Don Hanna, a local rancher, who now owns most of the property where DeWitty residents once lived, was gracious enough to take descendants on a tour to the remote DeWitty sites, which are inaccessible to the public. Part of the tour was a stop at a small graveyard, where about eight DeWitty pioneers are resting.     
The second unpublished photo was passed on to me about a year ago from Ron Lee. It
Courtesy of Ron Lee
portrays two boys, Merrill “Jim” Lee and Claude Conrad of DeWitty, sitting on the porch of the Lee ranch house in 1918.
They were by all accounts good buddies. Several of the one-room schoolhouses west of Brownlee were integrated and schoolmates ended up being lifelong friends. One of the DeWitty descendants, Goldie Walker-Hayes, remained in Cherry County long after the DeWitty settlement disappeared, and taught in these schools.
When it comes to race relations in America, the nation has endured much pain along with many triumphs in the years after these two photos were taken. It would take more than three decades before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues. Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, which lead to desegregation of schools, didn’t happen for another 40 years. Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws forbidding interracial marriage, came only in 1967.  
No one can say that the residents of DeWitty never encountered prejudice while living there, it’s just that we have very little evidence of it in the historical record. Instead, we have in the depths of the Sand Hills — a land back then mostly cut off from the wider world — the story of DeWitty and Brownlee, people getting along fine and leaning on each other when needed, an interracial couple, desegregated schools and folks coming together to enjoy a holiday celebration.
These people, now just images frozen in time, kept shoe boxes for a century, have come back to deliver a message to us. Let’s listen to them.

Stew Magnuson will give a presentation about Highway 83 and DeWitty, Thursday, Sept. 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha, located in Crossroads Mall. Free and open to the public!

 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, which has a chapter about DeWitty. 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, June 21, 2016

The Hunter: An Excerpt from The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83 in Texas

This excerpt takes place in May 2010 in the Rio Grande Valley.  

The Hunter
By Stew Magnuson

On my way out of Zapata the next day, I set out to find the ruins of a gas station that was once on Highway 83 before the Falcon Dam inundated the valley.
A souvenir store owner had tipped me off about the building, which he said was near on old fishing camp about five miles west of 83. He gave me detailed directions on how to find it, so after driving a few miles I left the comfort of the paved highway and took off on a gravel road, getting lost for a bit, but eventually righting myself until I come across the fishing camp.
I can’t find anything resembling an old gas station so I start to drive through the ramshackle collection of aging campers and mobile homes shaded by gnarly old trees. It’s not long before an old man in a red pickup truck intercepts me near a boat ramp. He rolls down the window.
“What ya looking for?” he asks. He looks a little miffed, and I realize that maybe I shouldn’t be here.
I tell him my story and he listens carefully as we both get out of our vehicles. He sizes me up and decides that I’m not a threat. They have been having all sorts of problems with drug smugglers and for all he knew, I could have been someone here to meet a boat full of dope coming over the lake, he explains. They have been known to fly helicopters over the border to see if the coast is clear.
“People round here sleep with their guns loaded by their beds,” he says.
His name in Jack Cox Jr., and his father once owned the fishing camp, which has been here for some fifty years. The old gas station is just a few yards past the camp entrance and over a fence. It’s marked “No Trespassing,” but it shouldn’t be a problem if I just want to hop over and snap a few pictures, he tells me.
Since I introduced myself as an author, he wants to know what I’ve written. It just so happens I have copies of my first book in the trunk, and he wants to buy one.
“There ain’t much to do out here except read,” he says.
Jack Cox Jr., May 2010
There are only three full-time residents in the camp, and he’s one of them. He sold the property four years ago, but part of the deal with the new owner was that he could stay there for five years rent free.
He invites me back to his house for a cup of coffee.
Out front of the white mobile home, I’m greeted by a shaggy white dog and a friendly cat, who has just brought Jack a dead bird as a present.
Inside, the mobile home is not what I expected. It is decorated with African art: masks, textiles, carvings.
“I managed a hunting camp in Somalia on the Jubba River for five years,” he declares.
“You did what, now?”
I’m glad I grabbed my notebook.
Jack takes a seat in a chair, while I sit on his sofa and fumble for a pen. He’s eighty-one years old, he tells me. Fox News is on mute. I would expect an elderly widower’s mobile home to be a mess. The room is cluttered, but clean. His coffee table is covered in magazines: The Weekly Standard, National Geographic, Smithsonian. He tries to peg me as a liberal, Washington, D.C.-based journalist. I tell him I’m a radical centrist. That seems to confuse him.
“It means I’m in the middle and I get to argue with everybody.”
Fortunately, the conversation turns away from politics and to his days as a big game guide.
“I was an elephant hunter and a safari guide,” he continues, first giving me a quick version of his life story.
He grew up in Midland, Texas, where he was a friend of Larry L. King, who would go on to be a journalist, author and the co-writer of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Like many in that area, Jack joined the oil business and worked for Rogers Exploration as a “seismic man.” The company sent him to Australia, Tanzania, Brazil and Bolivia for years-long stints.
He married twice, both times to Australian women. His second wife died fifteen years ago. He is still in contact with his first. Back when he was a young man in Midland, he was in love with a high school classmate. But a fighter pilot from the nearby Air Force base stole her away. A lifetime later, the Air Force officer passed away, and Jack and his long-lost love are at last together. She lives in Sweetwater, Texas, and he travels there quite a bit to see her. She hates the fishing camp.
“I got her in the end,” he says with a smile.
He doesn’t mention any children, and I forget to ask. Some kind of journalist, I am.
He was in Tanzania working for the oil company when the opportunity to run the hunting camp in Somalia presented itself.
He pushes himself up from the chair, walks to another room and returns with an album.
Inside, is an envelope, and inside the envelope is a brochure for the camp. It’s fifty years old, but it looks like it was printed yesterday. He was there from the late 1950s to the early 1960s—back when well-heeled men could live out their Hemingway safari fantasies—for a price.
He shows me black and white pictures of the kills.
“My first lion,” is written in pen on the edges of one. Jack and some other fellow is squatting next to a lioness, holding her mouth open, smiling. Jack is young, his black hair slicked back, a broad, handsome face. It’s startling to see him as a young man.
“Those were good times,” he said, showing me another picture of two guests he identifies as members of the Kennedy administration.
“And the women …” he trails off. Smiles. I can see that he’s remembering one of them, maybe more. I don’t dare interrupt his reverie.
“I closed up many bars in Nairobi,” he continues as I look at a series of pictures of dead elephants, gazelles and such. That was back when the Italians ran Somalia. Once the colonialists left, the “whole country went to shit,” he says. That was the end of the hunting lodge on the Jubba River. He went back to being a seismic man for the oil companies, although he did spend a couple years trying to grow cotton in Australia.
“Money never was the thing, you see. But I wish I had saved just a little bit more of it.”
He’s heading up to Sweetwater that day to see his “lady friend,” as he calls her, so it’s time for me to go. He really wants me to see the old gas station before I leave. So we head back outside where he lets me take a few pictures of him as the cat curls around his leg.
“It’s been a good life. I’m not a religious man, but I wonder what the adventure is on the other side.”
*    *   *



Well, Jack said it’s no problem. So I climb over the fence where the signs are hung and walk a few feet back among to find what remains of old Highway 83 and a gas station.
The filling station is a yellowish-pinkish shell. It looks as if the waters have come up several times to wash away everything but its walls. The roof is gone, but a beam that once held it up to keep the sun and rain off motorists filling up at the pumps still stands. Someone else has ignored the sign and taken potshots at the beam, leaving a half-dozen bullet holes in the concrete. Mesquite and prickly pear are growing around it.
The old road itself is gravel and disappears into the vegetation. I poke around for any relics from the old days—an old bottle, a sign—there’s nothing but pieces of corrugated steel. A cluster of cactus bulbs has somehow taken hold on top of the wall. I wonder how it can do that.
I imagine the gas station in its heyday. If it ever had one. It was unattached to a town—a good ten miles away from any of the now submerged villages. I see the cars pulling up for gas and water on hot days, parents yanking Coke bottles out of the pop machine for their kids, the attendant wiping the dust and bug juice off the windshields.
Included in the $47 million the federal government spent to construct the Falcon Dam was $3.5 million allocated to improve fifty-five miles of Highway 83, and to relocate several miles of it to the north. The Texas State Highway Department did the work. The unflooded sections of the road and bridges were widened from eighteen to twenty-four feet and graded to eliminate the “rollercoaster effect,” as one newspaper described it. Care was taken to construct the new sections far to the north beyond where the lake was expected to rise. Work was finished before the dam was dedicated in 1953. Slowly, the Rio Grande waters swallowed up the villages and the old highway. I wonder if they left any of those old federal shield signs standing. I can picture bass swimming around them now.
One of the first dry spells after the dam was built exposed the five abandoned villages and their buildings. The feds decided that the structures were hazardous and bulldozed them, leaving nothing but foundations. Yet the gas station sitting out here survived.   
Taking a picture of the highway as it emerges from the mesquite, I notice there are car tracks in the gravel. I doubt the ghosts of old U.S. Route 83 left them there, so I’m not going to push my luck with the Border Patrol, a drug smuggler, or whoever has been driving back here. I don’t linger.

This encounter with Jack Cox Jr. occurred in May 2010. A little more than a year later, my attempts to reach him failed. His phone was disconnected and a letter came back to me “Return to Sender. No Forwarding Address.” Attempts to track him down online have come up empty. If anyone knows the whereabouts or fate of Jack, please contact me. 

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83 in Texas, available at the Gageby Country Store in Canadian, Texas, The Museum of the Plains in Perryton and Texas Star Trading in Abilene. He also penned 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)