Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ode to the Small Town Water Tower

“If you have ever hauled a can of paint to the top of a water tower to defend your sister’s honor, you might be a redneck.”
— Jeff Foxworthy

It is often the first — or perhaps the second thing one sees after grain elevators — when cresting a hill on Highway 83 as one arrives in small town. I’m speaking of course, of the water tower.
Last month, on the Fans of U.S. Route 83 page on Facebook I began posting a series of photos, called “The Water Towers of Highway 83.” I have done a few photo series over the years on the page derived from the thousands of pictures I’ve taken along the road — “Highway 83 at Night;” “A Troll’s Eye View of Highway 83” (pictures taken from under bridges), and “Businesses Named after Highway 83,” but I have never had the enthusiastic reaction from the members as I did with the water towers. I had lots of “Likes” and comments on the pictures, and many posted photos of their own favorites.
I have to confess that while I took pictures of dozens of them on my Route 83 travels, I hadn’t given them too much thought.
And so poking around the web to do some further research, I have learned a thing or two. I wondered if there was some book about the topic written for people such as myself. So far, I have come up empty. A search on and the Library of Congress catalog showed only works written for the civil engineering crowd.
I did find a wonderful sight simply named It doesn’t say who created it, but he or she sure is passionate about the subject. The trivia section does a good job of explaining their purpose. Basically, they are supposed to hold enough water to last a day during an emergency. And so in larger towns like Oberlin (pictured above), they are big and fat. Small towns like Agar, S.D., (pop. 76) get by with lower capacity tanks.

They get drained in the morning when everyone is taking a shower and flushing toilets. They fill back up at night when all are asleep. They rely on gravity to do their job, which is why they are elevated. (That doesn’t explain this height-challenged one in Mound City, S.D. pictured below.)
And so they, of course, serve a very practical purpose. But I don’t think that is why the photo series was so popular. I suspect they have a special place in the hearts of those who grew up in small towns as a perpetual presence in their lives.
The one I grew up with was in Stapleton, Neb., along Highway 83, where I would go to visit my grandparents in the summers. It is the classic, conical shape water tower with little hat on top, a bit like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. I do remember occasionally seeing graffiti spray-painted on there in the 1970s, as described by the comedian Jeff Foxworthy in the above quote.
A water tower is a landmark like no other, especially in the flatlands found along Highway 83. It is only rivaled by the grain elevators. But not every town has grain elevators while almost every one has a water tower. Almost all have the town’s name displayed for the travelers who may not know here they are. Some like Aspermont, Texas, paint the high school mascot as a point of town pride (The Hornets).
Two of my Highway 83 favorites feature celebrities: Popeye is on view at Crystal City, Texas, which is known for its spinach. San Benito, Texas, pays tribute to its native son, the late singer Freddy Fender.
But I think my favorite is one of the newest built along the road. It is found near the border of Rosebud Reservation and Nebraska in the new Sicangu Village tribal housing development.
“Water is Life,” it reads.
For the communities along Highway 83 on the Great Plains, South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, truer words were never spoken.

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



Stew Magnuson is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Q&A With Dutch Photographer Maarten Laupman: Co-Author of the First Book About Highway 83


It might surprise many to know that the first book devoted to Highway 83 is written in Dutch. In 2007, photographer Maarten Laupman and writer Rob Daniels, two men from the Netherlands, traveled the length of U.S Route 83 starting in Texas and working their way north until 83 ends at Swan River, Manitoba. The result is “Route 83: A Whole Lot of Nothing,” published in 2010. It is beautifully designed and photographed. (As for Daniels’s writing, sadly I can’t read Dutch. But I am sure it is wonderfully written as well.) Laupman answered some questions for The Highway 83 Chronicles about the project via email from his home in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Some of his photos from the trip are featured below.

So tell me, how did a couple of Dutch guys hear about Highway 83 and decide to travel its entire length? And what attracted you to this project?

Browsing in Life magazine and National Geographic as a kid in the 1950's in the Netherlands, and later through the photography of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, I always wanted to travel in the rural parts of America.
I first went to the states in 1978 as a tourist, and saw quite a bit, but mostly the big cities. In 1979, I got a scholarship to do my MFA in Photography at York University, Toronto. While there I met a guy who came from Kansas. We became great friends and in 1992, years later, I went to see his parents who still lived there in Wellington, Kan. Circling the town in ever widening trips, I discovered it was a great thing to do: get on and off roads and visit places — sometimes just because they had interesting names. Though most was done in Kansas, I saw quite a bit of Oklahoma as well. That rural, desolate “has been” feeling attracted me.
In 1999 I went again, this time to Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. I was on my own, and met some people once in a while but enjoyed being in my own road movie. [Pictured above, right: Sublette, Kan].
There on a fateful afternoon in Thedford, Neb., I met a Mexican truck driver, who was using his truck's hubcap for BBQ purposes. He told me he had come up on 83 because it was such an easy road. Later, I looked up the whole road and became obsessed with it until I met someone who wanted to travel the entire road with me as a writer. Rob Daniels is a journalist whom I’ve worked with quite a bit. He thought it was an exciting idea and that's how it started.

How did you manage the logistics? In other words, where did you fly into and how did you get to Swan River?
We flew to Houston in April 2007, then drove on to Harlingen, Texas, and rented an Impala (with a crack in the windshield). We drove all the way to Swan River, Manitoba, then back to Minot were we left the car at the rental place. Most companies didn't like that but this one had no objections. From there we flew back to Amsterdam. It took us roughly two weeks to do the whole trip. We spent a whole weekend in Mobridge, S.D., to catch up with the writing.

What are some of your favorite places along the road?
Hard to say. I enjoyed most of the trip. North Platte surprised me in having such a nice old town center, with a theatre and a very interesting second-hand bookstore. [A to Z Books?] [Pictured right: Downtown North Platte].

What surprised you about the trip?
We were very well versed in the culture, music and art and knew quite a bit on that front. We were surprised most locals didn't know all that much. For example, in Uvalde, Texas, not a soul had heard of Pat Garrett [the lawman who killed Billy the Kid and who had had a home there] and in Garden City, Kan., Truman Capote's great novel, [In Cold Blood], didn’t ring a bell — just to name a few.

What was the strangest thing that happened?
Getting stuck in the mud, approaching the house where those killings describe in In Cold Blood took place, Holcomb. And subsequently discovering there was hardly any thought on this matter by the people who lived there.

How did the book come about? How long did it take to publish? How did it sell in Holland?
We had some interesting leads with publishers but they went bankrupt. Others wanted to make it their “own” book. We finally decided to publish it ourselves, and it was mostly given away as a present to all the people involved  — the printer, designer and the writer. We sold maybe 500 copies through a very trendy downtown bookstore. We had a release party with photos, hamburgers and Budweisers and record albums with American flags on the covers, Ryan Adams and Sly Stone.

Do you have any plans to return?
No plans but very fond memories. I would love to do it again. Call me!
Since then, I took a very long trip from Toronto to St. Johns, New Foundland. It was very different.

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

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.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Remembering Quanah Parker and the Comanche Nation Along Highway 83


For the first time, the Highway 83 Chronicles welcomes a guest blogger, Barbara Brannon, Executive Director of the Texas Plains Trail Region.

On the Fourth of July, 1909, the city of Paducah, Texas, welcomed a distinguished guest: Quanah Parker, chief of the Quahada Band of Comanches. Cottle County historian Carmen Taylor Bennett saw Quanah herself on that occasion, later recalling, “He was tall, erect, and made a striking figure.” 
Quanah was a man who bridged two worlds, that of the last, nomadic Native Americans who roamed freely on the Plains they had dominated for centuries, and that of the settlers who brought their own rules and structure and forced Indians onto reservations. Pursued by a U.S. military bent on exterminating his people, Quanah chose to adapt to sweeping change, and save them. For the rest of his life he forged friendships with ranchers and politicians, increasing his own wealth and respect. He adopted some Anglo-European customs while keeping other, indigenous traditions.
Today Quanah’s memory—and the underappreciated history of the Comanches and other Native Americans—is marked by a series of monumental arrow sculptures along Highway 83 and throughout the Texas Plains Trail Region. Pictured above is one in Earth, Texas.
 Imagined and implemented by a group of volunteers in 2010, the Quanah Parker Trail weaves together documented fact, oral history, and local legend to present a story not fully apparent to travelers across the former Comancheria.
In 2011, a century after Chief Quanah’s death, the first of these markers were installed in Paducah and other sites. The 21-foot-tall giant arrows (and a handful of smaller versions), made by artist Charles A. Smith of New Home, Texas, dot roadsides, parks, and promontories across the Texas Plains and Panhandle. More than 60 have been installed to date; five may be found along U.S. 83 at Canadian, Wellington, Wheeler Shamrock and Paducah.
Background, locations, photos and a map are available at
The week of July 4, 2013, five more were added, in Lamb County, Texas, at sites along the ancient Running Water Draw that for hundreds of years served as the highway for Comanches hunting buffalo, and, later, for troops and ranchers and fortune seekers.
County historians, community leaders, and friends gathered to watch as the arrows were lifted and set into the ground. At every stop they expressed the same wish: that the Native heritage of this place be recognized for centuries to come. The arrows soaring against the sky now tell the story, written on the land.

Barbara Brannon is executive director of the Texas Plains Trail Region, a heritage tourism initiative of the Texas Historical Commission. She blogs regularly at

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



Stew Magnuson is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83.