Monday, August 26, 2013

Tracking Lewis & Clark's Dog and the Corps of Discovery on Highway 83

Statues of famous men and women can be found all along Highway 83, but down along the Missouri River on its banks near Washburn, N.D., sits a rendering of one of the most famous dogs in American history, Seaman, the Newfoundland, or Newfie, that accompanied Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery.
And so I thought on National Dog Day, Aug. 26, that it would be a good time to highlight a little canine history found along the road.
In 1803, Meriwether Lewis bought Seaman in Pittsburgh, Pa., for $20 as he was waiting for the boats he would take up the river to be constructed.
The name of the breed and that given to Lewis’ dog is a clue to his maritime origins. Newfies were working dogs that assisted fisherman. It is a large, imposing canine, well suited for guard duty. They are powerful swimmers, and according to information on the lewisandclarktrail .com website, are at home in the water as they are on land.
They were known to carry ropes from ships to docks or to drowning men, and were strong enough to be used to haul carts of fish. 
The Newfie also has a thick oily coat that allows it to swim in cold water and remain warm. Interestingly, it does not “doggie paddle,” but rather it does the breaststroke.
Of course, the Lewis and Clark Expedition would be spending most of its time traveling on rivers, the highways of its day. We don’t have any historical record of what Lewis was thinking when he paid what was then a large sum of money for Seaman, but the Newfie’s size and experience working in water probably factored into his thinking. In short, it is hard to imagine Lewis choosing a better breed to accompany the expedition.
There are numerous references to Seaman in the journals kept during the expedition. Seaman chased off buffalo bulls, sounded the alarm when bears came too near, and was apparently beloved by most members of the expedition.
There are no journal entries mentioning Seaman while the expedition wintered somewhere near present-day Washburn where the statue sits.
As the expedition continued west, there are mentions of him tracking down a deer wounded during a hunt that escaped into a river, drowning it, and carrying it back to the party — an example of Seaman’s power and swimming ability.
On the return trip, some Native Americans reportedly stole Seaman, but Lewis managed to get him back.
By the time the Corps came back through this area in 1806 on its trip home, the journals had gone silent on Seaman.
In fact, the historical record makes no further mention of Seaman and his ultimate fate. It is assumed, but never proven beyond a doubt, that he made the journey back with the expedition.
There was one clue, a mention of a dog collar that was once in an Alexandria, Va., museum, that suggested that Seaman did survive and stayed with Capt. Lewis until his death in 1809. You can read more about that here.
Although most of the land that Seaman and his masters saw as they traveled the Missouri is now under the waters of lakes Sakakawea and Oahe, travelers on Highway 83 can stop at the interpretive center in Washburn, then make a short drive into the valley to see this statue and a reproduction of Fort Mandan, where the Corps wintered. They can also stop at Lily Park in Fort Pierre, South Dakota, which is where the Bad River empties into the Missouri.
Here, the Corps of Discovery met the mighty Lakota (Sioux) Nation for the first time, and spent a tense day entreating with the Brulé (Sicangu) Lakotas. This did not go well, and it resulted in a tense standoff.
Many historians agree that if this had turned into a full-fledged fight, it would have been a disaster for the Corps, and could have well meant its premature end, rendering Lewis and Clark as footnotes in history books instead of the household names they are today.
Fortunately, cooler heads on both sides prevailed.
The story of Seaman, Lewis and Clark, and the BrulĂ© Lakotas are just one of many that can found along Highway 83. 

The National Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, N.D., on Highway 83 is 38 miles north of Bismarck and hard to miss. Check the website for current hours of operation. To find Lily Park in Fort Pierre, S.D, from Highway 83, turn east on East Cedar Ave. and follow the signs for two blocks.  

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 Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at: The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn; Home Sweet Home and Main Street Books in Minot; and the North Dakota Heritage Center and Museum gift shop in Bismarck. Also available on and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. And The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Book Review: Prairie Blitz: High School Football on America's 50 Yard Line

 It’s about time for the “Friday night lights.”
All up and down Highway 83, from Westhope, N.D, to Brownsville, Texas, high school football teams are practicing for their first games of the year. It is something every community on the road shares.
Teams will be traveling 83 for away games, with marching bands, cheerleaders, teachers and fans following them in caravans. Home games are an opportunity to see old friends and catch up on all the news as locals huddle on bleacher seats.
These high schools may have basketball, track and volleyball teams, but none of the other sports seem to hold the same place in the hearts of the local citizens as football.
Former football coach, turned writer, David Almany, documented the meaning of football in three towns on Highway 83 in his 2011 book: Prairie Blitz: High School Football on America’s 50 Yard Line.
This is the second book (that I know of) published about Highway 83, following A Whole Lot of Nothing published in Dutch by photographer Maarten Laupman and writer Rob Daniels, two men from the Netherlands. To read an interview with Laupamn, CLICK HERE. 
Almany spent a fall following the fortunes of three teams on Highway 83, Linton, N.D., McCook, Neb., and Canadian, Texas.
“All three have amazing successful teams and thriving economies. There is a connection,” he states on the cover of the book.
Unlike Laupman, Daniels and myself, who have traveled Highway 83 in what can only be described as whirlwind tours, Almany had the opportunity to reside, at least temporarily, in these three towns and really understand what makes them tick.
He rightly notes that small towns all up and down the highway, particularly on the Northern and Southern Plains, are dying slow deaths. Why are Linton, Canadian and McCook doing relatively well as compared to other towns? he asks.
He grew to know the coaches, players, and administrators of the schools, but didn’t stop there, and interviewed movers and shakers in these towns to seek an answer.
His thesis is that a strong, successful football team is an indicator of a thriving town. He goes in depth into what makes the towns economically successful, and looks at their individual histories.
One particularly poignant story is of a black man he encountered in a Highway 83 town, which he chooses to keep unidentified. The man showed up through happenstance in the small town when he was a teenager, having not played football in the big city where he grew up. He joined the team, and soon became, for one brief season, the team star and local hero.
But he was never able to parlay his high school success into a college career, and by the time Almany encountered him, he was working as a convenience store clerk.
He begins the book with another fellow he met on a Highway 83 town football field, whose light shined even briefer. He had caught one touch down pass — not even intended for him — decades ago, but he could still recount every moment of his fleeting moment of glory.
Although the book I am writing and Prairie Blitz are quite different, I did share one similar experience with Almany. When I arrived in Junction, Texas, I wanted to see the spot where legendary Texas A&M coach Paul “Bear” Bryant brought a little less than 100 players to a camp on Sept. 1, 1954 during a drought and heat wave to train them because he felt that they were “soft.” He drilled them night and day with no water breaks. Only 27 or so survived the ordeal. That brutal training camp resulted in the book and movie, The Junction Boys.
Almany had a hard time finding someone in Junction who knew where this had taken place, and found the spot in ragged shape.
The first person I asked about the location, a cashier at a diner, pointed me in the right direction. Similarly, when I arrived at the campus, which now belongs to Texas Tech., there was no signs or marker about the event. I found one fellow who confirmed that some of the buildings were where the football players stayed.
Also, in the fall of 2010, during a quick weekend trip to travel Highway 83 north and south of Abilene, Texas, I had a chance to watch a high school football game in Ballinger. It wasn’t a good night for the local team — they lost — but I managed to take a few good pictures (seen here). It was a great opportunity to experience the passion of Texas high school football that I had heard so much about.
And as the season gets underway, there is one last piece of Highway 83 football history to share.
Dallas Cowboy Coach Tom Landry was born and raised in Mission, Texas, and was the quarterback at Mission High school, leading his team in 1941 to a perfect 12-0 record, and a regional championship. The high school team’s stadium and a street are named after him.
I attempted to reach Almany for an interview, but have been unsuccessful so far. But I wanted to call attention to this remarkable book ahead of the football season. I can only hope that he sees this article and gets a hold of me someday.

Football fans will enjoy Prairie Blitz. It is available on



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. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Saving the Smalltown Drive-Ins and Movie Theaters on Highway 83

These are tough times for small town movie theaters and drive-in movies.
Already under pressure from on-demand films on cable, and a dwindling numbers of customers as the population of these towns decrease, theater owners have struggled for years. Boarded up theaters are a common sight in many of the communities along Highway 83.
As for drive-in movies, their heyday has long passed. There were once drive-ins all along Route 83 from Westhope, North Dakota, all the way down to Brownsville, Texas.
Today, only two Highway 83 towns have drive-ins, Abilene, Texas’ Town and Country, which is a few blocks east of the 83 bypass, and the Wes-Mer, right on 83 between Weslaco and Mercedes, Texas (Pictured above). There are none remaining along 83 in Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota.
And now something new is threatening these theaters: the switch from film to digital projection.
It costs approximately $88,000 to install one digital projector, which the big Hollywood movie studios expect the theater owners to pay. The big movie chains can do this. Small business owners just getting by on popcorn sales cannot. The sad part is that the switch saves the studios a lot of money in distribution costs, but there is little benefit for the theater owners who have to pay for the new technology.
Recently, one of the last remaining drive-ins in North Dakota, the Lake Park Drive-in in Williston was torn down. The owner couldn’t afford to convert over to digital, and the season for outdoor movie watching is too short that far north, according to press reports.
There is a new model emerging, and Oakley, Kansas, on Highway 83 is showing the way. The town bought the Palace Community Theater in 2003 and it is run as a nonprofit, with seniors from the local high school taking over management each year. The town gets to keep its theater, and local students learn valuable skills running a small business. It found the money to convert to digital in 2009, its
website reports.
In Lexington, Va., Hulls Drive-in was also taken over by the community, and is run as a nonprofit. Local volunteers run the operation, and it takes tax deductible donations. It is the only non-profit drive-in in America.
Towns at risk of loosing their move theaters can look to these two nonprofits as examples.
The Honda car company recently launched a campaign Project Drive-In to help save a few drive-ins.
Fans can vote online for their favorite outdoor theaters that are at risk of closing because of the switch to digital. Honda will pay for the top five’s conversion costs.
Sadly, there are dozens of drive-ins competing for the five slots and are at risk of closing. But I’m happy to report that the Wes-Mer and the Town and Country are not on the list.
The closest is the Pheasant Drive-In in Mobridge, South Dakota.
Here is the owner’s plea for votes on the Honda website.

“We operate the Pheasant Drive-In in Mobridge SD.  The Pheasant Drive-In was built in 1960.  We have been operating it since 1976.  Families come from miles around to come to one of the few remaining drive-in theatres.  Patrons love our low prices of $5.00 for adults and kids 12 and under are free.  A storm tore our screen down June 7, 2012.  Our savings for digital conversion had to be used to rebuild the screen.  We have survived all the changes throughout the years in the movie industry and would like to be able to survive this digital transition.”

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. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Will it Be Ruins or Restoration for McCook Army Air Base?

I drove amongst the giant, incongruous World War II hangars on the flatlands northwest of McCook, Nebraska, thinking, “how the hell did I miss this?”
It was September 2012, and I was taking the rare opportunity to travel down a part of Highway 83 again, from the Rosebud Reservation to Oakley, Kansas. I had driven along here before — several times — but for some reason had never spotted the sign pointing the way to the McCook Army Air Base.
Former Army air bases can be found all over the West, and in several spots along Highway 83, but many of them are only memories. They were mostly used for training and located in the nation’s vast interiors to keep them away from enemy bombers. Historical markers are about all that is left of those bases that weren’t converted to municipal airports.
And that was what I was expecting when I pulled off the road and followed the signs.
But instead I drove up to massive buildings capable of housing B-17, B-24 and B-29 bombers. There wasn’t another soul in sight. No farmers in nearby fields or other curious tourists. It was just myself and these ghostly vestiges.
As someone who has been studying the history found along Highway 83 for several years, I was feeling pretty stupid as I stopped my rental car, and took pictures of the decaying buildings. One thing that I love about the road is that it touches upon almost every major era in U.S. and pre-colonial history. From when humans first made their way here in the waning days of the Ice Age, to the present day, there are stories all along the route. There are stories from the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805, the subsequent so-called Indian Wars, and even a bit of Civil War history near Brownsville, Texas. But it is easy to forget about contributions the Highway 83 communities made to the World War II effort.
As I explored the buildings that were seemingly on their way to reaching “ruins” status, I remembered passing through Childress, Texas, on Highway 83 during a previous trip. A local historian had given me directions to the World War II base there, but I had gotten lost, and gave up. Along with not knowing about these hangars — I was regretting not making more of an effort in Childress.
I pulled up to a Nebraska State Historical Sign that explained a bit about the base’s history, which began when it was established on April 1, 1943.
It provided the final training for heavy bomber crews flying the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator and the B-29 Super Fortress. The base had three runways and accommodations for 5,000 men. It once had a theater, hospital, chapel and post office. It closed only two and half years later Dec. 31, 1945.
After stopping to take pictures of a building that looked like one of the barracks, I drove back down the row to see what was on the northern end.
Suddenly, standing on the side of the road next to one of the hangars was a man in work clothes waving me down. Who is this guy and where did he come from? I thought to myself?
It turns out his name was Dale Cotton, and he was a member of the McCook Army Air Base Historical Society.
Dale took me around, and gave me some history of the base. There is an active effort to preserve the five hangars, it turned out.
He showed me the octagonal concrete floor of a bombsight vault, where aviators would practice using the top-secret equipment that would help them find targets.
Can’t I take your picture next to it? I asked.
No, I prefer you didn’t, he replied. I’ll explain why later.
Cotton told me about his dream to preserve all the remaining buildings. He would like to see a museum built there. He even made a case for the U.S. government returning to the site to build a new base.
That, I thought to myself, was a little farfetched. I cover defense and homeland security in my day job in Washington, D.C. The trend for the last two decades has been to close down bases, not build new ones.
Even the preservation of the crumbling mega-buildings seemed like an almost impossibly daunting task. But I told him about my Highway 83 website and Facebook fanpage. If he had an email or website for those wishing to donate to the cause, I would pass it along.
No, he said. He doesn’t use the Internet, or have email. And that was why he didn’t want his picture taken. He preferred to live his life off the grid away from the allegedly prying eyes of Big Brother. He didn’t want his picture online.

He did give me an address if anyone wants to contribute money or construction materials:

McCook Air Base Historical Society
P.O. Box B-29
McCook, NE 69001

Since the society has no presence on the web, I don’t know if it has non-profit status, and whether or not contributions are tax deductible.
I drove off feeling a little discouraged. Here was one man waging an important battle to preserve our history, but he chooses not to use today’s preferred method of communicating, and a powerful tool for fundraising — the Internet. It is too bad he doesn’t hand the fundraising task over to someone more willing to do so, I thought.
How long before the Nebraska winds topple these grand old structures down for good, I wondered.
As I post this, it’s almost V-J Day, and 11 months later. I figured it was about time to pass on the contact information as I promised.
I also came across this article in the McCook Gazette published in December about Mr. Cotton and another local volunteer making some progress in repairing one of the hangar roofs. So progress is being made. (But you’ll notice that Mr. Cotton just happens to have a hand over his face in the picture. And with all the headlines lately about government surveillance programs, who can blame him?)

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)