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)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

September 2015 Last American Highway Book Tour Dates Announced

Court Bridge Publishing is proud to announce the big September 2015 book tour for “The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83.” 
Three states, seven days and nine appearances!
Author Stew Magnuson during his multi-media presentation takes the audience down the 1,885 miles of U.S. 83 drawing from his collection of some 5,000 historic and present-day photos.
“This is not your ordinary book talk,” he promises.
Along with the presentations, he will spend a half day filming a segment about Highway 83 and The Dakotas version of his Highway 83 Chronicles series for South Dakota Public Television’s Dakota Life show in White River Country in South Dakota.
Scheduling that allowed him to make time to do a presentation Monday at noon, Sept. 21 at the Sinte Gleska University library in Mission, S.D. at the Rosebud Reservation. “I was very happy because I missed doing a presentation there during the 2014 book tour of the Dakotas,” he said. At this appearance, he will do a repeat of The Dakotas presentation he did in 2014 rather than the new Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma version. “This might be the last time I give this version of the talk,” he says.
He will kick off the tour in Gordon, Nebraska, where his first nonfiction book, The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns is set, at Saturday, Sept. 17 at 1 p.m. at the Presbyterian Church.
 “I promise to wrap up the presentation before the Cornhuskers kick off at 3:30,” he says.
Copies of The Last American Highway books and his previous works will be available for purchase. All talks are free and open to the public.
Here are the tour dates:

Saturday, Sept. 19
Gordon, NE
Presbyterian Church
1 p.m.
(Guaranteed to End before Cornhusker Game)

Sunday, Sept 20
Valentine, NE
Cherry County Historical Society Museum
1:30 p.m.

Monday, Sept. 21
Mission, SD
Sinte Gleska University Library
Brown Bag Lunch Talk
(Special Presentation on The Dakotas book)

Thedford, NE
Thedford Public Library
5 p.m.

Tuesday, Sept. 22
Oberlin, KS
Decatur County/Last Indian Raid Museum
Brown Bag Lunch talk

Garden City, KS
Finney County Historical Museum
7 p.m.

Wednesday, Sept. 23
Liberal, KS
Liberal Public Library
6:30 p.m.

Thursday, Sept 24
Scott City, KS
El Quartelejo Museum/
Jerry Thomas Gallery & Collection
7 p.m.

Friday, Sept. 25
North Platte, NE
North Platte Public Library
Brown Bag Lunch Talk

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, August 5, 2015

Two Roads Not Built: And That Has Made all the Difference for Highway 83

Available at bookstores and
 A couple of months ago, Sharleen Wurm, the director of The Last Indian Raid/Decatur County Museum in Oberlin, Kansas, came across a treasure.
Tucked away hidden in the museum’s storage was a scrapbook kept by a former member of the U.S. Canada Highway 83 Association. Who compiled it and when it was donated is unknown, but inside was a treasure trove of information about the association that spanned some 20 years from the early 1960s to early 1980s.
The organization began as the Great Plains Highway Association in 1926 and fizzled out sometime in the early 1990s. Because the highway continues as the number 83 for a few hundred miles into Manitoba, it was an international organization.
Once Sharleen alerted me to the scrapbook’s contents, she graciously made color photocopies of every page and mailed them to me. What a great gift for a road historian! Inside were the schedules of annual meetings, newspaper clippings, a document containing remembrances of the association written by past presidents, promotional items the association produced to promote travel on the road such as brochures, postcards and restaurant placemats. And even some poetry! Yes, poems written about Highway 83.
One of the most interesting documents to me was a six-page type written report by a retired grade school principal and ardent Highway 83 booster Ira Laidig of Oberlin, who took it upon himself to travel the length of Highway 83 from his hometown all the way to Brownsville, Texas, to drum up support for the association and Interstate 27.
Interstate 27? Where is that? 
In the 1960s, there were two roads not taken, or to be more precise, never built. Going through the newspaper clips and Laidig’s report, I learned of two roads that the association was heavily supporting a half century ago. One I am very glad never came to fruition. The other I wish had.
As the Interstate system was being built out in the 1960s, Congress authorized the construction of Interstate 27, which would have replaced U.S. Route 83 from Westhope down to Brownsville.
Highway 83 Association scrapbook found in Oberlin, KS.
So what happened? Congress authorized it, but the appropriations committee never funded it. Members of the association wrote letters and lobbied as best they could, but the money never materialized.
Meanwhile up north, Canadian members of the association were trying to convince their national government to extend Highway 83 past its terminus Swan River all the way to Hudson Bay. They too were unsuccessful.
So inside the box Sharleen mailed me was the tail of two roads not taken. Laidig as he traveled south on Highway 83 found various degrees of support for the association and the new interstate. Ray Hettic, a past association president from Liberal, Kansas, for example, was not enthusiastic about the idea.
Towns had to pay $100 to remain a member of the association. Some chambers of commerce were big supporters of the organization with many local businessmen and women attending annual meetings and promoting U.S. 83. Other towns were apathetic.
I am grateful the association was not successful and I-27 was never built. I hate soulless, mind-numbing Interstates and I have a hard time picturing what the
communities along present-day 83 would look like if they had been bypassed by a superhighway. I certainly would have never written The Last American Highway books, or this column.
But it’s too bad about the road to Hudson Bay. Wouldn’t that be an adventure to head north on 83 and drive until reaching Hudson Bay? There are other provincial roads beyond Swan River, but they don’t quite make it there.
One interesting thing to consider is that I-27 is most likely still on the books. I asked a colleague of mine at work who specializes in legislative affairs in Washington, D.C., if acts passed by appropriators and signed into law ever expire. They don’t unless a lawmaker wrote legislation in a subsequent act to rescind it. I’m not 100 percent sure, but it’s more than likely an Interstate replacing U.S. 83 still exists on paper. All it would require is some funding.
(The number 27 was eventually appropriated for another road near Lubbock, Texas.)
And when I say some, I actually mean a whole lot. Estimates on how much it costs to construct a four-lane Interstate in a rural area varies, but looking at different estimates, $8 million per mile is a good average. Highway 83 is about 1,885 miles long. Subtract the sections that are already Interstate such as the 83 Expressway in the Rio Grande Valley, the short stretches of I-94 in North Dakota, I-90 in South Dakota and bypasses in towns like Abilene and Laredo, that could be whittled down to 1,785 miles, or so.
That would come to about $142.8 billion to convert U.S. 83 to an Interstate.
For that, and many other reasons, I’m certain that “The Last American Highway” will remain “The Last American Highway” for quite some time. 

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)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

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

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

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. And The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition.

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

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Trip to Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge Evokes Sand Hills Memories

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

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

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

For more on what to see along Highway 83, read The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, by Stew Magnuson, available at, bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. And The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition.

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