Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nazi Sympathizers in Scott City, Kansas? No. Just Lumps of Coal: The Stories That Old Pictures Tell Us

I had my eye on the picture of a giant black dust cloud descending on the town of Scott City, Kansas, for at least four years.
The picture dated 1935, photographer unknown, was in the Library of Congress collection. It could be seen online as a thumbnail, but it had not yet been digitized in a large enough size for publication. The library has millions of photos and only enough employees to digitize so many of them, so not everything is readily available to the public.
“That would be an awesome, probably never before published, historic photo for my Highway 83 book,” I thought.
And so I waited. Photos that have not been digitized are still available to be printed, but for a fee. As work on the manuscript dragged on, I had no motivation to order the picture in advance. Maybe it would be digitized at some point and then it would be free for me to take and publish, I reasoned.
Well, finally last summer as I began to gather up all the material for The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma, I decided to pay the $50 fee to have a technician at the library print an 8x10 black and white hard copy.
Scott City, Kansas, Photographer unknown. Library of Congress photo.
About a week later, the photo mailer arrived at my home. I eagerly opened it at the dining room table as my wife looked on curiously.
I pulled out the picture, and there it was:
“Holy cow,” I said. “There’s a Nazi swastika in this picture!”
As some townspeople stand and watch the monstrous cloud come rolling down the avenue, to the side there is a giant billboard with a swastika. I definitely had not noticed that on the tiny thumbnail image online.
What the flippin heck? Was my first thought. Were there Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s living in Scott City, Kansas? Before World War II broke out, Adolf Hitler did have some admirers in America.
But the short answer is: No.
This turned out to be a great example of the history one can uncover in old images.
And I probably should have known from the beginning that there were no Nazis in Scott City. As I young man I traveled extensively in Asia. The Buddhist swastika, which pre-dated Nazism by a thousands years, is a common sight on temples even today.
The swastika before the Nazis co-opted it was a symbol of good luck in Hinduism and Buddhism. The word originates in sanskrit as “lucky object.” It appears in other cultures as well, and the first appearance in the archeological record dates back to an etching on a 10,000 year old mammoth tusk.
Native American cultures used it as well, particularly the southwest tribes such as the Hopis. A swastika within an arrowhead even appeared on early Arizona highway signs.  By the late 1930s, the state of Arizona’s road department was hastily taking down these signs and scrapping them. The symbol of good luck, was tilted a bit, then in a short time became a symbol of hate and tyranny.
So what about the swastika on the Scott City billboard?
This was actually an advertisement for coal. The Swastika Fuel Company was located in a town named Swastika next to a coal mine in New Mexico, according to a website
“Coals for all Uses, Domestic, Steam, Swastika coals do not clinker, most heat for your money,” said matchbook cover advertising the company I found online.
A movie theater slide — the pictures they showed on the screen before the film ran — is online at a website — advertising the J.E. Kirk Grain Co. of Scott City, Kans. — exclusive dealers.
“Why not Economize on your COAL BILL by using SWASTIKA?” it reads.
“Sign of good coal.”
J.E. Kirk Grain Company is on the side of the building.
As soon as the World War II broke out, and the swastika became stigmatized, the mining town changed its name to Brilliant. The company and the town no longer exist. And one would imagine the J.E. Kirk Grain Company employees tore down that billboard fairly quickly.
I published the picture in The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma on the pages about Scott City even though it no longer fit the story. I wrote about the Dirty Thirties in other chapters in the book, but I stuck it in there anyway. It was too interesting a photo to leave out.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition and 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. 

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  For signed copies, contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

May 10, 1926: A Newly Established Great Plains Highway Association Clamors for a North-to-South Road

Look for the new book Feb. 9!
“The peppiest bunch of good road enthusiasts ever assembled in southwestern Nebraska is now within our gates—and they will not be denied their goal—a state-federal highway from Canada to the Gulf, running more or less north-south through McCook,” said the evening edition of the McCook Gazette.
It was the May 10, 1926, when some 200 businessmen from South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas converged at the Keystone Hotel in McCook, Nebraska, to put together the Great Plains Highway Association.
The Good Roads Movement was in full swing and about to have its greatest success. Local and national associations for decades had come together to create auto trails that would connect their towns. It was an alliance between corporations who had a vested interest in promoting car travel—automobile, tire, cement manufacturers—and local businessmen who wanted the same. By 1923, Ford was cranking out more than 2 million Model Ts per year. Motorists were clamoring for better driving conditions.
Such associations had been popping up everywhere. The Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental road. The Bankhead was the second, but took a more southerly route.
Between cities and small towns, there was little in the way of actual roads, just ruts in the mud. Some of these associations made logos they put on signs to help guide motorists. Many of the trails converged and associations competed to draw motorists to their trails. 
By 1926, there were some 250 named trails in the United States. Many of them were aspirations—just lines on a map with no real backing or improved roads.
The Good Roads Movement’s ultimate goal was to cajole the federal government into doing more to build highways. And in that, it had already succeeded by 1926. The American Association of State Highway Officials, with the blessing of the federal government, had already released its draft proposal of numbered highways and their routes. The committee tasked with creating the new system had long decided to do away with named auto trails. The descriptive, colorful names—the Dixie Highway, the Blue Pole Highway, the Pikes Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway—would not be official names.
The final list would be released in November, and it would mark the beginning of the state and federal partnership to standardize roads in America, the Good Roads Movement’s ultimate goal. The logos would soon be replaced by the federal shield sign still in use today.
That was undoubtedly known by most of those attending, but it didn’t damper their enthusiasm for a Great Plains, north-to-south highway. At that point, there were no highways going north to south between Kansas City and Denver. The closest was the Meridian Highway, which hugged the state lines to the east (present day U.S. 81). McCook good road promoters had succeeded two decades ago helping to develop the O.L.D (Omaha Lincoln Denver) trail across the bottom half of the state. By 1926, it had expanded to the D.L.D., the Detroit-Lincoln-Denver trail.
The businessmen came together in the afternoon to adopt a constitution and bylaws and to elect officers. The president would be Charles O. Woods of North Platte; vice president, A.B. Whitney of Murdo, South Dakota and the secretary-treasurer was V. Barbazette of McCook.
One by one the attendees stood up to add their support to the growing chorus of those who thought there needed to be a north-to-south road. When it came to highways, the country was still following in the footsteps of the Conestoga wagons on their east-to-west journeys. When the first draft of what would be the federal highway was released in 1925, there were no north-south roads in the middle of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. That could not have sat well with the citizens of Minot, Bismarck, Pierre, North Platte, McCook, Oberlin, Garden City and Liberal.
Connecting the prairielands to the ports in South Texas was one of the new association’s stated goals.
The guest of honor at the meeting was Nebraska State Engineer Roy Cochran. Nebraska had already put in place a taxation system that favored the sparsely populated part of the state. Some $1.5 million had already been spent improving the road between North Platte and McCook, he said. From North Platte to Valentine, the heart of the foreboding Sand Hills, there was almost nothing, he said. The state was bogged down in the sandy soil as the Blue Pole Highway— a Fremont to Chadron east-to-west road—stretched westwards. Only 25 miles had been completed in two years in Cherry County.  
“The construction difficulties and the expense is so great that the progress has been quite slow,” Cochran said. The fact remained, that most commerce was still moving east to west, he told the audience. Nevertheless, he endorsed the idea of a north-to-south road as long as funding was available.
Some of the largest contingents at the meeting had come from the Sand Hills—towns such as Stapleton, Gandy, Tryon, Thedford and Brownlee—to lend their voices. Forty of the delegates came from Stapleton alone. The Sandhillers were a gloomy, pessimistic bunch, according to their dire warnings about road building in the dunes. Years of trying to traverse them had no doubt left psychological scars.
John Turner of Thedford had been trying to develop an east-to-west  “Potash Highway” (present day State Highway 2) for years, but to no avail.
“If you take a trip through the Sand Hills you will be surprised at [the] roads because there are none,” he said. He warned about the terrible, shifting sands.
“For God’s sake, give us a road,” he said.
A Mr. Christensen of Valentine did his best to dispel his town’s Wild West reputation  as he encouraged delegates to visit his fine city.
“We don’t have so many saloons and not nearly so much gambling…We want you to come up there fishing I will show you that if you come up there fishing you will get some fish,” he said.
“When I came down here today I was tired and a little bit discouraged until I saw all these men and I am very much enthused about this road and I am going back to Valentine very glad I came down.”
A Valentine to North Platte road tentatively called the Kinkaid Highway had been proposed a decade earlier, but nothing came of that effort, either.
The Keystone Hotel — only two years old at that time — served more than 600 meals that day. After the meeting adjourned, the McCook High School Boys Band under the direction of Leo Kelly provided entertainment in the afternoon.
At the packed banquet room that evening, a trio of Robert Boles on flute, Charles McCarl on the violin and singer Miss Lucile Hiler, provided the music.
After the meal was served, the constitution and bylaws were formally adopted. The terminal points would be Regina, Saskatchewan, and Mexico City, Mexico.
There were no delegates from Canada or North Dakota noted in the reports of the meeting. John McCurdy from Sweetwater, Texas, had traveled the longest distance to be there at 900 miles.
The meeting ended on a high note, with a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism. But the fact of the matter is that by May 10, 1926, the end was near for the auto trails. The federal highway system final draft released only five months after the establishment of the association would show the beginnings of Highway 83 from just east of Bismarck down to Pierre, South Dakota.
The association in about 1929 published a map of the final route from Regina to Laredo.  It would more or less follow present day U.S. 83 from Minot to Abilene, Texas. Eventually, a U.S. Canada Highway 83 Association would emerge.
As for those poor Sandhillers, it would be more than a generation before a dependable road would cut through the dunes. The last part of Highway 83 to be paved was from Thedford to Stapleton in September 1959.
Sources: McCook Gazette, May 10, 1926 and May 12, 1926 editions.

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 be released Feb. 9.

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)