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)

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