Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Group Raising Funds for Nebraska Historical Marker on Highway 83

Spot near North Loup River on Hwy 83 in where the marker may be placed.
Note: It appears that we have reached our goal, or are very close to it! No need to send donations now. Thank you to all who contributed!

 Descendants of a legendary Sand Hills settlement, the Cherry County Historical Society and a Nebraska-born author are teaming up to have a historical marker placed along Highway 83.
The Nebraska State Historical Society recently approved a roadside historical marker for DeWitty, the longest lasting, most successful African-American rural settlement in Nebraska.
DeWitty — in later years called Audacious — was first settled in the early 1900s by a group of homesteaders along the North Loup River in Cherry County, just west of present-day Brownlee. They were taking advantage of the Kinkaid Act of 1904, which allowed settlers to claim 640 acres of land, or one square mile, in the 37 counties that comprised the Sand Hills.
Now that the marker has been approved, the group is trying to raise the $5,100 the state historical society requires to pay for it.
Donations can be mailed to or dropped off at:
Security First Bank
PO Box 480
Valentine, Nebraska 69201
Make checks payable to: “DeWitty Historical Marker Fund.”
The first group of DeWitty settlers came from Overton, Nebraska, in Dawson County. But they were originally from Kent County, Ontario, where many escaped slaves and free people of color resided. One of the first to claim land near the North Loup was the family of Charles and Hester Meehan, an interracial couple, who had met and fell in love in Canada. Charles was a first-generation Irish-American, and Hester Freeman, of African decent. Others from different parts of the country joined them. The barber, Robert Hannahs, had been born into slavery. DeWitty had a baseball team and band. Both played all over the Sand Hills. The settlement placed a high value on educating its children, an ethos they had brought from Canada. More than 100 families lived in the settlement during its roughly 20 years of existence.
The homesteaders of DeWitty were just that —Audacious,” says Catherine Meehan Blount, one of the Meehans’ last two living grandchildren. “They were Audacious for believing that the American dream belonged to them, too, and they were Audacious for committing all they had to attain that dream.  Remembering DeWitty pays homage to those who confronted barriers in the pre-civil war United States, in Canada and in the Nebraska Sand Hills with a ‘we can’ attitude. Remembering DeWitty gives anyone who knows their story a reminder that they can, too.”
Joyceann Gray, great granddaughter of DeWitty homesteaders William Walker and Charlotte Hatter, says:
“When we can clearly mark where our ancestors have been — and by name — we can ensure the full story will be told and we can then better understand the purpose of our journey.”
Example of Nebraska State Historical Society marker
“This is really the tale of two communities: DeWitty and Brownlee,” says Stew Magnuson, former Nebraska nonfiction book of the year winner, and author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma, which has a chapter on DeWitty. “Relations between the two communities were by all known accounts, excellent. The mostly Danish settlers of Brownlee and the African-Americans in DeWitty held a July 4th picnic together every year. Some of the one-room schoolhouses were integrated. There is a photograph in history books that shows the Brownlee residents on the day they came to help build the DeWitty church. People had to depend on each other in that remote, harsh land,” says Magnuson.
Blount added: “My dad, Bill Meehan, was born in Overton but spent most of his youth in DeWitty.  He told the story of DeWitty’s renaming to Audacious with much prideful laughter because, he we certain, it had been renamed for him when he was about 12 years old.”
Magnuson first encountered the DeWitty story in a Nebraskaland Magazine article he found in his grandparent’s home in Stapleton, Nebraska, when he was a teenager.
“The thought that there was a black settlement in the Sand Hills blew my mind because I had been raised on a diet of Hollywood westerns and TV shows that portrayed the American West as populated only by white folks and Indians. The towns and homesteads were in fact far more multi-cultural and racially integrated than the media and history textbooks have portrayed. I hope the sign does a little to dispel that myth,” he says.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Memorial Day Tribute to Staff Sgt. Edwin L. Magnuson of Stapleton, Nebraska

Edwin L. Magnuson
There are undoubtedly hundreds of war heroes who hail from towns found along Highway 83.
Marine Corps Corp. Harlan Block, one of the six portrayed on the Iwo Jima War Memorial, was from Harlingen, Texas. Medal of Honor recipient Army Master Sgt. Jose Medoza Lopez was from Mission, and a statue commemorating the day he single-handedly repulsed a German infantry attack stands in Brownsville.
I would like to take this Memorial Day week to record the story of my second cousin Army Staff Sgt. Edwin Lloyd Magnuson from Stapleton, Nebraska, who earned the silver star for his bravery in World War II.
Lloyd, as he preferred to be called, grew up in the Sand Hills town, a terminus for a Union Pacific spur line, long before the highway reached it.
He was the son of my grandfather’s older brother, Guy.
He enlisted in the Army at age 19 on Sept. 25, 1941, and after bootcamp was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, a topography and climate about as different as it could be from the arid Sand Hills. He waited almost a year to be deployed.
He wrote a letter home to his mother Mable Magnuson during his waning days there, expressing his frustration. His unit was wiling away the days guarding airplanes at a nearby Army air base to keep busy.
“I would rather be on the front lines fighting,” he wrote. Meanwhile, he was at risk of not going at all. He had an inflamed tendon cord and if it got any worse, the doctors would operate on it, and discharge him. But that didn’t come to pass. He wrote that they had recently received orders to clean out their footlockers of all unnecessary items, and to toss everything except what they had been issued. The time was near.
At some point during that year, he had returned to Stapleton on leave. That was the first memory my cousin Elaine Barner — about four years old at the time — has of her brother. She saw him standing on the bathroom shaving. “I expect that you’re my brother Lloyd,” she said.
“I expect that I am,” he told his baby sister.
Magnuson (far left) digs into some steaks at Ft. Lewis, Wash.
Elaine has some pictures of what we presume is his time in Washington. One is of his unit in what looks like a mess hall. The soldiers have big, thick cut steaks. It’s doubtful they featured that at every meal. However, despite the jokes made about Army chow, many from humble beginnings such as  Lloyd probably never ate so well.
Eventually, Private Magnuson received his wish. The letter is undated, but if he was indeed deployed shortly after writing it, it was mailed October 1942. A month later he would find himself in the North Africa campaign fighting German troops as the 3rd Infantry Division swept across Morocco. We know little about his time there. One record I have found says he specialized in radio communications. And by the time he was 20 years old, we know he had been promoted to sergeant — remarkable for someone that age.
Eventually, the 3rd Infantry under the newly formed Fifth Army found itself in the Italian campaign. First came the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. A little more than a month later, allies landed at the toe of Italy. In September 1943, somewhere on the Italian mainland, he earned the silver star for gallantry in action.
His citation reads:  “On the 13th of October, 1943, while his company was engaging
Gen. Mark Clark pins the silver star on Magnuson.
the enemy, Sergeant Magnuson observed that the left flank of his company was endangered by several of the enemy firing machine pistols from a ditch by the road.
“He worked his way toward them, taking advantage of all cover, until he had approached to within 20 yards of the enemy, he then opened fire with his sub-machine gun, killing three of the enemy and capturing the other four.”
Elaine has a picture of Lt. Gen. Mark Clark pinning the silver star on Lloyd. He had also by this time earned a Purple Heart for wounds sustained in action, although we have no details how or where we was hurt.
Next for the Fifth Army was the beach landing at Anzio, known as Operation Shingle. Its ultimate goal was to capture Rome, some 40 miles to the northeast. The landing took the Axis troops by surprise, but Commanding General John P. Lucas failed to take advantage of the situation, preferring to establish a strong beachhead as a base instead. The decision to stay put allowed German troops to rally, and the Battle of Anzio would continue for another month.
It was two days after the first landing, January 24, 1944, when Lloyd was killed in action.
We currently don’t have any details about the circumstances of his death. Elaine remembers reading a letter written by a fellow soldier to her mother that said he died instantly and didn’t suffer, but she doesn’t have a copy of the letter now.
Staff Sgt. Edwin Lloyd Magnuson became the first from Logan County to be killed in action in World War II. The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #8258 in Stapleton is named in his honor. He is buried at the Fort McPherson National Cemetery east of North Platte.
Lloyd was just one of 42,310 Americans who lost their lives or went missing in action during the Fifth Army’s 20-month-long Italian campaign.

My thanks to Elaine Barner for sharing these photos and newspaper accounts of her brother.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at Amazon.com 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 www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com