Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Proposed Sand Hills Wind Turbines Pose Threat to Endangered Cranes

Whooping cranes. Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
 Who in the Sand Hills hasn’t heard the otherworldly sound of a flock of cranes as they slowly make their way south in the fall? Shading one’s eyes and looking up, one can see the silhouettes of the Sandhill cranes as they use the thermal drafts and southerly winds to migrate through Nebraska.
This may be a sight the people of Cherry, Thomas and Logan Counties will only be able to tell their grandchildren about if the plan moves forward to populate the region with wind turbines.
A careful reading of two government-funded reports on the effects of wind turbines placed in the paths of North America’s two crane species—the sandhill crane and the endangered whooping crane—spells out the possible fate of these birds in the counties along Highway 83.
The first, a 2009 report produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, describes the dangers to the delicate whooping crane population, which at last count in February 2015 numbered only 442 wild birds.
“The principal known cause of loss [of whooping cranes] during migration is collision with utility lines … Additional power line construction throughout the principal migration corridor will increase the potential for collision mortalities,” the report said. 
“Based on the known threat of wind turbines to other migratory birds, and to their large body size and low maneuverability, it is reasonable to expect that whooping cranes could be killed by turbine blades, given the number of existing and proposed wind turbines within the … migration corridor,” the report said.
Cranes fly at about 1,000 to 6,000 feet so at first glance, there seems to be little risk for collision until one takes into account the many different scenarios where mortality can occur: when they are ascending and descending, when they occasionally fly at night, in poor weather and when searching for wetlands to rest. (Wetlands are found throughout Cherry County.)
Further, there was some evidence in the 2009 report that the birds may adjust to the existence of wind farms. In other words, they will begin to fly miles out of the way to avoid the towers. They then end up in stopover areas that they do not normally use. That puts them at risk of exhaustion, predators and so on.
The sandhill crane was used in this report as a stand-in species because of the whooping cranes’ small numbers.
Six years after this report, another produced this year by the U.S. Geological Survey said there was further research backing up this behavior.
Wind farm south of Minot, ND along Highway 83. By Stew Magnuson
That report, “Wintering Sandhill Crane exposure to wind energy development in the central and southern Great Plains, USA,” at first glance seemed to be good news to windmill proponents, as it found only a 6 percent overlap between the more common cranes and wind farms. That is until you drilled down and got beyond the headline. The future is much less certain.
Six years of research since the 2009 report found more evidence that cranes may begin to take different paths miles out of their normal routes to avoid turbine blades, the report said. This should be alarming to the people of Kearney and Grand Island. UNL's Bureau of Business Research in a report this spring found that the bird watchers who come to the Platte River valley to see the annual migrations in spring and fall contribute $10.33 million yearly into the state’s economy. One wonders how these legions of birders will feel about the State of Nebraska when the first report of a flock of sandhill cranes is found dead underneath a wind turbine — or even more horrifying, whooping cranes. Can anyone claim it will never happen?
Yes six percent doesn’t seem like a lot, but the Geological Survey report only studied existing wind farms. The placing of windmills as far as the eye can see in the Sand Hills was not included in this report.
“A continuation of this seeming compatibility of wintering cranes and wind energy development will depend upon the placement of future towers in locations not highly preferred by cranes,” the U.S. Geological Survey report clearly said.
Here are some other points from the 2009 Fish and Wildlife study.
“Wind farms should not be built near traditional whooping crane stopover locations, and should be placed as far away from the centerline of the whooping crane migration corridor as feasible. Wind farms should not be constructed in areas within a wetland mosaic suitable for whooping cranes to use,” it stated.
Let me spell it out for those who are not from the area: Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.
I keep staring at the maps I’m finding online that tracked GPS-banded whooping cranes and their migration routes and wondering how these projects can go forward. And in Custer County? That’s even closer to the paths. 
And here is something for those investing in these projects to chew on.
“If a whooping crane were to be killed by a wind turbine, [Fish & Wildlife] could request that the wind farm cease operations during all or portions of the spring and fall whooping crane migration periods.”
It continued: “Companies should factor in the scenario of a possible required cessation of operations when selecting a wind farm site.”
The arguments I’ve heard from windmill proponents that housecats kill millions of birds is irrelevant and sad. Besides, I’d like to see the house cat that can take down North America’s tallest birds. Unfortunately, cranes are no match for these windmill monstrosities.
The issue of wind farms in the Nebraska Sand Hills has not yet gone beyond “Not in My Backyard,” or NIMBYism. But it’s time that the citizens downstate and the millions of birders around the world understand what may be in store for these magnificent creatures if these projects go forward.

Stew Magnuson is a proud Nebraskan residing in Arlington, Virginia, whose family roots are in the Sand Hills.  He is the author of two editions of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83. His book The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder, past winner of the Nebraska nonfiction book of the year award, was recently named one of the state's 150 most important literary works. Contact him at stewmag (a)

Friday, August 5, 2016

Two New Photos of DeWitty Emerge: What Message Do They Have For Us?

Courtesy of Sharon Hughes

 Earlier this year, some 200 people gathered on the side of the Highway 83 in Cherry County to dedicate a new roadside historical marker commemorating DeWitty, Nebraska.
DeWitty, also known as Audacious, was the longest lasting and most successful African-American rural settlement in Nebraska, and was spread out in the Sand Hills along the North Loup River west of Highway 83. It lasted from about 1906 to the mid-1930s.
Within its 184 words, the marker mentions the close relationship between the black settlers and their white neighbors, which included the town of Brownlee. (For the complete text of the marker, scroll down to the end of the blog.)
As a result of the publicity surrounding the campaign to install the marker, two previously unpublished photos have emerged that confirm much of what authors such as myself have been saying about life back then in the Sand Hills: despite racial differences that were then plaguing the wider world, pretty much everybody in the Sand Hills got along fine.    
The marker reads: “On Independence Day, residents of DeWitty and nearby Brownlee would come together for a rodeo, baseball game and picnic.”
A few weeks ago, Helen White of Thedford, Nebraska, passed on a photo that a friend Sharon Hughes had found recently in a shoebox full of pictures. Hughes’ family once lived nearby DeWitty, north of Seneca, although she now resides in Grand Island.
The photo says “Ballgame at Brownlee, July 4, ‘14.” (The “4” is cut off on the image but it is also written on back.
For the first time, we have a photograph of one of these Independence Day activities. There are at least two known photos of DeWitty men dressed in their baseball uniforms, but in this photo we actually see a game being played. The DeWitty team was known as the North Loup Sluggers.
There is a lot to be gleaned from this picture.
Courtesy of Catherine Meehan Blount
Ron Lee, a Brownlee resident, whose family has been in the town since its founding, has passed the photo around to other residents, and the consensus is that the game took place on a field northwest of the town, close to where the paved Brownlee road is now. The church steeple near the baseball player’s elbow is a clue, but also caused some confusion. That church was apparently torn down or moved later in the decade and its replacement is configured differently. There is some disagreement among residents, Lee said, however, the spot northwest of town is where the town’s oral history indicates that rodeos and ballgames took place.
With all the backs turned away from the camera, identifying individuals with certainty is nearly impossible. Catherine Meehan Blount thinks the man (second from the left) might be her grandfather, the white Irish-Canadian Charles Meehan, because he  enjoyed smoking a pipe. Meehan, with his black wife, Hester Freeman, were one of DeWitty’s first residents. The tale of this interracial couple is just one of the many fascinating stories about this unique settlement.
Two men down from the man smoking a pipe, another fellow is wearing chaps. Was he participating in the rodeo later? Another charming part of the picture is the horse sticking its nose in the frame on the right — an early example of photobombing!
As for the baseball game itself, the most prominent player, or perhaps a base coach, is holding up two fingers. It’s hard to see him among the crowd, but there appears to be a batter with his hands in at his waist, warming up to hit. Is he reminding the batter that there are two strikes or perhaps two outs? And if he is batting, that sure is a dangerous spot to be a spectator. There appears to be at least two other players in uniform in the crowd, one walking behind the batter and another with his arms crossed. We also see the leg of another player on the far left. Is that a pitcher winding up? There are two white spots in the grass, one close between the two spectators on the left, and another one closer to the edge of the far crowd. It would appear that the closer one is third base and the farther one first base, but then where is the pitcher, first baseman, third baseman and so on for the opposing team? So maybe this interpretation is wrong: those aren’t bases, the man isn’t batting but is a center fielder and the figure on the left is an infielder.
In any case, we have a picture of the North Loup Sluggers playing baseball, and the two communities coming together in celebration of Independence Day.
DeWitty descendants at the marker dedication
The communities coming together is a reminder of what happened on April 11 this year — almost 102 years after this photo was taken — when eighteen descendants of the DeWitty settlers came from six different states to dedicate the historical marker. They flew or drove from Delaware, Virginia, Colorado, California, New York and eastern Nebraska to honor the memory of their ancestors. Descendants of the Meehans, Browns, Rileys, Walkers and even DeWittys, the first postmaster for whom the town was named, traveled to see the marker. There to greet them were some 180 Nebraskans, including two TV crews, a reporter from the Stapleton Enterprise-Thomas County Herald, State Senator Al Davis, and representatives from the Nebraska State Historical Society, and the Cherry and Thomas County Historical Societies. 
Overflow crowd at the Brownlee Community Hall
When the baseball picture was taken, Brownlee had about 100 residents. Today, a sign says “Population, 20, or so.” But the tiny community, which includes nearby ranchers, went all out to welcome anyone who came, inviting them to a potluck lunch at the town’s community hall. More than 100 people came to eat the lunch and hear a presentation from Humanities Nebraska speaker Vicki Harris, an expert on Nebraska’s black settlers, traveled from Arizona just for the presentation. It was a homecoming as well for Brownlee descendants such as the White family, whose old family general store still stands.
Later, Don Hanna, a local rancher, who now owns most of the property where DeWitty residents once lived, was gracious enough to take descendants on a tour to the remote DeWitty sites, which are inaccessible to the public. Part of the tour was a stop at a small graveyard, where about eight DeWitty pioneers are resting.     
The second unpublished photo was passed on to me about a year ago from Ron Lee. It
Courtesy of Ron Lee
portrays two boys, Merrill “Jim” Lee and Claude Conrad of DeWitty, sitting on the porch of the Lee ranch house in 1918.
They were by all accounts good buddies. Several of the one-room schoolhouses west of Brownlee were integrated and schoolmates ended up being lifelong friends. One of the DeWitty descendants, Goldie Walker-Hayes, remained in Cherry County long after the DeWitty settlement disappeared, and taught in these schools.
When it comes to race relations in America, the nation has endured much pain along with many triumphs in the years after these two photos were taken. It would take more than three decades before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues. Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, which lead to desegregation of schools, didn’t happen for another 40 years. Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws forbidding interracial marriage, came only in 1967.  
No one can say that the residents of DeWitty never encountered prejudice while living there, it’s just that we have very little evidence of it in the historical record. Instead, we have in the depths of the Sand Hills — a land back then mostly cut off from the wider world — the story of DeWitty and Brownlee, people getting along fine and leaning on each other when needed, an interracial couple, desegregated schools and folks coming together to enjoy a holiday celebration.
These people, now just images frozen in time, kept shoe boxes for a century, have come back to deliver a message to us. Let’s listen to them.

Stew Magnuson will give a presentation about Highway 83 and DeWitty, Thursday, Sept. 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha, located in Crossroads Mall. Free and open to the public!

 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, which has a chapter about DeWitty. 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)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Hunter: An Excerpt from The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83 in Texas

This excerpt takes place in May 2010 in the Rio Grande Valley.  

The Hunter
By Stew Magnuson

On my way out of Zapata the next day, I set out to find the ruins of a gas station that was once on Highway 83 before the Falcon Dam inundated the valley.
A souvenir store owner had tipped me off about the building, which he said was near on old fishing camp about five miles west of 83. He gave me detailed directions on how to find it, so after driving a few miles I left the comfort of the paved highway and took off on a gravel road, getting lost for a bit, but eventually righting myself until I come across the fishing camp.
I can’t find anything resembling an old gas station so I start to drive through the ramshackle collection of aging campers and mobile homes shaded by gnarly old trees. It’s not long before an old man in a red pickup truck intercepts me near a boat ramp. He rolls down the window.
“What ya looking for?” he asks. He looks a little miffed, and I realize that maybe I shouldn’t be here.
I tell him my story and he listens carefully as we both get out of our vehicles. He sizes me up and decides that I’m not a threat. They have been having all sorts of problems with drug smugglers and for all he knew, I could have been someone here to meet a boat full of dope coming over the lake, he explains. They have been known to fly helicopters over the border to see if the coast is clear.
“People round here sleep with their guns loaded by their beds,” he says.
His name in Jack Cox Jr., and his father once owned the fishing camp, which has been here for some fifty years. The old gas station is just a few yards past the camp entrance and over a fence. It’s marked “No Trespassing,” but it shouldn’t be a problem if I just want to hop over and snap a few pictures, he tells me.
Since I introduced myself as an author, he wants to know what I’ve written. It just so happens I have copies of my first book in the trunk, and he wants to buy one.
“There ain’t much to do out here except read,” he says.
Jack Cox Jr., May 2010
There are only three full-time residents in the camp, and he’s one of them. He sold the property four years ago, but part of the deal with the new owner was that he could stay there for five years rent free.
He invites me back to his house for a cup of coffee.
Out front of the white mobile home, I’m greeted by a shaggy white dog and a friendly cat, who has just brought Jack a dead bird as a present.
Inside, the mobile home is not what I expected. It is decorated with African art: masks, textiles, carvings.
“I managed a hunting camp in Somalia on the Jubba River for five years,” he declares.
“You did what, now?”
I’m glad I grabbed my notebook.
Jack takes a seat in a chair, while I sit on his sofa and fumble for a pen. He’s eighty-one years old, he tells me. Fox News is on mute. I would expect an elderly widower’s mobile home to be a mess. The room is cluttered, but clean. His coffee table is covered in magazines: The Weekly Standard, National Geographic, Smithsonian. He tries to peg me as a liberal, Washington, D.C.-based journalist. I tell him I’m a radical centrist. That seems to confuse him.
“It means I’m in the middle and I get to argue with everybody.”
Fortunately, the conversation turns away from politics and to his days as a big game guide.
“I was an elephant hunter and a safari guide,” he continues, first giving me a quick version of his life story.
He grew up in Midland, Texas, where he was a friend of Larry L. King, who would go on to be a journalist, author and the co-writer of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Like many in that area, Jack joined the oil business and worked for Rogers Exploration as a “seismic man.” The company sent him to Australia, Tanzania, Brazil and Bolivia for years-long stints.
He married twice, both times to Australian women. His second wife died fifteen years ago. He is still in contact with his first. Back when he was a young man in Midland, he was in love with a high school classmate. But a fighter pilot from the nearby Air Force base stole her away. A lifetime later, the Air Force officer passed away, and Jack and his long-lost love are at last together. She lives in Sweetwater, Texas, and he travels there quite a bit to see her. She hates the fishing camp.
“I got her in the end,” he says with a smile.
He doesn’t mention any children, and I forget to ask. Some kind of journalist, I am.
He was in Tanzania working for the oil company when the opportunity to run the hunting camp in Somalia presented itself.
He pushes himself up from the chair, walks to another room and returns with an album.
Inside, is an envelope, and inside the envelope is a brochure for the camp. It’s fifty years old, but it looks like it was printed yesterday. He was there from the late 1950s to the early 1960s—back when well-heeled men could live out their Hemingway safari fantasies—for a price.
He shows me black and white pictures of the kills.
“My first lion,” is written in pen on the edges of one. Jack and some other fellow is squatting next to a lioness, holding her mouth open, smiling. Jack is young, his black hair slicked back, a broad, handsome face. It’s startling to see him as a young man.
“Those were good times,” he said, showing me another picture of two guests he identifies as members of the Kennedy administration.
“And the women …” he trails off. Smiles. I can see that he’s remembering one of them, maybe more. I don’t dare interrupt his reverie.
“I closed up many bars in Nairobi,” he continues as I look at a series of pictures of dead elephants, gazelles and such. That was back when the Italians ran Somalia. Once the colonialists left, the “whole country went to shit,” he says. That was the end of the hunting lodge on the Jubba River. He went back to being a seismic man for the oil companies, although he did spend a couple years trying to grow cotton in Australia.
“Money never was the thing, you see. But I wish I had saved just a little bit more of it.”
He’s heading up to Sweetwater that day to see his “lady friend,” as he calls her, so it’s time for me to go. He really wants me to see the old gas station before I leave. So we head back outside where he lets me take a few pictures of him as the cat curls around his leg.
“It’s been a good life. I’m not a religious man, but I wonder what the adventure is on the other side.”
*    *   *



Well, Jack said it’s no problem. So I climb over the fence where the signs are hung and walk a few feet back among to find what remains of old Highway 83 and a gas station.
The filling station is a yellowish-pinkish shell. It looks as if the waters have come up several times to wash away everything but its walls. The roof is gone, but a beam that once held it up to keep the sun and rain off motorists filling up at the pumps still stands. Someone else has ignored the sign and taken potshots at the beam, leaving a half-dozen bullet holes in the concrete. Mesquite and prickly pear are growing around it.
The old road itself is gravel and disappears into the vegetation. I poke around for any relics from the old days—an old bottle, a sign—there’s nothing but pieces of corrugated steel. A cluster of cactus bulbs has somehow taken hold on top of the wall. I wonder how it can do that.
I imagine the gas station in its heyday. If it ever had one. It was unattached to a town—a good ten miles away from any of the now submerged villages. I see the cars pulling up for gas and water on hot days, parents yanking Coke bottles out of the pop machine for their kids, the attendant wiping the dust and bug juice off the windshields.
Included in the $47 million the federal government spent to construct the Falcon Dam was $3.5 million allocated to improve fifty-five miles of Highway 83, and to relocate several miles of it to the north. The Texas State Highway Department did the work. The unflooded sections of the road and bridges were widened from eighteen to twenty-four feet and graded to eliminate the “rollercoaster effect,” as one newspaper described it. Care was taken to construct the new sections far to the north beyond where the lake was expected to rise. Work was finished before the dam was dedicated in 1953. Slowly, the Rio Grande waters swallowed up the villages and the old highway. I wonder if they left any of those old federal shield signs standing. I can picture bass swimming around them now.
One of the first dry spells after the dam was built exposed the five abandoned villages and their buildings. The feds decided that the structures were hazardous and bulldozed them, leaving nothing but foundations. Yet the gas station sitting out here survived.   
Taking a picture of the highway as it emerges from the mesquite, I notice there are car tracks in the gravel. I doubt the ghosts of old U.S. Route 83 left them there, so I’m not going to push my luck with the Border Patrol, a drug smuggler, or whoever has been driving back here. I don’t linger.

This encounter with Jack Cox Jr. occurred in May 2010. A little more than a year later, my attempts to reach him failed. His phone was disconnected and a letter came back to me “Return to Sender. No Forwarding Address.” Attempts to track him down online have come up empty. If anyone knows the whereabouts or fate of Jack, please contact me. 

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83 in Texas, available at the Gageby Country Store in Canadian, Texas, The Museum of the Plains in Perryton and Texas Star Trading in Abilene. He also penned 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)

Friday, May 27, 2016

A Salute to the War Heroes Encoutered Along Highway 83

During the week preceding Memorial Day 2016, I highlighted on the Fans of U.S. Route 83 page several young men who paid the ultimate sacrifice for the nation, and called a Highway 83 community their hometown.

I have compiled them here. Of course, there are so many others I have not listed, and we salute them as well.

Army Pvt. David B. Barkeley, Laredo, Texas

Barkeley, whose father was Mexican-American, was actually named David Cantu. He enlisted under his mother's maiden name so he could join a unit that would go into combat in World War I. For his bravery, he became one of three Texans to earn the Medal of Honor during The Great War. Later, when they discovered his origins, he was recognized as the first Mexican-American to earn the Medal of Honor.

His citation reads: “When information was desired as to the enemy's position on the opposite side of the Meuse River, Pvt. Barkeley, with another soldier, volunteered without hesitation and swam the river to reconnoiter the exact location. He succeeded in reaching the opposite bank, despite the evident determination of the enemy to prevent a crossing. Having obtained his information, he again entered the water for his return, but before his goal was reached, he was seized with cramps and drowned.”

Marine Corp Corporal Harlon Block, Weslaco, Texas

Marine Corps Corp. Harlon Block, the man planting the flag in the Iwo Jima Memorial sculpture. Block was a star football player at Weslaco High School in his hometown along Highway 83 in Weslaco, Texas. Block was mortally wounded by an enemy mortar round explosion while leading the squad during an attack toward Nishi Ridge about 11 days after the flag was raised. He was 20 years old. In January 1949, Block's remains were re-interred in Weslaco, Texas. In 1995, his body was moved to a burial place at the Marine Military Academy near the Iwo Jima monument in Harlingen, Texas.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Alfredo Salinas, San Ygnacio, Texas

In the town of San Ygnacio, Texas, along the banks of the Rio Grande, you will find in the town square this granite marker commemorating the life of Petty Officer 2nd Class Alfredo Salinas. Salinas was aboard the USS Indianapolis the day a Japanese submarine torpedoed it, sending 900 of the crew into the waters with few supplies or life rafts. They floated there for four days before being discovered. By that time, 600 more of the sailors had perished due to exposure, injuries or shark attacks. Salinas was among those who didn't make it and his remains were never found. He was 19 years old.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. John C. Waldron, Fort Pierre, South Dakota

When you travel 83 from Pierre to Fort Pierre over the Missouri you are on the
John C. Waldron Memorial Bridge. Named after Naval aviator Lt. Cmdr. John C. Waldron, a hero of the Battle of Midway. Waldron was the son of a Fort Pierre rancher and part Lakota. On June 4, 1942, Waldron’s squadron of  torpedo aircraft found the Japanese carrier group before dive bomber backup could arrive. Undaunted, he led an attack on the carriers but all 15 of the Hornets were shot down by Japanese Zeroes. Waldron and 29 of his 30 men perished. Nevertheless, his attack forced the Japanese carrier group to take up defensive positions against low altitude attacks. The Zeroes were refueling when the high-flying U.S. dive bombers arrived. They destroyed three Japanese carriers, a mortal blow to the Imperial Navy.  Waldron's unit received a citation for bravery and Waldron the Navy Cross.

Army Staff Sgt. Edwin Lloyd Magnuson, Stapleton, Nebraska
The next one is personal. It’s is my second cousin, Staff Sgt. Edwin Lloyd Magnuson, from my father’s hometown, Stapleton, Nebraska. Lloyd, as he preferred to be called, earned the silver star for gallantry in action during World
War II in the Italian campaign.

His citation reads: “On the 13th of October, 1943, while his company was engaging 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.”

About two months later, January 24, 1944, Lloyd was killed in action during the Battle of Anzio. The family doesn’t have any details of the circumstances surrounding his death. VFW Post #8258 in Stapleton is named in his honor. He is buried at the Fort McPherson National Cemetery east of North Platte.

Marine Corps First Lt. Jack Eitel, Scott City, Kansas

You will find these boots at the War Memorial in Scott City, Kansas, which is a
few blocks east of Hwy 83. 1st Lt. Jack Eitel went from S.C. to West Point, then Vietnam in the Marine Corps. He died during an enemy ambush on July 8, 1965.
I found this very moving piece written about him by one of his West Point classmates on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall Fund website.

Brigadier General Ramon M. Ong (Ret) wrote: “I met Jack on my first day at West Point. We were assigned to the same squad during Beast Barracks. He was a quiet, country-boy type who had an inner toughness that just didn't quit. He helped me a lot during those first two months when the training was almost more than I could handle. I was an 18 year old foreigner from the Philippines, and the new diet, discipline and demands took a serious toll on my physical and mental performance. Jack was always there to help me, whether to carry part of my heavy backpack, or push me up a steep mountainside or simply to yell words of encouragement at me when I was at the edge of despair and ready to call it quits.

The rest of the 4 years, I observed Jack grow steadily into a great leader, poised, capable and ready to conquer any obstacle, yet also ready to help those who couldn't. We went our separate ways after graduation, he to the US Marines and I to the Philippine Army. We never saw each other again and I learned about his death only many, many years later. Too bad, he would have gone far, had he survived.

Goodbye, Jack, I shall never forget you. Thank you for being at my side when I needed a helping hand. Thank you for helping me become what I am today.”

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 and The Last American Highway in Texas. All 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)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Nebraska's 150 Greatest Literary Works Named; Many Set Along Highway 83

The Nebraska Literary Heritage Association, in partnership with the Nebraska State Historical Society and the Nebraska Library Commission, chose my book The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns for its list of Nebraska books that “represent the best literature produced from Nebraska during the past 150 years” to mark the state’s sesquicentennial in 2017.
Nebraska has a rich literary history with giants such as Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, John G. Neihardt, Wright Morris and 13th Poet Laureate of the United States Ted Kooser among the state’s pantheon of great writers. Their works show up several times on the list.
My book mostly takes place 100 miles to the west of Highway 83, but scrolling down the list of other books chosen, there are several that are set along Highway 83 worth noting. Most of them I have read, and couple I relied upon for The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma.
Here are a few of that I cited in The Last American Highway book:

 Cheyenne Autumn by Mari Sandoz. The Northern Cheyennes’ dramatic escape from the confines of their reservation in Indian Territory in 1878 is an American epic. Two incidents during their journey took place along Highway 83 in Kansas: The Battle of Punished Woman Fork near Lake Scott, and the massacre of the settlers near Oberlin. Both stories are recounted in Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma book. Their journey afterwards in Nebraska took them northwest of the present day road.

The Niobrara: A River Running Through Time by Paul A. Johnsgard. University of Nebraska professor emeritus Johnsgard is the state’s foremost naturalist writer and the Niobrara, perhaps the state’s most scenic river. I relied heavily on this work for the Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma book. Duane Gudgel, proprietor of the Plains Trading Co. bookstore in Valentine also contributed a chapter to this excellent work.

 The Nebraska Sand Hills: The Human Landscape by Charles Barron McIntosh. The University of Nebraska Press produced this plain looking hardcover book without a dust jacket for some reason, but don’t judge a book by the lack of a cover. This is a thorough work on this beautiful and unique landscape. Long out of print, however, the aforementioned Duane at Plains Trading Co. was wise enough to buy up the overstock. Contact the store for copies or go to its website.

An Unspeakable Sadness: The Dispossession of the Nebraska Indians by David Wishart. Take a look at a map of Nebraska and note how many Indian reservations there are. Not many. Most of the nations that called the state their home, including the Pawnees, were sent to Indian Territory. Every Nebraskan should read this book. UNL professor of geography Wishart has a total of three books on the list!

The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin. We all know that many snowstorms in Nebraska are preceded by warm, balmy days. In 1888, school children across the northern plains headed to their one-room school houses without their coats or wearing light jackets. As they headed home that evening, a monster arrived from the north. This story became part of an excerpt on natural disasters I published in this blog.

No Time on My Hands: Grace Snyder as told to Nellie Snyder Yost. A memoir of how the Sand Hills were settled, including the story of my grandmother’s hometown Tryon, and the Highway 83 town of Stapleton. 
Here are two books on the list that are set along Highway 83, but I didn’t use in my writing:

Once Upon a Town: The Story of the North Platte Canteen.
Chicago-based columnist Bob Greene put the remarkable story of the North Platte Canteen on the map for many Americans. During World War II, every train carrying troops that pulled into the station was greeted by a group of mostly women who had baked or cooked dishes for them and spent some time talking with the soldiers in the Union Pacific train depot waiting room. Small towns along Highway 83 and in the Sand Hills would sign up to volunteer for a day. My grandmother Bernice Magnuson was among those who baked cakes and traveled there on Stapleton’s day to host the troops.

 Fighting Liberal: The Autobiography of George W. Norris. Norris, a giant in Washington in both the House and Senate in the first half of the 20th century, called McCook, Nebraska, his home. Travelers can visit his house there.

And finally, anytime someone compiles a subjective list of this nature, there will be some disagreement. That's part of the fun. Here are some Nebraska works I think should have made it, but didn’t.

Red Cloud’s Folk, Spotted Tail’s Folk, A Sioux Chronicle, The Pawnee Indians, Life of George Bent, etc. by George E. Hyde.
How could the committee not name a single book by this Omaha-born and raised writer and amateur historian who devoted his life to recording the history of the Native Americans who called Nebraska home? Hyde corresponded and interviewed participants in the so-called Indian Wars long before most historians cared. Where would we be without these books? His life’s work is all the more remarkable when one takes into account that he was legally blind. Plus, Hyde is simply fun to read. A major oversight. 

Empire on the Platte by Richard Crabb. This excellent 1967 book tells the story of a violent family of Texas cowboys, Print Olive and his brothers, who made their way to the Nebraska prairie to run cattle. They owned most of Custer County at one time. The Olives were the archetypes for the bad guy cowboys portrayed in so many Hollywood westerns. A great history of the cattle drive days before barbed wire.  Long out of print, but highly recommended. 

Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere by Poe Ballentine. Chadron-based author Poe Ballentine wrote an instant classic about his on-again, off-again relationship to the Panhandle town. The first half of the memoir is literally laugh out loud funny, then takes a serious turn as the town is wracked by the gruesome death, perhaps murder, of a mathematics professor. The title alone deserved a spot on the list!

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)

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Descendants of Nebraska African-American Settlement to Attend Historical Marker Ceremony on Highway 83

Turnoff for the DeWitty historical marker
Descendants of an African-American settlement in Nebraska’s Sand Hills are expected to arrive in Cherry County on April 11 to celebrate the unveiling of a historical marker on U.S. Highway 83. DeWitty, also known as Audacious, was a series of homesteads scattered along the North Loup River west of the present-day town of Brownlee, Nebraska, and lasted from about 1906 until the Depression years.

The Nebraska State Historical Society marker will be located just south of the Brownlee turnoff. The dedication ceremony is slated to take place at 10 a.m., Monday April 11 at the marker site. The public is welcome to attend.
“So far, I’ve heard from descendants coming from as far away as California, Delaware and Virginia who have booked flights,” says Stew Magnuson, author of the book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83, which has a chapter about the settlement.
Descendants of the town’s first postmaster, Jim DeWitty, are expected to come from Oklahoma. Other descendants of the DeWitty and Brownlee communities may attend from Omaha, Colorado and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, said Magnuson.
After the ceremony, Humanities Nebraska lecturer Vicki Harris will give a presentation about DeWitty at the Brownlee Community Hall, which will be followed by a potluck lunch.
“There are not many residents left in Brownlee and the surrounding ranches, but they are going all out to welcome the DeWitty descendants and the other celebrants,” says Magnuson. The two communities were very tight back in the day, he says. 
Brownlee Community Hall
“I am glad that the marker mentions the close bond between the black settlers of DeWitty and the white residents of Brownlee. The two communities were both really isolated and on their own in the depths of Sand Hills back then. Here we have the story of a mixed-race couple, integrated schools, neighbors helping each other when they needed it, and two communities coming together to celebrate the quintessential American holiday, Independence Day. This should be remembered,” says Magnuson. 

Speakers at the ceremony will include a Cherry County Historical Society representative, Magnuson, Catherine Meehan Blount, a granddaughter of Charles and Hester Meehan — an interracial couple, who were among the early DeWitty settlers — and Joyceann Gray, a niece of Goldie Walker Hayes, a legendary teacher who remained in the county to work in one-room schoolhouses long after the settlement disappeared. The invocation will be conducted by the Reverend Khadijah Matin, also a niece of Walker-Hayes.  

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)