8th Annual Route 66 Birthplace Festival

I spent last weekend in Springfield, Missouri in the company of friends.  It was the 8th annual Birthplace of Route 66 Festival and I had a vendor booth in the Old Glass Place, a historic venue near the iconic Abou Ben Adhem Shrine Mosque.

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When I attended my first Birthplace festival in 2015, I told my wife that one day I’d have a booth at the festival and I’d feel like I had “made it.” Well, there I was with my photography and other goods three years later. Mike Ward was even kind enough to deliver my custom-painted Jack Rabbit Trading Post sign from Arizona!

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The whole weekend was a lot of fun. Each evening, a large group of roadies got together to eat, drink, and be merry. It’s a great environment for collaboration, too. That first night I drove to the Rest Haven Court to take photos of their neon sign which I’d only previously seen in the day. I parked a block away and waited for the tubes to light up as the sun sank below the horizon. After a few minutes, another photographer approached the sign. It was Efren Lopez, a man I hadn’t had an opportunity to get to know but whose work I really respect.  I stopped lurking and parked closer so we could chat about our mutual love of neon. Thanks to Efren asking the office manager, the sign finally lit up to match the beautiful Ozark sky.

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On Friday morning, I took an early drive south to the town of Ozark. They had a few old truss bridges that had been on my map for a while that I wanted to capture. The light was wonderful as I flitted about the Green Bridge, a 1912 span courtesy of the Canton Bridge Company from Ohio. The single lane was open to traffic, though its sister bridge two miles west was not so lucky.  Significant flooding a few years ago damaged several bridges in Christian County, some of which never re-opened. The Riverside Bridge was recently purchased by Bass Pro Shops in Springfield and will be moved/reopened. That’s great news!

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The days of the festival itself were festive indeed, with fleets of classic cars on the streets and a constant sea of humanity. My booth neighbors were Susan Croce Kelly (who wrote a book about Cyrus Avery) and David Wickline. David has been a figure in the Route 66 world for many years and I loved getting to talk to him about his various projects. His current push is to build a replica of the 66 Courts Motel in Kingman, AZ.

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The weather was good during the day but a Friday evening a pop-up thunderstorm threatened to cancel the parade. Our group watched from second-floor windows as the downpour faded away and the parade started…only for the rain to return suddenly with a vengeance. I felt bad for the folks on floats and riding in vintage open-top automobiles…but at least there was no hail.

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In too short a time, though, it was time to say goodbye and head home. I left Springfield early Sunday morning and hopped on-and-off the interstate to stop at a few Route 66 spots like the Gary Turner’s station in Paris Springs and the Boots Court in Carthage. It’s always nice to visit with the people of the road, even if it’s just for a few minutes. My final stop on the way home was at the Hi-Way Cafe in Vinita; if you missed my previous post about that visit, check it out here. The food and company were something to write home about!

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The Hi-Way Cafe

On the way home from Missouri this weekend, I stopped for lunch in Vinita, OK. Normally, I’d stop in at Clanton’s…but today I opted for the Hi-Way Cafe just west of town. I’d heard good things and the timing was right. I’m very glad I did.

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I pulled in to the gravel lot to find it quite full. I walked around the building and took a few photos before heading inside. I took a stool at the counter; an old man that had walked in behind me took the seat to my right.

“I saw you takin’ some pictures outside,” he said as he sat down. “That’s good! They’ve got some good stuff to photograph,” he said proudly. I remarked on the murals I’d captured as a waitress came over. “Hi, Leonard,” she said with family-like familiarity. “Coffee?” she asked, though it was mostly rhetorical. I followed his lead.

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I asked Leonard if he was from the area. “Lived here my whole life,” he confirmed. I asked him if he remembered when Route 66 was the main highway in these parts. “Well, I remember when this was just a two-lane,” he said. “I remember when my uncle…great uncle, I guess it would be…came in to Vinita on the train. I’m 72 now so this was a long time ago. It used to flood so bad around here the only way we could get out was in my Dad’s truck. He had an old…it was old then…a 1941 International Harvester. You know what that is? Yeah…well, it was the only vehicle we had that could get to town when it was like that.”

We ordered our food; a single biscuit and gravy for Leonard and a burger for me. “Where are you from?” he asked as our tickets were passed back to the kitchen. I said Tulsa and the old man searched his memory again. “I had family in Tulsa that we’d visit from time to time. When we’d get to town, I remember seeing a tower. No, I think it was three. They was at Denver and Pine. We’d drive all the way into town, stay a while, and pass those same towers on the way home.” I smiled and told him I knew what he was remembering: the old KVOO towers on the east edge of town…also on Route 66. I added that KVOO was the station that broadcast Bob Wills to the masses back in the day and it sparked another memory for Leonard.

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“There used to be a barn on Highway 60.  It was, oh, about a mile off of 66. Had a big round top on it. Bob Wills and his boys would come up from Tulsa and play sometimes. People would come from miles around, on horseback and such, to hear them play. Those were good times,” he recalled fondly. I asked him if that barn was still standing. “No, it burned down. The owner was loadin’ hay into his truck and left the engine on while it was still in the barn. Somethin’ sparked and the place went up. I could see the smoke from the house I grew up in. Real shame.”

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Our conversation dwindled once our food arrived; it was delicious. Leonard noticed a group of guys at a nearby table and chastised them (between bites) for not mowing their grass in a timely manner. Something about a ditch and right-of-way, but I tried not to eavesdrop. I looked around and noticed the entire place was filled with locals; I appeared to be the only out-of-towner. That’s good; that means this place should be around a while.

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I finished my meal and thanked Leonard for the enlightening conversation. I stepped over to the cash register and our waitress fiddled with an iPad so she could take my debit card. “How was everything?” she asked with genuine interest. I said everything was perfect. “Is this together?” she asked, nodding towards the old man who was still engaged with his neighbor. I smiled and nodded. It’s a small price to pay for a local history lesson.

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Texas Welcomes the World

Last weekend, I took a trip west to the Texas Panhandle. It was finally time for Texas Welcomes the World, the 2018 International Route 66 Festival! It had been a long time since I’d seen many of my roadie friends and I was excited to attend my first “official” International Route 66 Festival. I arrived in the early afternoon of Thursday, July 12th. When I was in Shamrock last fall, I pre-booked a room at the Western Hotel across from the famous U-Drop Inn.

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I’ve written about the stunning Art Deco service station before; it’s an Americana treasure. Every night at dusk photographers descended on the neon icon like a swarm of moths. Truthfully, the Conoco Tower is outlined in LED thanks to significant hail damage a few years back — but it looks spectacular. My first stop wasn’t the U-Drop, but in the town of McLean 20 miles west.

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Shamrock is the home of about 1,950 people. Rather than try to cram everything into the small town, events were spread out to surrounding communities. McLean is the home of the first Phillips 66 Station in Texas and the Devil’s Rope Barbed Wire Museum. The first official event of the festival was an unveiling of two models made by the late Willem Bor. Willem was a big inspiration for me early on…I even gave him and his wife a tour the last time he was in Tulsa. It was important that I be there to honor his memory.

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As expected, the models were stunning. Willem was a really gifted artist and made most of his models with only photographs as his guide. Models representing the Super 66 Station in Alanreed, TX and a Whiting Bros service station in Shamrock now have a permanent home and get to be enjoyed by thousands of people each year. The unveiling event was also the first place I ran into my roadie friends like Dora Meroney and Steve Rider. The community of Route 66 enthusiasts that flood these gatherings is the real reason I come out. It’s like a family reunion!

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For most of the weekend, the Shamrock Community Center was where I could find most of my friends. They were selling goods or sharing collected memorabilia in a giant vendor hall. Each evening, we broke bread together. Well, as many of us that would fit. We tended to overrun every restaurant in town. There aren’t many overflow options in a place like Shamrock but we made do. A few days back, I wrote about a lunch I had in nearby Texola, OK that you should definitely check out if you missed it.

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Saturday night we had a big banquet and concert by The Road Crew, the unofficial band of Route 66. The Road Crew performs at a great many Route 66 events; they even wrote an entire album of original music inspired by the Mother Road. They’re not just a band, they’re true roadies themselves. I always enjoy hearing them live in the company of so many like-minded folk. It also fun to hear their song about Ron Jones sung while he’s in attendance!

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My weekend wasn’t all about Route 66.  I took some time to do a little exploring since I wasn’t anchored down in the vendor hall.  I drove out to Clarendon to see their courthouse and unusual amount of public crosses (read more about that last bit here.) I stopped in Claude to take photos of an old service station. And I drove out to Palo Duro Canyon south of Amarillo, the second-largest canyon in the country! It was beautiful. Every afternoon, storm clouds amassed and threatened…but I only got rained on once, that first day in McLean.  Let me tell you, though, it was a gully washer!

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In what felt like a matter of hours, it was Sunday morning and time to go home. The last event of the festival was the traditional e-Group Breakfast, which was also a first for me.  Mike Ward, a well-known roadie with a vast postcard collection, has also run a Yahoo Group for Route 66 since 1999. For many years, the group has organized a breakfast gathering at the International Festivals. In addition to catered food, door prizes are given out thanks to the many donations from the e-Group members. There’s always enough for everyone and, sometimes, enough for two rounds of giveaways.

One of the items I walked away with came with a Certificate of Authenticity! It’s a small box of debris from the Painted Desert Trading Post, a Route 66 landmark that has been abandoned since the 1960s. It’s been mostly unreachable since that time and is starting to fall apart finally, but a Co-Op of 10 Route 66 enthusiasts banded together to buy the property. They’re working to arrest further deterioration of the property and ensure it remains available for decades to come. I know a small box of rubble sounds weird to non-enthusiasts, but it was a big deal to me.

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All-in-all, I had a great time. I made many new friends like Gary Cron from California, Dan Oberlin from St. Louis, and Guy Randall from Colorado. These guys were long-time roadies that had a wealth of knowledge that I soaked up like a sponge. It was sad to say farewell, but I knew I’d see many of these folks in a few weeks at the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival in Springfield, Missouri. There’s always something happening on the road!

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OH – and I bumped into the National Trust for Historic Preservation Crew on the way home! They were heading west through El Reno as I was heading back to Tulsa. I had been able to spend a little time with them in Tulsa before I left and it was lovely to see them again. Safe Travels, friends! And if you haven’t signed their petition to show your support for making Route 66 a National Historic Trail, what are you waiting for?? Check it out below:

https://savingplaces.org/preserve-route-66

 

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An Oasis in Texola

This weekend, I drove out to Shamrock Texas for the International Route 66 Festival, “Texas Welcomes the World.”  I’ll have a lot to say about my time here later, but today I want to share with you a little place just on the Okie side of the border in Texola.

By the time the Post Office was built in 1901, Texola had already been through several names (Texokla and Texoma) and had switched from being a part of Texas to Indian Territory multiple times; it seemed to change every time someone surveyed the area.  Oklahoma became a state in 1907 and forever placed Texola on the Oklahoma side of the border. Route 66 was established in 1926 and the little town grew to nearly 600 people by 1930.

However, the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era stunted the growth of this little town. Today, Texola is home to 36 residents spread out over less than one square mile. In early 2013, a new business sprung up in this quiet ghost town: the Tumbleweed Grill and Country Store, also known as Water Hole #2.

“There’s no other place like this place anywhere near this place so this must be the place.”

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Artist Masel Zimmerman moved to Texola from Florida some years back. She completely renovated a 1930s-era building and created a restaurant within spitting distance of the Lone Star State. Her little building is the modern day equivalent of a classic general store.  You can get groceries, clothing, motor oil, necessary items, and of course Route 66 swag — much of it customized for Texola or the Tumbleweed itself.  But there’s also the cafe, which is what brought me through the door.

When you walk into Water Hole #2, you greeted by a handful of simple tables. The food is traditional roadside fare, all freshly prepared. I’d heard the burger was good, so that’s what I ordered.  As my lunch was being prepared, I sat in the relative silence and admired Masel’s artwork on the walls. It was comforting to enjoy my iced tea with only the sound of the ceiling fans and the distant sound of a spatula scraping a skillet. There was no waitstaff; Masel handles everything herself.

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The burger was, in a word, tremendous.  The beef was fresh and the fries were hand-cut. The top bun had been quite literally branded with a Route 66 shield.  The flavor was pure and simple. I’ve had a great many burgers in my life and this was one of the best. Afterwards, I browsed the gift shop and met a traveling trio that stopped in as they traveled from Nashville TN to San Francisco. The Mother Road calls to them all.

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Masel and I talked for a few minutes before I headed back to Shamrock. She said business was really down this year and lamented the loss of Gary Turner in Missouri a few years ago. He’d been a big supporter, making sure travelers know to stop at her border cafe. She said that she has some days where she doesn’t have a single customer walk in the door.

The Tumbleweed isn’t visible from the interstate and the vast majority of her business comes from Route 66 tourism. Even then, getting the word out can be difficult in the modern age. I took her card and told her I’d tell everyone: stop in and see her if you’re in the area! You won’t regret it.

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Needless to say, I’ll be stopping in to see Masel any time I’m out this way. Here’s a great video my friend KC Keefer put together in Tumbleweed’s first year. Very little has changed!

 

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You Said We Couldn’t Do It, But We Did

There’s a new mural along Route 66 in Tulsa.

Many travelers and locals know of the Meadow Gold sign near 11th and Peoria. Right next to the brick pavilion that serves as a home to that iconic neon structure, on the east side of the building that houses the Corner Cafe, a colorful artistic work recreates part of the sculpture at Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza and exclaims, “You said we couldn’t do it, but we did.”

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Photo courtesy of artist Josh Butts

What does that mean? Well, that’s a great question…and an important one in the overall story of Tulsa’s success.

In 1901, oil was first discovered in what would become Tulsa County. When oil was struck at the Sue Bland #1 Well in the town of Red Fork, it rocketed 30 feet over the derrick in spectacular fashion. By the next week, thousands of men had poured into Indian Territory to seek their fortune. At that time only a railroad bridge connected Red Fork and Tulsa across the Arkansas River. The only way for most citizens to cross was by fording the river or using the ferry.

Tulsa city leaders recognized the need for a sturdy, reliable crossing across the Arkansas and tried to pass a bond issue to pay for a wagon bridge. The citizens of Tulsa, however, weren’t convinced. The Red Fork oil strike hadn’t resulted in a large discovery and many locals felt that the excitement was over.

Enter three local men: logger Melville Baird, merchant Joseph Don Hagler, and banker George T Williamson. They believed that oil was the future of Tulsa and pooled their own money to build a bridge across the Arkansas River.  On January 4, 1904, the new wagon bridge opened to the public.  On the top of the truss a small placard read, “You Said We Couldn’t Do It, But We Did.” It became a testament to Tulsa’s resiliency and spirit.

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In November of 1905, the Glenn Pool Oil Field was discovered.  This monumental oil reserve is considered by many the true start to Oklahoma’s oil boom and is what lead to Tulsa being billed as the Oil Capital of the World. If that wagon bridge had not been in place, it stands to reason that Sapulpa would instead be the second-largest city in Oklahoma and Tulsa would be the suburb.

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In 1917, the wagon crossing was replaced with a state-of-the-art multi-span concrete arch bridge. It was a beautiful, modern construct with multiple lanes for traffic and rails in the middle to support the Inter-Urban Trolley. The new bridge was spearheaded by Tulsa County Commissioner Cyrus Avery, who was also heavily involved in the Good Roads Movement to improve lanes of travel throughout the country.

Avery’s passion for roads lead to his appointment to the group tasked with designating and numbering the new federal highway system. This included Route 66, which Cyrus successfully lobbied to have routed through his home town of Tulsa. He used the 11th Street Bridge as a focal point for this decision, citing it as the best crossing across the Arkansas River in the country.  The rest of the committee agreed and in 1926, the Mother Road was born.

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The Eleventh Street Bridge was abandoned in favor of a modern bridge, built alongside the historic crossing, in 1982. It still stands today as the Cyrus Avery Memorial Bridge.  The severe deterioration of the deck prevents even pedestrian traffic. Due to a price tag of nearly $20 million, restoration efforts have not yet borne fruit. But, with history as our guide, perhaps there will be an opportunity once again to tell the doubters:

You Said We Couldn’t Do It, But We Did.

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(historic photos courtesy of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum)

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The March of Time

It’s been a little over seven years since I received that terrible phone call, the one that signaled a new age of my life. It’s a little surreal to look back at my world at the time of my father’s sudden passing. I feel like I was just a kid then, even though I was nearly 30; so much is different today.

None of my photography had ever been printed.  My knowledge of local history and tourism was limited at best.  Route 66 wasn’t even in my vocabulary. In fact, I hadn’t taken a single road trip in Oklahoma since returning home from my ten months overseas. It boggles my mind how much I’ve learned and accomplished since Dad knew me.

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On Father’s Day, I set out on a very familiar path; the road I know best, actually. Samantha joined me as I drove north from Tulsa into Osage County.  I’d wager that I’ve driven that stretch of road (Highway 75 to 20 to 11 to 99) more than any other two-lane in my life.  It was the road to my grandparent’s house (on both sides) and then it was the road to Dad’s. It’s still the road to much of my family. Some of it has changed, but much of it has not.

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I stopped in Barnsdall on the way up and took some time to walk Main Street.  At 8:30 in the morning in a town of 1,200 it was predictably still. Most of what I observed mirrored the town of my memory.  Bigheart Pizza, the resale shop, the post office, Andy’s Hamburgers. Several storefronts had burned down over the years (including my great-aunt Estelle’s beauty shop) and a few had been replaced with sheet-metal impostors. The grocery store I used to visit with grandma has been gone for decades; the “newer” store was recently put up For Sale, a victim of the Dollar General down the street. Overall, the town hangs on.

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When we arrived in Pawhuska, a brand-new service station greeted us on the edge of town.  The commercial impact of Ree Drummond’s Mercantile had continued to spread.  There were multiple new shops and restaurants downtown surrounding the Triangle Building, which itself is being beautifully renovated into a new hotel. I can’t believe how quickly it’s all happening. Most of the businesses were closed (it WAS still Sunday in a small town, after all) but I wonder how long it’ll be before these local-owned shops start operating seven days a week. My destination wasn’t the Merc or the Buckin’ Flamingo, though.

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The Pawhuska City Cemetery sits on a hill northwest of the city center.  Much to my surprise, even though Sam and I had been together for nearly five years, I’d never taken her there to visit Dad’s grave. When we got out of the car and approached the Martin plot I was surprised to see that the area was covered in beautiful little wildflowers. It was quite moving. I wanted to speak, but couldn’t, so we just stood there for a while. Eventually, I was able to talk a bit about all of my family members at rest there: Aunt Kim, Grandpa Hardy, Grandma Gail, and the Tony Martin.

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After we’d celebrated a few old lives, we visited my cousin Blakelea to celebrate a new one.  Blakelea and her husband Ora Brown are new parents, and little Conagher has been a part the world for about two months now. I’m not so great around babies, but Samantha was on Cloud 9. Ora took pity on me and drove us out into the ranch he works on for a little exploration. He showed me a few cattle pens they still use from the 1970s, when the railroad still ran out that way.

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We drove back into the deep pasture and onto the old rail bed itself, where you could see the path cut into the prairie to serve the Iron Horse. Today the path is overgrown and barely a road. We eventually made it to a dismantled bridge across Clear Creek: little more than a few bare concrete pillars in the wilderness.

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I did find an old date nail in a piece of the trestle, which Ora kindly dislodged for me. It’s labeled ’26’ meaning it was forged in 1926…the same year that Route 66 was formed. Ora also told me about a few other places in the area (including an old cave supposedly used by the Dalton Gang) that could be accessed on horseback. Guess I’m going to have to get over that phobia!

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Samantha and I bid farewell to our cousins and headed back to town.  We made a quick stop at Lookout Mountain before heading back to Tulsa. It’s not much of a mountain, really, but it does provide a beautiful view of the landscape.

It had been a good trip…a positive trip. Change isn’t bad; it’s an inevitable part of life. There’s a lot I never had the chance to tell my father; I never even got to say goodbye. But I know he would be proud of the man I am today and even more proud of the man I’ll be tomorrow.

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Uncommon Attractions

When I woke up early on Sunday, I was eager to get back on the road.  The EconoLodge in Hays, Kansas was fine, sure, but why lie around when I could be out exploring?  Besides, it’s cooler in the morning. However, I was shocked when I walked outside and discovered it was only 58 degrees.  I had dressed for the blazing afternoon heat!  My coffee served as a wake-me-up AND a warm-me-up as I hopped on the interstate and headed east.

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My first stop was not far away at the Cathedral of the Plains in Victoria. Technically, it’s called the Saint Fidelis Catholic Church…and since it’s not the home of a bishop, it’s not even a cathedral.  But in 1912, William Jennings Bryan gave it the grand title that has stuck to this day.  Although it was Sunday morning, it was still quite early.  The congregation had not yet stirred and I had the streets to myself.

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I didn’t have a very defined route for the day’s travel, but I had plenty of Google Maps markers to guide me down old US 40. I weaved through several small towns like Russell and Dorrance…I doubted my early visitation had anything to do with their empty streets.  By the time I arrived in Wilson, I could finally see signs of life.  A shopkeeper was tidying up her storefront, a couple talked over coffee in front of the Midland Hotel, and the little gas station diner had a full parking lot. On the east end of downtown, I was surprised to discover a giant colorful egg in a little plaza.  I investigated.

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Wilson is known as the Czech Capital of Kansas. In the 1870s, a group of immigrants settled in town to work on the railroad and brought their culture with them. There’s a big festival every summer and the World’s Largest Hand-Painted Czech Egg.  It’s 22 feet tall!  The Midland Hotel across the railroad tracks was used for filming in the 1973 film Paper Moon.  That’s a lot for a town of less than 1,000.

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From Wilson, I briefly detoured north.  After a lovely drive through the rolling hills surrounding Wilson Lake I arrived in Lucas, home of S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden. Samuel Dinsmoor was a Civil War veteran that became something of a social commentator through his art, which decorates the land around the cabin he built in the early 1900s. For twenty years, he built a sculpture garden that represented what he considered the Story of Man.  The house is surrounded with amazing concrete artwork; its a see-it-to-believe-it kind of place.  Alas, I was still running pretty early and the cabin was not open for a proper visit.  I must return someday.

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I started to think about home after I finished looking around Lucas and plotted a course to the southeast.  Of course, a straight shot was unacceptable…there was plenty to see as I headed back to Oklahoma.  I stopped for a walk at Mushroom Rock State Park, one of several natural wonders in central Kansas.  It’s the smallest state park I’ve ever heard of at 5 acres; I could walk end-to-end very easily.  The handful of significant rocks that give the park its name are unusual and magnificent.

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I weaved through a few more communities as morning became afternoon: Brookville, Abilene, Woodbine, Enterprise.  I stopped for a few minutes on a gravel road to watch a crop duster do his thing.  I didn’t make another proper stop until I was enticed into the town of Lost Springs thanks to a Santa Fe Trail highway sign.  Sure enough, a small stone monument stood proudly in the “city park”. I don’t think the town had a single functioning business, but there were a few abandoned buildings that were lovely to photograph. Thanks, National Historic Trail sign!

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As the afternoon wore on, I became weary.  I drove through Marion & Augusta with less desire for exploration; I took some photos of neon signs and a few old buildings, but didn’t dally long.  When I entered Winfield, the town of my father’s birth, I just drove through.  I had considered taking photos of the old hospital, but it’s now part of a large correctional facility and inaccessible. Oh well.

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When I re-entered Oklahoma in late afternoon, I figured it would be a good idea to finally eat something. Since I’d be passing through Bartlesville anyway, I stopped in at Murphy’s for dinner.  And let me tell you, that’s never a bad idea.  GRAVY OVER ALL! By the time I got home, I was tuckered out.  It was a great weekend of new sights – I hope you enjoyed following along.

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