105.5 (leaving Blue Rapids): Turn right (west), water tower on left. 105.8: Cross railroad tracks; turn left and then right two blocks; turn west windmill on right. – Official Log of the Kansas White Way
If you want to get a feel for what early travelers faced on Kansas roads, one could do no better than take Highway 9 from the intersection of U.S. Highway 73 west of Atchison and stairstep down through Effingham, Muscotah, Whiting and Netawaka. For much of that route the proliferation of ninety-degree bends guarantees a slow and impeded drive, sure to frustrate the impatient but something of a pleasure cruise for those interested in scenery, history and the allure of the open road. The speed limit, 55 miles per hour, is rarely attainable except in a few, rare, straightaways.
It wasn’t always so. One hundred years ago, as cars in rural areas gradually replaced horses and trains as primary means of transportation, roads were primitive at best, maps novelties and hard-packed surfaces rarer than honest politicians. But as motorized vehicles gained ascendancy, towns and counties banded together to form organizations advocating 365-day roads, otherwise known as “good” roads that didn’t dissolve into bottomless quagmires with every rain or snowstorm. One such group from Kansas City worked to create a two-pronged highway across the northern and middle sections of the state that would eventually link Chicago with Colorado Springs. It would be known as the Kansas White Way.
Meetings were often rancorous as towns bickered and fought for inclusion. Others, such as the one held in Frankfort on May 16, 1914, were enthusiastically supportive and comprehensive when an estimated crowd of 700 to 1,000 supporters descended on the town to lay out a route roughly paralleling the Central Branch Railroad. Drivers had set out from Atchison in the east and Concordia in the west, with additional drivers joining the twin convoys as they passed through the small towns dotting the course, to organize, elect leaders and designate compilers for the proposed logbook. Unfortunately for the Atchison group, their return leg was hampered by the dearth of signs, maps or experience with the area, the end result being they had to sleep in their vehicles while waiting out the night. By sunrise they must have been even more determined to get a proper highway charted through northern Kansas.
Once the highway was approved, improved and mapped, simple markings consisting of two narrow black bands enclosing a large white field were painted on fence posts, bridge railings, poles, roadside trees or other objects providing visibility. The signs were instantly recognizable by travelers and served with distinction, if not frequent reapplications of paint, until their eventual supersession by metal signs and numbered highway designations.
The course of the original Kansas White Way changed over the decades, partly through efforts to straighten roads, improve traffic flow and modernize bridges, but traces can be found in every town from Atchison to Beloit, where Highway 9 merges into U.S. Highway 24. Every town has at least one abandoned gas station, small and angled to the street with long overarching canopies sagging under the weight of time. The former White Way Garage lies shuttered beside the road in Goff across from Henry Brothers Station, a small box station that was formerly a house. Netawaka has a street named for the White Way, perhaps the last remaining visual representation. In 2006 when a car run was celebrated as a prelude to the highway’s centennial, there was one other in Frankfort, a large black and white sign denoting the White Way Chevrolet. It has since been changed to Lee Chevrolet.
So much, in fact, has been changed, or replaced, or unkinked, or simply forgotten that when organizers from four counties began planning a bigger, better celebratory car run for 2014 they were accused of advocating white supremacy. There was, though not in the way the witless detractors meant, some truth to the notion. The Log of the Kansas White Way praises the road as the “Shortest and Best Automobile Route connecting Kansas City with Denver and Colorado Springs, [passing] through the most picturesque valleys and largest cities of the state. Follow the White and Black Marker all the Way.” Long before Route 66 was a glimmer in someone’s imagination, there was the Kansas White Way. Surely, organizers say, that’s worthy of remembrance.
Plus there’s the matter of that hundredth anniversary.
“You only get one,” said Lawrence Herrs, whose auto/truck/tractor museum in Washington draws thousands annually. “We have to do it.”
Which is why I turned off the road on the eastern edge of Goff to inspect something I glimpsed in the window of Henry Brothers Station. Was it a piece of the original White Way, some unheralded and largely unknown relic? The only way to know was to stop. Slinging the camera across one shoulder, I grasped my wife’s hand as we crossed the parking lot. The adventure, I thought, starts here.