Thursday, June 21, 2012

VII: A land so fair

“Today is Sunday,” Sadie wrote on the morning of Oct. 6, 1912. “I feel better now.” She had a free moment while waiting for the men to return from buying hay in Wamego, and as she sat there she thought of the road behind and the road ahead and judged the terrain against her own desires and longings. Missing from her narrative is a reason for their exodus though now and then a sentence stands out for its simple declarative intent. If as is suspected by family members their journey was to find land to farm then Sunday’s entry was nothing short of revelatory.

 Wamego impressed her for its size. Besides the impressive facade of the Columbia Theater with its rousant golden eagle, the downtown area included two barrel factories, grain elevators, a flour mill, three banks, two newspapers and the Union Pacific Railroad depot. Just south of the tracks the Kaw River rolled strong and wide. The land on the north shore had flattened onto a broad floodplain extending in places for as much as a mile. While the going was easier they faced new hurdles now, primarily automobiles and increased horse and buggy traffic which their farm dogs found fascinating—too fascinating, in fact.

“Our dogs are trying to commit suicide I guess,” Sadie wrote. “Every auto they meet they stand in front of it and they have been run over by buggies and the pup by a wagon.”

Their horses weren’t much better, especially when it came to trains and automobiles. The modern world was imposing itself and the animals had no means to cope except to balk, flee or fight. Roadways were the new battleground between urban and rural, old and new, progressively succumbing to motorized traffic which would eventually brook no other form of transport. Sharing the road then as now primarily meant the dominance of one means of travel over another. Tempers and frustrations must have been at record levels.

Driving through Wamego today it’s nearly impossible to get a feel for what they saw. The city has become something of a bedroom community for Manhattan, almost tripling in population while retaining its own sense of place as the steward for all things Oz. Though other towns have capitalized on the Wizard of Oz theme, Wamego has refined it into a pot of gold with its Oz Winery, Oz Museum, OZtoberfest, Emerald City Market and Toto’s Tacoz (shockingly good in spite of its name). Perhaps most shocking of all is that the city has managed to avoid the usual kitsch associated with theme parks though I wonder at times if the average resident wants to puke whenever hearing the two-letter word. 

It was a splendid day for traveling as they made their way eastward on the Golden Belt Highway. “We have seen the prettiest country,” she wrote. “The leaves and every thing look so pretty. We have the nicest kind of weather.”

In 1912 the highway was being platted from Kansas City to the Colorado border near Kanorado along what would become Highway 40. Marking the route were 14-by-20-inch steel signs with “Golden Belt” written in yellow letters against a blue backdrop. Other organized highways were being planned at the same time, notably Highway 9 from Chicago to Colorado Springs, known as the Great White Way for its distinctive black-and-white marking. All were part of the Good Roads Movement, a national collective determined to make travel less arduous and uncertain through improved roads and unified highways. 

As is sometimes the case with Kansas, the state perversely balked at joining the push toward modernization. A constitutional provision passed in 1859 prohibited the state from financing any kind of internal improvement, ostensibly to safeguard the budget from fiscal irresponsibility but in actuality crippling critical improvements in its infrastructure. Fiscal common sense seemed beyond the purview of its elected officials, proof that what goes around comes around. Not even the loss of federal funding in 1920 could sway the legislature to join the rest of the nation in establishing a transcontinental highway system. Kansas finally acceded to the inevitable in 1929, the last state to do so. 

As welcome as better road was, what made the greatest impact upon Sadie was the land itself. “This is fine country, just as level as a floor,” she wrote. “If I owned some of this land I would not go on to ‘Misery’. We have seen lots of fine crops. Mostly corn and kafir corn. Lots of alfalfa and cane.” 

And there it is, sandwiched between the splendid weather and dinner—If I owned some of this land. Sadie recognized the crops and named them and in the naming made them her own even if only vicariously. Her eye was on the agricultural bounty rather than the long miles ahead to a state she would not name except in jest. And then what? Surely she knew that the area around Eureka Springs, their destination, was the antithesis of the Kaw Valley, more vertical than horizontal and as heavily wooded as the primal forests once covering the entire eastern third of the nation. What drew them there forever lurks on the peripheries of her diary, unspoken and unnamed as if secretly she harbored doubts or misgivings about the venture and would not admit them into her thoughts. Maybe she felt that writing them down would impart a legitimacy she could not accept and so left them unvoiced in favor of a simple we are going, we are gone.

“We have had dinner and are gone,” she wrote that evening somewhere between St. Mary’s and Rossville. “Tonight is getting cloudy and cooler. I think it will rain. Our dog is still alive. We are camped by a railroad on one side and the Golden Belt road on the other. Two of the horses are afraid of autos and trains. This is the main line of the U.P.R.R. I don't know how much we will sleep. We came through Belvue and St Marys, Kansas this afternoon. I think we all have blisters on our seats.”
(To be continued)

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