Friday, May 16, 2014

The Kansas White Way Car Run celebrates 100 years of road history

The last shall be the first, and the first last. The phrase kept running through my head as the car run unspooled from its lineup in front of the majestic Brown Grand Theater in downtown Concordia to make its way into the rising sun, the morning cool and clear and virtually windless, an eclectic conglomeration of classic muscle cars and spindly Model Ts, tiny buzzing Cushmans like swarms of brightly jeweled hornets, sleek, low-slung Corvettes, a single scarlet Hudson juxtaposed against a paintless, rust-pitted Model T, its canvas canopy frayed and its body festooned with various battered sporting accessories, a portable toilet seat bringing up the rear and a long cane fishing pole holding aloft a dangling plastic fish. 

At the same time, a similar assortment set out from the Atchison County Historical Society in Atchison. The twin convoys—basically a rolling museum of automotive history, styles and permutations—were heading to Frankfort, roughly 90 miles away. But unlike the average car show, the journey itself was the emphasis of the Kansas White Way Car Run. In almost every small town along the route people turned out to watch the cars pass by, and others hosted pit stops and refreshments, giving the event an air of celebratory festivity. 

In Concordia, newer vehicles were given the option of heading out early to avoid getting trapped behind the slower cars, many of which intended to drive no faster than 25 or 30 miles per hour, or about the top speed of motorists in the original White Way car run held in 1914. A few took up the offer, but others like Greg Boss with his 1969 Ford Boss 302 Mustang demurred. “I’m in no hurry,” he said. “I don’t have to be at work until Monday.”

My intention as the documentarian of the car run was to position myself a few miles outside of town to photograph the convoy passing the old tin-sided grain elevator at Rice, or entering downtown Clyde with its newly-renovated White Way Cafe, or even on a lonely stretch of highway a few miles east of Clifton where a steep wooded hill forces the highway into a sharp S-curve. Instead, I wrangled the last of the pennants, commemorative ribbons and registration forms into the trunk of our car, waved goodbye to Susie Haver and Tammy Britt of Cloud County Travel and Tourism, and paused for a moment to let it all sink in, the months of planning, the hundreds of miles of road trips to organize towns along the route, the people we’d met and their wonderful stories, the empty street with its dissipating bouquet of engine oil and exhaust. In the distance the pop of a backfire echoed like a gunshot. The first (planned) was now the last.


Some people choose their vehicles like they choose their wardrobe—whatever suits their mood or the day’s outing. Herb Zook, Hesston, considered driving a 1912 Model T but then opted for a 1926 Ford Model T in honor of the year numbers replaced names for American highways. (The Kansas White Way with its diagnostic white-and-black markings became a lackluster Highway 9.) Verne Shirk, Wichita, chose his 1914 Ford Model T for the obvious reason that it had just turned 100 years old on May 3; the car run, he said, was its birthday present. 

For every vehicle on the road whether two-wheeled or four, a reason for its inclusion and a story. Gary and Donna Hileman, Derby, made the run in a bright red 1946 Hudson Business Coupe, heavily modified for modern travel with an air conditioner and improved suspension. Their reason for participating had less to do with road history than with uncanny similarities: he had been born in Concordia, his wife in Frankfort, so it seemed almost fated that they should join. In his pocket he carried an old black-and-white photograph of his parents standing in front of a tricked-out Model T with fancy wheel covers, taken a few blocks from the Clyde Hotel. While they were exploring the area on the previous day, they’d located the spot where the photo was taken and with the help of a neighbor replicated the image.

Perhaps because he was at the terminus of the Great White Way of which the Kansas White Way was merely a small portion, C.J. Whitney hauled his 1926 Model T Coupe all the way from Colorado Springs. The day before he’d carpooled with others to Dean Holbert’s place southwest of Concordia, a normally short jaunt made longer by road construction on the main thoroughfare and bad feeder roads necessitating a wide circumnavigation, the road an evolving thing, never fully complete even after a hundred years of improvements, and in rural America often little better than our forefathers navigated a century ago. 

Holbert, a tinkerer and inventor whose shop and garage housed a vast display of antiques, vehicles and often bizarre artifacts—a red robot, a Superman costume hanging in an old phone booth, a thousand-pound longhorn steer made from railroad spikes and odd bits of metal—was to be the lead driver from Concordia. Leonard the longhorn would also make the run on a flatbed trailer. His vehicle of choice was the vintage Model T with fishing pole, golf bag and a “Wilkie for President 1946” sign on the door. 

One of the most unusual vehicles was Maurice Weeks’ 1970 NSU 1200S. NSU was a German company bought out by Volkswagen-Audi in 1969, and to the uninitiated resembled a squatter Chevy Corvair with an attractive blue-green finish. It ran like a top, something Corvairs were never known for.


Along the route, small towns turned out to show their best. Muscotah served biscuits and gravy in their community building; Clyde transformed their senior center into the White Way Cafe—its previous iteration—with free coffee and snacks; Waterville served free popcorn at the bank and free hotdogs at Blue Valley Trailers; vintage recreational trailers added bling to the Marshall County Fairgrounds in Blue Rapids; and in every town welcome flags wafted in the breeze.

At a sidewalk stand in Clifton the orderly procession fell apart. The optional itinerary for the western route called for stops in Clyde, Linn, Barnes, Waterville and Blue Rapids, but when lead driver Dean Holbert spotted the “Welcome KS White Way Drivers!! Fresh Bakery Goods Here Grab and Go” sign he yanked the Model T to the curb and leaped out. A few others followed suit. The first again became the last. After grabbing a matching pair of cinnamon rolls, we rolled out, leaving behind a smattering of sweet-toothed drivers.

The town of Barnes proved popular for both shopping and eating. Lines were long and aisles packed at Sunflower Antiques. 

“It was incredible,” Melodie Sedivy said. “For about 90 minutes we were absolutely swamped.  And then poof—it was back to being normal. Except for a half dozen or so women who were taking their time shopping. Seems like their husbands were on the Cushman scooters and in the Model T’s, so they had plenty of time to shop, since their high speed was 30 mph. Until she got a call from her husband and found out they were in Waterville.  

“The people were so complementary on our little town, and the entire White Way experience.  Many were from the Wichita area, and it was evident they will be back. My only regret was that the only vehicle I saw in person was Leonard the Longhorn, because he was stopped directly outside the shop on the street. By the time I had time to look, they were headed east. Over and over again I heard the comments, ‘We didn’t know this part of Kansas existed. We’ll be back.’”


The last shall become the middle. By the time we entered Frankfort two full blocks were lined with vehicles and others still streaming in from the north and west. Lawrence Herrs’ 1918 Buick racing car cruised down the main street with Sunflower Journeys producer Bill Shaffer leaning out the passenger door panning his video camera; Dennis and Angie Portenier added a splash of color and class in their red 1926 Ford Model T Bucket. At the other end of the vehicle spectrum, Daniel Deaver, Clifton, backed his 1928 Chevy one-ton to the curb, its fine patina of rust offsetting a whitewashed “White Way or Bust” scrawled on its side. 

There was food and dining and drink, and the Blue Rapids firetruck—”Old Yella” on behalf of its lemon hue—provided fifties and sixties tunes and a PA system for announcements. Residents and drivers milled about looking at each other and the vehicles and swapping stories of cars and the road, which after all was the reason for the car run, the road and its history but most importantly the people who made it happen, the town boosters and businessmen and farmers and bicyclists and all the rest who joined together on a May morning in 1914 to congregate at a small rural town midpoint from the two starting points and draft the beginning of an organized highway that would link the 30 or so towns like a string of pearls along the Central Branch Railroad, that would bring modernity and commerce atop a hard-surfaced road. That would usher in the future. It was always about the road and the people, and every driver and passenger in Frankfort that day knew they had been part of something bigger than themselves, bigger than the road itself. They were part of the story now, and the story was theirs to tell.


After the awards ceremony the streets began clearing out with a thoroughness and speed that seemed impossible. Huge storm clouds in the east presaged a potentially violent change in the weather and drivers were eager to head home. Lori and I were knocking down the registration table and putting away extra pennants and ribbons when Bill Shaffer dropped by with his big video camera wanting an interview. We looked like hell but he didn’t look much better, eyes red-rimmed and gritty from leaning out the car all day, his knees white with dirt but a smile refusing to leave his face.

“Is this a good time? he asked.

How could we say no? Lori went first while I threw stuff into the car. I felt weary beyond words but oddly euphoric, almost giddy with delight at how things had gone, no major vehicle breakdowns, no accidents, nobody hurt, and from the comments we’d heard everybody had had a good time. Overall, a success. 

When it was my time, Shaffer started the camera, wiped grit from his eyes, and asked, “When are you going to do the car run again?”

“For the 200th anniversary,” I said.

The perpetual smile faltered, drooped a little along the edges. 

“You can’t say that,” he said.

“I can’t?”


“What can I say?”

“Five years. You’ll do it again in five years.”

I looked at him and he looked at me and the last few cars made their way down Frankfort’s main street. An arm shot out of an open window and waved. A car horn bleated. The street looked empty and deserted as if the life had gone out of it. 

“We’re thinking of doing it in five years,” I said, and just like that his smile was back and I had an apprehensive, disquieting and utterly exhilarated sense that people would hold us to it.


Carol said...

I knew this piece would be great when the event had happened and you'd written it. It IS great!

Glad you saw Bill Shaffer. You and Laurie and he are among my favorite people in Kansas!

Tom Parker said...

Thanks, Carol. Bill was a fun guy, had the time of his life.