By Tom Parker
Atchison Daily Globe, May 16, 1914. C.D. Brenner, A.S. Drury and Harry Sharp, who attended the Kansas White Way (auto route) meeting at Frankfort yesterday, got lost returning in Brenner’s Ohio car, and “put up” at Effingham at 3 o’clock this morning. They not only became lost once, but several times, the last time being between Muscotah and Effingham. Nothing further should be necessary to show the necessity of marking the road paralleling the Central Branch.
The Kansas White Way is dead. R.I.P.
Parts of it lie submerged beneath the waters of the Big Blue River, or plowed under fields planted in wheat or beans or corn. Traces exist on old highway maps, on out-of-the way country roads, in fragmented sections without beginning or end, as in the hundred-yard stretch over the stone arch bridge at Rice, itself a town once and now no more.
But enough exists in its reincarnation as Kansas Highway 9 to get a feel for what early Kansas auto pioneers worked so hard to create. It was a precursor to what followed, and it took a lot of dedication, planning, coordination and hard work, and its inception came about one weekend in the month of May, 1914, when over 500 people descended on Frankfort. They came from Atchison and Concordia and all points between. As did others last Saturday, following the White Way along much of the same route, some with new vehicles and others with cars scarcely younger than the original car run.
And, as it did in 1914, Frankfort rolled out the welcome mat. White flags and pennants lined the streets, and telephone poles sported replicas of the White Way markers that were painted along the entire route from Chicago to Colorado Springs. There was entertainment at the park, speeches, music, tours of historic buildings, motorcycle displays, book signings and, of course, lots of food and snacks.
Standing by the one-room schoolhouse, Joe Ann Kurtz, Frankfort, looked at the crowds in the park, spread her arms and exclaimed, “This is just like Summerfest!”
Indeed it was, with two major exceptions: there were a lot of out-of-town visitors, and a bunch of really cool cars.
Across the park, Frankfort Mayor Sharon Owen welcomed the assembly to the “first Kansas Great White Way celebration since 1914.” Her words were almost drowned out by police sirens as a cruiser escorted the Atchison contingent down the street. They were late.
Atchison Daily Globe, May 16, 1914. One of the most enthusiastic good roads meeting ever held in Kansas was held at Frankfort yesterday afternoon and the attendance is estimated at 700 to 1,000. Those interested went by automobile and train and a rough count of automobiles gave the number at one hundred and fifty. The object of the meeting is the marking of an automobile road across Northern Kansas to be known as the Kansas White Way.
Nobody had any idea what to expect. Not town boosters in Effingham, Concordia, Barnes, Blue Rapids or Corning, nor the car clubs from Atchison and Salina and Nebraska, nor the organizations and people of Frankfort, who had spent a week spiffing up the town to look its best. And certainly not Lori Parker, whose idea it was.
Months before, Parker, Blue Rapids, had read an account of the 1914 car run in the archive section of the Washington County News. Her close friend, Nancy Nolte, had already gathered a wealth of research material about the highway, which was dubbed the Kansas White Way and later renamed Kansas Highway 9. As Parker delved into the notes an idea grew to honor the automobile pioneers who banded together to create the first highway across the state. What was originally an interesting side note to local history became a passion.
It would be, she decided, an “unorganized organized” car run. After a few sputtering starts and stops, and after letters sent to various chambers of commerce, interest began to catch on. Once car clubs heard of it, the phone began to ring off the hook.
Parker and Nolte drove to Atchison to meet with car club members, stopping in each town along the way to get support. A few weeks later Parker made the same trip to Concordia. The two towns were chosen because of their historic significance: in 1914, auto enthusiasts in both towns had not only met to plan the road, but, at 8 a.m. on Saturday, May 15, 1914, began their car run.
Ninety-two years later, the second White Way car run started. At 8 a.m. a small group of vehicles left the Brown Grand Theater in Concordia, led by a 1930 Model A Ford piloted by Mark and Dorothy Morgan, both of Concordia. While waiting for the start they had been treated to free coffee and donuts provided by the theater staff. Members of the Midway Antique Car Club of Salina puttered off, with Paul Hansen, Greenleaf, and Kenny Stettnisch, Barnes, in the rear.
In Atchison, Wayne Mitchell, Frankfort, and his three sons and their friends found the parking lot at the museum empty. There were no other cars, vintage or new, no coffee, no donuts, no body. He wasn’t aware that the Atchison group had knocked back the starting time to 10 a.m. When they got tired of waiting, they set off. Mitchell led in a 1969 Chevy Nomad, followed by a cluster of motorcycles and another car bringing up the rear.
It was a lovely spring morning, mostly clear with a slight chill in the air. Hansen was driving a 1922 Model T that had belonged to his Uncle George. It was the only vehicle George ever owned, and he drove it into the 1950s. When he passed away, Hansen’s brother took the car to Seattle to restore, but he, too, passed away before it was complete. Hansen hauled the car, now completely disassembled, back to Greenleaf and painstakingly rebuilt it. His inclusion in the car run was not only to show off the vehicle, but also, in a way, for his brother. “He ran out of time,” Hansen said. “I was born in ’28. I still feel young.”
Along the way, other cars joined. Two cars joined at the LCL Buffalo Ranch in Clifton, though one, a 1926 Model T, only made it a few miles before blowing a headgasket. Tim Lange, its driver, took it good natured. He had the vehicle loaded onto a flatbed and hurried to catch up. On the back of the car he hung a sign that read, “First fatality, Kansas White Way 2006.”
Lawrence Herrs, Washington, joined in Palmer. His 1918 Buick race car was a head-turner everywhere he went. After restoring the car in 1995, Herrs donated it to the Belleville racing museum. This was the first time the car had ever been driven on pavement. “It hadn’t ran in over 11 years,” he said.
In Clyde, along rural roads, or, especially, in the town of Effingham, which pulled out all the stops, people young and old, watched from the side. There was a festive air at seeing the old cars toodle past.
More cars were added in Barnes and Waterville and Blue Rapids, and at unnamed roadside stops to the east.
Atchison Daily Globe, July 8, 1914. Mr. and Mrs. T. Sanquist and Mr. and Mrs. Joe Krapf, of St. Louis, are in Atchison today, enroute to Frankfort in their automobile. Their machine is covered with mud, the result of bad roads all the way between Columbia, Mo., and Atchison. They will travel to Frankfort over the Kansas White Way.
The economic benefits to the small towns along the route were enormous. Restaurants in Barnes, Blue Rapids, Whiting, Corning and Frankfort saw a big influx of customers, as did several retail stores like Elsie Grace’s in Frankfort, the Barnes Mercantile and the Corning General Store. Gas stations did well, too.
Each convoy of vintage vehicles looped through the towns along the way. “It put them back on the map,” Mitchell said of the towns. “But it was an especially big deal for Frankfort.”
Parker, who stayed with the Concordia contingent until it stopped for lunch in Blue Rapids, hurried on to Frankfort to get ready. She was already pleased with the number of participants and the welcome they received along the way, but she was in for a shock when she entered Frankfort. As she turned into Highway 9 from the north detour, she sighted the white flags and the highway markers. “Oh, my,” she said.
But it wasn’t until she saw the downtown streets lined with cars and motorcycles, and the park, crowded with people, that she realized the extent of the day’s success. All she could say was, “I can’t believe it.”
An exact number of participants in the car run isn’t known, but Parker collected 68 signatures on a white flag before turning it over to Mayor Owen. “You were all part of the car run,” Parker told the crowd. ‘Every one of you drove the White Way to get here.”
“It was a lot of fun,” said Herrs. “Let’s do it again.”
By Tom Parker