Relics of the road

So little remains, so little is known. Or has irrevocably changed, so that what we now see is either a reflection, an alteration, an overlay or something entirely different. Determining which is which depends on historical research, guesswork, luck and lots of miles along the road. We were lucky, sometimes. And sometimes we weren’t.

And, too, sometimes the relics we discovered were just that, relics, so disconnected from their context that their stories had forever faded to silence. The sign in the window at Henry Brothers Station in Goff was such a relic, long and narrow with a point facing to the right, wooden, its grain stark and sharply etched, the black blocky letters faded but still legible. Goff 18 MI.

“Where’d the sign come from?” I asked the proprietor.

She shrugged. Didn’t know, only that it was donated to the service station. Nor did she know where it would have been located, other, of course, than 18 miles from town.

It was old and weatherworn and like other relics it didn’t so much explain as merely add to the growing list of questions. How prevalent were wooden road signs? What was their average lifespan? During what decades were they used? I jotted the questions down in a pocket notebook for further research.

All we knew for certain was that we were on the original Kansas White Way, or Highway 9. Across the street stood an abandoned building that was once the White Way Chevrolet, and beyond that a remodeled Harvey House. Much of the original road has been modified and straightened for modern vehicular traffic, but towns like Goff or Netawaka or Whiting had been stops along the route so that their streets were the nearest thing to the one true path. 

In between was another matter. Roads had deviated so much in past century that in places it was anyone’s guess where the original route had been laid. The highway leading west from Goff, a wide gentle curve traversing the ridgeline, had been built in the 1930s, we were told. Rumors had it that several bridges remained of the original route, and that if anyone knew where they were, it would be Gerald Swart.

Swart is the owner of Skeezix’s Toy Museum, located a mile or so west of Goff. The museum, housed in an unassuming steel building behind his house, contains hundreds of model cars, tractors, trucks, campers, construction equipment, airplanes, vintage penny banks, and historic relics from the area. Its name derives from a character in Gasoline Alley, a comic strip from the early 20th century.  Near the front door, encased in glass, is an oilcoth Skeezix doll, about 18 inches tall. 

We met Swart on a blustery, bitterly cold morning. After giving us a tour of the museum, he stood on the front porch and pointed into the valley below. Immediately to the south where a shallow creek snaked through the pasture was a concrete bridge, and with a little imagination one could figure out where the other two were. Even though we could see the town from our vantage, it was impossible to reconstruct the original route without adding a 90-degree bend in it somewhere. We could guesstimate, and, when I got home and pored over satellite images, could risk a guess, but in the end it was merely that—a guess—and nothing more.

Still, we followed his truck across the pasture, dropping down a hundred feet in elevation to the floor of the valley, and climbed from the warmth of the car into a teeth-numbing gale. Other than the bridges, all still showing little signs of decay or disrepair, nothing remained of the road itself other than a slight indentation in the grass. I hazarded a guess that it kept to its westward course to the northeastern edge of Corning where it then turned north. If so, it followed what is now a section line.

Subsequent research using satellite imagery and Google Earth revealed something else—a single reference that instead of heading north from Corning about five miles to branch off to Centralia, “Old Highway 9” followed what is now 52nd Rd. 

It wasn’t much to go on, and it also meant that we’d have to return for further exploration. And I’m not sure that it even matters anymore, except in the context of peering through a veil to another time and era where visionaries came together to chart an organized, 365-day highway across an often-impassable, indecipherable and, for all practical purposes, uncharted wilderness known as northeast Kansas. But I think, or like to think, that as benefactors of their vision we owe them something, a nod or recognition of some sort, and what better way than to retrace their route (as much as possible)  on that day in May of 1914 when they joined together to organize the Kansas White Way. So little remains except for the skeletal outline of the story, but as we all know, stories are meant to be told and retold. And if in the telling we discover something about this place where we call home, or even, if we’re fortunate, something about ourselves, then the story comes alive, part of our own mythos, our own homeground.
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