February 2, 2011

Missouri Derelicts and Highway History

Secondary highway travel in the Ozarks is often a side show of the downtrodden and run down, a collective drive-through history of the cycle of attraction and commerce. Life-giving traffic and dollars take the path of least resistance via the newest and latest conveyances between two points. Ringing registers leave the beaten path for downturns and neglect, and the economic ruins in turn develop their own patina of interest. Let's stop for a couple of these sights along the way.

Skelly Gas Station
Highway 37 - Butterfield, MO
[Google Maps]

As we've seen in a past edition, I regard old service stations as a fascinating and essential hub of auto travel. One that I have passed with interest for years is a shabby Skelly Oil building beside Missouri 37 on the outskirts of the hamlet of Butterfield. The town is just a skip from the an 1860s stagecoach stop on the Butterfield Overland Trail route, but the vitality of history has long abandoned this gas stop. The Skelly Oil Wikipedia entry notes the chain was founded by oil entreprenuer Bill Skelly of Tulsa fame, and that the Skelly diamond was popular throughout the Midwest until the brand was merged with Getty Oil in 1977.

While the cinder block building is not especially stylish, it has not been razed even after decades of disuse and remains a capsule of former glory. Even the refrigerator cases remain inside, though much of the glass has been disturbed by bored vandals. The site has an interesting detached outdoor sale stand made of ornamental blocks so popular in the middle of the century. Out front, the weathered pumps without card readers make for a rare sight today, and the automobile service bays are an almost forgotten commodity. In an era of petroleum dominated by high-profile mega-corporations, a fairly intact station with regional branding is a uncommon find.

Truitt's Cave
Highway 59 - Lanagan, Missouri
[Google Maps]

Caves have always been a staple of Ozark roadside attractions. The region's limestone machinations lend themselves to ready-made underground tourist stops, but many cave operations suffered as the number of paying troglophiles left the back roads in favor of major interstate travel and attractions beyond. One local example is Truitt's Cave, with its shuttered facade still visible from Highway 59 in Lanagan, Missouri. As we saw in a previous post about the highway, it hosts plenty of reminders of better times along a once vibrant and colorful motor-tourism route. The town occupies a scenic plat along the Elk River, one worthy of a revival of fortunes.

In its heyday, Truitt's Cave was among a half-dozen run by spelunker mogul John Truitt. This one in particular held the distinction of being featured on Ripley's Believe It or Not for its underground dining hall, among other natural curiosities. Sadly, the majesty of geology was not strong enough for its latest owners to keep the doors open. On-site cabins are long gone, but the site does live on in model railroad form, though. Perhaps someday a well-heeled benefactor will bring the real town back to form.

December 15, 2010

A President in the Driver's Seat

The road trip is a core American experience. Automobile travel is an intimate, personalized, and self-paced enterprise enabling boundless freedom to roam the expanses. The United States claims the most profuse border-free road network in the world, and its use by citizens is nearly universal. Even the leader of the free world has taken part in this great din of individualized motor-bound culture.

Harry S Truman: presidential-grade road-tripper.

I recently had chance to read Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: the True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo. The book explores a unique juncture of history when the man who helped win World War II, rebuild Europe, and deliver America into the Cold War left office to take the only post-presidential road trip in history. When the wheelman-in-chief and first lady left Missouri to see family and friends in Summer 1953, they went without the now-common luxury of private planes or Secret Service details. They humbly packed into Harry's own Chrysler New Yorker and added 2,500 miles to the odometer, much like any other couple on holiday to see New York City or Washington, D.C. Though life before presidential pensions made it a journey of affordability, he was a genuine fan of the open road, too.

As author Matthew Algeo finds, Harry Truman fully embraced the automotive age.

One might call Harry Truman a man cut from the same cloth as any Ozarkbahner. He was the president born nearest the Ozarks - in Lamar, Missouri - a town that lies in the transition between the hills to the South and the plains to the North. Truman was highly literate and a fan of history, but liked driving just as well. As Algeo quotes him, "I like to take trips - any kind of trip. They are about the only recreation I have besides reading." Truman was a bit of a gearhead, and even made his early political career campaigning for better roads. Consider me a fan.

["The Man Who Loved Roads" - U.S. Department of Transportation]

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure introduces us to the unique and colorful world that the Trumans would have seen in their journey, a daily roster of novel hotels and greasy-spoon diners. Surprised and curious gawkers met them at every pit stop, and Algeo retraced their route for the book, interviewing many who encountered the president along the way. In addition to some interesting detours into the personality and politics of Truman and company, Algeo uncovered a lamentable degree of commercialization and sanitization that has overwhelmed roadside character. Though many shoddy dive restaurants and inns have thankfully shuttered since the 1950s, much of the unique roadside flavor has disappeared, too. Truman's fascination with the automotive age is shared far less today, a reality attributed in part to the homogenization of sights along the way.

In the spirit of good old fashioned car travel, I took my own road trip last Summer, visiting the birthplace and final resting place of Harry Truman in the same day.

Truman Birth home: humble beginnings for success.

Life for Harry began in modest surroundings, a compact 19th-century home featuring neither electricity or running water. A few blocks from downtown Lamar, the property is now thoughtfully preserved in a state nearest the time of his birth. The first floor contains a diminutive main room, kitchen, and bedroom, with a steep and narrow set of stairs leading to the master bedroom above. Quaint quarters compared to the White House.

Downtown Lamar, Missouri.

[Missouri State Parks: Harry S Truman Birthplace Historical Site]

Truman attended the site's dedication as a state park in 1959, complete with inaugural signature in the visitor registry, now on display. The frugal birth home is a keen reminder of the remarkable fortunes enjoyed by both Truman and Americans in general since the late 1800s.

Harry S Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri.

[Truman Library official web site]

For most of his life, Truman resided in Independence, Missouri, on the Eastern side of Kansas City. The town is the home to this trip's other destination, the Harry S Truman Library and Museum. According to Algeo, Truman shunned self-promotion out of office and only allowed exhibits on his life with some coercion.

Post-war prosperity boomed in some quarters, but so did the red menace, real or imagined. Red Scare coal-stirrers like Richard Nixon were among the few individuals Harry Truman genuinely loathed.

Truman understood the magnitude of presidential history, and was more concerned with building a thorough research facility for generations to come. Unlike most contemporary ex-presidents, he refused the promise of substantial profit from commercial and speaking opportunities, feeling they would cheapen the prestige of office. Raising funds for a quality library held more noble appeal.

Weighty decisions had to be made throughout the Truman presidency, which was marked by conflict: World War, Cold War, and Korean War.

The library is consistently Truman-esq: a classy and historically thorough presentation, but a facility that is not obnoxiously flashy or overwrought. It's appropriate for someone who entered the international scene in a whirlwind as a relatively unknown figure, replacing the iconic four-term Franklin Roosevelt at the most pivotal point in the 20th-century. From county politics in the 1920s to charting America's path through into the Cold War in the 1940s, the breadth of study is enormous.

Truman's museum bears his legacy and his final resting place.

Sometimes interesting Americans are discovered on drives, but few are known for hitting the road themselves. The sum of my day trip and reading was the discovery of America's citizen president. Harry S Truman was a milestone statesman and loyal husband from the time when any Missouri farmer could be president and few could deny the charm of the Great American Road Trip.

November 15, 2010

Driven: Missouri 90

As the Ozarkbahn speeds closer to its second anniversary, we're striking back at the center of this little world. Down past the leafy crust, through the layers of affable history and backwoods irony, all the way to the molten asphalt core. We need the joy of sawing blacktop spirals across middle-America's oasis of steeps and green. Eyes up, brakes hot, knuckles white.

Just the basics.

The here and now demands a drive on par with the raw theater of Arkansas 123, the darty tourist folds of US 62 near Eureka Springs, or the remote thrills of any number of rural twists across the Ozark Plateau. There are miles of greats out there, but one standout escapes notoriety among many locals. Though hilly and reliably scenic, the highway in this edition lacks a single towering peak, breathtaking overlook, or other postcard reprieve. So, what does it have going for it? It's only my favorite road in the Ozarks.

[Google Maps: Missouri 90 from Noel to Washburn]

Missouri 90 holds the core of what makes spirited driving lively and gratifying. It's a repeatably stirring drive with the elusive quality of flow, an engaging lineup of dips and turns that feed on the dynamism of momentum. Contrast this with so many grizzled Ozark highways that are abrupt, point-to-point jaunts between grades with a stop-and-go flavor. Gearheads readily laud the pomp and circumstance of a disjointed route peppered with sharp curves, but flow is substance. For most of its length, MO-90 loads and unloads a car's chassis with the fluidity of a racecar driver's most admired road course.

Pitching and rolling along the twists of Missouri 90.

Missouri 90's essential alchemy is that the route wasn't carved into the landscape, but draped over it. The asphalt rises and falls with the rolling Ozark hills, allowing the terrain's character to shine. According to Wikipedia, MO-90 was born among the early state-funded road works of the pre-war era, visible in its non-existent shoulders and well-cambered curves. The highway was never a major carrying route like nearby US 71, so it escaped the sanitizing effect of rock cuts, detours, widening, flattening and other dull modernization. It still slides under jutting rock faces at Noel, crosses a one-lane bridge East of Jane, and regularly crests blind hills into sharp turns.

Our drive's Western end by the bluffs overlooking the Elk River at Noel (pronounced NAHWL, for the non-Ozarkians).

Despite being somewhat old-fashioned in design, the current state of the road gives drivers generally smooth pavement and good markings. The result is something quick, nervy, and indulgent at full tilt, yet energizing and assuring at a moderated pace.

A one-lane bridge East of Jane suggests a slower way of life, but peaks and curves invite a quicker pace.

Slowpokes are the scourge of any fun road with limited passing opportunities, so MO-90's relatively light traffic is another element of its appeal. The highway doesn't connect any major population centers, and a lone general store at the intersection of MO-E is the only convenience between Noel and the terminus at Washburn. Most of the road's neighbors are small hilltop farms. Though pleasant days risk entanglement with slow-moving cruisers and other dawdlers, there's a fair chance of stealing some uninterrupted joy.

A decorated Phillips cottage-style gas station in Noel is among several roadside reminders of yore.

I should caution that my "favorite road" shouldn't necessarily mean your favorite. If the Ozarkbahn has any motive, it's simply to encourage motorkind to get out and explore the beauty and novelty of the seldom-traveled. Driving is a personal act. I have the opportunity to drive this highway dozens of times each year, which has earned it a sense of familiarity and a freedom to pursue at a stirring tempo. Everyone has license to discover their own blacktop provenance. However, if you need inspiration, Missouri 90 is my favorite place to start.

Traffic: mercifully cooperative
Driving challenge: enjoyable, but mind the far side of the hill
Purty mouth: it's a long walk to the nearest fillin' station
Ozarkbahn rating: "blacktop provenance." I like that. Let's go with that.