Saturday, August 20, 2011

Revisiting Summertime Scenes of My Childhood

After my long drive across Kansas, stopping for the night in the small town of Iola would seem like an unusual destination.  But actually, it was my main reason for routing home through Kansas in the first place!

My new ReadyBrute towbar with built-in surge braking, just didn’t feel like it was kicking in very much when I was descending steep passes in Colorado.  Yes, the little dash light was coming on saying that the surge mechanism was activating, but I wasn’t feeling much of a difference in braking.   My dealer had admitted they’d never installed a ReadyBrute/ReadyBrake system before, so I decided to have my setup inspected by the experts themselves—the folks who make ‘em, Night Shift Auto (NSA RV Products) in Iola, Kansas.

It just so happens that the little town of Iola also had a nice, quiet and CHEAP campground (Passport-America rate of only $11/night for full-hookups, wow!), so it was a very RV-friendly town to spend the night..

I arrived at the NSA “corporate headquarters” just after they opened in the morning:
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The supervisor on duty came out to the parking lot to see my setup and turned right around to get a few hand tools.  The surge brake cable had indeed been set too loose by my dealer and was not activating the toad brakes at all.  He also noticed some clamps had been installed on the wrong side of the cables and corrected that.  Within 5 minutes, he had everything adjusted properly and showed me how to do it.  I offered to pay him for his time, but he humbly refused. 

It’s so refreshing to see an honest company making a solid product, selling it at a decent price, and then standing behind it with excellent service!  I’m so glad I purchased this towing system versus some of the bigger corporate brands. If you’re ever considering towing a car behind a motorhome, check out all the positive comments about Ready Brake on RV.net and other forums.  Highly recommended!

After leaving Iola, I took a brief drive through Fort Scott, Kansas.  Very neat historic town, but I unfortunately didn’t have time to stay long:
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It was then on to the state I was born in, Missouri.  Continuing along Highway 54, the hills began to get a bit bigger as I got into the Ozarks.
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My earliest childhood memories were of the family driving along these rolling hills to and from my grandparents’ house at Lake of the Ozarks for summer vacations.  My grandfather spent a number of years building their retirement house at the end of Lookout Point. He built a long deck that wrapped around 2 sides of the house and overlooked the first long stretch of the lake near Bagnell Dam. 

We all used to sit out on the deck in the summer watching the sun set over the lake and listening to the big tour boats go by—The Tom Sawyer, the Larry Don, and the Commander.   For a few summers, my grandfather owned a motorboat and would take us cruising on the lake.  At lake-level, those tour boats seemed massive, and the waves from their wake were the biggest and most-feared on the lake (especially the Commander’s!). 

I was eager to see “the Strip” again, where my grandparents would take me and my brother for countless hours of fun at the arcades, the go-kart track, the bumper cars, the fudge shop, and various other tacky tourist shops.  The old Frosty root beer stand, where we used to get root beer floats in big frosty glass mugs, had closed years ago when the 4-lane bypass highway was opened.  The Ozark Opry, where we’d go to hear a cheesy country musical show kind of like “Hee Haw” was also long gone.  But, there were still some familiar sites along the Strip that were still going strong, now almost 40 years later (ugh!)…. Dogpatch was still the same:
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I used to spend hours there playing skee ball to exchange my long strands of tickets for desirable prizes such as plastic rings, yo-yos, or rubber snakes!

The go-kart place was still going strong as well:
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My little brother used to always beat me racing at this track.  He still beats me today when racing our Subaru Outbacks too…must have been that training he learned here!

The tacky tourist shops were changed a bit, but the buildings were still the same
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And the old bumper car place was still there too!
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I was amazed to see the little church my grandfather had preached at for many years, Lake Ozark Christian Church, now expanded to triple it’s original size!
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As I got to Bagnell Dam, I was saddened to see that most attractions there were out of business (on the positive side, it did make parking my View with tow car much easier).

All 3 of the big tour boats were still docked at the end of the Strip, but upon closer inspection, they didn’t look as if they’d sailed in a few years (perhaps the Tom Sawyer still is, but it was closed on the day I was there in the prime of August summer season, which did not seem to be a very good sign).
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The Larry Don and Commander looked in far worse shape:
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But curiously, it appeared as if their dock area was being renovated and railing was freshly painted.  Perhaps a rebirth awaits these 2 old boats next summer???  I do hope so!

The Dam itself seemed completely unchanged—still as narrow as ever to drive across, and I was thankful to do it in my “Skinnie Winnie” rather than a big Class A!
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My grandmother sold the house at the lake in the mid-1980s to move back to Kansas City after my grandfather died.  We knew the people who purchased it had planned to add on to it and make some big changes.  Seems like many people were starting to do that with the original houses along the lake at that time, and new construction was absolutely insane during the 1990s and early 2000’s.  So, I was a bit apprehensive as to what I might find when I drove down their old street to see our old house.

The top of the street and most non-lakefront houses all looked amazingly the same:
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But my grandparents’ house and the house next to it at the end of the point were completely unrecognizable.  My grandparents used to have a white ranch house with a front yard, little vegetation, and no garage.  In back, my grandfather had cleared the trees on 2 sides of the house to get large lake views from the deck.  The new owners, however, seemed to have gone an entirely different approach—no front yard at all (consumed by vegetation and a large 2 car garage), and prime lake views out back now appeared to be completely overgrown.  Strange, very strange.
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In the cove across from my grandparents’, used to be a cute little motel called “The Lighthouse”.  It was low-key, surrounded by lots of trees and nature, and quiet.  Well, the condo boom of the 1990’s seemed to eliminate that kind of thing.  Now the view of the quant, quiet cove had a massive condo building with huge boat docks.  
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There seemed to be monster condo buildings and big boat docks at the end of every cove along the lake, and while boat traffic on the lake always seemed to be busy in the summers I was there, it now seemed unimaginably congested with the advent of cheap jet skis.  Certainly no longer a soothing, peaceful place to spend the summer.  They say “you can never go home again” and in this case, the saying seemed painfully true.IMG_6682

I was very glad I’d decided not to spend the night at the lake, and instead head on to Jefferson City.  But before I got there, I took one final detour through the little town of Eldon, Mo—the one and only town my grandmother ever learned to drive to after getting her drivers license at the chipper age of 65!  She was forced to learn to drive after my grandfather had died, and she did learn how to slowly drive her big Olds 88 sedan with a V8 engine up to Eldon every few days to go to the grocery store, the drug store, the bank, and the beauty shop….no other driving destinations than those! 

Back then, most shopping was done along Eldon’s main street, and I was happy to see it looking pretty much unchanged:
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In the 1970’s, Eldon was one of the first places I remember ever seeing a Wal-Mart.  They were small stores back then, and Eldon’s Wal-Mart still continues to be on the smaller side as Wal-Marts go:
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I arrived at my campsite at Binder Park in Jefferson City around dinner time.  Nice little city-owned park with a nice lake that Millie, of course, had to swim in!
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After dinner, we took a quick drive downtown to see the Capital.  In Missouri, you can still drive up pretty close to it:
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The next morning, one of my old college radio friends drove down from Columbia to meet me for breakfast at this great little diner, the Towne Grill.  We hadn’t seen each other in nearly 30 years, but due to Facebook, got reconnected a few months ago, and our conversation seemed to pick right up where it’d left off without missing a beat!

Mary is one of only two I know from our class of Communications majors from Stephens College that has managed to stay employed in the industry all these years.  She’s currently a news reporter for the state-wide radio network and is still passionate for the pursuit of knowledge and unbiased journalism.  What an energizing way to start the day!

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After breakfast, I returned to pack up camp and hit the road to head home.  It was a fairly long, boring drive along old, familiar roads.  We crossed three big rivers—the Missouri, the Mississippi, and the Illinois

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Saw a neat courthouse in the town of Pittsfield, IL:
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and finally ended our 6-week roadtrip with a nice sunset!
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Friday, August 19, 2011

Driving across Kansas on “the Family Highway” 54

From the time I was a kid, I learned of my grandparents’ strong connection to US Highway 54.  They both grew up in small towns along this highway in Kansas.  When they got married in the summer of 1935, they drove hours along this highway (in their un-air conditioned Model T Ford!!!) to get to the bigger highways that would take them east to Niagara Falls.  Many years later, when they retired to Lake of the Ozarks, Mo, Highway 54 was right there with them—as their daily route over Bagnell Dam into town.  Coincidentally, my grandmother’s 3 sisters happened to also retire to a Highway 54 town (El Dorado, Kansas).

Visiting my grandparents every summer at the lake as a kid, I’d driven along Highway 54 in Missouri many times, but I had never been west of Wichita on this route, so was eager to explore it.

There were two towns in particular that I was most interested in seeing on this western stretch—my grandfather’s hometown of Kingman, and the little town that literally got nearly wiped off the map a few years ago by a massive tornado, Greensburg, Kansas.
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Hundreds of small towns in Kansas look very much the same:  a Main Street downtown of a few blocks of old buildings, a few streets still paved with bricks rather than asphalt, large shade trees lining the streets, and a variety of pre-WWII modest wood-framed houses of various shapes and sizes.  That these towns have managed to stay relatively intact over 100 years while being in the “Tornado Alley” portion of the Great Plains is quite amazing.  Greensburg, Kansas used to be one of these towns.

Four years ago, an EF5 tornado destroyed 95% of the town leaving it to look like this.  In the face of such devastation,  the city decided to rebuild as a “green” city requiring all new buildings to meet LEED standards and making substantial use of Wind and Solar energy.

Today, the town is strikingly unique.  A new main street--
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with modern, “green” buildings:
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New subdivisions with newly planted lawns:
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And, even 4 years later, the rebuilding still continues:
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But small pieces of the older buildings and branchless trees still remain as a reminder of just how far they’ve come:
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Another 100 or so miles east of Greenburg, was my grandfather’s hometown of Kingman, Kansas.  He was the 11th of 12 children who were all expected to drop out of school after the 8th grade to work on the family farm full-time until they were of legal adult age. 

My grandfather was born in 1897, so little chance of locating the family farm on this visit, but I did find that this prominent downtown building (now the town historical museum) happened to also be built in 1897.
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If my grandfather were still alive today, I’d bet he’d still feel right at home walking in downtown Kingman.  The brick-paved roads and many buildings from his time are still there:
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and even the Drug Store still has a soda fountain!
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My grandmother grew up east of Wichita in the small town of Augusta, Kansas.  She was the youngest of 4 daughters to a railroad man and his piano teacher wife.   My grandfather moved to Augusta just as my grandmother was finishing high school.  He was a number of years older and had managed to spend time outside of Kansas (after leaving the farm) catching up on his missed education (graduating from high school as well as college), working in Washington, DC, and starting two career paths—as a portrait photographer, and as a minister. 

He opened a photography studio in downtown Augusta and was hired to take my grandmother’s senior class photo—he always said she was the prettiest girl in the class!  A few months later, my grandmother’s oldest sister began working at the studio and officially introduced them.

There’s still a photography studio in downtown Augusta today!
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and an art deco movie theater from my grandparents’ time:
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Millie liked seeing this Drive-In with her name on it:
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and Augusta also had a brick-paved downtown:
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as well as it’s old-fashioned drug store:
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After seeing downtown, I headed to the town cemetery where my grandmother, her sisters, all their husbands, and their parents were laid to rest.   On this extremely hot and humid day in August, there was a soothing breeze beneath the shade trees and the smell of cedar from the evergreens lining the long driveway.  A nice place to remember loved ones.

The final town visited was El Dorado, about 10 miles east of Augusta, where we often visited my grandmother’s 3 sisters who had retired there.  On one visit, they proudly took us to the new Chinese restaurant in town.  As Asian waitresses were rather hard to come by, a few blond haired Kansas farm kids served up our Chinese lunches accompanied by garlic bread as an appetizer!

My aunts would be amazed that today, the Chinese restaurant has been remodeled into a trendy PF Chang-ish bistro!
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But the Braum’s Ice Cream shop across the street is still the exact same as it was 20 years ago.  Downtown El Dorado looked pretty much the same as well.
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A few miles north and east of El Dorado we drove through the pretty Flint Hills before reaching our campground in the small town of Iola, Kansas.

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