Mid-America—A Golden Opportunity
In the silver mines of Idaho, Win and I had made what seemed to us like a small fortune in our three months of work underground. When hiking down to Twin Springs, Nevada in order to touch that state at its northern border, I had jokingly suggested to Win a plan for getting rich quickly by betting anyone who came along that Twin Springs, Nevada was farther north than Pelee Island, Canada.
Now, having entered our 21st state, we had no way of knowing—as we trudged along a quiet Nebraska road—that another “get-rich-quick” opportunity was swiftly approaching from the rear.
As we walked along, about one in the afternoon, the hum of a swiftly driven car came down the wind behind us. The car passed us, stopped, then started backing up.
“I couldn’t resist your cheery smile,” said the driver. “Especially that friendly wave as I passed.”
We were soon seated in a Jewell Six, bearing a Reno, Nevada license tag.
With A. Wilburn, a heavy-set, optimistic man of sixty-two years, we rode for two-and-a-half days, covering a distance of 600 miles, making it the second longest ride of our journey so far.
The first night was spent at North Platte, Nebraska, after traveling 150 miles during the afternoon. The next day our road was over natural dirt trails but Wilburn made fair time through Grand Island, to Lincoln, the capital of the state, with 260 miles to our credit.
Win and I played baseball with some boys and girls till dark, then rolled up behind a billboard for a cold night. At eight o’clock next morning Mr. Wilburn met us at the edge of town and our odyssey continued. He was to leave us at Nebraska City, but found he could make as good time east by going down to St. Joe, Missouri. This meant 150 miles more; expressions of thanks radiated from our faces.
From the time we had left Cheyenne we had begun to see growing things that didn’t depend upon irrigation for their greenness. At first it was miles of wheat peeping up through the ground, only an inch or two high. Then grass began to appear. Real grass that wasn’t planted and watered by hand.
In the three days that we traveled nearly 600 miles due east, as if by magic the wheat grew taller, until near St. Joseph, Missouri the grain rippled a full two feet high.
Mr. Wilburn was a mine promoter. He had been interested in gold mines for years and told how he had cleaned up $250,000 following the game. Win and I were interested in mines too; it was only natural that the conversation should constantly trend that way. Wilburn had some stock for sale in his latest venture. While bowling across Nebraska, we listened to his proposition carefully. As we skirted the extreme corner of Iowa and headed into Missouri, we questioned him for more information.
At a pumping station, while our host was paying for some gas, Win and I found a chance to whisper in private. “Do you think we should take a chance on some of that stock?” Win asked.
“It sounds good,” I replied. “At least I’m satisfied he believes he has a good thing.”
A few minutes later Win put the question to Wilburn directly. “What advice would you give us about buying $100 worth of your gold stock?”
“Don’t do it,” came the quick response, “if it would cut into your college fund. “But if you have an extra hundred that you’d like to see turn into big money someday, I’d say take a chance.”
At a meal stop, Win and I huddled in another financial conference. “Let’s do it,” was our decision.
In a little snow flurry outside of St. Joseph, Missouri, the deal was consummated. Wilburn agreed to sell us the stock at half price, giving us 400 shares for $100. We would have the money sent to him from our nest egg at home.
After saying our final good-byes to this new investment broker of ours, sugarplum dreams began dancing in our heads as we realized we were now part owners of a gold mine! Of course we wrote about this exciting venture to our friend Vera:
“Try to guess what we did yesterday? We bought 400 shares, $100 worth, of gold mine stock in the K.C. & S. Gold Mine, near Reno, Nevada. We may lose it all, but if they strike high-grade we will make a lot. You better take up shorthand as we will need you as our stenographer when we get to operating our gold mine. The reason we bought it was to learn a little about the business of stocks and bonds, and to get a lesson in investments. It will be as good a lesson if we lose, as if we win. We’ll get our money’s worth no matter what happens. “
Before striking out for Kansas City we needed a haircut. Only once since leaving Michigan had our hair been trimmed at a barber shop, and that was eight months ago. At regular intervals we had run across a pair of clippers and had shorn each other’s tresses. But now it was time for a real haircut. Surely our financial transaction with Mr. Wilburn could not have had anything to do with it. But, after all, now we were part owners of a gold mine. We stopped at the first place which had a revolving red and white pole, the familiar barber sign.
It said “Barber College” on the outside, but we were innocent, and had no idea of the meaning of the words. We were both strapped in our chairs before our dilemma became apparent. A barber college is a place where neophytes come to practice on defenseless victims.
The man a few chairs away rose from his seat and looked in the mirror at the ragged outlines of his once graceful head. He shudderingly clapped his hat to his crown and slunk toward the door. Then with a burst of his former manhood he returned, swore at the would-be barber and, muttering that he should have known better, bolted through the door.
All this time two more embryo neophytes were working over us. There was a fearful moment of anxiety as we looked into the glass, then a sigh of relief. The haircuts were far from good, but at least we would dare show ourselves on the street.
By borrowing a little sugar from a good farm wife we made breakfast early next morning and headed toward Kansas City. The country was beautiful; gently rolling landscapes, green meadows, and wooded hills and valleys, all quiet and peaceful. It was such a change from the vast gray barrenness of the desert which we had learned to love but which was so different from those green woods and hills which reminded us of our Michigan home. The landscape gave us a touch of homesickness.
It was evening before we reached Kansas City as guests of an agent of the Lee Mercantile Company. Not only did he take us around to the post office and wait while we went in to pick up our mail at the General Delivery window, but he then delivered us to the home of the Davies on 24th Street. What good Samaritans we encountered, nearly every day. The Davies girls—rather than our new status as part owners of a gold mine—may have been the subconscious reason for our sudden need of a haircut. We had met them and their mother some ten months before, at Ortonville, Minnesota, and again at Livingston, Montana. This third meeting was even more enjoyable. The girls insisted on skipping school next day to spend the whole morning and afternoon as they and their mother took us sight-seeing. If there was anything of importance in Kansas City which they did not show us, we weren’t able to identify it.
That evening a basket supper at Swope Park was followed by participation in a most unique community sports activity. A health hike, under the leadership of a vigorous young Hollander, was scheduled for our “dessert”. One thousand men, women, and children, following a military band, took a brisk five mile walk through the city streets. It was a tired, happy thousand that adjourned to the Armory two hours later for setting-up exercises and a dance.
Early next morning, with our packs on, we were about to leave when Mrs. Davies mentioned that she was a Spiritualist. This led to an extended discussion and her insistence that we stay for a trance seance in the evening.
At eight o’clock that night the seance began. Scores of people were there. My turn with the medium came at half past midnight. “I see you in connection with a large number of people,” she said. “What connection have you with large crowds of men?” I suggested mining, and she proceeded to give me a little general information, among other things telling me that mines were underground, were excavated by use of dynamite, and were generally considered dangerous. I told her I was on a long trip and she then told me that my home was not in Kansas City, to which I agreed. She warned, “You are apt to get foolish in college and spoil your success by marrying that brown-eyed bob-haired girl.” She later changed the color of eyes to blue, so then I was at a loss as to what to beware of.
Win learned that he would make a great success in business, would be a renowned world traveler, but would never be any good as a public speaker. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had had a private reading from this medium a short time previous and had pronounced her excellent so we had no cause to comment. “Even mediums occasionally have off days,” a friend later told us. Again it was nearly morning before we returned to the Davies’s home.
Resolutely we said “no” to a further extension of the Davies’s hospitality and, loaded down with trinkets and remembrances, we headed east for St. Louis, pleasantly drifting along the quiet peaceful country roads and soaking in the mystic sleepy atmosphere.
Missouri’s roads were almost entirely of natural dirt construction. In dry weather no finer surface could be desired, but once the rain started every autoist might as well close up shop. It was midafternoon when rain began to fall and the roads began to reveal their evil natures. Our feet soon acquired generous portions of the “Show Me” state in the form of gumbo. Walking became futile.
Then, slipping and sliding from behind, came a big Marmon car. With a railroad spike carried for that purpose we cleaned our shoes. “Want a ride to St. Louis?” There was nothing we wanted more. In the ditch and out, the powerful car, with chains on all four wheels, slipped and slid until St. Louis hove into sight, the railroad center of the Midwest. Our bad impressions of the roads were softened a little when the driver told us that Missouri intended launching a greater highway building program that year than any other state.
We came into the city long after dark and left the same night, so knew very little about it. Police kept us on the move from the moment we hit the place. We would just be thinking of making our beds behind a billboard when a cop would appear and tell us to move on. In one way or another, that happened three times. St. Louis, we concluded, had the best-trained police or the most poorly located billboards of any place on our trip.
“Do you suppose they object to our new haircuts? , ” I queried.
Win didn’t know. “Let’s get out of here,” was his only response. I grumbled my agreement.
That St. Louis visit had not been a shining success, but later we were to completely change our minds about the city.
To reach East St. Louis, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, where we’d hopefully find a more cop-free environment, we chose to walk the long bridge over the Father of Waters. Despite the driving rain we stood for several minutes looking down at the angry waters of the great river pouring and tumbling through the night on the way to the Gulf. The dim lights of some boats played hide-and-seek with the rain. There was the rumble of a steamer whistle. Here was the very life stream of mid-America flowing directly beneath us, bringing the waters of Yellowstone Park, and Montana, and the Dakotas and a dozen other states all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Our thoughts, there in the rain, were traveling on a “two way street. ” The waters just below us had come down all the way from Yellowstone and the Rockies. But, just a few miles above us, the Missouri River had joined the Mississippi. This was the point at which Lewis and Clark, in 1804, had started out on their expedition of discovery which would take them across a little-known continent. Win and I had traveled much of their trail, through what was now Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington, then down the Snake River, then along the great Columbia. Our rain-drenched thoughts were crisscrossing, back and forth, across all of western America.
The East St. Louis cops apparently had quit work for the night. Easily we found a convenient hill at the edge of town. The rain had stopped and we slept dry during the few remaining hours until morning.
That man, driving the Marmon car, who had carried us into St. Louis was an expert on roads. He had told us of Missouri’s ambitious highway building plans. We had told him our travel plans.
“We’ll head southeast, across Illinois, to Evansville, Indiana,
then down through Kentucky, to Nashville, Tennessee,” said Win.
“No way,” had come the immediate response. “You’ll never make it across Illinois to Evansville. In rainy weather the roads are impassable. You’ll have to circle a long ways north, to get around the mud, then cut over to Terre Haute, Indiana, and head south again.”
Terre Haute, Indiana. That was just a couple of hundred miles from Michigan, our home state. Here was temptation—and we fought it hard. One of our four initial resolves, at the start of this 48 state journey, was “not to return home for a year.”
We fought the temptation—and won. But the inner conflict left us, for almost a week, with churning emotions which as closely resembled homesickness as anything we had experienced in all our miles of travel. Fate seemed to conspire—cunningly and almost cruelly at times, so it seemed—to keep remembrances of home occurring along the way.
The third ride we had after leaving East St. Louis provided a
glaring example. A man and woman driving a Selden picked us up.
“Jump right in,” came the man’s cheery greeting. “Here, just move that book.”
As we popped into the back seat we carefully picked up a large Blue Book, which I held on my lap. It was a familiar road guide.
“We seldom use that anymore,” the driver continued, “except when we have to travel back roads.”
I opened the heavy volume, and almost gasped. It was almost identical to the guidebook our family had used on all those early auto trips around Michigan and then down to the Lincoln country and to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. A lump caught in my throat as I told this to our new friend.
“Our mother held this Blue Book on her lap all the way to Mammoth Cave,” I explained. “She called out every schoolhouse and red barn or country church which were our landmarks to keep us on the right roads.”
“But sometimes the school houses were gone,” Win added. “When consolidated schools came in, the country schools were abandoned. When a schoolhouse wasn’t where it should be, we really got lost.”
Our new hosts were friendly and talkative. I mentioned that this was one of the only three or four times we had ridden in a Selden in all our travels.
“One of our very first rides—in fact the one that took us out of Michigan—was with a fleet of Selden trucks,” Win continued.
Then our driver exploded an intellectual bombshell. “Did you know,” he asked, “that George Selden patented the very first auto—or at least the first auto engine—in existence? That was back in 1895? He’d applied for that patent years before that. “
This was a fact we had never known, although we had read quite a bit in the Detroit papers about Henry Ford’s long legal battle to keep from paying royalties to the Selden group. We talked about this. “Ford lost that fight once,” elaborated our host. “But on an appeal, he won. Probably a good thing. After he didn’t have to pay royalties, he brought down the price of his car. It brought down the price of every other make of car too,” he added.
This ride with our Selden hosts had been on pavement—and without rain. After we had expressed our thanks and farewells, near Pocahontas, Illinois, where they turned off, we continued on roads which were still fine. Following several miles of walking, another good lift came our way. It was yet another ride, however, which stirred the smouldering embers of homesickness within. Dennis (we never learned his last name), a salad dressing factory operator, picked us up in his delivery truck, bound for Chicago. Our turnoff junction at Effingham, fifty miles ahead, was directly on his route.
We were both riding in the back end of his truck. Within five minutes he called out, “Do either of you drive?”
“Sure,” answered Win. “Would you like me to give you a rest?”
He would, emphatically. “I’ve been driving for hours.”
Stopping long enough for him to get in the back, Win and I both got in front and Win gave it the gas.
“My brother can drive, all right,” Win called back to Dennis. “But I like driving so much, I don’t let him.”
The stop to exchange seats had roused Dennis a bit and before he eventually dozed off we had quite a discussion about driving. “I learned when I was twelve,” he told us.
“That’s exactly when I learned, too,” came my response. “But for a year, whenever another car appeared ahead, coming toward me, I would stop and let it pass. Didn’t want to take any chances.”
Halfway to Effingham, after Dennis dozed off, Win and I reminisced about our early driving experiences back in Michigan. Back home. We somehow couldn’t get thoughts of home off our minds.
We woke Dennis up just before Effingham. He wanted us to accompany him to Chicago, but we didn’t dare. Chicago was just a day’s run from Howell. It would have taken too much will power to turn our faces southward again. We branched off to Terre Haute, Indiana.
Terre Haute. From our high school French (we were obviously thinking of home once more) we remembered “terre haute” meant “high ground.” Perhaps that was the reason the roads would be more passable this way. At all events, at Terre Haute we found it was possible to go due south to Evansville, Indiana on the Ohio River. Although it was dark and the rain had started again, we headed out of town. The attendant at a gas station gave us directions. “Where you going to sleep?” he asked.
“Hard to say,” Win responded. “We’ll find some sort of place outside of town.”
“By thunder, boys, you aren’t going to sleep out in weather like this. I’m a bachelor with no home of my own, but I’ll take you to the hotel with me.”
We thanked him and told him we were used to sleeping out and wouldn’t waste a man’s money like that under any conditions. This worried him and after a bit more of useless insistence, he offered us each a package of cigarettes and then money. We assured him we had plenty of money, didn’t smoke, and would sleep comfortably.
Then, after inviting him to look us up sometime in Michigan, we had started to leave when he called us back and said he couldn’t sleep unless we took fifty cents from him to buy something hot at the corner cafe. Needless to say we weren’t cruel enough to allow him to suffer from insomnia. What chance has a fellow to rough it with such people in the world?
By the time the edge of town came in sight we were completely soaked and as yet no shelter offered. In an open field we spied two shadowy masses. Investigation disclosed two airplanes. They appeared to be securely moored and the ground beneath the wings was fairly dry. The heavens were opening up so we crawled under one of the machines and made ourselves as comfortable as possible. We had never been that close to an airplane before.
But we had seen two flights. “Remember the first plane we ever saw,” queried Win, his voice carrying over the beating rain.
I recalled it vividly. It had been at the Livingston County Fair in Howell. An actual flight was scheduled as one of the main events. The pilot had his plane shipped in, all crated up. We watched from across a fence as he uncrated it and assembled the machine in the great oval inside the racetrack.
The first day of the fair had been too windy. He didn’t dare go up. Likewise the second day, and the third. On the fourth and last day, gritting his teeth apprehensively, he got into the open cockpit, guided the little plane over the smooth grass, and was airborne. Everyone cheered. Five minutes later he had landed. “That was a great flight,” our father declared. “And a great experience.”
A year or so later, a “barnstorming” pilot had actually flown into Howell and took paying passengers up, one at a time, for ten minute flights, at ten dollars each.
All night the rain poured down on the silk airplane wings above our heads. Daylight added little physical comfort to the hike through mud in the damp chilly air which gave our clothes little chance to dry.
At Vincennes, Indiana we again came close to the Wabash River which we had crossed just before reaching Terre Haute. This winding stream forms the snake-like boundary between Indiana and Illinois, all the way from Terre Haute to the lower tip of the two states.
We were getting into Lincoln country. It was at Vincennes that Tom Lincoln and his family, including twenty-one-year-old Abe, journeying by ox cart, had left Indiana forever, after Abe had spent a quarter of his life in its backwoods forests.
At noon we ferried the White River and that night camped ten miles from Evansville, Indiana on the banks of the Ohio. Our morning attempt to cross the big river put us in ill humor; there was no bridge, no passenger ferry, no auto ferry, within walking distance of town. Would it be necessary to swim the Ohio? At length, by paying an outrageous fare to a traction company, we were carried by rail and water to Henderson, Kentucky, our objective on the other side of the river. Luckily there was enough money in our pockets. Reluctantly the price was paid. After all, the Ohio River was too wide and too cold for swimming.