Looking for the Past Along America’s Back Roads

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courtesy of Anthony B. Lovelace
Downtown Wyoming, Iowa, in the late 1930s.

I met a hobo once who had spent part of the Great Depression hopping freight trains, looking for work. His name was “Speck” Martin. We lived in the same western Oklahoma town for some years. He told me stories, like how he strapped a belt around the catwalk on top of the boxcar and then around his waist to keep from falling off while he slept on the top of the car.

He spoke of how word of the friendly towns and the houses where you could get something to eat traveled through the trains. He wanted me to know that hoboes were not bums; he said a bum didn’t want to work, but hoboes were looking for work. Speck finally found work in Winslow, Arizona, cleaning Nehi pop bottles.

I am an old soul. It seems like I am in a time and place where I don’t really belong. I find myself constantly searching for something that will connect me to a time before I was born. Maybe that’s the reason we all collect things: It connects us to a time when all was right with the world. My problem is that most of the stuff I collect was used way before I was born.

My desire to experience life before my time manifests itself in many ways. I watch old black-and-white movin’ picture shows, paying close attention to life in the past. I get insight into what a bus station and bus travel was like by watching It Happened One Night (even the old auto courts in that movie fascinate me). I pay close attention to how people dressed and how they talked, and I love it when I get a glimpse of old store interiors.

I collect old postcards. I have a pretty good collection of “Main Street” postcards from small towns across the U.S. I also love old radio programs like Fibber McGee and Molly and Amos and Andy. Lum and Abner and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar are my favorites. The Lux Radio Theatre ranks right up there on my list of favorites; I even enjoy hearing the old commercials. There is some irony in that the technology of today enables me to enjoy old movies and radio programs.

Traveling is one way I escape the present and experience the past. As far back as memory carries me, I have had a desire to wander. I have never seen any part of the U.S. that I did not think was beautiful.

In college, I played football for four years at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. Most of my teammates hated the bus rides to games in New Mexico, Colorado, and Arkansas. They grumbled about the long trips, but I looked forward to them. I put my headphones on and stared out the window as the driver guided the bus down the road.

Back roads

After getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I tried to put out the wandering fire. I hired on to the Natural Resources Conservation Service and gave being a professional my best shot. I really enjoyed working with the farmers, but I was unable to play the game required in the professional world. I quit and moved back to Alva, Oklahoma, where I taught science and history. I enjoyed teaching and loved the kids, many of whom I still see around town. It just wasn’t enough; my mind was still traveling down back roads, driving through some long-forgotten small town with boarded-up shops lining Main Street.

Today I buy and sell farm equipment, or anything I can hustle a buck on. I have a few cows and I do some writing. I do it all so that I can wander the back roads searching for that time machine that will take me back, even if for the briefest of moments, to a time gone by.

I close my eyes and see these little towns in their glory days, when farmers were welcomed by the businesses with open arms. I imagine the days when going into town on Saturday was the highlight of the week. Sometimes when I am on the road, my path takes me to a small, locally owned establishment and I always do my best to stop. If it’s a café, I grab a bite to eat; if it’s a general mercantile store, I might buy something. I almost always take a picture, for it may not be there the next time I pass by. Many people of my generation are in too big a hurry to stop. Most won’t even travel the back roads, preferring the speed of the interstate. They boast of the deal they got at the chain market and brag about how quickly they reached their destination.

The Novo

People are like snowflakes; there are no two of us alike. We all have a unique story of how we got to where we are. Among collectors, there are many similarities. When you visit with them, at some point in the conversation you will hear, “when I was young” or “back when I was a kid” or “I grew up driving (or using) one of those.”

My love of collecting things comes from my love of American history. Collecting is a way for me to connect with the past. But what pulls on me even more than any physical object is its story, how it got to where it is today.

The engine was advertised online, and when I first saw it, I didn’t really think I wanted a Novo engine. It is a 3hp, pretty big and tall sitting on a homemade cart. I kept seeing an ad for it and finally decided to call. The seller was a retired farmer in his early ’90s. He said his dad bought the engine in Hays, Kansas, in the early 1930s from the owner of a Standard Oil filling station.

The engine had been used to pump fuel from railroad tankers to holding tanks. The seller’s dad built the cart that it still sits on. This gentleman and his father used the engine into the mid-1940s to run a grain auger. After that, it ran a grinder and a pump jack on a water well. In the early 1950s, it was put into the barn. In retirement, the seller cleaned it up and got it running again, painting it green and yellow. Later, while cleaning up the farm, he decided to get rid of it.

As I heard this story, my mind went back to that 1930s filling station, and I found myself wondering what it looked like. I could imagine the old farmer and his dad sweating on a hot summer’s day, binning wheat with the old Novo, thankful that they no longer had to scoop the wheat in the bin.

By the time he finished telling me about the engine, I knew I was going to buy it. I own other engines, most of them painted the correct colors and pretty spiffy looking, but the one I hold most dear is that green-and-yellow 3hp Novo on a homemade cart. If only it could talk.

I collect other things: I have my grandpa’s 1951 Allis-Chalmers WD. I recently bought a one-owner 1956 International S120 4×4 pickup, with a factory propane engine. It was on the same ranch since it was bought new. I even got the original title.

Back down the line

When I was in graduate school and for a while after, I worked for a farmer named Harold Meyer. I worked for Harold (and then his wife) for over 20 years. We became close friends. Many an afternoon found us in the pickup, where I would ask questions about the past. He would always start his answer by saying, “back down the line …”

One of the postcards in my collection shows a view, looking east, of the main street of Wyoming, Iowa. It was postmarked Sept. 11, 1939. I don’t think it was taken in the 1920s, as some of the vehicles look like they date to the ’30s. Being a diehard Ford man, the first thing that jumped out at me was the Ford dealership on the corner. The second thing I noticed was the Farmall tractor parked on the street. It looks like it is parked right in front of the Ford dealership. It makes me wonder if the farmer drove his tractor into town, or maybe the Ford dealer worked on tractors.

I didn’t see a Farmall dealership sign anywhere in the photo. The other thing in front of the dealership that I noticed was the Ford cab and chassis truck. I wonder if that truck was going to have a grain bed put on. There are gas pumps in front of the dealership; it looks like one of them has a Shell glass bulb on top.

If you look down the row of businesses, you can see some neat signs. One is for the West End Market and Colonial Bread. If you look farther down, you can see a Coca-Cola sign. Right below that Coke sign, if you look closely, there is a team of horses harnessed up to something and backed in to the curb. I thought that was kind of interesting. I wonder what they are doing in town?

When you look at the other side of the street, you’ll see another Coca-Cola sign. Further down the way, there are a couple of signs that interest me but I can’t quite make them out. One, right behind a light post, says truck but I can’t make out the second word. The sign looks to be located at another filling station, but even when I enlarge the picture, I can’t make out that second word.

I also like the sign on the sidewalk right beyond the highway sign post. It says “1st Choice of Car Salesman.” I wonder what the first choice of car salesmen was. Usually, these old picture postcards show people on the sidewalks or crossing the street. In this picture, I see only one person: He is standing on the passenger side of the sedan on the right side of the street, possibly talking to somebody in the car.

Some of the postcards I buy are blank on the back but this one is addressed to Mrs. O.W. Van Duyn in Redwood City, California. “My Dear, Does this recall familiar streets? We are having lovely weather for our state fair which opened 24. Attendance today: 80,000. Hope Orvis is much better. We are well I will write a letter soon. Have not heard from Bill (Saturday evening). – Mother (this should have been mailed a week ago).”

Until we meet again

As our conversation was winding down, I remember asking Speck how he got back to Oklahoma. He said he returned to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps and be close to home. I asked him if he missed being a hobo, missed wandering around the country. His answer still rides with me today: “Oh boy, every time I heard a train’s whistle,” he said, “I got itchy feet.” I think about Speck a lot as I drive down the road. I wish I would have spent more time with him.

I hope you enjoyed getting together as much as I did and I look forward to seeing you again. Until our next visit, remember to take time out of your busy schedule and enjoy the view from the back roads. FC

Anthony Lovelace lives in Alva, Oklahoma. He enjoys traveling and collects anything old, has a very small cow herd, and writes. Write him at P.O. Box 174, Alva, OK 73717; email: americantraveler76@yahoo.com.

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