By L&T Columnist Gary Damron
Sometimes, it’s hard to visualize what things were like 100 years ago, even for those of us who’ve seen a lot of changes. For instance, the automobile got its start in Kansas when Hockaday Auto Supply in Wichita promoted the use of autos as early as 1905.
In the early 1900s Kansas manufacturers were building cars in Wichita, Lindsborg, Topeka, Parsons, Hutchinson, Hiawatha and Kansas City. Some highway maps from the early 20th century are still available for viewing on the KDOT web page.
According to Craig Miner’s book Kansas, by 1916, there was one car for every 22.5 people, but Kansas roads were “some of the worst.” Significantly, it was a president from Kansas, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later became instrumental in the development of an interstate highway system with the first stretch of I-70 in Kansas.
I always look forward to traveling, and adopted a theme from the movie “Cars” – “It’s not the destination, it’s the drive.”
Another motivation is an appreciation for the automobile, especially those from the ’50s that were so distinctive. Car manufacturers should learn from the consistent appeal of a Corvette or Mustang.
One memorable trip was when we drove to Oakley to meet my wife’s parents and sent the younger children with them. After dinner and good-byes, we set off in a VW Rabbit with our two older boys and a friend, plus supplies for a week of Colorado backpacking.
The sky looked ominous, so we decided to seek shelter at a rest area rather than try to set up a tent. The rains came, then blew horizontally mixed with hail. We grabbed the drenched bedding and boys, threw everything in the car and headed for Colby where we got the last motel room in town.
When asked why we’d passed up a perfectly good motel in the first place, my answer is it’s the journey, the adventure.
Miner writes of an earlier family, the Hockenhulls, who also planned a trip to Colorado. They had a new Model-T Ford, and five people headed west without maps but carrying supplies on their laps. They measured gas at Palco with a ruler and checked oil by crawling under the car.
Within 10 miles, they’d had three flats. Caught in an afternoon storm they got stuck up to the axles and the radiator boiled over. Finally they arrived in Colby that night on a rim, having traveled only 88 miles in 12 hours.
The need for decent roads caused farmers to join the push for a statewide highway system with centralized maintenance and control.
By 1920 Kansas ranked third in the percentage of farmers who owned automobiles, and by 1921, Kansans were buying 300 cars a day. The National Good Roads Association met in Topeka; out of that came the effort to connect major cities or build roads along existing trails or rivers.
Road maintenance became an issue, and after World War I, the federal government had dollars available but Kansas’ constitution forbade the state from accepting them.
Kansas began collecting gas taxes to pay for highways, and finally in 1928 passed a constitutional amendment accepting federal funds and a second one giving the state power to levy taxes on motor vehicles.
It was a landmark date, as this was the first time Kansas gave up some of its autonomy for the appropriations.
Miner wrote, “It was one of the first regional pivotal moments in which the resolution of a regional question was influenced strongly by federal pressure, and it would be far from the last.”