Folk lore

Several good stories about the Missouri Capitol were dispatched to the cutting-room floor when the original 727-page typescript of the next Capitol book was pared down to a size the publisher can handle and this is one of them. Well, actually, two.

This particular segment is only sixteen lines long.  The story behind it is much longer, as you will see if you endure the telling of it all the way to the end, and a forerunner to the today’s highways and transportation issues.

(“The cutting-room floor” is a movie industry term that refers to the footage that is cut out of the final version of the film during the editing process.  But you probably already knew that).

One of the stories began with an old postcard. Old postcards can be fascinating reading. Many are pretty mundane but sometimes the brief messages on the back are flash views into someone’s life and there have been times when I’ve gone to the internet to see if I can track down the person who received the card all those years ago or the person who sent it to learn the story to which the brief message refers. Sometimes the reader of the back of an old postcard can mentally create a scenario around that message.  Robert Olen Butler did that several years ago in his book, Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards. It’s a fun read.

But the postcard that led to the following story that has wound up on the new Capitol book’s editorial cutting-room floor had nothing on the back.  The front did have a short message, mentioning that Governor Joseph Folk was standing on the front steps of the capitol, the one that burned a few years later.  He’s the one on about the fifth step who appears to be talking to a bearded man named Ezra Meeker.

One of the stories here  is of the image and the other is the sixteen lines about Folk that have been excised from the new book.

This postcard shows Meeker’s covered wagon next to one of the first automobiles in Jefferson City.  Old Ezra was a heckuva guy.  His legacy is the Oregon Trail.  And Joe Folk has legacy in Missouri transportation history.

Ezra Meeker, his wife of one year, Eliza, their newborn son, Marion, and his older brother, Oliver, went west from Iowa to Oregon with an ox team in 1852. The trip took six months.   Ezra became the first postmaster and the first mayor of Puyallup, Washington and he and Eliza raised five children.  A sixth died in infancy.

When Ezra was seventy-five years old, he became convinced that the Oregon Trail and its stories were being forgotten as plains farmers plowed up its ruts and communities were built over sections of it.  He decided the way to bring that part of our history back to public attention was travel it backwards.  He got a couple of oxen named Dave and Twist, a collie dog named Jim, and a covered wagon and retraced his path of a half-century earlier.  He encouraged the communities he visited to put up monuments marking the trail.

Twist died in Nebraska, perhaps having eaten something poisonous, and Meeker replaced him with another ox named Dandy.  By late November, 1907, Meeker was in Washington, D. C., where he showed his wagon to President Roosevelt and spent more than a month urging Congress to mark the Oregon Trail.

He left D. C. in January, 1908 and went into winter quarters in Pittsburg until early March.  By then, Congress was considering a bill to spend $50,000 to mark the trail. Other legislation called for a federal-state partnership to build a national highway along the Oregon Trail as a memorial road.  He got a frosty reception from the Mayor of St. Louis and left after staying a few days, “greatly disappointed.”

“I had anticipated a warm reception. St. Louis, properly speaking, had been the head center of the movement that finally established the Oregon Trail. Here was where Weythe, Bonneville, Whitman and others of the earlier movements…had outfitted, but there is now a commercial generation, many of whom that care but little about the subject.”

He did, however, find some ‘zealous advocates’ of the effort to mark the Trail, including the automobile club and the Daughters of the American Revolution.” His drive from St. Louis to Jefferson City “was tedious and without results.”  But, “Governor Folks came out on the state house steps to have his photograph taken and otherwise signified his approval of the work, and I was accorded a cordial hearing by the citizens of that city,” he wrote in his 1916 book.

And that’s what we see on that postcard.  Dave and Dandy, the wagon, a car, and Governor Folk talking to Meeker, who made it back to Seattle, Washington on July 18, 1908.  He travelled the Trail again by oxcart, 1910-1912, and by 1916 he was writing, “A great change has come over the minds of the American people in this brief period of eight years.  Numerous organizations have sprung into existence for the betterment of Good Roads, for the perpetuation of ‘The Old Trails’ and the memory of those who wore them wide and deep.”

Ezra traveled the Oregon Trail for the last time in 1924—by airplane, when he was 93.  He died in December, 1928, about three weeks short of his 98th birthday.

Now we switch focus a little.

The Good Roads movement traces its beginnings to a 1902 proposal to build a memorial road from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville.  By the time Ezra Meeker started his second trip on the Oregon Trail, numerous local efforts to establish a good roads program were underway, leading to the national good roads movement.  Richard Weingroff of the Federal Highway Administration wrote that one of the pioneering efforts was the National Old Trails road, “an outgrowth of two movements in Missouri.”  The first of those efforts was promotion of a road linking St. Louis and Kansas City.  The second of those movements was spearheaded by the DAR to mark the Santa Fe Trail.  “In the summer of 1907, Governor Folk…expressed an interest in a cross-State macadam highway,” he wrote.

But, actually, Folk had spoken on the subject earlier when he announced in August, 1906, a plan to finance road development in Missouri, first linking Kansas City and St. Louis and a second road from the Arkansas border to the Iowa border.  He said he would ask the 1907 legislature to require Missouri dramshops to pay a state license fee of $200 a year.  The Automobile magazine commented in its August 23 issue, “As there are 650 saloons in Kansas City alone, it may be easily seen that the revenue derived would be large.”  Folk told a group in Kansas City, “It is my view that the highway department of the state should be organized after the same manner as the public school system, to the end that there may be good roads in every portion of the commonwealth.”

And this is where we finally get to the sixteen lines that won’t be in the book—and the story of Folk’s misadventures behind the wheel of an automobile, as reported by The Cole County Democrat on June 20, 1907.

Folk, who had called in his 1905 inaugural speech for a constitutional amendment setting a tax to finance a road building system in Missouri, was the first Missouri Governor to call for a cross-state highway which led the State Board of Agriculture’s Highway Department to suggest three routes.  His interest in roads might have motivated him to become the first sitting Governor to drive a car, secretly negotiating an outing with Ed Austin, the commissions clerk in the Secretary of state’s office.  Austin drove about four miles from the capitol on a road known as “Ten Mile Run,” then switched seats with Folk, who “proceeded to violate the speed limit going down the very first hill,” as newspaper reporter Charles B. Oldham reported.  Folk estimated they had been traveling at least thirty miles an hour. But by the time the car reached the top of the next hill “it was not traveling at the rate of a mile a week.”

He also observed that no court of justice would fine him for the speed he made going down hill, because the machine was not obeying his will.

While this conversation as going on the automobile stopped to listen.  The Governor could not make it start.  Mr. Austin commanded it to go, but it refused to budge.  When he had worked an hour on the intestines of the vehicle, the Governor inquired the distance from town. 

Mr. Austin thought that as the bee would fly, it was about four miles.  Just then the vehicle commenced throbbing and sputtering.  The Governor yanked the lever about and they went straight into a deep ditch.  The occupants did not take the usual time to alight.  As the ground was soft, neither was injured.

Meanwhile, some parties in town had learned of the departure of the two gentlemen, and a relief party was fitted out in charge of Col. Wm. Irwin.  When they reached the Governor and Mr. Austin the latter were still working to get the vehicle out of the ditch.

The relief party came to their assistance and presently got it back on the highway.  The Governor consented to ride back to town in the automobile, providing the relief party would follow immediately in the rear with a buggy.  In this way the party reached home safely.

The three-road idea also went into the ditch during Folk’s term but was pulled out by his successor, Herbert Hadley.

 We don’t know if the car next to Meeker’s wagon in that April 1908 postcard is Austin’s car.  But it might be. Pictures of REOs from 1907-08 show cars looking like that one and steered with a lever, not a wheel.  The REO was built by Ransom E. Olds, whose cars later became, of course, Oldsmobiles.

It’s a little hard to pinpoint where Folk’s great adventure happened.  Jefferson City developed a North and a South Ten Mile Drive as it spread west. North Ten Mile Drive became Truman Boulevard in the Capital Mall area.  But the area in 1907 was ‘way out in the country, so far out that the state’s chief executive would be away from the public eye when he tried out Ed Austin’s contraption.

Old postcards.  Love the stories they tell.

One thought on “Folk lore

  1. Follwing the path of the old trail with the new road has been done numerous times in Missouri, and in other states as well., It’s not a bad deal, really, the subgrade comes pre-compacted and the path is clearly marked. As a western ‘rut nut’ myself, one who follows some of the old wagon trains in my trails to adventure, you don’t see all that many trails being remarked and/or conserved, except in a general sense. It’s a piece of history being lost.

    Where the greatest success has been is where the arid environment has preserved the compaction and not allowed revegetation, such as northern Nevada, the site of the Emigrant and California Trails. Missouri’s own Mark Twain took the Emigrant Trail west to Carson City, where his brother Orion had been named the secretary of state for that territory. Chronicled in his book “Roughing It” Twain captures much of the spirit of the adventures of the time. One small tidbit about a ravenous coyote in the book, a hundred years later became the inspiration for the Warner Brothers’ Cartoon character Wile E. Coyote. I’ll forgive Twain’s spelling of “cayote”, because the rest of the work is such a classic.

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