Volume III, No. 1, Fall 1975
The air conditioned Greyhound bus speeds by. A huge semi loaded with new automobile parts rushes past so quickly the driver hardly notices. Just on the other side, the Frisco freight train roars by with car after car loaded with new pickup trucks, automobiles and tractors.
A passenger on the right side of the bus heading southwest might, if he looks quickly enough, catch a glimpse of a lone remnant of a much older form of transportation--the backside of a stagecoach way station, standing alone on the edge of a hay field.
Discarded now even as a hay barn, the empty log building faces old U.S. Highway 66 which, like the old way station, is outdated. Interstate 44--twin pavements of travel a few hundred yards south--is a more direct route.
Before the railroad--following basically the same route--made the stagecoach obsolete, dozens of little way stations such as this were spaced every ten to twenty miles along major travel routes.
Even before white men came to the Ozarks, the major travel route through the rugged region has been this same route from St. Louis southwest through present day Springfield on into Arkansas and Oklahoma.
First a buffalo trail that followed the natural ridges and valleys to avoid the rougher terrain, the route was known to white men as the Osage Trace from the Osage Indians who traded at St. Louis. When the Kickapoo Indians were displaced and settled on the Springfield Plain, it became known as the Kickapoo Trace. Used by white men to get to the White River area, it was renamed as the old White River Trace. During the War Between the States both Union and Confederate armies used the trail changing its name to the Old Military Road.
The Frisco Railroad followed basically the same route. But it was the first telegraph line built into the Ozarks, following the exact route, which caused it to be called the Old Wire Road. U.S. Highway 66, first gravel, then paved in 1929, straightened out some curves, leveled a few hills and by-passed some towns, but still followed the old Indian trail, until much more recently 1-44 carved out a still straighter path.
In the dark and musty room of the way station, standing by the boarded up remnants of the once huge fireplace of the main downstairs room, we can hear the cars and trucks roar past in a never-ceasing crescendo and diminuendo. The truck drivers listen to their CB radios and anticipate reaching Springfield in forty minutes, while the passengers in the bus relax in the climate controlled atmosphere.
However, if we listen hard enough, we can hear the hooves of the six horses and the rumble of the Concord stage as it pulls over the last rise in the dusty road. The driver's shouts to the teams become clearer as he slows them down to pull up to the station in a cloud of dust. As the dust clears, we can smell the leather and horses and taste the dust.
The tired passengers crawl out with relief from their cramped positions--especially those facing each other who had to fit their legs together in such a small space--for a few minutes of refreshments while the three fresh teams are being hitched up.
The station master greets the passengers offering his wife's beans and pork, hominy, coffee and whiskey. On a rough table by the door is a wooden bucket filled with water, a dipper, a dirty wash basin, a bar of strong yellow lye soap and a dirty towel to wash away the dust of traveling. Such conveniences as outhouses have not yet been thought of here. Luckily the Ozarks is blessed with plenty of trees and bushes for privacy.
For those who wish to spend the night, there are two small attic rooms, reached by steep narrow ladder-like stairs. The rooms, one for men, the other for women, are separated by a log partition with no door between. The beds, undoubtedly populated with bed bugs have ropes to support the straw mattresses. The only covering is a blanket as sheets are an unheard-of luxury. So when the stage runs all night, as this one will to reach Springfield by this time tomorrow, most prefer the discomfort of the moving stage to staying over in this primitive isolated way station.
According to the driver, the coach, purchased in Concord, New Hampshire, cost the company above $900.00 last year in 1867. He says it weighs 3000 pounds and can carry a 4000 pound load. The axles are steel. The body swings on long leather thorough braces riven on steel stanchions above front and rear axles, giving the driver and passengers a floating feeling above the jarring wheels. This coach has three seats, two facing forward and one backward with room for three people in a seat, and with crowding, could carry up to fifteen people inside. On the top, which is covered with heavy waterproof duck, there is room for more passengers and many boxes and cases.
The windows are covered with canvas curtains, fastened down now with eyes and turn buttons because of the early December chill, but they can be rolled up in milder weather. The driver's seat is in front about six feet from the ground. He drives from the right side sitting by the strong foot brake. This coach is the finest in riding comfort yet devised for traveling.
The passengers tramp in. The three ladies daub carefully in the cold water and straighten up their hair and bonnets. The weather, mild for December, still has a briskness that makes the fire welcome, so they soon gather around it to drink coffee and eat their dinners. The children race outside to watch the horses and disappear briefly into the bushes. It appears this time that there will be a slight delay for some repair of the harness, so after eating the men begin a card game.
Shouts of "All ready" come from the driver who pokes his head into the room. The passengers bundle up and climb back inside as no one wishes to ride on top today. The driver shouts to the fresh team, starting them off at a brisk trot as they swing back onto the Old Wire Road and disappear over the next rise in the road.
The sound of the horses and coach becomes dimmer until soon all we can hear is the breeze in the old oak trees standing guard over the lot where the relieved horses snort and roll in the dust. Inside the station master's wife begins clearing up the dishes and stirs up the fire.
Then all we can hear is the breeze blowing through the dried grass, the flapping of the broken shingles and slamming of the door as the rising crescendo of the big trucks on the interstate penetrates our consciousness once again.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.