Vol. VII, No. 2, Fall 1993 / Winter 1994


Crossroads

by Susan Holliday




Susan Holliday is a writer living in Christian County, Missouri. She is also the wife of Don Holliday.

Guy Ross strains to hear my questions about his life as an oil distributor for Barton County, Missouri. He is ninety-six years old, and the facts and figures of his daily working life escape him, particularly since he retired almost thirty-five years ago. But of certain details he can be sure. Yes, he says, he worked for Conoco for thirty-three years. He worked every day. Even Sunday? I ask. If a customer needed fuel, yes, even Sundays. He grips his arms across his stomach and shakes his head firmly as he says this, satisfied by his loyalty to both his customers and his products. "People gotta have fuel," he says.

Guy recalls one of his customers, a fellow named Collins, who had an emergency.

"He called me up at midnight," Guy says. "It was zero degrees and snowing out. He said, 'Guy, I want you to bring me over ten gallons, just enough to get through the night, because I'm empty.' But I didn't have any fuel on my truck. I knew he had a thousand gallon tank, so I loaded up a thousand gallons, went to his house and filled him up."

Guy puts his hands up in the air and gives a little laugh.

"The next morning," he says, "he come by and brung me a box of candy. 'I want to thank you for saving me,' he said, 'and when you can, I want you to fill up that tank.' 'Why, I already done it!' I told him. 'I filled it up last night!'."

Guy is well over six feet tall and sits perfectly straight in the blue plush easy chair, maintaining the same attitude he held for thirty-three years behind the wheel of his delivery truck. When he reads, his head is up and only his eyes down; his fence post of a spine won't let him tilt. Yet his posture, so deliberate and correct, is as natural as shaking hands and so remarkably graceful that even people who don't know Guy by name know him by the way he carries himself. He is proud of this. He believes in physiognomy and that good posture says he is honest. And determined.

Perhaps it was this same posture that first attracted Continental Oil Company agents to the young mail delivery driver at the Lamar depot. The year was 1925. Guy, a veteran of World War I, had received the government contract to pick up the sacks of mail from arriving Frisco and Missouri-Pacific trains and deliver them to the postmaster. Occasionally, Guy also transported salesmen and their display cases to the Traveler's Hotel, one mile north on the south edge of the town square. Conoco's plant and storage tanks, like those of its competitors, lined the north side of the tracks to the west, but because Conoco had lost its agent, the tall wire gates were locked and bolted. This was a disaster in the 1920's, the age of the automobile. One day a Conoco representative recruited Guy to become the distributor for Lamar and Barton county. Guy would deliver gasoline and kerosene and the new replacement for coal, heating oil.

Sales and Parts Departments, Gathman Bros. Chevrolet, Lamar, Missouri. Guy Ross, Conoco Distributor at left. Ca. 1950.

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Guy Ross and Thurman Richards in front of Richards 'farm home, ca. 1948.
"I got my keys to the plant on a Saturday afternoon," Guy remembers, "and I made my first delivery that same day. I went to Rick's Garage in Iantha and--man, were they glad to see me ! They were out of gas."

Iantha is a small community only six miles west of Lamar, but getting there in the 1920's was not easy. Highway 160 west was a gravel bed road and the county road north to Iantha was bumpier yet. Originally platted along the right-of-way of the Gulf Railroad, later the Frisco Railroad, Iantha remained a small supply center for the farmers nearby. On a Saturday afternoon people had come to town to trade and relax and sit on the benches outside the grocery. And they'd come in for a fill-up at Rick's Garage. Guy Ross couldn't have had a more timely introduction to the gasoline business. Before the decade ended, the Missouri Legislature would approve major funds to improve farm to market roads, and ironically, small towns like Iantha would fade in importance.

Today Iantha, though marked plainly on roadsigns, is something of a ghost town, the red brick buildings of the town square slouched in old conspiracy. The old Frisco tracks, now Burlington Northern's, cross the main street, and the hundred-car freight trains hurtle through without slowing.

Barton County is a patchwork of small and large farms. From the air the multicolored fields resemble mismatched tiles grouted by roads, some stretches gray from chip and seal, some black with asphalt, but many still polished brown river gravel, rutted by wear. The technological imprint across the face of the land stands indelible from deeper and deeper cuts, generations of treks atop the original buffalo paths and Indian trails. This kind of platting gets lost in cities, overgrown with roads and streets, overused by streams of automobiles. Nor is it as noticeable on land cragged and hilled, tangled in trees and shoulder high brush, where the roads roll and corners twist unexpectantly into view. In Barton County there is mostly this same flatness, excellent for farming and the building of roads.

Except for the few knolls which mark Muddy Creek, or the North Fork of the Spring River, and the man-made mounds to the west, where the Indians celebrated their dead and where strip miners scored coal and lead from the land, Barton County lies pressed against a broad blue sky. It is as if someone has picked up this blanket of earth and smoothed the contours out. And while it is the land which has occupied settlers' hands for generations, the sky cannot be ignored. If you are brave enough to lie flat and stare, the sky will lift you up and swallow you whole until you must grab fists full of earth just to stop yourself from falling upward. From earth to sky, from one farmhouse to another, here all distances are deceptive. Things are always closer or farther than they appear and they are all remarkably apparent. It is from this vantage that I like to picture Guy in his delivery truck, pulling a cloud of dust across the prairie.

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Guy Ross's Conoco petroleum tanker, ca. 1940.

Guy moved to Barton County with his family when he was only fourteen. Like so many others of his generation, Guy assisted the slow and steady conversion of the prairie to farmland, witnessed the mechanization of farming, and lived through disasters both natural and man-made. Now he speaks of a good harvest and a bad one in the same flat tone of voice. His best years in business were the same as his neighbors', both rural and town folks. He remembers the Depression years as hard for everyone but probably less for him. He says he never had much to start with, so he didn't miss prosperity like some others did.

Before Guy moved to Springfield, in the years after his eyesight began to fail, we spent many Sundays driving this territory. We searched for what little of the original prairie we could find, mostly in roadside parks and wildlife refuges. He would give hand signs to tell me where to turn. I was amazed how quickly a road appeared at his every gesture, almost as if he had commanded it to be there. He, however, had traveled all these lanes so many times, in service to his customers or just to see where the road went, that he could stand at any intersection and tell me something about the people and the farms in any direction.

"It was down these roads," Guy said, gesturing broadly, "they came down." He was referring to an event of August, 1897, the month and year of Guy's birth, when the summer's drought was so severe that a group of farmers met near Lamar and detonated four tons of dynamite hoping to knock a cloudburst from the sky. No rain fell that day on the Lamar vicinity, but farmers to the south, along the Jasper county line, reported a miraculous rainstorm.

Guy remembers when the county's paths and byways turned to roadbeds and highways, and the remarkable changes which followed. In fact, he was right there aiding in the change. Rice Brothers Construction of Irwin became Guy's biggest customer.

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"They built roads," he says. "Back then everybody was getting automobiles and they wanted good roads."

Rice Brothers held contracts with the federal highway department and built key sections of Highways 71 and 160. Guy supplied the gasoline and oil to fuel the heavy machinery needed for carving and paving the roads. And he benefitted from this in more ways than one. Not only did he rely on these improvements for greater access to his customers, but the new roads brought him more and more business as his customers became more and more mobile. By the time Guy retired in 1958, he owned service stations in Jasper, Golden City, Liberal, and Lamar.

As the road surfaces have improved so have the quickness and sureness of life. The roads are like yarn, knitting towns and neighbors together. When I visited my grandparents in Lamar as a child, it amazed me that people there thought nothing of getting in the car and driving 35 miles for a chicken dinner. This seemed a considerable distance then because I noted that it took as long to travel to Chicken Annie's as it did to park, order, be served and eat. We spent many evenings travelling to supper, to Jim's Steakhouse in Pittsburg, to the cafe in Golden City, even as far away as E1 Dorado Springs, always back in time for a limeade from the Dairy Q. What a treat it was to be so elegantly occupied and what a tribute to the technology that gave these roads and cars to our service!

From Guy I have learned that mileage is essential in giving directions. In the rugged central Ozarks, people are directed to landmarks large and small, a tree near the bend of a road, the first left after the bridge. It is good to know varieties of trees in the hills, to distinguish sassafras from walnut, white oaks from other oaks. In Barton County, however, particularly west of Lamar, here on the Ozarks' western edge, proximities come in increments of miles--eighths, quarters, halves. To me, the non-native, every intersection looks the same and appears as regular as minutes on a clock. Through years of practice, I have distinguished certain landmarks--a red brick silo to the north, an old barn with a loft on the east, a windmill clanking in the west field. These are as indelible to me as the ten mile curve on 160 west of Golden City.

As a Conoco distributor, Guy delivered to customers within a twenty mile radius of Lamar, including the communities of Irwin to the north, Iantha and Liberal to the west, Golden City to the east, and Jasper just south of the county line. Although some would say that Guy's success rose with that of the automobile and the tractor, he will tell you he was successful because of the people. Guy treated his customers fairly. They were neighbors first and clients second. And they believed in him too. In 1943, citizens of Lamar elected Guy mayor, an office he was asked to seek. He served two terms while devoting himself to simple goals: paved streets, electric street lights, a larger city park with pavilions for family picnics. And all the while he made his gasoline, oil and kerosene deliveries, sometimes in the middle of the night, and even on Sundays. Guy never went to college and the only two things to which he ever aspired were to be a good Christian and a good citizen. Today at ninety-six years old his posture vouches that he succeeded.

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