“How the hell do you find this stuff?”
“Because it’s here to be found and its history. If more people were looking for it, it wouldn’t go away.”
We have this conversation frequently. Most recently however, as we bumped and jostled down the once Ozark Trail, now County Road 3540, Josh kept side glancing me as though I’d often (not never) dragged him on a wild goose chase.
“There it is.”
It’s hard to miss, lonely yet stately in spite of inane graffiti and garbage strewn along the ground. The obelisk has stood for nearly a century, waiting patiently on the latest round of now rare visitors.
“Wow. That’s really cool. What did you say it was for and why is it out here alone? And seriously, how the hell do you find this stuff?”
The fifteen foot imposing obelisk is a remnant marker from the Ozark Trail, now a gravel road near Stroud OK just off of Route 66. In 1913, Ozark Mountains resort operator William “Coin” Harvey established the Ozark Trail Association out of a personal desire to increase vacation travel by automobile, and in turn increase visitors to his resort and improve the road to it. Although based in Arkansas, counties in Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico joined in, helping to create a southern route from St. Louis through the Ozarks and across Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle into New Mexico. These roads were the major highway system in the region until Highway 66 was built in the 1920s and they would become the basis for the path of Route 66. The Ozark Trail was locally maintained by private citizens and communities as it predated the federal highway system with one exception being when the US government built the Ozark Trail Bridge in 1925 over the Canadian River between Newcastle and Oklahoma City, the first federal highway project built in Oklahoma.
Predating a federal highway system of signs and designated numbers, James E. Swepston of Tulia, Texas (where an obelisk is preserved) led the effort to build a system of markers along the route. Twenty one of the obelisks were erected along the Ozark Trail to indicate the distances between the various cities and communities it connected. With the coming of the federal highway system, sections of the Ozark Trail were absorbed while others were abandoned. Today only seven of the obelisk markers are on the record as still existing, with the four in remaining in Texas (Tulia, Dimmitt, Wellington, and Farwell) being preserved through state archeological landmark status by the Texas Historical Commission and designated with historic markers. Sadly although the one in Stroud sits only a mile and a half off of Route 66, it is abandoned and vandalized. In spite of the graffiti and abandonment it is no less imposing, and has ample potential to be resurrected through a civic effort to apply for historic marker status and begin maintaining it.
As you know if you’ve read Dharma Anchor long, history and seeking out sites of historic importance are a peak interest of mine. However, unlike most wanderers, while the standard big sites are interesting in their own right, I am more interested in the oft forgotten locales, the places off the beaten path, and most especially the places near vanishing. It is my belief that if you have no idea where you came from you can’t find where you are going. (Consider the repetition of history if you forget apothegm.) I would love to see each of those places reborn, preserved, such as the Ozark Trail Obelisk, and if documenting these places in photographs and sharing them publicly aids in that effort, that would be a beautiful thing. It is to that end that I have begun honing the skills I’ve gathered over twenty years of photographing abandoned and forgotten places into something more sharply focused, a sort of goal for those photos I once took purely for preservation interest. I want to kindle interest in others, to let others see the beauty in those places, to help tell their story, and perhaps bring a desire for preservation or resurrection to some of those locations. With that goal in mind, the images you have formerly seen here and many more never published on Dharma Anchor (because I realize old abandoned sites aren’t what most bikers seek out on their adventures) are being shared on a new website, The Faded History Project. Along with the first of what will be a series of rotating exhibits as the project grows, it is the new goal of the project to start pairing personal stories and submitted pictures from before these places were forgotten to create a database of lesser known yet more personal and more palpable history, the real history, the everyday person’s history, yours and mine.
Being an Ozark hillbilly and a Route 66 aficionado, the Ozark Obelisk was of great interest to me, but I realize these places aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you like I share interest in the past and would like to see the more accessible past portrayed in its best light even now at its worst, please do follow along at The Faded History Project and if you can be sure to attend an exhibition for the project. The current exhibit opens Friday, May 15 and runs through mid July.