Never Lost on Midwestern Memory Lane

Topeka Capital-Journal
Nov. 26, 2000

On the weekend before Thanksgiving our son, Steve, who lives in Maryland, with his son, Jake, 11, were here, and Steve insisted we visit the birthplaces of my parents. Being the kind of father I am, I agreed, but the problem was that my dad was born in Miltonvale and my mom and Howe, Neb., and Steve wanted to hit both in one day.

We headed toward Miltonvale and I compounded the problem by stopping in Manhattan to show them the K-State stadium and the new Colbert Hills Golf Course. Then, I figured that since we were so close, we should stop in Wakefield to say hello to former Gov. Bill Avery.

That was fine, except that as we started to turn off US-77 Highway on K-82 we learned it was closed, and we’d have to detour around the bottom end of Milford Lake and approach Wakefield from the south.

Everything seemed to be working, but we ran out of highway signs and were forced to make the reluctant decision that we were lost. Thus began a day of learning anew of the hospitality and innate goodness of rural Kansans.

Since we were lost, I stopped and waved at a pickup going the other way. It stopped, and the car behind it stopped, and then a car driven by a young woman stopped. She heard me yell, “We’re trying to get to Wakefield,” so she got out of her car, walked across the road, and gave us directions.

We drove a while and didn’t see the silos or the lot full of farm equipment she mentioned, so we stopped again to talk to a man in a field. We yelled again, “We’re trying to get to Wakefield,” and he climbed over the barbed wire fence and came to our car to tell us how we were on the right track.

In Wakefield, I asked the woman at the Phillips 66 station if I could use her telephone book, and her phone. With a smile, she handed both over. I soon had Avery on the phone, and he told us how to find his house. It’s on a hill, overlooking Milford Lake and from his yard you can see two silos sticking out of the water, marking the spot where the family home and barn were before the lake took them.

We had a nice visit, and I think he enjoyed meeting Steve and Jake, and commiserating with them over the way they’re mistreated in my column. His wife, Hazel, told me our neighbor Mary Hall was one of their close friends, having worked as her aide when they occupied the governor’s mansion.

We did our visiting in Avery’s favorite spot, a downstairs room with a fireplace that looks out towards the lake. It has pictures and mementos, including one from his days as a congressman, sitting in the Rules committee meeting along with a young Tip O’Neill.

From Wakefield we drove to Oak Hill, which my grandfather, Alfred Snider, listed as his address when he applied for his Civil War pension. He fought at Gettysburg with an Indian volunteer unit. It being Sunday, the only action in the town was at the Presbyterian Church. From there

it was on to Miltonvale, where the big crowd was at the Kozy Kafe, having Sunday “dinner.” This town has it all, with the community center, city hall and amphitheater. There was no Monument to any Sniders.

We got lost again trying to get out of town, and again I waved down a driver, an elderly woman. She led us back to the highway, then got out of her car to give us further directions.

We went through Clay Center, Washington, Marysville and Seneca on the way to Howe, which is about 30 miles north of the Kansas line, just a mile off US-75. It is almost a ghost town, with no stores, churches or schools; nothing but a few old houses and some fertilizer carriers parked near the railroad tracks. The houses were old enough that my mother probably was born in one of them, but we’ll never know.

The drive home was a breeze, back across the border, down Casino Alley, and home in time for the cocktail hour. Steve had a new digital camera that records sound, so on the way home we talked, not so much about what we had seen, but more about what we hadn’t seen.

There is nothing to indicate a Snider or a Shively (my mother’s maiden name), had ever set foot in any of the places we visited. There’s not even a grave marker.

Maybe it’s because they weren’t there long enough. Both families moved to western Oklahoma, where my mom and dad met, and married, and where their parents and a lot of relatives are buried. Oddly enough, both families had moved west from Indiana.

My impression is that they had a hard life in Howe, and in Miltonvale and Oak Hill. They probably didn’t have much, and what they did have they must have worked very hard for. All they had in abundance was faith and hope, which they never lost.

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