MIAMI, Okla. —
Edna Polson eased back in her overstuffed chair and turned the pages of time back to 1928.
“I was about 10 years old. My brother was two years younger,” she said. “I was wearing a dress because girls didn’t wear pants back then. My brother was wearing striped overalls.
“We stood there in the middle of the street near the grocery store and drugstore in Cardin, and waved little American flags as they ran by us. We were just standing there waving flags on the street.
“These young men were wearing knee-length white shorts. It was like cross-country. They ran by us straight north into Indian land, then to Picher and Joplin (Mo.) on old Route 66.
“They were running to win $25,000 — back then that would be like a million dollars.”
Polson, who says she’s on “the downhill slide to 96” years old, was a witness to the Great American Foot Race, an international, transcontinental footrace that was created by the Route 66 Association as a publicity stunt to highlight the opening of Route 66 two years earlier.
The concept was this: If you can run across the country, why couldn’t you drive across it safely? Back then, there was no federal highway system. Route 66 was a hodgepodge of state, county and city roads that had been meshed together to create an interstate highway.
Nicknamed the “Bunion Derby,” the race stretched 3,422 miles from Los Angeles to New York. It started with 199 runners on March 4, 1928, and ended with 55 runners on May 26, 1928. The winner was Andy Payne, a 20-year-old Cherokee Indian from Foyil, who used the money to pay off the family farm. He finished the race at Madison Square Garden in 588 hours, 40 minutes and 13 seconds. He was hours ahead of the other runners.
A distinguishing feature of the race was that it was among the first integrated sporting events in U.S. history. Five African-Americans participated. The black runners endured hardships along the way that included racial slurs and death threats, according to historical accounts of the race.
Polson’s father worked in the mines and developed tuberculosis. The family tried farming near Devil’s Promenade along Spring River but could not make a go of it. To survive, the family, which included Polson, her parents and four brothers, moved to Cardin, where Polson’s uncle operated a grocery store.
It was a tough time to raise a family, and it became even tougher in October 1929 when the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl years and the exodus to California of thousands of Oklahoma farmers who used Route 66 to get there.
“We got our first car in 1928. It was a Model A,” Polson said. “Before we got the car, we used the streetcar for transportation.”
The cities and towns in the Tri-State Mining District were connected by a railway that used electric-powered streetcars — at the time a far more reliable mode of transportation than a motor vehicle. That was because the roads were mostly dirt. Farmers with teams of horses would supplement their incomes pulling stuck vehicles out of the mud.
“We would get in the Model A and go for a Sunday drive,” Polson said. “Back then, Route 66 was just a road. It didn’t go anywhere. You really didn’t see a lot of cars then. They were mostly buggies.
“Mom and Dad would be in the front of the Model A, and the five kids were in the back. The car did not have windows. When a grasshopper or something got in the car, Mother made us stop, and we all had to get out until Dad could get it out. She didn’t care what kind of bug it was. She wanted out.”
As the Depression worsened, other members of the family moved into her home in Cardin.
“At one time, we had 11 people living together,” Polson said. “We never went hungry. Mom would cook, baking bread, biscuits and cornbread. We would make a stew with canned meat, which was much better then than now. Dad worked for $1.50 a day.
“Our neighbor used to get copies of the Tulsa World. We would use the newspaper as a tablecloth. We had only one tablecloth, and we did not want to get it dirty.
“It was rough, but I had a wonderful childhood. I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything — even with the sad memories. We were poor, but so was everybody else.”
EAST MEETS WEST
By 1933, Route 66 was becoming more defined as a highway. Stretches of it in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma were being straightened and paved with concrete. Chat, a hard rock from which the lead and zinc ores in the mining district were extracted, was mixed with cement to make a highly durable concrete. Long stretches of the original highway survive today in the Tri-State Area because chat was used as an aggregate in the concrete.
An important segment of the highway was created in 1932 between Commerce, Okla., and Baxter Springs, Kan.
“It was in Quapaw where East would meet West in 1933,” said Ed Keheley, a rural resident of Baxter Springs who is writing a history of the mining district. “They had a giant celebration and parade. They put a zinc marker in the road to commemorate the event.”
The concrete highway was started simultaneously at Commerce and Baxter Springs, with the planned connection of the two segments at Quapaw.
On March 14, 1933, the new segment of Route 66 from Quapaw to Baxter Springs was opened, cutting the distance between the two towns by more than a mile. The Commerce-to-Quapaw segment had opened weeks earlier. Completion of the new pavement meant that Route 66 was solid pavement from Chicago to the Craig County line in Oklahoma.
On March 24, 1933, a celebration of the formal opening attracted 5,000 spectators. Among the parade entries were movie cowboy Tom Mix and the Miami Patrol of Mounted Troops.
According to a Globe report at the time, the two-mile-long parade showed the progression in the modes of transportation that started with a horse-drawn Indian litter made of poles. Next came a covered wagon, a bicycle, a buggy, and then old and new vehicles. The newspaper said it concluded “with the last chapter of transportation history being written in the sky overhead by a stunt pilot in a powerful airplane.”
Victor Griffin, chief of the Quapaw Tribe, spoke in his native language, describing how Native Americans “were the first road builders on this continent. It is true that they were only trails ... but they were sufficient for all of the requirements of the time. When the white men came to live with us, they followed our trails, and this splendid highway follows in its general course the old trails established by my people.”
Cyrus Avery, president of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, also spoke. Avery, often described as the father of Route 66, served on the final road committee. He made sure Route 66 went through Oklahoma.
Avery said, “Now we have a paved highway from the East extending farther into the West than any other highway.”
He declared that the “good times” were coming back and said Route 66 would help spur a back-to-the-farm movement in Oklahoma, which had lost so many farmers to California.
A marker was placed in the pavement in front of the Bank of Quapaw that read: “East meets West.” Ardina Griffin, princess of the Quapaw and dressed in native finery, cut a ribbon opening the highway.
Keheley said the marker was removed from the roadway in connection with a paving project several years ago. It was placed in storage and was never seen again.