Hidden History: Early trekkers cross Kansas, pulling cart, pushing for better U.S. roads

Smith and Miller were photographed with their cart, the “Fordlet”, and featured in the Hoisington Distpatch, Nov. 25, 1915.

By Wendi Bevitt

With the invention of the automobile, America needed roads, good roads – which created a push for the creation of highways, namely a highway that would cross the entire country east to west. To draw attention to this need, and following a movement created by the government to See America First, people started taking up the challenge of traveling the completed and proposed parts of this highway. Two men that took up this challenge were Edward J. Smith, age 20, and Carl A. Miller, age 19, both of New York state.

The pair left New York City in July of 1915 and headed for California with $5 in their pockets, 250 pounds of gear, and a mandolin in their cart, which they called a “Fordlet”. America was to be their school, nature their books, and the people they met along the way their teachers. Their goal was to make the trip from NYC to California in seven months. By comparison, a motorist would expect to make the journey in 30 days, which would be at a rate of 18 miles per hour and six hours per day, costing $5 per day per person.

Smith and Miller as pictured in the Palladium Item, Richmond, Ind., Sept. 13, 1915.

Ed and Carl made up for their lack of funds for the trip by lecturing about their travels and selling photographs of themselves along the route, all while promoting their hope for a book on their travels. They kept an extensive scrapbook, tucking away the letters of recommendation from various government officials or people they encountered, as well as mementos of sights along the way. They stayed at local YMCAs, gracious individuals’ houses, or just slept under the stars.

In Ohio, they befriended a dog that joined the caravan and whom they named Frisco. It was also in this area of the country that the roads became less travel worthy. Ruts and mud were a foot deep. Ed Miller commented that “you could not take a step without lifting an abnormal portion of the county with you.”

Once the pair finally reached Kansas City, they shifted their travel from the proposed route of the Lincoln Highway to that of following the Santa Fe Trail. The old Santa Fe Trail closely follows modern day Highway 56 in Osage County. Some of the points that would have been seen at that time and can still be viewed today are Simmons Point Station in extreme western Douglas County, and McGee-Harris Station near Scranton.

Ed and Carl arrived in northeast Kansas right after Arthur Capper had declared Good Road Days for Kansas, so he was glad to meet with them when they made a detour from their Santa Fe Trail route to visit the capital city.

For the previous few years, both Kansas and Missouri had worked in a joint effort to make their states’ roads better, and pull their states “out of the mud”. When Good Road Days were declared, businesses were closed and tens of thousands of workers chipped in to improve on the major thoroughfares. Farmers supplied the draft animals for heavy work, and highway builders furnished road construction machines. The concern not just was for better roads, but this was a time when the earlier trail routes, such as the Santa Fe Trail, were marked alongside their modern counterparts to commemorate their history.

When Smith and Miller rejoined the Santa Fe Trail, they stopped to meet with the citizens of Burlingame and promote the good roads campaign. They then continued through Kansas, exiting the state near Dodge City.

In 1916, the Burlingame Enterprise declared oiled roads were roads of the future. Certain portions of the Old Santa Fe Trail had been oiled the previous year, and the expectation was to continue this work.

It wasn’t until 1929 that Kansas passed an amendment that allowed Kansas to join the other 47 states in building and maintaining a system of cross-state highways.

Author’s note: I don’t think Smith and Miller made it all the way to California, the last mention I can find of them is in Colorado in January 1916.  

Simmons Point in western Douglas County, photographed in 2012, was one point of interest along the Santa Fe Trail that Smith and Miller could have visited during their cross-country trek.


wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She has lived in Osage County for 18 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.


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