Route 66 Killed Grandpa Ragland
The shadow of Grandpa Ragland’s death hovered over my 1950s childhood. The shadow evolved into an event with logic, as I grew old enough to understand cause and effect. It wasn’t a farm accident that killed Grandpa. He’d only run out of cornmeal.
Route 66 connected our family farm to church and town – a trinity of sorts. Our farm consisted of Grandpa Ragland’s farm plus two more. After his WWII tour of duty, Dad bought out his sisters’ shares in their family farm. I was a baby and my sister was three years old. Later, Dad bought two adjacent 80-acre farms, and with my mom, built one of the first modern dairy farms in post-war Missouri. Dad and his herd of registered Jerseys garnered feature coverage from Hoard’s Dairyman and The Missouri Ruralist.
I experienced what some would call an idyllic childhood, but those people don’t know the dangers we dodged on a daily basis. While we kids reveled in our innocence, farmers had a higher rate of injury than any other occupation except mining. Family gatherings focused on who said or did this or that – mostly humorous, some pathos, while we built our family folklore. Talk included politics. More talk involved the weather. Small farm operations did not allow for the luxury of irrigation. Letters from distantly located relatives got read and re-read. Remember when your Uncle Himself did this and Aunt Whomever did that- triggered more anecdotes. Kids ate lunch with the adults then got banished outside. We rowdies rotated our play through the yard, the smokehouse, the cellar – is the blacksnake down there? - and the barns. We dodged black widow spiders, rusty nails and dared each other to jump from the barn loft into a pile of hay below. In the house, Neighbor Soandso got killed when he tried to brush hog sprouts that were too big for that. He should have known better…
Highway 66 brought good, modern things. Economic growth. Tourism. Ease of transport for emergencies and farmers who needed supplies. Then sudden death. Grandpa Arthur Hudson Ragland was the first person killed by a car on Highway Sixty-Six in our community. His death rocked the 1944 Southwest Missouri world. Although I wasn’t born yet, I knew him well. Family folklore contained many anecdotes about Grandpa Ragland.
Grandpa Ragland, even in his senior years, walked the mile or two to town. Had to save the aging work horse for farm use. He walked fast and with head down. In family folklore he is remembered as a thinker and a daydreamer. Maybe he was worrying about Grandma Mattie’s treatments in Columbia’s cancer hospital that day. By the time of his last walk to town to buy cornmeal, he was hard of hearing -but still had a full head of mostly coal black hair. He likely also had cataracts because he neither saw nor heard the car until too late. Shock must have etched his face as he saw the vehicle after he stepped onto the highway - Route 66. The driver, too, would have registered shock and maybe yelled, “No!” as the man stepped into his lane. Grandpa’s intense blue eyes probably widened with horror a heartbeat before impact. He bounced and fell still. The concrete of the highway was far, far harder than his Welch-Irish skull.
The dangers of Route 66 grew exponentially over the next twenty years, as cars grew larger and faster. No seatbelts existed in the giant 1960s eight-cylinder beauties that rocketed down the highway at seventy-plus miles per hour. The cool driver held the right hand on the steering wheel and the left outside the rolled-down window. The super cool driver held the left hand on the wheel and the right hand around a girlfriend snuggled close enough he could smell her Breck™ shampoo.
The curved lip on the sides of two-laned Route 66 required a steady hand on the wheel because a nudge of that curb flipped a car fast as an eye blink. Semi-tractor trailers carried tons and more tons of goods from town to town faster and cheaper than the railroads. The big trucks slowed on hills. Vehicles had to pull into the oncoming lane to pass. Too many drivers tried to pass in too short a space. Route 66 rolled with the curves and hills. Daring drivers tested fate - that a vehicle would not come over a hill head on.
By the time that I-44 opened in 1962 – the year I started high school and left childhood behind - the highway had been dubbed “Bloody 66.” Grandpa Ragland’s death paled in collective community memory by 1962 - except in my family. At the Phillipsburg exit of I-44, even today as I turn onto Old 66 toward my aunt’s house, I think of Grandpa. The convoy from Fort Leonard Wood passed and he thought the highway was clear so stepped out and the milk truck -
Only a eyelash flutter in time, but an eternity in family stories.