Wichitan put signs on roads across U.S.

10/19/2009 12:00 AM

10/19/2009 8:43 AM

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.”

Before Garmin, Magellan and TomTom, there was F.W. “Woody” Hockaday.

Take a drive down any highway, following signs and directions, and you have Hockaday to thank.

He was the original global positioning system, marking more than 60,000 miles of highways across the nation with signs that not only promoted his business but helped travelers.

“Any driveræ.æ.æ. local or foreignæ.æ.æ. can go from Wichita to towns in every division without getting lost. Provided, of course, that the driver is not blind or deaf,” Hockaday once told a reporter.

Now, nearly a century after Hockaday hired a crew to begin marking the nation’s highways, Craig Harmon , director of the Lincoln Highway National Museum & Archives in Galion, Ohio, is in search of a 500-pound stone marker that Hockaday had placed at his tire store at Topeka and William in Wichita.

The marker disappeared a few years after Hockaday died in 1947. The 4-foot-tall “zerostone” marker was a replica of one placed near the White House in Washington, D.C.

The one in Washington marks the official starting point of highways in the United States.

Hockaday, who paid for the Washington marker in 1919, had a duplicate made, which he placed at his store in Wichita.

Where that Wichita marker is now has local historians stumped.

What is known is that the stone once existed.

According to a letter from Fred Davis, dated July 21, 1947, there was an effort made in 1947 to find the marker and display it in a prominent place in Wichita.

Davis invited then-President Harry Truman — a friend of Hockaday’s — to the stone’s dedication.

“It would lend dignity and much interest to the occasion and certainly would do you no harm in any future aspirations you may have,” Davis wrote. “Of course we would desire to steer clear of any political signification to this event, for my son-in-law is a Republican and my political associates are all Republicans, but ‘Woody’s’ brother is a Democrat and Postmaster at Hutchinson.”

Truman politely declined, saying the Kansas governor or Wichita mayor would be better suited for the dedication. His letter to Davis indicated he was in the midst of a campaign and it might appear he was campaigning if he attended.

Truman did say he took a walk the morning of July 25, 1947, which was typical.

“Passed that Zero Milestone twice — once going out and next time coming back,” Truman wrote. “It is just across the street from the south Portico of The White House.”

Highways today still bear Hockaday’s influence. U.S. 54 boasted his signs from Alamogordo, N.M., to Iowa, as did U.S. 81 and U.S. 96 — so named because 96 was the telephone number to his store.

Travelers along Wichitaarea roads marked by Hockaday crews could also enjoy roadside service, a forerunner of today’s AAA. Using a precursor of the tow truck, Hockaday had a fleet of cars to answer calls within a 10-mile radius of Wichita. The service was free.

As he aged, Hockaday became a friend of presidents Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt and Truman.

Hockaday died in 1947, and his tire store was razed two years later.

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