PHOTOS BY NICK GERLICH

Compared to a century or more ago, modern travelers have it made. Between high-speed superslabs, gigantic green information signs, and mobile apps barking out orders, it’s hard to get lost. 

But imagine a time in which early autoists had none of these. Instead, drivers had to watch for hastily painted logos on telephone poles, crude hand-drawn maps and (often inaccurate) turn-by-turn instructions published as route books, and towering concrete obelisks in the middle of streets, lettered with cities and mileages down the road. Navigation was a daunting proposition, and required people to either completely stop or slow down considerably to process all of the information.

The Texas Panhandle has five of these obelisks, all easily visited in a day’s drive (or two, if you prefer). Take the off-ramp and dive into a completely different era of travel, a decade before the dawn of Route 66 and other numbered federal highways.

Once Upon A Highway

Early in the 1910s, the Good Roads Movement ushered in the development of several hundred auto trails. Among them were highways named Lincoln, Bankhead, Dixie and Jefferson. But the Ozark Trail was unique among them, an extensive network of roads across the south central U.S. from St. Louis to Las Vegas, New Mexico, and El Paso. Multiple prongs criss-crossed the Panhandle.

The Ozark Trail was the brainchild of William “Coin” Harvey, a resort owner from Monte Ne, Arkansas. Harvey sensed the value in a network of roads that all led toward his hometown sooner or later. He recruited cities to join his Ozark Trail Association to promote travel along these crude roads and build commerce along the way. It existed from 1913 to 1926.

To improve upon logos painted on telephone poles, Harvey placed concrete obelisks at key junctions. Of the 21 originally placed along the network, seven remain today. Five of them are in the Panhandle. (The other two are in Oklahoma.)

It would be difficult to trace the exact original route in some places, if only because of vague maps and instructions. Modern roads have cut corners and followed more direct approaches, compared to the early zigzag days of highway building that followed section lines and railroad tracks. Today, travelers can cut to the chase.

Start Your Engines

The first of the remaining obelisks is in Wellington, in the far southeast Panhandle. The obelisk has been moved to the northeast corner of the courthouse square, and is still painted with useful travel information. Other towns along the network are listed, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Harvey had created his own ecosystem. 

The marker in Wellington is a quiet reminder of how folks got around long before mobile apps. Bouncing down the original Ozark Trail roads leaving Wellington is an adventure for another time. Instead, head toward Memphis on US 83 south and TX 286 west, then turn south on US 287 to Estelline.

It is here our modern navigation becomes much easier, because TX 86 has replaced the Ozark for the remainder across the Panhandle. Moving west, the second obelisk is in what was known as the Tampico Community, between Turkey and Quitaque. Turn left (south) where FM 657 approaches from the right. This marker gives the best sense of what rural travel was once like.

Return to TX 86 and continue west to Tulia, where the third marker stands in the middle of the street at the northwest corner of the courthouse square. It is a prime example of how these were once placed inside towns, and it is a miracle it has not been run into or toppled over.

Continue on 86 to Dimmitt, where the fourth marker stands on the northwest corner of the courthouse square. If it feels like it has taken several hours to get here from Wellington on paved roads, consider how slow the trip would have been 110 years ago on dirt.

Continue west on 86 to Bovina, and then follow US 60 west. The last stop on the journey is Farwell, where a replica obelisk has been stationed in a city park at the corner of Third Street and Ave. E South. The whereabouts of the original are unknown.

Rumors abound of an obelisk in Quitaque that once stood in town. The legend is that once numbered highways began, a hole was dug, and the obelisk pushed into it.

All told, the journey to see these five obelisks is only 187 miles long, and includes 2,100 feet in subtle elevation gain. Along the way, you experience Panhandle small-town charm. This connect-the-dots approach to time travel is only possible if you purposefully take the off-ramp.

Because that’s where the fun begins.  

Nick’s Picks

In addition to the obelisks, Nick Gerlich suggests these noteworthy stops in and around these destinations.

Wellington: Behold the mighty Ritz Theatre. Built in 1928, it was restored in 2007 and today hosts films and performances. Put this on your list. It is a fabulous venue. If you need to fill your tank (not the car), both Come and Get It and The Gettin’ Spot are highly regarded by locals.

Estelline: Check out the tiny Valentine Diner Car just as you turn onto TX 86. It has been on-and-off in recent months, but provides a glimpse of how Mom and Pop could go into business back in the 1940s. Order one of these from the Wichita-based company, and it would be delivered to your site. Connect power and water, and you’re in business.

Turkey: This town, home of Bob Wills Days each April, is a great speed bump for your day’s activities. Check out the 1928 Goldsby’s Phillips 66 station, Turkey Creek Winery, the Gem Theatre, murals, and shopping. Dine at the Hotel Turkey Restaurant, Letty’s Cafe, or Toña’s Mexican Kitchen.

Quitaque: The Quitaque Trading Post is worth a stop and some photos, if only because it is in a vintage gas station. They even have an original Mobil Pegasus sign in front! Get a cuppa Joe at the Coffee Mill & Mercantile, or dine at the Bison Cafe.

Caprock Canyons State Park: This diamond in the rough deserves its own feature! See magnificent colors and cliffs, as well as the State Bison Herd.

Tulia: Don’t forget to admire the Royal Theatre (1947), once one of three theaters on the square. If this doesn’t channel a little McMurtry, you need to double down on your Texas books and movies! Aylin’s Cafe is on the square, and highly rated.

Dimmitt: The long-vacant Carlile Theatre (1950) is a fave to behold, while The Walking G Guesthouse & Cow Palace provides lodging and the opportunity to venture into the past.

Farwell: The BBQ Shop is renowned for their … well, you guessed it. Pause to consider the importance of Farwell as a crossroads, where modern US 60, 70 and 84 all come together (along with the BNSF main line and a secondary line running to Lubbock).

As always, check online for hours and days of operation before you embark. Safe travels and bon appétit!

Fuel up before you travel at a convenient Pak-a-Sak store location in Amarillo or Canyon.

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Author

  • Nick Gerlich

    Nick is Hickman Professor of Marketing at West Texas A&M University, where he has taught since 1989. He led the College of Business in their transition into online teaching in 1997, and has taught more than 125 online courses since then. In his spare time, he travels around the country, including his beloved Route 66, in search of vintage signage and other outdoor advertising. He can be found on Instagram @nickgerlich.