Just Who the Heck is Rex Whitton?

I like research. I think it’s fun to ferret out information, and often learn fascinating new facts in the process. Someone just has to say “I’ve always wanted to know . . .”  or “I’ve always wondered . . .” to make me itch to find out.

So when a friend asked in passing why Jefferson City’s Highway 50 expressway is named after Rex Whitton, my curiosity was piqued. This is what I discovered:

Rex Whitton is a Missouri boy done good. Born in Jackson County and educated at the University of Missouri, Whitton worked for the Missouri Highway Department for more than forty years beginning in 1920, working his way up from levelman to chief engineer. The Highway 50 Expressway project through Jefferson City was planned and engineered while he served as chief engineer.

In 1955, Whitton became president of the American Association of State Highway Officers. In that capacity, he lobbied for creation of the Federal Interstate Highway System. On June 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Under Whitton’s leadership, Missouri became the first state to award a contract using the new interstate construction funding for work on US Route 66 (now I-44) in Laclede County.

In January 1961, Whitton was appointed as Federal Transportation Administrator, and on August 18 of that year, the $7.6 million Highway 50 Expressway project through Jefferson City was dedicated. A 100-car motorcade delivered state and local dignitaries to the stretch between Madison and Monroe Streets, where Jefferson City Mayor Forrest C. Whaley presented Whitton with a city resolution naming the expressway in his honor, and local restauranteur John Adcock bestowed Whitton with the grand champion Cole County ham.

Although the expressway was not part of the interstate highway system, Whitton seized the opportunity to explain that the interstate and defense highway system was designed to meet the traffic needs of 1975. Furthermore, under the recently enacted Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1961 (Whitton received one of the pens President Kennedy used to sign it into law), all 41,000 miles of the interstate system would be open to the traveling public by 1972.

“It has always struck me as ironic,” Whitton stated in his address, “that so many of our citizens—so ingenious in quickly devising ways of ending almost every minor irritant—would so readily tolerate every morning and evening, the incredible congestion of our antiquated highways that takes a heavy toll in automotive costs and depreciation, to say nothing of human nerves and temper.”

Congestion—along with funding and safety—was one of the key issues that Whitton addressed during his six-year tenure as Federal Transportation Administrator. Whitton spent his retirement years farming and consulting in the Kansas City area, where he died in 1981.

That’s the main story. Sure enough, I also dug up some fascinating facts along the way. For example, did you know that our expressway utilized the first radar-controlled traffic signals in Missouri?

Another benefit of this research project is that I learned how to use the microfiche reader at the Missouri River Regional Library. The reference librarian handed me the correct reel, instructed me on the use of the reader, and turned me loose. Once I got used to the dizzying sensation of seeing the pages fly by on the screen, I relaxed and enjoyed the ride.

The August 17, 1961 edition of the Jefferson City Post-Tribune featured an extensive spread dedicated to the expressway’s opening. I was disappointed that a black smudge obscured the part of an article that told how long the expressway project was, but learned that it ran from the West End Fire Station to the Moreau River. (Note: I’ve since learned that the expressway spans six miles.)

My favorite image is this huge construction drill. You just don’t see captions like this nowadays:

Any resemblance between these drills and those used by the dentist are purely coincidental. The sizes are different. These drills are used for boring holes for dynamite, for solid rock excavation, not for piercing dentine. Such excavations were necessary during the construction of the new Jefferson City expressway.

And I admit to getting a chuckle from the champion Cole County ham. Though at the time I’m sure it was given solely as a token of appreciation, half a century later I see some irony in presenting a highway project administrator a gift of pork.



‘Twas at the Siege of Vicksburg

Hanna and I took a field trip to St. Louis last Friday to see the Civil War in Missouri exhibit at the Missouri History Museum before it closes. It was nicely done with lots of information, artifacts and a number of interesting interactive touchscreen activities (that would in all honesty make great iPad apps). We discovered that we had been to many of the battlefields referred to in the exhibits, including Wilson’s Creek, Lexington, Pilot Knob, Pea Ridge (Arkansas), Shiloh (Tennessee), Vicksburg (Mississippi), and Gettysburg (Pennsylvania). A feature about James Eads’ ironclad warships reminded us that we had seen the USS Cairo during a family vacation.

The USS Cairo was sunk by a naval mine in 1862. Sections of the ironclad were recovered and reassembled at the Vicksburg National Military Park.

There is an interesting story leading up to our visit to Vicksburg. Like many good tales, it began long, long ago. Every family tree has its colorful characters; with a name like Jefferson Green Fields, my great-great-grandfather was predestined to be one. He had three known wives (with rumors of at least one more) documented through census files and marriage records. No divorce decrees have surfaced, thus it is possible that he was married to all three at the same time. JGF is known to have fought with the Confederate Army during the Civil War and later to have been a livery stable/general store owner as well as a circuit-riding Primitive Baptist minister.

Jefferson Green Fields
Jefferson Green Fields: Portrait of a Polygamist

I am a descendent of the second wife (family lore identifies her as Native American, but this is undocumented). In 2000 a grandson of the third wife contacted members of my family with an idea to reunite the descendents of JGF. He called it the “First Fields Family Union,” because never before having gotten the three branches together, it could not accurately be called a reunion. His idea was to meet the following summer in Memphis, Tennessee, where Jefferson Green Fields had enlisted in the Confederate army. My half-something-cousin-some-number-of-times-removed was also recruiting someone to write a paper about his experience in the War. Any guesses who volunteered?

I pored through Confederate payroll, parole and veterans records as well as books and websites about the Civil War. In summary, Jefferson Green Fields served as a teamster for the 1st Tennessee Heavy Artillery at the Siege of Vicksburg. At some point he was injured and hospitalized, but had returned to the battlefield by the time that General John C. Pemberton surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant. JGF was taken prisoner and paroled. (Download the entire paper here.)

Phil and I thought it would be interesting to take the kids to Vicksburg before heading to Memphis. The Vicksburg National Military Park is huge, with memorials for every state with troops that fought there.

Missouri’s memorial is the only one dedicated to soldiers from both armies. Twenty-seven Union and fifteen Confederate units from Missouri fought at Vicksburg.

We found the spot overlooking the Mississippi River where the 1st Tennessee Heavy Artillery was encamped:

Joey (3), Hanna (13), Laura (5) and I enjoy the view at Vicksburg National Military Park, June 2001.

as well as a plaque commemorating JGF’s company.

Joey, Laura and I pose for an obligatory cannon photo in June 2001. The summer of 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Siege of Vicksburg.

On to Memphis and the “Family Union.” (Sort of, anyway; descendents of the first branch declined to participate.) My paper was well-received by those who did attend, but an even bigger treat was in store for us. The 52nd Tennessee Regimental String Band was in town!

As Confederate reenactors, band members were both bemused and amused by the whole “Family Union” thing, but appreciated the explanation and treated us to a concert. Appropriately, they opened with ‘Twas at the Siege of Vicksburg.

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Note: The Civil War in Missouri exhibit at the Missouri History Museum closes June 2, however a traveling exhibit has scheduled stops in various Missouri cities and towns through 2015. See it if you have the chance.

Baby Bunting Goes Ahunting?

The youth group at our church holds a rummage sale each year, an event eagerly anticipated both by bargain seekers and congregants doing their spring cleaning. Proceeds support summer work camps or the National Lutheran Youth Gathering. This summer it’s the youth gathering.

Donations to the sale include the usual array of clothing, furniture, books, household items, electronics, sporting equipment, toys and holiday decorations. Every once in a while Mags, our outstanding youth director, will ask me to research a more unusual item. One year it was a player piano spool of Old Man River. Last year, a designer purse with tags still attached. This year Mags was curious about an antique baby plate:

It’s not every day that one sees a toddler on an outing carrying a rifle and accompanied only by a dog. Lunch appears to be a baby bottle in the crook of Bunting’s left arm and a bone for Bunch, who might be happier if Bunting manages to bag a rabbit or squirrel or something.

Unfortunately, my camera’s flash washed out the design a bit. The poem reads “Baby Bunting and little dog Bunch / Go ahunting and take their lunch.” The mark on the back is “D.E. McNicol, East Liverpool, O.” The plate is heavy ironstone, with a rim so substantial it’s almost a bowl.

A search for “Baby Bunting Plate” turned up a few additional poems:

  • Baby Bunting lifts his hat / Politely to the pussy-cat.
  • Baby Bunting & Bunch while crossing a log / Are boldly stared at by an ugly green frog.
  • Baby Bunting takes his hoe / And tries to help the flowers grow.
  • Baby Bunting & Bunch, when out for a walk / Are greatly surprised to hear a bird talk.
  • Baby Bunting runs away / And joins the little pigs at play.

I found several examples of the hunting excursion plate. The borders vary; some are decorative like this one, some have the alphabet printed around the rim, say “Baby’s Plate” or are monogrammed. The little accompanying illustration also varies. This one features Baby Bunting enjoying his lunchtime bottle, another shows Bunch gnawing his bone, while yet another has a little frog, quite possibly the ugly green one encountered while crossing a log.

D.E. McNicol held a patent for Holdfast Plates, which featured a metal ring attachment to secure the plate to a feeding chair. These were very popular around the turn of the 20th century. In addition to Baby Bunting, Holdfast plate designs featured nursery rhymes (Jack and Jill, Little Bo Peep, Higgledy Piggledy My Black Hen, Hickory Dickory Dock, Tom Tom the Piper’s Son, Pussy Cat Pussy Cat Where Have You Been, Ride-a-Cock-Horse), Felix the Cat, Campbell Kids, a a boy on a rocking horse, and a little duck that’s out of luck if you eat all the luncheon. Intact Holdfast plates in mint condition are rare and quite valuable. This plate is missing the metal ring and has some crazing on the finish, wearing on the pattern and a few little nicks or chips on the bottom rim. Plates I found in similar condition to this one sell for $10-$15 plus shipping at Etsy or eBay.

I discovered this short history of the D.E. McNicol Pottery Comany (1892-1954) from History of Columbiana County, Ohio by Harold B. Barth, Historical Publishing Company, Topeka-Indianapolis 1926:

The history of this pottery began in 1862 when John S. Goodwin built the original plant, consisting of two kilns. After operating this plant for a few years he sold it to H. A. Marks, Enoch Riley, John Neville, and others, who conducted the business as A. J. Marks & Company until 1869, when it was sold to John McNicol, who organized a joint stock company of the following members: John McNicol, Patrick McNicol, William Burton, Sr., William Burton, Jr., Mitchell McClure, and Adolph Fritz. John McNicol died in 1882 and his son, Daniel E. McNicol took over his interests and later on from year to year he bought all the other interests from members of McNicol Burton & Company. In 1892 he organized the D. E. McNicol Pottery Company which was incorporated. At this time W. L. Smith became interested and took an active part in the business until 1908 when his interest was purchased by Daniel E. McNicol. Since that time The D. E. McNicol Pottery plants have been operated by D. E. McNicol and his four sons: John A., Hugh L., Daniel E., Jr., and Cornelius C. McNicol.

I am seriously considering a pilgrimage to East Liverpool, O. Not only would I have the opportunity to visit the Museum of Ceramics and learn more about the dozens of porcelain, china, crockery and pottery kilns that earned the city the moniker “Pottery Capital of the World,” I would stay at the Sturgis House. This bed & breakfast was formerly the Sturgis Funeral Home, where the body of bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd was taken to be embalmed after he was killed in a 1934 FBI shootout. I could enjoy my breakfast in the very dining room where Floyd’s body was displayed to a parade of curious onlookers, followed by a visit the laundry room, which houses embalming equipment as well as Pretty Boy’s death mask hanging over the dryer.

For those interested, the rummage sale will take place this coming Thursday and Friday from 7:30 – 5:30 and Saturday from 7:30 to noon in the Faith Lutheran Church gymnasium (2027 Industrial Drive, Jefferson City, MO). Who knows what other items of interest will turn up?

Grandpa Hilgert Salve

Last week, my husband’s Aunt Carol invited my mother-in-law to a little family get-together to help identify some family photos found in an old trunk. Their late husbands were brothers, and Carol had invited two remaining Hartman brothers and a sister as well.

One of my many roles is Ethel’s chauffeur. She doesn’t get out a lot any more; most of our trips involve a doctor’s office or Wal-Mart. Friday also happened to be her birthday, so I was game to drive her to a social gathering for a change of pace. After lunch and birthday cake, the five of them settled down to business, sorting through stacks of family snapshots and identifying as many subjects as they could.

Most of the pictures had been taken before I was born, much less married into the family, so I was of little help. Carol had also found a piece of paper tucked into her family Bible, with no idea of when or how it got there. She was trying to figure out exactly what it said.


Those of you who have been with me since my weblog began may remember that I like to research. Here was something I could do!

This is what it looks like:

Grandpa Hilgert SalVe

1 pound Clean Lard
1/2 pound Bees Wax
1/2 pound Campler
2 heping table spoon Borom

G. H.

I’m confident that Campler is actually Camphor, and heping is heaping. I suspect Borom is either Boron or Borax.

Off to Google! Boron is chemical element number 5 with the symbol B. According to MedLine Plus: “Boron is a mineral that is found in food and the environment. People take boron supplements as medicine. Boron is used for building strong bones, treating osteoarthritis, as an aid for building muscles and increasing testosterone levels, and for improving thinking skills and muscle coordination. Women sometimes use capsules containing boric acid, the most common form of boron, inside the vagina to treat yeast infections. People also apply boric acid to the skin as an astringent or to prevent infection; or use it as an eye wash. Boron was used as a food preservative between 1870 and 1920, and during World Wars I and II.”

Note that Grandpa Hilgert did not write out boric acid, which would have been the form used in a topical salve, so it’s on to look up Borax. For all the chemistry whizzes out there, Borax is generally described as Na2B4O7·10H2O and is easily converted to none other than boric acid. Borax is sounding more likely at this point.

Next, I googled both “boron salve” and “borax salve.” While “boron salve” had just one recipe hit (with a question as to whether it might instead be Borax), “borax salve” yielded multiple hits, including many recipes and the tidbit that Borax is often used in do-it-yourself skin care creams to help bind the oils, fats, and liquids with a creamy consistency and to balance pH. I think we have a winner.

As a final check, I looked back at Grandpa’s recipe. The “n” at the end of spoon is nothing like the letter at the end of Boro?. But looking back at the “x” from Bees Wax, instead of being formed by a simple cross, it looks like a loop down and to the left, then up and to the right. (This is easier to see on the original than in the photo.) The squiggle at the end of the word in question has strokes in the same directions, although they don’t meet in a formed “x.” Since there are other words misspelled in the recipe, it really doesn’t bother me that it is Borox rather than Borax.

So the recipe should actually read:

Grandpa Hilgert Salve

1 pound Clean Lard
1/2 pound Beeswax
1/2 pound Camphor
2 heaping tablespoons Borax

G. H.

According to other salve recipes I found (such as these at Google Books), the ingredients would be simmered together in a double boiler, then cooled and stored in a jar. Gramps must have assumed this was common knowledge. (If anyone is actually interested in replicating Grandpa Hilgert Salve, here are instructions for cleaning lard.)

I would still like to find out whether the initials G. H. stand for Grandpa Hilgert or for his given name and the approximate date of the recipe. For now, I am happy to have solved the ingredients part of the mystery.

NOTE: I’m sorry the picture isn’t clearer. I took it with my cell phone, then enhanced it with the free – and incredibly useful – online Photoshop Express Editor.