The West is a state of mind as well as a geographical fact in America. It is our Ultima Thule, the golden place where the hoolihan can be danced endlessly under skies that are not cloudy all day. But just as the end of the rainbow is difficult to find, so is the place where the East peters out and the West begins. Western roads, like the West itself, somehow feel different from those east of the Mississippi, and one senses the change when driving along Route 40. New Franklin, Mo. on the bluffs of another great river, the Missouri, provides an example of how and why things are different on the other side.
New Franklin is 148 years old and has about 1,100 residents. The first townsite is now a cornfield, but in its younger days it was known as the Metropolis of the West. The description was neither facetious nor fanciful. Old Franklin stood at the intersection of two great trade and travel routes, the Missouri River and the Santa Fe Trail, which in the early 1800s was a smugglers' route for carrying contraband into the Spanish Southwest. By the late 1820s Franklin had 1,700 people, a racetrack, a police force, library and what has been described as "a cultivated society," made up mostly of second and third sons, cadet connections of the first families of Virginia—the Merrideth Marmadukes, Duff Greens, Claiborne Jacksons and Beverly Tuckers.
At that time a speculator had every reason to assume that Franklin would indeed become "the" Metropolis of the West. Many investors made this assumption and lost their shirts. The boom lasted for only about a decade. Then the trail-head was moved upstream to the Independence- Kansas City area, and New Franklin became and remained a bypassed village. There were political and commercial reasons for this shift, but all that was necessary to make the change was shifting road signs around. The Santa Fe Trail and the other great Western routes were not constructed as the National Road was; the present-day Route 40 took almost 40 years and millions of dollars to lay down, winding as it did through the Appalachian Mountains. The Western routes were simply marked. One piece of prairie or desert was about as convenient as another for walking, riding or pulling a wagon. Thus it is that even today, Route 40 once it crosses the Mississippi has a kind of free-form sense about it, giving a traveler the feeling of being loose, of drifting tentatively across vast spaces bounded only by very distant horizons.
HOWARD COUNTY, MO.
Jim Agnew is a big, powerful man who is the tax collector for the county. He also is a farmer and, despite having lost a leg in World War II, is a considerable sporting personage. He is a great hand with hounds both at trials and in the field. At the moment, however, he is without dogs, his pack of coon hounds and foxhounds having worried their way out of a fenced yard and run off to parts unknown. Their disappearance is a matter of amusement rather than concern for Agnew, who is sitting on the steps of his farmhouse, husking sweet corn for freezing.
"This is the damndest bunch of dogs I've ever had for getting out," he says. "It seems like I spend about half my time patching up the fence, but you have to expect that. If you are going to keep dogs you can expect them to get out. They'll be back, or at least most of them, sometime tonight, hungry and sore.
"I don't get around well enough anymore to go out much with them for coon. I can keep up for two or three miles but that is about it. Now and then I take them out after what we call wolves around here but are really coyotes. I can follow the dogs in a pickup along the back roads and listen to them sing. A wolf won't go down like a fox. An old wolf will take a pack of dogs and run them out of the county. We've picked up some of our dogs over by the Columbia airport, which is a good 40 miles from here. You need an awful lot of dogs if you are serious anymore; in fact, I've just about given up hunting. I don't take any pleasure from shooting anything, not even a wolf, unless it's absolutely necessary."
Old-timers remember Agnew as being one of the hardest-hitting, smartest baseball players ever to come out of Howard County, but that was a long time ago, before he lost his leg. Younger men and women know him as an indefatigable, patient and successful manager of all sorts of local teams—Little League, Legion, town and this year a Ban Johnson team.
"I like to stay around the game, help the kids some," Agnew says. "Maybe it keeps you young. Pattie, our girl, is off playing someplace tonight. She's the one most serious about the dogs now. I don't know how many bench- and field-show ribbons she's got in that room of hers."
"And there is probably no way anybody will ever find out, considering the mess that room is in," says Mrs. Agnew.