This article appears in the March 28th issue as part of the section on the Crossroads of America
It is a highway that crosses two time zones and has been on the map since 1930. Since that time, it has always gone through Wellington and Sumner County. Beyond Sumner County, its western end is at US 89, five miles west of Tuba City, Arizona. Its eastern end is at US 67 and
Missouri 158, southwest of Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
Highway 160 enters Sumner County just east of Oxford and the Arkansas River. It continues on its same route westward to Wellington. Just on the other side of the turnpike is the start of one of the more dramatic stories the local highway has to tell.
At one time, it was regarded as the worst section of roadway in the state of Kansas. Running the short stretch from the east edge of Wellington to the Kansas Turnpike entrance, US Highway 160 would often be closed due to the amount of snow or rain that had fallen. Once word came over the wire about the road being closed, everything would come to a halt for east and west traffic through Wellington.
The former Santa Fe Railroad Underpass also acted as a bottleneck for drivers who either could not get through due to the water or snow, or because of the limited height clearance for the bridge. Numerous motor vehicle accidents occurred at this spot over the years. In one of them, a motor home was totally destroyed. In another, a heavy duty truck slammed into one of the bridge posts. Others occurred as a result of the water that too often filled underneath the bridge, itself. Many a vehicle was known to have stalled out in the pool of water that would inevitably form after a hard rain.
As early as 1959, a letter appeared in the Wellington Daily News demanding action be taken to replace this section of roadway, as well as the troublesome bridge, itself. It was not until 1964 that serious action began to be taken, with the planning now including the four-lane stretch Wellington residents now know and enjoy on the east edge of town.
The new overpass was built to the south of the existing one. It was done in such a way as to keep the old one open while the new bridge was being constructed. Once it was completed, though, the former underpass was filled in with sand and buried.
By 1966, any traces of the so-called former blight on the Kansas Highway System were long gone. If one looks carefully, though, they can still see where the old roadbed remains visible as it comes into Wellington from the east. The underpass, however, is buried out on the Sumner County landscape, just a memory no longer to be dreaded on a rainy day.
One of the most popular spots on 160 in Wellington was Dick’s Drive-In. Dicks Drive-In opened in 1954. It was the east turn around for all the teens cruising in Wellington. It was named for Dick Waln. In 1954, Dick accepted a teaching job at Wellington High School. Dick continued his education by commuting to Kansas State Teachers College (now Emporia State University), and earned master's and specialist's degrees in school administration.
In 1958, Dick was hired as Principal of Wellington Junior High School, and in 1965 he became Superintendent of USD 353. He served as Superintendent for eighteen years, and oversaw the construction of the Eisenhower and Kennedy elementary schools, as well as a major addition to the high school. In 1983, Dick returned to the classroom, teaching computer classes for Wellington High School and Cowley Community College. He retired from teaching in 1991.
Dick and his wife, Inez, owned and operated Dick's Drive-In from 1954 to 1971. In 2004, the Walns hosted a reunion of their former employees to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of "Dick's". The attendees recalled the great food, and the excellent work ethic they learned by working as teenagers for Dick and Inez.
People in Wellington still have fond memories of Dick’s Drive-In. They still remember the whale burgers and onion rings. The girls would deliver the meals to your car on a tray. They remember the pizza steak sandwiches. The French fries and onion rings were fresh cut, and the meat was cooked with the crispy edges since they were pounded out fresh and not symmetrical like the frozen patties.
Dick periodically bought slabs of beef and some of his employees had to cut it up and grind it before they could make the patties.
Dick would drive his high school student employees from school to work through the lunch hour, and then take them back to school.
Dick’s Drive-In was a Wellington institution. It is truly missed and the locals still talk about it favorably to this day.
Where Highways 160 and 81 met in Wellington was regarded by locals as “the crossroads of America.” 81 came into the city from the north and intersected at a troublesome intersection with 160, which still runs east and west. There were many vehicles that took the intersection too fast and hit the houses nearby.
The viaduct that took 160 over 81 and the railroad tracks has changed tremendously in the decades since. 81 used to parallel the train tracks and go under the bridge. South of the viaduct, 81 was four-lanes.
Leaving Wellington, 160 continued along its current route before turning south four miles west of the city. It went south one mile and then turned back to the west on what is now SW 20th Road. It paralleled the railroad tracks and went through the towns of Mayfield, Milan, and finally Argonia, before connecting back to its still-current route that went westward into Harper County. In the 1960s, this section of roadway was bypassed by the newer road that gave 160 a more direct, straight-shot west of Wellington to the Harper County line. Unfortunately, for the communities mentioned, it meant they were effectively bypassed by the new alignment.
Once this was done, most of the pavement on the older section of Highway 160 was ground up and left as a dirt road. There are a few small sections of the old highway that are still paved in this area. The old yellow center line is still visible on the small section of pavement east of Mayfield near the Chisholm Trail marker.
South of the Chisholm Trail marker is the Wellington City Lake. Built as a WPA project in the 1930s, the lake is still a regular destination for people coming from all over either to swim, fish, or camp out on the shorelines of this immense lake.
The Mayfield Cemetery is also on this section of road. Visitors to this old, historic cemetery will recognize last names of many local residents from over the years. People who passed away along the Chisholm Trail were buried in this cemetery.
Further down the old roadway, the Mayfield Meat Locker is still active to the north of the old highway. Customers still come from all over to get what they believe is the best meat around. The Dore in Wellington gets their meat from this location and regularly sells the Mayfield Burger, which is an experience to behold.
Argonia is where the old roadway merges with the current one before departing westward into Harper County. The Salter Museum remains open, honoring the home of the first elected woman mayor in the United States.
As Highway 160 departs Sumner County to the west, the highway has plenty of changes ahead of it. It will go onward into places such as Medicine Lodge and Coldwater, traversing the Red Hills, offering the motorist a sneak preview of the road that lays ahead.