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The Covered Wagon, West Highway 30, Kearney, Nebraska. Photo by John Margolies, 1996.

Double Take: A Tale of Two Oxen

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One of my favorite ways to explore the vast collections of the Prints & Photographs Division is to look for connections between multiple collections that span different time periods. Quite by accident while searching for another photo in the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, I found this fascinating 1942 photo of a stop along U.S. 30 in Kearney, Nebraska:

Kearney, Nebraska. Souvenir shop along U.S. highway number thirty and restaurant (covered wagon). Photo by John Vachon, 1942 May.

I love photos and their details, and this one has so many. First, we have statues of yoked oxen posed with a structure meant to look like a covered wagon. What else? You can get gas here, judging by the two gas pumps, both topped with glass crowns. The crown on the right is colorfully painted. Either the wagon, or maybe the house behind it, offers food to buy, evidenced by the neon EAT sign above the gas pumps (with decorative yoke). Further proof includes the menu sign at far right, reading: Delicious Whole Wheat Waffles, Pure Vermont Maple Syrup, Real Western Chili and Chop Suey. Quite an array for a roadside wagon in rural Nebraska!

The wagon structure is in a bit of disrepair, but regardless of how much or little business it might get, it sure is eyecatching.

I wondered if we had other photos of the shop or the area, so I searched further in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, and was delighted to see the two oxen featured in full color in the John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive, in this 1980 image:

Covered wagon, the Covered Wagon Gift Shop, Route 30, Kearney, Nebraska. Photo by John Margolies, 1980.

We see quite a few changes in the 38 years between photos, including the paint jobs on both oxen. And the ox on the right seems to have had its original horns replaced, as they lack the curve of the originals. The placement of the gas pumps and other buildings has also changed.

I checked further and saw more photos of the site by photographer Margolies, who traveled the country for decades photographing roadside America. And I was happy to see the other photos were dated from 1996, so we get yet another look at this interesting site 16 years after his first visit.

Covered wagon, The Covered Wagon Gift Shop, Route 30, Kearney, Nebraska. Photo by John Margolies, 1996.

The oxen are looking pretty good, though the sign reading Stay off Horns featured below suggests that the horns continue to be a problematic area!

The Covered Wagon, West Highway 30, Kearney, Nebraska. Photo by John Margolies, 1996.

During this search, I wondered why the covered wagon was chosen as a motif back in the 1930s, when the oxen are said to have been placed at this location, and very quickly had an answer. They are right alongside U.S. Highway 30, and this stretch is also part of the Lincoln Highway, one of the first transcontinental highways in the U.S. This section through Kearney, Nebraska, also closely parallels the Oregon Trail, so the covered wagon was a very appropriate choice!

The trail (no pun intended!) of photos of these oxen ends here in our collections, but when they were shared on our Flickr account, commenters said they were being restored in 2013 for the centennial of the Lincoln Highway. I’ve come across photos online from just last year of the oxen standing, after more repairs, so they continue to endure, nearly a century after their installation.

A single eyecatching photo launched quite a journey!

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