Hey Small-Town Kansas, What Ever Happened To Cruising? | KCUR

Hey Small-Town Kansas, What Ever Happened To Cruising?

Oct 20, 2015

Imagine it's 8 p.m. on a Saturday in the mid-1970s.

You're starting the engine of a 1966 Chevrolet Caprice, big block engine, 4-speed manual transmission with a vinyl interior. 

All is dark and quiet in town, but the main square is lit with activity. For perspective, it looks and sounds kind of like American Graffiti — engines revving, music pouring out of open windows, there's hollering and laughter. Cars are lined up, bumper to bumper. For the rest of the night, you're cruising.

If you grew up in small-town Kansas or Missouri between 1950 and 1990, this probably brings back some memories for you.

"Cruising," or "dragging Main," was a pivotal small-town American pastime — a ritual that involved driving a central stretch of road in loops. It was a rite of passage. Getting a driver's license or buying your first car meant you could finally start cruising.

In Dodge City, Kansas, the main drag was Wyatt Earp Boulevard. In Paola, Kansas, all activity occurred within a four-block perimeter around the town square.

Kevin Smith, 59, stands on the town square in Paola, Kansas, reflecting on the activity that cruising brought to the square every Friday and Saturday night during his childhood.
Credit Andrea Tudhope / KCUR 89.3

"Many of our parents would ask each other, how can a child put 100 to 200 miles on a car on a Friday night?" Kevin Smith says.

Smith graduated from Paola High School in 1974 and recalls cruising nights vividly.

"You're wavin,' you might stop and talk, then you keep going," he remembers. "Stop and give directions to a keg party out on a farm. There'd be kids who snuck out. They'd say they know they're going to be grounded next weekend, but they're going to have fun this weekend. That was life on the square."

And Smith isn't the only one who knows and remembers this well as a central part of his youth.

Robert Rebein, now an English professor at Purdue University Indianapolis, grew up in Dodge City, Kansas. In his collection of essays, Dragging Wyatt Earp, his title piece is all about the pastime.

"When I was a kid, owning a car, learning to drive, cruising Wyatt Earp ... you didn't have a social life if you didn't," Rebein says. "Looking back, we were trying to discover who we were. When I think about what that activity meant to us, one thing that really stands out is that classic teenage desire to experience freedom."

The car was a big part of that exercise, and cruising — even if it was pacing the cage in a way — was an exercise of that power. 

KU American Studies professor Ben Chappell, who has done a great deal of research on the low-rider cruising culture of Mexican-Americans in the South, says 'cruising' is an exercise in local identity.
Credit Andrea Tudhope / KCUR 89.3

"A lot of American national identity has been built around this idea of independence and individuality," says Ben Chappell, an American Studies professor at the University of Kansas. "Sometimes this is understood and reinforced as the freedom to move and to go places. This is all part of an ideology, or almost a national myth that has grown up around the car."

In cruising, the car was a vehicle for taking your own personal, created space out into the public space. The car, Chappell said, was like a second skin.

Cruising played a big part in the lives of many generations, but over the years, it began to die off. In Paola, the police began enforcing rules in the early 90s — you could still cruise, but only two or three times around or you were ticketed. Shortly after that, cruising died in Paola, as it did in many small towns across Kansas and Missouri around that time.

Mark Slawson's graduating class was one of the last to cruise in Paola. He has kids of his own now, and has shared stories with them about his cruising days in the late 80s, but it's become an entirely foreign concept.

Paola's town square present-day is a main thoroughfare, but in the past, it was the main cruising strip, the place to be on Friday and Saturday nights for teens in the second half of the 20th century.
Credit Andrea Tudhope / KCUR 89.3

"I wish they could go back to cruising," Slawson says. "I wish they could go to the square and hang out with their friends, rather than go to house parties that I don't know, trying to elude the police."  

Over in Blue Rapids, Kansas, a town of 1,000 north of Manhattan, however, the youth still cruise. Teens spend their Friday and Saturday nights driving around the circular town square — the oldest roundabout in Kansas — fondly known as the "squircle."

"You drove around so much that you knew everybody's headlights," says Jaqi Woodyard, who cruised the roundabout in the 1990s. "You could always tell who was coming, who wasn't. The cops headlights you just learned to know."

Woodyard's son, Logan, 17, and his 19-year-old cousin, Blake, grew up knowing cruising as the way of life in Blue Rapids. Logan didn't know that cruising had died off in many small towns.

"It kind of surprises me actually," he says. "Around here, we're pretty small. There's not much in towns to do except cruise, it seems like."

It's hard for Logan to imagine life without it, but for many who didn't grow up with this, it's hard to imagine life with it — something that from the outside, seems, frankly, mundane. But, Chappell says, it's anything but.

"There are little trivial activities that might not make the newspaper, or people might not talk about them a whole lot," Chappell says. "But once you get to know people who are involved in these things, whether it's a sports pick-up game, cruising, some part of their routine, you find out that it's actually a central part of their lives."

It may be hard to imagine driving in circles for hours on end in a time like the present, when public space and gathering exists at the tip of your fingers, in the pixels of your screen. But before there were devices that diminished the physical distances between, there were cars. And with a car, you could go anywhere. Even a block from your house, even in circles.

Andrea Tudhope is a contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @_tudhope.