Flint Hills Stories

Otto Kratzer and His Great Western Adventure

– By Greg Hoots –


The Adventure Begins

Gene Hawes, left, and Otto Kratzer prepare to depart Volland, Kansas on their 1914 trip to California. Courtesy WCHS.

The dawn of the 20th century found America hungry for motorization.  In the 1890s the first powered motorcars were being developed in Europe by German engineers Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, while in America the Duryea brothers and the Studebaker brothers began building motorized wagons. Many other manufacturers and entrepreneurs soon followed.

By 1900, there was a growing interest in motor vehicles, and stories of their use spread across the country by newspapers and travelers.  An even faster-growing part of the motorized transportation business took root in America at the dawn of the 20th century with the creation of the country’s first motorcycle, the Indian.

In 1901, bicycle maker, Hendee Manufacturing Company, produced their first prototype Indian motorcycle and two production units. By 1905, the company was producing 1,000 motorcycles annually from their factory in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Almost immediately after the Indian’s introduction, the company’s owners sought to popularize the motorcycle by entering it in competitive speed events. In 1903, while only producing 376 units, the company’s co-founder, Oscar Hedstrom, set a world motorcycle speed record of 56 miles per hour.

In 1904, the Indian motorcycle was introduced at the St. Louis World’s Fair, emblazoned with a new red paint scheme which served as the company’s standard color for many years.  Two years later, George Holden and Louis Mueller rode an Indian from San Francisco to New York in 31 days, setting a new record and creating a sensation among young men in America.

By 1914, however, that coast-to-coast record had been smashed by Edwin “Cannon Ball” Baker who made the trip on an Indian in an astounding 11 days. These endurance and speed records made everyone in America want to own an Indian, and in 1913, 25,000 motorcycles were sold by Hendee Manufacturing.

That enthusiasm for the adventure and freedom of travel offered by the Indian motorcycle was felt nationwide, but nowhere any stronger than in rural Kansas. And, twenty-eight year-old Volland, Kansas storekeeper, Otto Kratzer had caught motorcycle fever. Kratzer had followed his older brother, Bill, to the tiny railroad town in 1905 when the elder Kratzer purchased a house there and opened a small country store.

Otto soon developed a reputation for his flamboyance and outgoing personality, and even more so for his love of photography. Business had been very good for the Kratzer brothers, affording Otto the ability to purchase luxuries like an expensive camera, a limitless supply of film, and an Indian motorcycle. His close friend, Rock Island Railroad depot agent, Gene Hawes, followed suit, purchasing an Indian for himself.

As the men began to hear of adventurers making cross-country trips on motorcycles, the pair decided to embark on a trip across the American West on their Indians. Their trip began in northeast Kansas in the rural Flint Hills, and would follow, generally, the path of the Old Santa Fe Trail, along the north mountain route through La Junta and Trinidad, Colorado.

The general goal of the trip was to attend two large fairs being held in California to celebrate the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal. San Diego hosted the Panama-California Exhibition and had hoped to be recognized as the site of the 1915 World’s Fair; however, a larger, competing fair in San Francisco, the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, was awarded that designation.

A local newspaper, the Alma Enterprise reported on October 23, 1914, “Otto Kratzer, one of the Volland merchants, and Gene Hawes, former agent at Volland, left on their motorcycles for California Saturday. They expect to tour several states and spend several weeks camping out, hunting and fishing…before they continue their trip to California where they will stay to take in the Fair at San Francisco and San Diego next year. We wish the boys good luck and hope that they reach their destination without mishap. Both are dandy good boys, and we want them to come back.”

Joy Riding near Volland, Kansas

Otto Kratzer and an unidentified lady pose for a photographer in front of the Grimm house at rural Volland, Kansas. Courtesy Karen Durso.

West of Dodge City, Kansas

Otto Kratzer wrote, “10/26/14 west of Dodge City, Ks”. Notice the motorcycle parked at the edge of the road. Courtesy Karen Durso.

     Just prior to embarking on the journey, Otto purchased a new camera, a Kodak Folding Pocket Camera, which featured Kodak’s brand-new autographic feature, allowing the photographer to write a short description on the stub of each negative, noting the date, place, etc. The camera used 122 millimeter film and sported an expensive lens, producing very high-quality images.

The two men departed Volland on October 17th, a balmy fall day in the Kansas Flint Hills. A small crowd of well-wishers witnessed their departure. The cyclists traveled southwest from Volland to Council Grove, Kansas, a historic jumping-off point for thousands of settlers who traveled west on the Santa Fe Trail by wagon or horseback. In its early years Council Grove had boasted as being the last place to purchase supplies until travelers would arrive in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Kratzer and Hawes motored through the expansive Kansas prairies before making camp the first night. The weather had been perfect, and the men awoke on Sunday morning feeling confident about the long trip ahead.

By the next afternoon the pair arrived in Wichita, Kansas, which was, in 1914, the fastest growing and largest city in the state.  Founded in 1870, Wichita had its roots as a bustling cattle town located on the Chisholm Trail. Wichita became a major railhead for the shipment of Western cattle, and by the 1910s the city had become an important center for manufacturing. For Kratzer and Hawes, the city offered an opportunity of a hot meal, a cold beer, and the commodity that the men valued most, fuel for their motorcycles.

After spending a night in Wichita, the men left for Hutchinson where they did a bit of sightseeing before departing west on the rutted dirt road that was once the Santa Fe Trail. The men arrived in the Wild West town of Dodge City, Kansas on October 26th, continuing through Garden City the next day before arriving at the Kansas-Colorado state line on October 28th, eleven days and 350 miles from Volland.  It was clear at this point that Cannon Ball Baker’s cross-country speed records were safe.

To the first-time traveler, eastern Colorado resembles western Kansas, being rather flat and somewhat mundane.  However, by the time one arrives in La Junta, 85 miles west of the Wheat State, the ruggedness of the Rocky Mountains becomes obvious.

tains becomes obvious. The men arrived in Trinidad, Colorado on November 4th, and to the prairie dwellers, the mountains were spectacular. The town itself is located at an elevation of 6,025 feet, and Fisher’s Peak, a 9,600 foot mountain, lies just to the south edge of town, an ominous warning to the motorcyclists of the topography ahead of them. The men cycled to Sampson’s Rest, a tall overlook on the northwest side of town where Kratzer photographed “bird’s eye views” of the city.

Trinidad was a thriving coal mining town in 1914 when the Kansas travelers arrived. Colorado Fuel and Iron of Pueblo operated numerous mines around Trinidad, and the town lived and breathed coal. When the Kansas men rolled into town in November, a long and bitter strike against the coal companies by the United Mine Workers of America had been underway for fifteen months. Just six months earlier, on April 20, 1914, the Colorado National Guard had laid siege on the strikers’ tent colony of Ludlow, just northwest of Trinidad, spraying the striking miners’ tents with gunfire and setting them ablaze. An estimated twenty-five people perished, including four women and eleven children. Tensions peaked when, after the massacre, groups of armed miners attacked the mines, killing guards and setting mine buildings ablaze. Finally, President Woodrow Wilson sent Federal troops into Trinidad to quell the violence, and the strike ended on December 10, 1914, a month after Kratzer and Hawes’ visit.

For Kratzer and Hawes, Trinidad offered them a chance to do some duck hunting at a local reservoir and an opportunity to purchase fuel. After staying a week in Trinidad, the duo rode south, crossing into northeastern New Mexico, entering the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range. The area can easily lay claim as the origin of the moniker, “land of enchantment”, for the landscape is breathtaking; but if that claim were disputed, then the title, “the true American Wild West,” could easily be substituted.

Raton, New Mexico, lies just twenty miles south of Trinidad, Colorado, however, the rugged mountains that lie between the two towns can only be traversed through a very narrow pass located just north of Raton. With an elevation of 7,834 feet, the pass is low compared to the peaks that surround it.

Duck Hunting at Trinidad, Colorado

Gene Hawes, far right, Otto Kratzer, center, and an unidentified friend enjoy a day of duck hunting at Trinidad, Colorado. Courtesy Karen Durso

Hot Springs, New Mexico

Kratzer and Hawes made friends at Hot Springs, New Mexico, now known as Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Courtesy Karen Durso.

The Raton Pass had long provided passage for those traveling the Santa Fe Trail. It was believed that the mountains offered such narrow opening that the pass could only accommodate one railroad. In 1877 the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway planned their southwest route through that very pass; however, simultaneously, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad sought the same right-of-way. The two railroads were also engaged in a fight over a right-of-way over the Royal Gorge in Colorado, and at Raton, the ATSF vowed not to be outwitted. In February 1878 the ATSF provided capital to form the New Mexico and Southern Pacific Railroad Company, and sent surveyors and workers to Raton to begin work on the railroad bed. The railroad hired gunmen to patrol the right-of-way, and tensions grew among workers. The D&RG, however, was struggling for capital, and virtually ceded the fight for Raton, concentrating their efforts to control the Royal Gorge passage. The D&RG hired lawman Bat Masterson to gather a group of hired guns to protect their assets at the Royal Gorge, and numerous gunfights ensued between the two sides for over a year.  Finally, the right-of-way issues were settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, with the ATSF winning control of the Raton Pass, while the D&RG held their rights to the Royal Gorge crossing.

Kratzer and Hawes cycled across the Raton Pass, through the towns of Raton, French, and Springer before camping a night near Watrous at the Ft. Union ruins. On November 12th, the pair motored to Las Vegas, New Mexico, the wildest and toughest town of all the Western cow towns.

When the railroad arrived in Las Vegas on July 4, 1879, it brought with it new prosperity for the town and new problems. Immediately, the town boomed in size, and within a year it rivaled Denver and Tucson in population. The railroad also brought into town a wide array of gamblers, thieves, and fast guns. And, seemingly indistinguishable, it brought with it a group of rouge lawmen. Doc Holliday moved to Las Vegas in 1879, establishing his last practice in that city. Other notorious Western characters including Holliday’s girlfriend, Big Nose Kate, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Hoodoo Brown, and Mysterious Dave Mather all called Las Vegas home in the early 1880s.

Leaving Las Vegas, Kratzer and Hawes motored to Hot Springs, New Mexico, spending a few days relaxing, fishing and sightseeing. Unfortunately, the men had not been able to find fuel in New Mexico at all, and winter had arrived in the mountains. The men motored to Fulton, New Mexico, just south of Santa Fe, before learning that, should they make it as far as Albuquerque, there would be no fuel beyond that city for hundreds of miles. The pair returned to Hot Springs and spent a final night before ending the leg of their journey by motorcycle. Kratzer and Hawes put their motorcycles on an eastbound freight train, sending them back to Volland, and the pair caught a westbound passenger train headed for southern California.

December 1st found the Kansas travelers in California, their trip by rail taking them to Los Angeles. The men spent the month enjoying the balmy temperatures, such a departure from the harsh winters of Kansas. Kratzer photographed the harbor at San Pedro, fascinated by the ships being unloaded and cargo being transferred to boxcars. At nearby Long Beach, Kratzer photographed the infamous Pine Avenue Pier. The city’s first pier, it contained a large auditorium where disaster struck on May 24, 1913 when thousands of celebrants of Empire day, a holiday of British origin, packed the pier. The wooden structure collapsed, an upper floor falling upon a lower level packed with people. Over 30 people, including many children, died in the disaster. When Kratzer photographed the pier, it was freshly rebuilt. This pier would ultimately be razed in 1931, replaced with the Rainbow pier. Kratzer photographed various battleships, ocean liners, ferries and cargo ships while touring the southern California coast.

On New Year’s Day, 1915, the men attended the Rose Parade at Pasadena, California. The parade was filled with elaborate floats, adorned with hundreds of thousands of flower blooms, providing perfect subject matter for Kratzer’s camera. The parade originated in 1890 and has been an annual New Year’s Day event since that time. In 1915, however, there was no college football game held in conjunction with the parade. The Rose Bowl football game only became an annual event in 1916.

Two weeks later, the men left for San Diego, excited to attend their first big fair, the Panama-California Exposition. San Diego’s efforts to host the Exposition began in 1909; however, the city was the smallest of those desiring to host a fair to celebrate the planned completion of the Panama Canal in 1914. San Francisco and new Orleans each hoped to host a World’s Fair celebrating the canal, but finally a compromise was reached which allowed both San Diego and San Francisco to host fairs, with the latter’s being designated the 1915 World’s Fair.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1914, the lights at the exposition grounds in San Diego were illuminated for the first time, the “switch” being activated by President Woodrow Wilson in Washington, D.C., via a telegraph button.

The Pine Street Pier, Long Beach, California - 1914

The Pine Street Pier in Long Beach was freshly rebuilt when Kratzer photographed it in December of 1914. Courtesy Karen Durso.

Coronado Hotel, San Diego, California

While in San Diego Kratzer and Hawes stayed at the Coronado Hotel, the largest resort hotel in the world. Courtesy Karen Durso.

Kratzer and Hawes arrived in San Diego on January 17, 1915, staying at the massive Coronado Hotel. When constructed in 1888, the hotel was the largest resort hotel in the world and the first in California to have electric lighting. The men visited the San Diego beaches and ports, and the following day attended the exposition. For the men from the Kansas prairie, the fair offered numerous agriculture displays, a subject prominently featured at the event. The men also enjoyed attending motorcycle and automobile races that were being held in San Diego.

Then, on January 21st, the men left for San Francisco, to attend the larger Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the World’s Fair. While the 1915 Fair’s theme was the opening of the Panama Canal, the fair, itself, was a testament to the world that San Francisco had rebuilt after the horrific destruction dealt the city by the 1906 earthquake. The fair occupied a 635-acre site on the north side of San Francisco, and opening day was celebrated on February 20th. The Kansas men had spent almost a month sightseeing in the San Francisco area and were present for the fair’s opening day parade and celebration. The World’s Fair site included hundreds of spectacular buildings as well as 1,500 pieces of sculpture and murals, all produced by world-renown architects and artists. Interestingly, all of the buildings, with the exception of the domed Palace of Fine Arts were demolished after the fair closed on December, 15, 1915.

After two days at the fair, the men left for Sacramento, stopping long enough for some brief sightseeing before continuing on to their next destination, Westwood, California. Winter had come to the mountains of Northern California, so the men were forced to first travel to Reno, Nevada to catch another train into Westwood from the east, as it was the only open passage into town. Kratzer sent a photo postcard home to Volland, postmarked Westwood, California, dated February 25, 1915, saying, “got here yesterday at 5:30 pm…came by way of Reno, Nevada, 2 ½ feet of snow in Westwood, 7 or 8 feet 12-15 miles to the north. Send mail here.”

Westwood, California was a company town, created and owned in its entirety by the Red River Lumber Company, a Minnesota venture founded by T.B. Walker, who had moved his company westward to the vast, virgin forests of Northern California. The Red River Lumber Company made extensive land purchases of over a million acres of timber in Lassen, Plumas, Siskiyou, Shasta, and Tehama counties in California, and in 1912 the first tree was cut at the site of the new town of Westwood. By the time Kratzer and Hawes arrived, Westwood was a thriving lumber town with its own railroad depot and U.S. Post Office. Westwood was strictly a company town, and everyone in town worked for the lumber company. All of the buildings and property at Westwood belonged to the lumber company. But, there was work to be had in Westwood.

There was a job in Westwood that had drawn Otto Kratzer’s attention. Late in 1914 the company photographer had left Westwood, and Otto, having a camera and a penchant for photography, applied for the job and was hired. The job was perfect for Kratzer, who loved taking photographs, above all else. It also allowed him access to all of Westwood and the lumber mill to take photos.

In addition to the spectacular scenery of the area around Westwood and the great job that Otto had landed, Westwood also offered excellent trout fishing, and the Kansas men discovered all of the streams in the area.

Mt. Lassen, one of only two volcanoes to erupt in the continental United States during the 20th century, was smoking and experiencing small eruptions all of the time Kratzer and Hawes were staying at Westwood, just a few miles away. The volcano is the southernmost of a chain of 18 volcanic peaks in the Cascade Mountain Range that stretches from British Columbia to northern California and includes both Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Lassen. Kratzer had photographed the volcano from atop Keddie Ridge and had created a postcard which he sent back to Volland to his niece, Louise Ditman. That photo, dated April 1, 1915, shows the volcano smoking as Kratzer notes in his written message. On May 22nd, just a week after Kratzer and Hawes departed Westwood, Mt. Lassen experienced the most violent eruption in recorded history, spraying volcanic lava and ash over thousands of square miles, creating a volcanic wasteland, some of which later became Lassen Volcanic National Park.

While Kratzer enjoyed the job of company photographer for the Red River Lumber Company, and even though California had delivered on every promise of adventure and opportunity for the Kansans, Kratzer and Hawes decided it was time to return home.  The month of May had brought warmer temperatures to Westwood, and the men enjoyed a few more days of trout fishing before packing their bags and catching a passenger train headed east to their homes in Kansas.

Rolling Logs - Westwood, California - 1915

Otto Kratzer, left and Gene Hawes try their hands at rolling logs at Westwood, California early in 1915. Courtesy Karen Durso.

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