Kansas

Eyesore or landmark? Debate roils in small Kansas town over decades-old half-car gag

The half-car in Edgerton, Kansas: A town eyesore or gag monument?

Danny O'Neal says he's been told he has to remove a half car that has been a whimsical Edgerton, Kansas, monument for decades. He says it's a shame, but a city councilman say the joke has worn thin.
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Danny O'Neal says he's been told he has to remove a half car that has been a whimsical Edgerton, Kansas, monument for decades. He says it's a shame, but a city councilman say the joke has worn thin.

Paris has the Eiffel Tower. Rome has the Colosseum.

What, to the chagrin of city leaders, does the tiny community of Edgerton, Kan., in Johnson County have?

Just inside its northern border, it's got a weather-beaten 1987 Chevrolet Citation in faded rusty orange and dingy white with wasps living inside. Nearly 30 years ago, it was literally sawed in half as part of a joke.

The dented front half, on two flattened tires and with rust holes in the hood, sits just off old U.S. 56 at a defunct gas station. A wood sign hangs from the driver's side door:

“Divorced. She got ½.”

Wednesday, at a special 9:15 a.m. administrative meeting, 61-year-old Danny O'Neal, the current owner of the land and, thus, of the half-car, plans to argue that an eyesore can also be a town symbol, that a piece of mangled metal can also be a monument.

As such, although the city's codes department has sent O'Neal a letter telling him it's time to junk the junker, he plans to argue that it should stay.

He is convinced that drivers who speed past Edgerton, a hamlet of 1,700 people south of Gardner, are more familiar with the half-car than they are with the town itself.

"This is your landmark," O'Neal said. "If you go to Kansas City, or anywhere around, and ask about this town, they have no clue where it's at. But if you ask them, 'You remember that little half-car that's off 56?' 'Yeah!' 'Well, that's that little town.'"

O'Neal also argues that the old car is nostalgic, a piece of memorabilia for many in the area who remember the man, Ray Braun, who put it there.

Braun, who once served as mayor of Edgerton, owned the property the car is on — Ray's Service Station — for 60 years. He worked there nearly full time up until only a few years before he died, at age 90, in March 2012.

At one point, deputized by the sheriff, Braun was known to have had several encounters with a petty thief named Richard Hickock, who, along with Perry Smith, was later convicted and put to death for the 1959 Clutter family murders in Kansas.

The story was immortalized by Truman Capote in his book, "In Cold Blood." Braun's station was used in a scene in the Hollywood movie version of the book.

As for the half-car, Braun had fitted the rear of the car with caster wheels. He used to drive it in regional parades with messages attached including, "Taxes high? Cut 'em in 1/2" or "Lost my rear end at The Argosy," and "1/2 is Better than Nothing."

"I don't consider it junk. I consider it more of a monument," said Braun's son, Bill Braun, 66. He now lives in Baldwin City with his 94-year-old mother, Jo Braun.

Despite the sign on the car, Jo Braun said, it, too, was only a joke. She and her husband never divorced. They were married for 65 years.

"The sign is not true," Jo Braun said, laughing Tuesday at her husband's old service station. "I'm the wife. We never had any problems."

She also said she's indifferent about whether the car stays or goes, as she has plenty of other wonderful memories of her husband.

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Says Danny O'Neal, whose land the car sits on: "If you go to Kansas City, or anywhere around, and ask about this town, they have no clue where it's at. But if you ask them, 'You remember that little half-car that's off 56?' 'Yeah!' 'Well, that's that little town.'" Tammy Ljungblad tljungblad@kcstar.com

City officials said complaints have been lodged about the car, which led to the codes department letter.

Edgerton Mayor Don Roberts declined to comment before Wednesday's administrative hearing. City Council President Clay Longanecker said the joke of the car has worn thin.

"He did that as a gag," Longanecker said of Ray Braun, adding that over the years, the car has looked worse and worse. “It’s just turned into an eyesore. It was funny for awhile, but after a decade….”

Longanecker has heard the chatter that some people think the city is losing its sense of humor and getting too big for its britches, with the development of a massive rail cargo facility and warehouse district within city limits. But he said that’s not what the car issue is about.

“We’re trying to get a better image of our town,” he said. “Keep it as clean as we can.”

O'Neal understands.

"The little car is probably uglier than crap. It is an eyesore," he conceded. But it's also been a town staple. He thinks that if the city is going to start cracking down on code violations and beautifying, there are plenty of other places to work on.

"I think the car's cool. I think it's neat," O'Neal said. "I'm over there mowing. There will be, in a day, an average of four or five people stop and take pictures. I say don't move it. Leave it there. It's your welcome city sign."

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