Years of neglect have turned one of the area's oldest homes, the Snow family home in Neosho Falls, into a state of elegant ruin. George Snow earned the moniker "Big Father" for his work as an Indian agent for the region.
Everything can change in a year, one falling of the snow.
You can lose yourself while finding your home, though shrouded in purple and bruise-black thunderclouds, after the passage of hundreds of miles.
You can see something for the first time, despite seeing it a thousand times before.
You can look in the mirror and find a stranger.
I imagine that’s how Maj. George Catlin Snow would feel today were he to gaze upon his beloved “Rockland Home” tucked away in the southeastern corner of Neosho Falls.
—The moment being akin to staring into the eyes of something alien, though nonetheless intensely alive.
It was a place his daughter Florence, in her autobiography “Pictures on my Wall,” described as “a comfortable place for the family to live … comfortable by pioneer standards.”
Florence herself was quite an accomplished writer, both of prose and poetry, and would later entertain such figures as Abraham Lincoln’s son, Todd, at the Snow’s second home across town called “Fair Havens.”
While still young, she’d gleefully tear across the open prairies surrounding the Falls on her little pony “How-How,” whom she’d received as a gift from native people grateful to her father.
In the spirit of such gratitude, I dreamed of George Snow looking upon the faces of indigenous peoples he advocated for while serving as Indian Agent for the region, when he’d earned the nickname “Big Father.”
Osages, Sac and Fox, Seminoles. Each with their own unique practices to navigate, to both respect and inevitably misunderstand.
I dreamed them coming up from their camps three miles south along the banks of the Neosho with its rich, dark waters, to visit with Snow at the house and at the mission built on-site prior to Rockland’s construction.
In “Pictures” she also elaborates on “the curious squaws who came to the house on endless made-up errands.”
“They proffered rather disconcerting jests in regard to [one] ‘Papoose,’ which happened to be myself, while five older children took things in their stride.”
Throughout such exchanges, one imagines the challenges of communication, the frustration and of course the laughter. The kind of humor shared simply through tone and gesture.
Or sometimes, anger. The rage that boils, seething in the face of gross injustice, violence and less-than-veiled sadness.
Quite a few brazen pioneers had been squatting on native lands, or rather on land that before that time had never been remotely conceived of as “belonging” to anyone.
I’ll admit I have trouble understanding such a concept, the notion that the earth itself belongs to any one person, that a geographical plane might be called “yours” or “mine,” merely because one has the requisite papers.
To that end, following a letter he’d received from Osage chief Little Whitehair, Snow wrote the federal government to call for removal of pioneers intruding on native lands and to enforce treaty boundaries.
Anything to stop the violence.
In a letter of his own, Snow wrote: “something must be done for these people at once,” so as to end “the high-handed stealing from them [so] that we may have peace on the border.”
Responding to Snow’s efforts, then-governor of Kansas, Samuel Crawford, not only callously had the order to remove illegally settled whites revoked, he directed that those same pioneers be armed with guns and ammunition.
At the thought, I could almost smell the blood and powder wafting through the air, a metallic scent that hung in one’s mouth and nose.
A drum-beat echoed almost inaudibly in the distance.
SOMEONE had opened the front door of “Rockland” since last I was there, nearly exposing the painted handprints of children that decorate its interior walls — as well as the splintered wood floor, where in places it looks as if it had been struck with a sledgehammer.
The entrance had recently been defaced with bright red graffiti.
An architectural relic nearly as old as Kansas itself (1862), the house had slowly been reduced to an elegant ruin, thanks to purposeful neglect and adolescent boredom.
Only a few decades ago the house had been abandoned, like the mission before it, which Florence described as falling into disuse “when the Indian Reservation law was passed and the old agencies were no more.”
When the people of the wind and plains were banished from their ancestral dreamscape, the place to which they were and remain inexorably bound.
At the reminder of such monstrosity, the trees guarding Rockland began swaying wildly, until they suddenly stopped and seemed to vibrate in the stark evening light.
Perhaps the house’s collapse is a bit of poetic justice, I thought, a kind of delayed revenge for having one’s cultures erased.
For those missions supported by the Bureau of Indian Affairs were often also sites of violence of a different kind, not of blood, but of heart and mind.
They were places of assimilation, where the aim was to “civilize,” to train the people of the wind and plains to live, speak, work and worship like whites.
To transmute a largely free and unbounded population of pantheistic hunters into Christian farmers, as Thomas Jefferson infamously advised.
Difficult to say which violence is worse — though Florence describes her father as “progressive,” so perhaps he should not be subject to such rebuke.
In fact, George Snow even took native people with him on his trips to Washington, D.C., in order to advocate for their interests.
One occasion generated the following humorous anecdote.
Florence writes that one “keen First American had been greatly impressed with a dinner given in their honor, and during his first meal at home he said to his squaw, on finishing his hog and hominy, ‘Take him away!’ Then he called ‘Bring him back!’ repeating the two orders until he could eat no more of the ‘courses’ thus secured.”
That is, the chief was so impressed by the table service he’d received, he decided to request analogous treatment at home.
I doubt the chief’s wife was similarly impressed.
Thus breathing in the now-confused air swirling about Rockland one last time, I turned my eyes skyward, into its flat bright pastels, and walked away.
Sometimes it’s best to leave judgment to the river.
An old schoolhouse and cemetery in Woodson County mark Nikkeltown, a Mennonite settlement.
As the simplest shape in geometry, triangles are everywhere, the most fundamental of connective structures beyond the line.
In that sense, triangles are also indispensable to thinking, the form through which abstract concepts begin to emerge.
Cattle in a pasture. A pioneer graveyard. A crumbling rural schoolhouse. No three things could be simpler, right?
That is, until you begin to look closely, triangulate, tessellate.
In the pasture at Nikkeltown, the cattle were dirty white and rusty red and black, though not quite like some moonless night.
When first I arrived, they called out, those neopolitan bovines, heralding my presence, but soon their attention was drawn back to nipping the short spring grass.
Nikkeltown was once home to a group of Mennonites, whose German ancestors answered the call of Empress Catherine the Great (1763) when she invited Europeans to transplant to Russia.
The Mennonites thus fled compulsory military service in places like Prussia, and quite a few had come to call Russia home by the mid-nineteenth century.
The respite was only temporary, however, as in post-Catherine Russia, military exemptions expired after 20 years.
So once again, the Mennonites were on the move — this time, to America, and eventually, Kansas.
They steadily crossed the continent, heads hidden, every day praying for survival against sickness, starvation and temptation.
Around 1878, eighteen families landed in Woodson County, thanks to land-deals made with the M.K. & T. (Katy) railroad, and ended up living in a sandstone sheep-barn owned by wealthy Turkey Creek rancher Charles Weide.
Eighteen families in one barn. Now that’s some close living quarters.
As I stood there, in the triangle between cattle field and graveyard and schoolhouse, I could almost hear them murmuring to one another, or reading softly, in a three-fold combination of Dutch, German and Russian — a dialect termed rather unflatteringly as “Flat Dutch” or “Low German.”
“Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde … Und Gott sprach: Es werde Licht…”
INTERRUPTING the dream of voices, a small blackbird in the Mennonite cemetery had swooped in to perch atop a tall grave and was tearing mercilessly at a worm, thereby making it a grave for two.
How many millions of times has this happened on earth? Where the burial place of one living thing becomes the occasion for innumerable others.
Perhaps the entire history of life itself might be viewed in relation to death stacked upon death, producing layers.
That too, is how one makes a sod house — by sedimentation.
The German-Russians who’d made their home at Nikkeltown had learned the technique in their home countries, and it’d immigrated with them.
More than 20 “soddies” were constructed, and several continued to stand for generations afterwards.
The work must have been back-breaking: cutting strips from the prairie soil held together with bluestem grass, then one by one, placing them in strategic patterns and layers.
According to one local account: “These houses all had dirt floors, swept clean and hard. Sometimes the walls were plastered with a mixture of mud and straw. After the soddies were built for some time the heavy rains would to a certain extent wash the dirt away from the sod roots, making it necessary at times to cover the outside with the mud mixture.”
I dreamed them, then, in my mind’s eye, Mennonite pioneers working in the blistering, blinding sunlight, some in long sleeves and long dresses, floating about like mud-daubing wasps, filling cracks and joints with trowels and bare hands.
They, too, were making a triangle: gather straw, gather mud, apply to walls. Repeat.
I HAD become distracted when I noticed a sign hanging from the Nikkeltown schoolhouse nearby, but laughed out loud when, rather than reading “District #43,” “built in 1900” or some other relevant bit of information, it simply said in small yellowed letters: “No hunting except by written permission.”
What of hunting for remnants of the original sandstone school building, via written traces left behind by local historians?
What of chasing the ghosts of children calling out from an old school photograph: Willis, Barrett, Klingenburg, Opperman, Neufeld, Tallman.
Does that constitute permission?
The song of meadowlarks burst out against a gusting wind, and each time this collision occurred, I remarked on the openness of the scene surrounding me.
The cattle were low to the ground. Cemetery stones low to the ground. District #43 school house low to the ground. “Low German.” And I, too, was low.
Above, was the stretching, torturous sky, which in Kansas consumes the possibility of conquering either time or space.
In fact, in Kansas, the sky is low as well, and reached to my feet and to the cattle’s hooves and perhaps even below.
Supposedly there are more cattle in Kansas than people, and as I sat between those hungrily tearing at the field, and the graves in what was once called “Nikkle’s Burying Ground,” I began to see their stout bodies in an overwhelmingly shadowy light.
Today, they strut and canter before the glorious Kansas horizon. Tomorrow, they’ll pass through human guts.
At least their lives have been granted the dignity found in a clear and distinct purpose, despite likely never fathoming it themselves.
SOMEHOW I have to find a connection, I kept thinking. Triangulate between cattle and cemetery and schoolhouse.
How is an education like chewing? What is it like to be born to die and be eaten? How is learning like death?
— One takes a concept, perhaps, and ideally, rolls it over again and again, covering it with saliva, until it becomes palpable. Typically, until it fits with what one already believes.
— One comes into the world, and in time, knows that life will end, that no matter how much one struggles and strives, there will come a point at which life is reabsorbed and returned to the earth.
— One is at first one thing. Then there is learning, perhaps. And now that thing no longer exists. For if it ever was learning, truly, then there is no longer the old thing, but a new one.
Triangulation, tessellation, poetic hallucination.
Thoughts melting and sprawling into one another in some blue-black haze, like sticky juice on fingers produced from some of the first Mulberry trees transplanted to Kansas by the Mennonites at Nikkeltown.
The Belmont area contains some of Woodson County's earliest and most harrowing stories, especially that of Muskogee Chief Opothleyahola and the "Trail of Blood on Ice."
The sky was cloudless, passing from silver at the horizon to soft blue at the apex of the dome of the world.
I was sitting next to the grave of Doyle “Bud” Neimeyer in Belmont Cemetery, near the “new” Yates Center reservoir, watching the small orange and brown butterflies flit about in tiny eccentric circles.
Someone had placed a chipped red brick nearby, seemingly as a gift, that read: Standard Coffeyville Block.
And adorning Neimeyer’s final resting place, a quote from naturalist philosopher Aldo Leopold:
“A Thing is Right when it tends to preserve the integrity, the stability, and the beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
It’s an insight of immeasurable depth and caring, one that speaks to an ethics beyond anything white men have yet devised.
An ethics where all touches all, where nothing stands alone. Where nothing survives in isolation and without others.
An ethics wherein everything needs everything.
I only knew “Bud” as a child when I was a Boy Scout, with my pressed navy shirts and yellow patterned scarves, when he showed us such profound sites as the Native American petroglyphs at Dry Creek Cave.
He kneeled in the dirt pointing, and somehow I can still see him there, excitement effervescing out beneath his signature cap.
It can be no accident, then, as to why he is interred here, at what is perhaps the place of greatest historic significance in all Woodson County, at what was once the intersection of wagon trails leading from Humboldt to Eureka, Neosho Falls to Coyville.
X marks the spot.
JUST down Kanza Road at 70th is the Belmont Corner, once home to upwards of 600 pioneers and 20 cabins, a tavern and post office, blacksmith and hotel, and an agency where native women retrieved meagre government rations.
In a letter written by E.T. Wickersham in 1934, he recalled: “the squaws would ride up to the store, tie their ponies and go into the store, and come out with a sack of flour [then] put it on the pony behind the saddle.”
“They were all dressed alike with a small blanket that reached from their shoulders to their knees … So while they were tying the flour to the saddle they had to let go of the blanket in order to use both hands, and the blanket would drop down, exposing their naked bodies to the icy cold wind until they got on their ponies.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, of all things contained in the letter, it seems the young E.T. was deeply affected by the naked women and girls, but also the indigenous peoples’ haircuts, their methods of child-rearing and their homes made of grass and hides.
IN WOODS south of the cemetery lie the ashen traces of Fort Belmont, a modest militia holdout against the Southern Confederacy.
I often feel as though I can hear the subtle whinny of horses in the little earthen corral there, the shouting of young men foolishly eager to face down Rebs in gray coats and red men in red paint.
In a field to the east, you can yet walk the faint outline of the parade-grounds and ovular track where militiamen would race native people on horseback.
And one sweltering summer day, I couldn’t help but wash my hands in the milita’s little walled up spring hidden along Big Sandy Creek, which somehow remains after almost 160 years.
WIND from the south leapt up and began to tossle the cedar trees that guard the cemetery’s oldest graves, persuading their shadows to tilt.
One twisted branch is shockingly white, and stands out in exile from the rest.
Below, I had chalked the stones belonging to Richard Barritt and his son Everett, and still wore turquoise stains on my fingers from the act.
Their names erupted from being worn to becoming unbearable in their crystalline articulation, standing and nearly screaming out from the white and withered passage of years.
In his day, Barritt lived on the southwestern border of the county, along the Wilson line, though the place there once called “Barritt’s Hill” no longer bears that name in the mind of almost anyone living.
The air had become almost cold, despite the mid-April sun, though I was chilled more from the white-tailed doe that suddenly disrupted the quiet woods at my back.
There, several thousand Muskogee people once sheltered during the Civil War, at a time when few trees stood to keep the fearsome winter at bay.
Despite wanting to remain neutral, they had done battle with Confederates in present-day Oklahoma, and after abandoning supplies were forced to march across the frozen and desolate prairie leaving behind a “trail of blood on the ice.”
According to Wickersham, “they came up here by the thousands, [such that] the woods were full of Indian camps.”
Though promised life-saving provisions by the Union, they found nothing in Kansas but rancid meat and broken promises.
I shivered then, perhaps just as much from the air as the thought of children crying in the snow, their fingers and toes blue and brittle from frostbite.
A little boy raised his dark eyes and stared at me, mercilessly, motionless.
Both his feet had been amputated.
In the face of such horrors, how can the sunlight there do anything but mock the forever-stained ground, profane the scattered plot where countless Muskogee fell?
Where the bones littered the earth …
EVERY time I had the urge to look up while writing, I hesitated in fear, despite having walked those woods a dozen times before, in search of the unmarked grave of Chief Opothleyahola and his daughter, whose name I have not yet learned.
She died in winter 1862 from tuberculosis, whereafter wreaths and garlands adorned the hallowed place her people had laid her.
I desperately want to know it, her name.
I want to speak it aloud, sing it in an aboriginal tongue the syllables of which have never entered nor left my blasphemous mouth.
I want to say it with all the force of time and the Milky Way Galaxy, so that that place might forever bear witness to The Impossible.
I want a black hole to unfold in those woods and swallow the light forever.
Today, a visitor to Belmont Cemetery can be stunned to wordless reflection by the seemingly unmarked nothing of it all, and perhaps that silence is the only appropriate response.
For what else is one to do before the knowledge of such suffering but cover one’s mouth like Job?
Let the birds sing instead. Let their high whistles and warbles invert the horror that hangs on.
Or rather howl instead, howl from a place of darkest mourning.
The story of a former slave's challenges contrasts against the burned prairie at a cemetery site.
I stood transfixed behind the barbed-wire fence by the side of the gravel road, watching in awe as bright orange fire snaked across the pasture in Liberty Township.
The air was heavy with dancing smoke that turned the air a hazy blue and obscured my view into the distance where a single tree with gnarled black branches stood.
An April wind suddenly began to churn in the southwest, such that what had been a controlled burn began to surge hungrily in my direction.
Flames leapt more than a dozen feet into the air and soon the soot was swirling frantically all around me.
A monstrous roar sounded, an insane popping and crackling of dry brush mixing with an atmosphere pulsing and bursting with movement.
In “Prairyerth,” William Least-Heat Moon described a similar scene as “red-gold on jet, angles and curves, oghams and cursives of flames, infernal combustings.”
Despite feeling intense heat on my face, at first I was immobilized, shocked still as “the red buffalo” began to stampede near the fence-line.
Realizing almost too late there was no fireguard burned along the roadside, fight turned to flight as I spun around to race for the open car-door.
As I sped away, I watched through the rear-view mirror as flames gnashed at the roadway where I had stood only moments before.
The 25 million year-old indigenous ritual of cleansing and inoculating the prairie had almost purified me as well.
Realizing what parallel I had found myself on, I proceeded slowly down the gravel road to the east, gazing into the distance at columns of smoke rising in almost every direction.
During the spring burn, rural Kansas looks like a war-zone, a volcanic blast site.
At that moment, an ambulance tore by, lights flashing red and blue, and I wondered who else had gotten a little too close to the flames for comfort.
SLOWING to a stop as I came to the northerly bend in the road, I could see white crosses adorning the field in Goings Cemetery, marking out a fraction of the 50 people interred there.
At one time you could have also seen a number of raised sandstone vaults that had once been a unique feature of the pioneer burial-place — situated along the LeRoy-Eureka trail — where long smooth stones had been quarried and dressed nearby, then fitted together with iron bars.
The vaults are all gone now, having been mostly shattered along with the names they bore like those of Sarah Pickering and her daughter, who along with several other wagon-caravan travelers perished from some lethal disease such as cholera, tuberculosis or smallpox.
People used to place animal bones around the sarcophagi as a prank, in order to scare the living daylights out of small children or friends.
More recently, someone claimed their cracked remnants were resting in a barn nearby, so as not to be further damaged.
Inside the gate, you could see how a burn had been allowed to tear through the graveyard, scorching most of the field but leaving the sunken grassy halos around the graves untouched.
Amid the ashen “prairie coal” contrasted several bright green ovals adorned with tiny yellow dandelions, and it was possible to see just how many bodies occupied the now-unmarked plots.
Though long dead and dessicated themselves, as the cemetery’s only two trees keep close company with the deceased, they were spared the cleansing burn as well. This last summer, they were filled with enormous bumblebees.
Oddly enough, in “A Sand County Almanac,” Aldo Leopold notes how most trees in the midwest are only as old as the first white settlements (and cemeteries) here — dating to the mid 1800s — precisely because widespread farming led to the cessation of most prairie wildfires that had until then prevented them from growing.
If you don’t believe him, he dares you to count the rings.
Fires have certainly been part of shaping the landscape of Goings Cemetery; for when I last visited it was as if the mouth of Hell had been invited to open and paint a chilling image there of an afterlife spent in perdition.
Not that the cemetery’s namesake, Randolph Goings (1840-1871), needed any additional reminders, as it seems his own life was already hellish enough.
He and his first wife Lucy Jane were born slaves near Charlottesville in Albermarle County, Virginia — ironically, the same birthplace as county namesake and life-long advocate for slavery, journalist and territorial secretary, Daniel Woodson.
I therefore view Woodson and Goings as foils or inverses to one another, though it’s doubtful the two men ever met.
Before coming to Kansas by way of Ohio, Goings and his family first had to secure their Free Papers, which listed them as “mulattos.”
For whatever reason, in Ohio he became estranged from his first wife and six children, which likely had something to do with meeting a woman by the name of Mary K.
As Mary was white and Randolph was multi-ethnic, you can imagine it caused quite a stir, especially since they had to stop along their path to Kansas in Illinois so that Mary could give birth to a son named Thomas.
In 1858, Goings and his new family settled along the big bend in Turkey Creek, atop a rocky knoll east of the cemetery, where water is typically shallow and the undergrowth so thick and wiry you can barely traverse it.
A few decades ago, paleontologists from Emporia State University found what they believed to be dinosaur tracks along the creek bed, and though I’ve yet to see them, the rancher who lives nearby swears they exist.
During their time at the cabin near the creek, four more children were born to Randolph and Mary, including Sarah and Mary Etta, who although they evaded a permanent stay in the little burial place covered in fire and dandelions, eventually faced some serious travails of their own.
As records are spotty, it seems the only battle we know of Randolph facing for sure after the horrors of Virginia slavery were to battle with Woodson County commissioners in Neosho Falls over the placement of a road near his home. (He won.)
However, as one of the only black or brown pioneers in the county at the time when the Bleeding Kansas conflict was determining whether or not slavery would be legal there, it doesn’t take stretching the imagination much to figure Randolph and his white wife led incredibly difficult lives.
Let’s be honest: given the lingering specter of such racism, their relationship would be derided and condemned by many in southeast Kansas even today.
After Goings died in 1871 when he was only 31 years old, and Mary K. shortly after, at only ages six and four, the little girls Sarah and Mary Etta became the wards of pioneer neighbor Asa Whitney, a figure who casts a rather long shadow across the county’s early history.
Whitney was a commissioner who had a school named after him, which still stands today though it’s been used as a shed for cattle supplies for years now. But he was also accused of serious crimes by Sarah Goings while she was a teenager, both against herself and her father’s property.
What Whitney was indicted for, we may never know, but he was nonetheless acquitted.
But the trouble didn’t end there. When Randolph’s first wife got wind that he’d died, she too tried to seize his land-holdings and property from Sarah and Mary Etta. (The girls lost.)
It’s a complex family drama that, though fragmentary, reveals how the emotional and legal difficulties of life do not belong merely to our own time.
Thus when you stand in the seemingly tranquil little cemetery that bears the Goings family name, and is Randolph’s final resting place, it’s impossible not to feel the sadness and the anger born of their daily struggle to survive.
A calm spring wind may sing from Turkey Creek across the naked plains, but if one is attentive, you can still feel the fire of Randolph Goings.
A visit to Yates Center's old jail coincides with a retelling of a 1915 bank robbery.
A snowy sky hung dimly over the Yates Center square as I pressed my face against the glass of what was once the State Exchange Bank.
I imagined the teller counter had returned, the bars, the safe and two unassuming young men entering the door in February 1915.
Unmasked and well-dressed, they strolled to the desk around lunchtime and asked whether a “Mr. Hines” had been in.
Before the cashier W.J. O’Donnell could answer, though, he found a .33 caliber revolver staring him in the face.
“Throw yer hands up and hold ‘em high,” growled one of the genteel fellows, as the other scrambled up and crawled through the opening of the teller window.
In four minutes flat, over $4,000 in cash had been liquidated, and in a flash, the thieves were out the door.
I imagined them bursting past me through the exit, causing me to reel backward toward the “painless” dentist office that once stood next door.
No sooner had they gone, but I seemed to hear the muted sound of poor O’Donnell yelling at the top of his lungs from inside the locked vault.
The ghost of a woman named Blanche Winters pressed inside the building, and with keys in hand, managed to free the flabbergasted prisoner.
Soon the hunt was on.
Everyone in town had been beset by a lolling panic, with Model-Ts and rumors tearing about in every direction.
Who were these demonous outsiders who’d dared intrude upon our placid villa? And what terrible disease of sloth and violence had they brought with them?
This is OUR TOWN!!
Get the torches and pitchforks …
JUST in the nick of time, ol’ “Bill” Reedy screeched to a halt in front of the bank, then raced inside to inform Sheriff Carrol he’d spotted the thieves making a break for it on the edge of town.
To reenact the scene, I leapt into my car like the Sheriff and his posse, racing east as closely as possible along the rail trail as if voraciously hunting the license plate of some out-of-town flapper.
I was sure I could see the faint outline of their tracks as I approached.
And sure enough, there they were, the two miscreants shivering in the bushes near a sycamore with faces pale as milk.
The Sheriff had his gun leveled, and O’Donnell was sneering, “Young man, hold your hands just as high as you made me hold mine.”
Instinctively my arms shot into the air!
With this, multiple heavy bags of cash heavily thudded to the ground, setting bills blowing in the wind.
Realizing that they couldn’t actually see me, I left the deputies to their duties and crept slowly back through Yates Center to find the townsfolk scurrying everywhere like venomous ants.
Hundreds of shotguns and rifles, hammers and knives were being brandished in rage.
Peoples’ blood was up, and red filled their eyes. Not a good time to be passing through.
Little did they realize the targets of their fearsome ire were already in custody, safety confined and unable to further contaminate the unsoiled air of the little town’s purity.
DAYS passed, and Harry Milton and James Harmon were on the verge of losing their minds.
They paced back and forth within the steel walls of the sandstone jail, anxious and angry.
How long had they been there?
Marks scratched on the wall said three weeks.
But three weeks had begun to feel like three millenia, especially without whiskey and cigarettes — not to mention the endless hollow tolling of the Baptist Church bells nearby.
Milton, whose real name was Jesse Billings, had no intention of staying put; and when the moment arose, he took it.
Using the stray piece of metal he’d filed to a knife-point, he threatened another prisoner to help them escape the interior cage, then he and “Jimmy” wriggled through a hole in the ceiling.
Despite someone spotting them make a run for it nearby, past the original courthouse (from Defiance) and collection of businesses once called “Smoky Row,” soon they were home-free.
Frigid wind whipped at their thin uniforms, turning their skin cracked and blue as they again hobbled down the railroad tracks, but they had made it.
That is, until they were arrested two months later and banished to the state pen at Lansing.
Milton got 21 years. The max. Baby-faced Harmon, a slap on the wrist.
BENEATH the massive catalpa tree that hangs over the old stone jail — which hides behind the northeast corner of the Yates Center square — I stared in awe at how the two men had managed to escape.
The structure seemed impenetrable, like the shadowy darkness inside.
And after gaining access to the jail’s interior, I was even more impressed: not only by the heavy bars and unbreakable latches, but by the endless rambling graffiti still visible on the walls.
One etching is of a pig’s backside, with curly tail and pointed ears. Another, a human figure with tiny phallus. And name after name after name.
One is the cage’s manufacturer: “Pauly Jail Bldg & Mf’C Co, St. Louis, MO.” Dealers of Hell on Earth.
Though condemned as unfit for human habitation in 1963, the jail continued to operate for another four years.
MORE recently, I’ve been rereading “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau, which led me to imagining him there behind similar bars, imprisoned for refusing to pay his taxes.
Not wanting his money to be wasted on supporting the brutality of slavery or the imperialist conquest of the Mexican-American War, he was condemned to rot.
At least until an anonymous benefactor, perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson, bailed him out.
Despite the brevity of his stay, the experience led him to conclude that “[u]nder a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison.”
Yet how many have the courage to disobey in such fashion, thereby requiring us to rethink our attitudes towards those we find incarcerated?
And how do we not conflate those who disregard the law due to a childish refusal of orders (given for the common good), with those who draw attention to injustices being done to others?
The saints and revolutionaries of the world are too often grossly misunderstood.
Yet the torches and pitchforks await them just the same.
Piqua's history includes being the birthplace of silent film legend Buster Keaton. Its history is visible all over town — if you look closely enough.
DAY THREE — I was sitting near the birthplace of silent film legend Buster Keaton in Piqua when Gov. Laura Kelly’s state-wide “stay at home order” came through.
The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the nation for the past few weeks had finally hit home.
In 1886, smallpox broke out in Piqua, whereupon the town was quarantined for six weeks.
Guards were stationed on all roads leading into town. Travelers were told to drive their wagons and carriages on through Piqua without stopping.
Adults were only allowed to leave home for trade. Children were forbidden to leave their yards.
Dr. J.L. Jones, the public health officer from Neosho Falls, set up a tent on the west side of town where he cared for the sick.
Many endured the virus and were left with scars. A young man by the name of Bert McKinsey didn’t survive.
Looking southeast toward the site of the railway junction that breathed Piqua into being — April Fool’s Day, 1882 — I imagined the train cars passing while the roads were patrolled by sentries.
The thought made me shiver, like the nearby purple clover trembling in the angry wind.
Earlier that morning I had felt a rush of excitement when I discovered the rectory from the original St. Martin’s Catholic Church was still standing and had been converted into a house.
That feeling, though, quickly transmuted into dread and a sense of foreboding.
I tried to distract myself by looking for remnants of the Piqua State Bank and department store belonging to Markus and Niemann, with its well out front. Folk said the water used to taste and smell like rotten eggs.
Old-timers claimed you could chew on it, but it was probably still preferable to eating June bugs. I only mention it as a bacchanalian by the name of Heckman used to do so for a lark outside the Knights of Columbus Hall.
Granted, drinking sulfurous water and consuming insects are probably preferable to the bitterness tasted by those who lost their fortunes when the bank collapsed in the Great Depression.
Given the crushing economic impact of COVID-19 so far, though, it may be that this is another disastrous past that’s repeating itself.
Not that Piqua will necessarily notice, as financial hardships long ago turned the little town into a somber study in absence.
DAY TWO — Late afternoon, the robins, doves and meadowlarks were singing in the still-bare hedge trees surrounding Old St. Martin’s cemetery west of Piqua.
The first thing everybody notices is how the graves of the 97 adults and 64 children are segregated, so that upon rising the sun first touches the Irish-German youth.
Folks used to call it the “Budde Place,” despite Bernard Budde not having lived (there) long enough to ever officially own it.
His 4-year-old son, Bernard Henry, drowned in a nearby creek, the place where he had told his father that he often spoke with angels.
I was sitting beneath the impressive concrete crucifix at the cemetery’s middle, in view of Bernard senior’s and junior’s graves, where it seems the number of people buried here ended up being fewer than planned.
I scooped up a piece of the cross that was at my back and examined it. There’s a large chunk missing near the top of the sculpture that seems somehow appropriate, imperfect, like the intrusion of humanness and embodiment into the dream of Wholeness.
It reminded me of when, in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” Annie Dillard speaks of “the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection.”
For a cracked and broken perfectness was there: in the moth flitting in the grass at my feet, where I was once again surprised by the noise of this supposedly “sleepy” place: the low roar of cars on the highway, the rumble of muddy farm trucks along the gravel road.
The cedar tree in front of me had almost begun to conceal the sun’s glare, and wore its luminosity like a halo.
Perhaps heaven is glimpsed in these suspended moments when we feel love or awe in silence, reflectively, knowing it must end but believing it will come again.
Or perhaps heaven comes in a croon of notes from a meadowlark’s beak, complex and interweaving — the softly spoken spell of a ghost who tarries along with us through the disorienting trail of life.
One of the German graves there speaks of being held in the arms of peacefulness, a solace that in its ambiguity might refer either to God or Death.
DAY ONE — The frogs were chirping after the rain when I stopped the car in Piqua.
A cloud of blackbirds had burst overhead toward the northeast, and the air was just cool enough to suggest that spring had not yet conquered winter.
From here, between the defunct post office and foundation of Neimann’s store, I could see the place where silent film legend Buster Keaton was born, and where in later years he visited with his wife, Eleanor.
I wondered what he would have thought of the yellowed museum dedicated to his work that hides inside the Rural Water Station.
He’d likely say it’s important to keep a straight face so that the audience projects its own reaction onto the actor.
Unable to conceal its own response, a dormant catalpa tree near Silverado’s bar and grill reached up between the power lines on all sides as if in an act of rebellion.
FOR whatever reason, it inspired me to investigate the depot around the corner, repurposed to serve as a storage shed for the Grain Co./CO-OP.
I kept having the urge to look inside, though I’m sure it’s just an empty shell. But it is a husk with memory, and that is what matters. One must simply be still to know.
It’s odd, however, that in Piqua, no matter how meditative you try to be, you can nevertheless hear the roar of traffic on U.S. 54, and I’m reminded of how the first schoolhouse ever built here — Bramlette No. #27 — was so close to the train tracks that it had to be moved.
Sounds carry here throughout this living monument, like the cries of coyotes whose eruptions suddenly pierced the coming dusk.
Their wails tore violently at the air, echoed through the streets and then vanished.
I wondered if at one time, when it still retained its occupants, they’d have been as excited about the derelict chicken coop up north as I had been.
As the sun set, wrapped in cobalt, I was (again) reminded of Dillard, who spoke of being “cradled in the swaddling band of darkness. [Where] even the simple darkness of night whispers suggestions to the mind.”
More than a century ago, notorious Woodson County prankster Alexander Hamilton claimed UFO-flying aliens stole his livestock. The legend soon took on a life of its own.
Just when you think things can’t get any weirder, that’s when the aliens arrive.
Or at least that’s what an old settler named Alexander Hamilton claimed happened at his ranch south of Vernon in 1897.
He staked his sacred honor on it.
Apparently the extraterrestrials stole and dismantled his prize heifer, which perhaps explains why even today the cattle at Hamilton’s pasture seemed jumpy.
Everywhere you go in Woodson County, black Angus walk right up to the fence, looking for food. Here they appeared skittish, darting away as soon as I approached the barbed-wire.
The entire herd repeatedly stampeded off as if they’d seen a ghost.
Their owner, too, was wary, and demanded to know why I was parked by his pasture, carefully observing his charges.
ACCORDING to the Yates Center Farmer’s Advocate, on the night of the abduction Hamilton claimed he and his family had been awakened by panicked cries.
Assuming it was merely his mischievous bulldog, Hamiliton went to the porch to scold him when he saw it: an enormous “airship descending over [the] cow lot about 50 rods from the house.”
He swore the craft was 300 feet long, dark reddish in color and cigar-shaped.
Hamilton and his son, along with other farm-workers, snatched up axes and sprinted toward the ship with its shining glass panels.
It was then they saw “six of the strangest beings [they’d] ever seen,” communicating in a manner none of them could understand.
As the farmers approached, the aliens shined their lights on the men, then quickly accelerated the craft upward.
As the ship ascended, it trailed a cable of sorts to the ground where it had snared an unsuspecting heifer, who balled and cried furiously as she was pulled from the earth below.
Too late, Hamiliton and his men watched in horror as the craft — with heifer in tow — shot into the night sky, then vanished into the northwestern stars.
SHELTERED in my own craft, I stared long and hard into that same cloudless northern sky.
After the cattle got used to me, they decided it was safe to come and take a look. They nibbled at the field greedily, yellowed fragments flying away in the wind whenever one would raise their head.
You could hear their mouths working as they ate, a kind of snuffling, sniffing, scarfing, as they tore tender greens from the earth.
One particular lady, her furry face caked with mud, came right up to the fence, then immediately turned her backside. Her tottering calf stood beside her, watching, too young yet to have a yellow tag punched in her ear like her mother’s.
Another suckled greedily from his mom’s udder, and both had become visibly agitated from the exchange.
In the distance, I could hear the creaking groan of an oil well pulling up and down.
Suddenly the train approached from the south, its blasting alarm audible in the distance.
I imagined its arrival was like that of Hamilton’s alien visitors: an enormous hulk of metal distorting the air as it moved, signals flashing.
Just south of the crossing I watched as the lights alternated red-blank, blank-red, akin to the airship’s colorful displays.
DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING. The right-of-way’s warning was as frantic as Hamilton and his men.
The ground began to rumble as graffiti-covered Union Pacific cars thundered by, and some of the cattle lowed in response.
Hamilton himself claimed to have been traumatized by the encounter, unable to sleep for decades to come.
“I went home that night,” he said. “But every time I would drop off to sleep I would see that cursed thing with its big lights and hideous creatures. I don’t know if they were devils or angels or what, but we all saw them and my whole family saw the ship and I don’t want any more to do with them.”
Perhaps this mostly had to do with what happened to his cow.
The morning following the close encounter, Hamilton ran into a neighbor, Lank Thomas from Coffey County.
Thomas had found the mutilated body of Hamilton’s cow.
Thomas also claimed there were no tracks of any kind, such as those of a carnivore who could have been blamed for the violence.
IN ORDER to assuage the skeptics, Hamilton obtained the signatures of local political figures and others with high reputations to testify to the veracity of his claims.
Such personages included the sheriff, district attorney, postmaster, multiple pharmacists and the register of deeds.
Because Hamilton was known as someone with a morbid sense of humor, as well as a prankster and spinner of tall tales, most folks around the area knew the story to be a hoax.
Soon, however, large U.S. and British newspapers — including the St. Louis Globe-Dispatch — began to reprint the tale and it became an international phenomenon.
Today a quick fact-check reveals that in spring 1897, tales of Unidentified Flying Objects were sweeping the globe. Hamilton’s may have been the first to include the theme of cattle mutilation.
At the time, however, some folks were taking the legend as seriously as any other claim made in the papers, unable to discern between a fantastic or “yellow journalism” narrative made for the sake of entertainment and those designed to inform.
Ironically, making such a discernment is still our task today as citizens of a digital world, as we're compelled to sift through mountains of disinformation in order to locate the truth.
To refuse this task is in turn to forsake ourselves.
A Yates Center treasure holds tales of hardship. The Daniel family cabin has been rebuilt along U.S. 54 in Yates Center.
The cold rain was falling in hard green drops as I rounded the forested corner that hides Big Sandy cemetery.
Cedar trees dripped in the morning mist, and hungry blackbirds were calling near the rectangular sandstone gate.
As I approached the entrance I paused, listening, straining not only to hear but to feel something of the place, confident that its ghosts would reappear.
Indeed, anyone who’s ever visited this place claims it’s haunted.
Ignoring the weather, I shuffled through the wet grass toward the rear of the cemetery plot, intent on visiting some old friends.
And there they were: more than a dozen unmarked pioneer graves with peculiar shapes that when taken together look like rows of teeth lining an open mouth.
The light was almost absent despite it being mid-morning, and the entire space was cloaked in purple shadows.
Unable to resist, I reached out my hand and ran it along the meticulously chipped sandstone surfaces of more than one stone, wishing the gesture would yield up a story from the soft earth below.
I stood for a moment at each one, waiting, smelling the air as it wafted from the nearby creek, which this summer had been exploding with dark red algae blooms.
At first, the only answer was the windy spray of precipitation across my face.
Eventually, though, someone called my attention as he is often wont to do: Josiah Daniel, 1828-1879.
Both he and his father’s family lived in these dark woods once brimming with wild mean hogs and lean black turkeys, to the south of the cemetery, surrounded with hundreds of indigenous people for neighbors.
They lived in an expansive log cabin, the diminished version of which now sits at the Woodson County Historical Museum in Yates Center along Highway 54.
The reconstruction combines pieces of the old Daniel place with the chimney from another cabin belonging to a pioneer named David Askren, and if you know its story you’ll never look at it the same way again.
WHERE others see a quaint and cichy little structure, imagining a warm hearth and “the sweet old face” of Mrs. Eliza Daniel as she pivots in her rocking chair, one can just as easily view a mute witness to epidemic illness and gross injustice.
In short, to hardship and death.
Summer 1864, while Josiah’s father was farming the Big Sandy valley, smallpox broke out among the native tribes who were living there, transmitted to them by whites.
In time, many in the Daniel family were afflicted by the red plague as well.
As a boy, Josiah recalled seeing the Osage and Muskogee people suffer untold horrors: their arms and faces covered in oozing sores, many becoming sick and blind and broken.
The Muskogee had been chased up from Oklahoma by Confederates two years earlier, and led by Chief Opothleyahola, had already endured the monstrous ordeal known as the “Trail of Blood on Ice,” a flight into Kansas rife with starvation, frostbite and broken promises.
Josiah’s mind was especially seared with the sight of what are sometimes called Native American “burial trees,” where a resting place for the dead is suspended in the air atop a biar supported by tall wooden poles.
According to certain tribes’ customs, these poles would be painted red or black, as were still-standing trees used for a similar purpose.
People would be wrapped tightly in blankets with their belongings, Josiah said, and placed where others might visit the deceased and speak with them.
While walking the forests along Big Sandy, especially when nearing a high hill or overlook, I nightmarishly dream that I can see them too.
THEY are buried all around me, I realized — these silent victims of a disease that claimed 300 million people in the 20th century, despite being eradicated by 1980.
As the revelation shuddered through my mind, I could almost feel the ground tremble with sadness and anger.
For a moment, it seemed that even the birds stopped singing.
It was then Josiah reminded me of another story, a trauma so etched on his brain that when interviewed years later, it remained at the forefront of his recollections.
Near the Daniel home once stood another seemingly innocent structure: a log schoolhouse where local children laughed and learned and played.
But when Josiah’s family was living nearby, a group of vigilantes tried three men in that schoolhouse for stealing cattle, despite most folks knowing the accused were really only guilty of having learned too much of the vigilantes’ own misdeeds.
After a sham trial lasting nearly three weeks, the accused were condemned to death and sentenced to hang in trees just north of the Daniels’ own home.
On that terrible eve, two of the men were brought into the cabin for their last meal, a tale not easily forgotten when entering the space today.
Standing in the woods, the rain began to abate, and I thought about the cabin’s seemingly cozy interior, how the table with its walnut furniture made in Humboldt looks set to welcome and embrace guests.
… Who are about to face lynching.
They eat slowly, methodically, savoring every particle as only those who are about to die can endure, as the hands of the antique grandfather clock grind inevitably forward.
Then those men swung back and forth just as slowly from the trees along Big Sandy.
Josiah said two were oak trees, one was a blackjack.
Fall of that year, the schoolhouse was moved.
I stood there in the cemetery, gazing into the treetops, watching as the cedars shifted in the once-delayed dawn.
The sun was rising high enough in the east that its sickly white light had begun to pierce the scene, as I focused on the branches as they ached and expanded, casting off the weight of water.
At my feet lay the dead, from pestilence and lies and time, murmuring as they too eagerly shifted to embrace the yellow star’s unceasing lack of judgment.
A Woodson County lake's unique features are many, from its ornate sandstone pillars to the monuments to the workers who helped build it. Yet the imposing elements give a foreboding of trouble, even to those simply interested in sight-seeing.
No matter how many times I ford the low-water crossing near Lake Fegan dam, I hold my breath.
Doesn’t matter the water is only two inches deep, though it gurgles and babbles as it rolls over the concrete slab of road.
Perhaps that’s why I stopped just before the aforementioned spot on the pretense of snapping photos of the dam’s ornate sandstone pillars.
I was clicking away, looking for angles, when I saw someone approaching in the distance, who just happened to be the now-former Sheriff of Woodson County in a gunmetal gray truck.
Wayne Faulker was once a member of the Kansas Highway Patrol, and from his silver-gray buzzcut, looks like a military man as well — somewhat reminiscent of the infamous drill sergeant from the film “Full Metal Jacket.”
“Trouble?” he asked.
As William Least-Heat Moon points out in “Prairyerth,” it’s a familiar refrain to the outdoor writer-explorer, code for “Are YOU trouble?”
He mentioned my Virginia license plate, but didn’t seem to care much, especially after I mentioned my name, who I’m related to, and who he knows, along with rattling off a few historical details about the lake.
“This place was named after Ben Fegan, who owned this land in the ’30s.”
After awhile you get used to the test questions.
Striking up a conversation, Faulker seemed proud of the fact that he took presidential candidate Bob Dole on a 16-county tour of Kansas, though slightly miffed when I mention Dole’s adversary, former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Faulker recalled being impressed by the courthouse at Cottonwood Falls in Chase County while on his tour with Dole, though doesn’t bite when I suggest the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that built Fegan in the 1930s — one of FDR’s “New Deal” programs — is a shining example of how large-scale government programs can be successful.
AFTERWARD, I was sitting just north of the dam at a decaying picnic table, trying to decide whether or not it felt comfortable out: one minute the cool breeze was pleasant, invigorating, but when it stopped and everything held breathlessly still, it became stifling.
That Sunday morning, the complexion of the water matched that of the sky, an almost identical blue separated by a band of pearl horizon and the olive-green of innumerable post oaks.
It hardly seemed possible the lake had been recently drained now that its waters had returned, which is a testament to how historical and environmental changes can occur suddenly yet seem as though “things were always this way.”
When it comes to places like Lake Fegan and its cobalt water turned to waves in the breeze, such relatively sudden transformation is benign; when one considers the “disappearance” of people and places due to atrocities, such haste is chilling.
Though I’d wanted to dwell upon dwelling there, pay close attention to the brown bell-shaped leaves that had begun to fall, I thought instead about the native peoples once living nearby along Sandy Creek, how they caught smallpox from whites and died in the thousands.
Many white settlers died, too.
None would have known a site called Lake Fegan as it did not exist yet, but would have known the place by other names.
Is it possible to open oneself to those sacred labels, dream them turning in the wind?
I MYSELF am still trying to discover what it is I’m endeavoring to open up by resettling here, what exactly it is for which I am on the hunt.
Despite having assembled detailed written and photographic maps of the county, I feel more lost than ever — like a blackjack leaf adrift atop the water.
An enormous raven’s black wings then sliced the sky, and once again I was reminded of the impending nature of death, how it circles us, slowly, gliding and swooping, breathing us in, trying to sense whether the moment is right.
In this, death is in league with the Great Mysterious: a partner, confidant or secret lover.
Walking to the water’s edge for a moment, I was reminded of my younger brother, how he haunts South Owl Lake, the “old” Yates Center Reservoir, for hours on end, fishing for crappie in an attempt to hold his mind in some sort of meditative equilibrium.
Being there, writing at Lake Fegan, I continued to search for mine.
The wind rattled through the oaks again, tousled the Johnson grass, toppled and redirected the tiny blue and yellow forest butterflies, yet did not inflate my lungs.
My breath was shallow, heart heavy and thoughts dark, despite the tranquil morning and the soothing song of crickets.
On June 15, 1933, the Toronto Republican reported, “The streets here were the scene of some celebration this noon when the word came through that all was well, and rightly there should have been for this project is a big one and one that has been worked for very hard by local men and sportsmen.”
Reading such sentiments about the lake is hard, as they exude a jovial mood which on that morning seemed completely alien, a stranger.
I had listened for the birds but heard only the whispers of trees.
Another article from 1933 mentions how between 12 and 15 thousand people visited Fegan on its opening weekend, and says “some mighty big fish stories” were told to accompany general “praise by fishermen” for the site.
Almost 90 years later, devoid of human activity, one could call Fegan a ghost-lake, where one can only imagine the cacophony of CCC building camps or the sparkling shouts of children.
Today Fegan stands as both a monument to a grander rural past even as it perhaps points to a more promising future — though it’s hard to imagine people today enthusiastically inviting in thousands of outsiders from regional building partners in Allen, Wilson, Neosho, Greenwood and Coffey Counties as was done in the 1930s.
When the wind gusted, an invigorating chill shot through me and I longed for it not to end.
To feel completely alive in this and other places, absorb their energy, undergo a resurrection of the spirit in some a-religious way, perhaps it is this for which I hunt.
I do not desire consuming the blood and marrow of some specific life, such as a bison or whitetailed deer or bobcat, but the tissue of life itself.
I long to quench myself on life’s own vital fluids, its sinews, build a home of its bones and clothes of its skin.
If only I can open myself to the strange glory I sense is on the cusp of penetrating me, perhaps then I might recognize this as my native sky and know I am finally home.
Yates Center's Hotel Woodson has been a part of the community for more than century. Among its guests in the days of yesteryear was Buffalo Bill Cody.
YATES CENTER — The wind was blowing steadily from the south, and my breathing shallow, as I sat catty-corner from the Hotel Woodson on Yates Center’s town square, watching the vehicles pass.
My favorite are the golf carts, which folks around here use as a kind of inverse convertible. Instead of the top being down, it’s the only thing that’s up.
I asked my friend, four-branch veteran and unapologetic Kansas Democrat, Troy Shaffer, if he chose to live in the hotel given its incredible past, but said his decision was based on cheap rent as opposed to nostalgia.
After some pestering, Troy gave me a tour of the hotel, where he confirmed the tin ballroom ceiling and sleek wooden bar are indeed original, though the floor plan has been converted from twenty-one small rooms into four large ones.
In a letter written by Edwin Guy Reid, son of the hotel’s original owner, he recalls having to swap every stained-by-who-knows-what sheet, shove coal in all 12 stoves, fill all the oil lamps and burn endless piles of garbage.
He also added: “in the morning you would have to … [e]mpty all the slop jars and carry all the waste water down back of the hotel and dump it.”
You can imagine poor Ed trying his best not to gag as he repeatedly descended the stairs before reaching the hog pen.
In his nasal drawl Troy pointed north, remarking “Now, all the outdoor toilets and everything was back there, too. And the well. There was a big well. It was 1887! You still had to have water. There was prolly a dresser and a water pitcher in each room, you know, to warsh up in.”
No amount of water, though, I imagine, was enough to fully exorcise the ghostly residues of countless ragged prospectors and cattlemen, belaced prostitutes and cigar-smoking oil barons.
ABOVE THE hotel’s cream-colored corbels and Victorian era moulding, the sky was a single shade of periwinkle.
Its monochromatic expanse was oceanic, as if one could turn the world upside down, the air would possess a solidity that would allow one to reside within it, be held in the arms of that vastness and receive something ineffable and uncannily still.
It dawned on me just how many sandstone blocks there are lining the hotel’s facade, but I didn’t have the patience to calculate them.
When next we see one another let me know what number you came up with, as I’ve yet to find consensus among counters.
Don’t worry. We have ample time for such things in this place where the clock hands crawl, present and past bleed into one another and divisions between culture and history break down.
One feels this most acutely, I think, at night — when the streetlights gleam eerily and the wraiths of Yates Center begin to murmur aloud.
A SQUIRREL scolded me from the tree behind my back, despite my having arrived first.
A passing golf cart then compelled me to analyze the brick streets paved in the early years of the twentieth century, particularly the intricate weave at the corner of Butler and State Streets.
Frank Butler was a confidant of town namesake Abner Yates, and instrumental in the campaign to make Yates Center county seat. Despite the town eventually taking his own name, Yates had wanted to name it “Butler.”
My attention directed at Butler Street, I was reminded of when Troy told me he was born on the Yates Center square.
“A block off of it, yeah,” he explained. “It’s straight down there. Dr. [Harry] West delivered a lot of babies in this town!”
Looking south down the street to where Troy had pointed, my sight first turned to the intricate sandstone arches of what was once T.L. Reid’s “Livery, Feed and Sale Stables.”
A flier for the shop advertises renting a team and buggy for weddings, picnics and funerals.
People used to comb the manes of horses there in front of the tall, three-door entryway. Now they cut human hair one building down at Hairbenders Salon.
When acts like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West came to town, according to Edwin Reid, “A couple cabs from the livery stable were rented, and the horses decorated with banners and plumes, as they would parade around town advertising a show.”
Bill Cody himself caused quite a ruckus, it seems, “filling up with booze and getting pretty noisy.”
He and his crew were tossing back whiskey like water and pinching grapes, shooting the juice at one another, when a waitress named Daisy Obanjon slipped in the mess they were making.
Dishes leapt and crashed to the floor, porcelain shattering into shards. The hotel manager, Edwin’s Canadian-born father Thomas, then confronted Bill and got squirted in the eye with grape-juice for his trouble.
Irate, he seized Bill by his long wavy hair and yanked him from his seat. T.L. would eventually become sheriff of Woodson County and feared neither man, god nor legend.
“Believe me you never saw such a fight,” wrote Edwin. “They wrecked the dining room office and mother ran out in front of the hotel with an old dinner bell and started ringing it. … Show people had a hard time putting up at the hotel after that.”
THE SKY’S soft blue had become pierced by jet-black vultures. They circled the immense white water tower to the north, reminding me of the smaller rust-colored tower that fell into disuse during my lifetime.
Perhaps I’ll have to scale the water tower at some point, get a prey-bird’s view of things, dream when the entire hotel block was an orchard.
That’s what this sojourn home is about: seeing, regarding familiar things for the first time.
Take for example the trees shading the northwest corner of the square. They’re elms, but I realized I knew nothing about them.
Turns out they’re deciduous, meaning they shed their leaves in fall, covering the streets in waves of yellow, red and gold.
They are also hermaphrodites, “male” and “female” simultaneously, spreading their genes by pollen loosed on the wind.
At the dawn of their appearance 40 million years ago, these trees were evolving in Asia. Hence like so many people and things in Woodson County, the elms on Yates Center’s square are the children of immigrants.
Now they’re everywhere, leading one to forget the time when Yates Center was nothing more than a vast sheep pasture covered with acres of bluestem grass.
As Troy exclaimed, recounting when he’d once flown over town in an airplane: “To see Yates Center from the air, it’s just totally different from up there. My god, I thought that it was more open than that! It’s gotta lotta trees in it now compared to open prairie like it was!”
I noticed the wind had stilled again, American flag by the Legion outpost motionless.
Something in the way it held the light drew awareness to the warm shadows cast nearby.
The French writer Marcel Proust taught readers to observe the smallest, seemingly insignificant details in everything — and in striving for such attentiveness to the world, what is accomplished?
Indigenous people and Christians alike have both regarded life here in southeast Kansas as the Great Mysterious or God’s Mystery, and perhaps that’s what we’re aiming at.
To peer into the enigma of the everyday, engaged in a process of becoming curious about all that surrounds and bends within ourselves.
A bouquet of sights and sounds fills the scenery around Owl Creek. From owls and crows to chiggers and fish, wildlife is a constant companion.
Moments after arriving at one of Owl Creek’s southerly bridges, I heard them: HOO-HOO, HOO-WHAAA! WHAA!
For once I’d arrived in time to witness the sunset, though obscured behind drooping trees along the riverbank, leaves brightened with yellow in the evening light.
I saw the sky reflected in dark pools below, more “green-gray bark waters” like those of the Verdigris River on Woodson County’s western edge.
A murder of crows adorned the scene, chiming in with the low roar of the baler and other haying equipment I passed down the road.
If you follow the creek southeast, you’ll eventually arrive near Humboldt, a trajectory roughly followed by many early residents who had “in-town” business.
And if you follow the creek northwest you can find the ruins of Durand and its depot, as well as South Owl Lake, better known as Yates Center’s “old” reservoir.
WHEN I SET OUT for somewhere to write in this area, what first came to mind were cemeteries: Pioneer graves like that of Emily Condict, who died in a carriage runaway accident, Owl Creek Lutheran and Catholic, or Linder-Orth, resting places of German immigrants and their descendants.
But then it dawned on me: Owl Creek is named for something very much alive, and its ghosts could wait.
Though one senses them everywhere.
I tried to imagine indigenous people especially, enter the dreamtime with eyes open, and saw them gathering water, fishing, and camping on the open prairie long before it was farmland.
I heard their songs commingling with those of the cicadas, the smoke from their fires blending with the golden-blue light.
WHOAAAA!!! the owl close to my left exclaimed. Do not forget about me! I, too, am part of this immortal choir!
Though I couldn’t see its face, I dreamed it square and brown, with piercing yellow eyes and sharp black beak.
She knows something about dreaming as well, this early-risen nightbird.
More than once I heard a fish break the water with a plop and a splash.
Often it was aggressive, with wiggling bodies breaking hard against the muddy surface, echoing out rings of movement.
The wind was almost still, the temperature reminiscent of fall.
My breath, too, was without depth. I sat, waiting, chest barely rising and falling, like a snapping turtle resting on the creek-bottom, waiting to snare an unsuspecting passerby.
The welts on my leg throbbed from exploring woods surrounding the ruins of Fort Belmont, when my friend Luke Heller and I were swarmed by hornets.
My right ankle was inflamed with chigger bites as well, what seemed like a thousand little red marks where microscopic arachnids borrowed my skin.
Sometimes lately I feel like what a chigger must: crawling across vast surfaces of the county, searching for nourishment and warmth, trying to dig in, looking for something to sustain a ceaseless hunger.
Someone then tore by in a large green truck. I waved, but didn’t get so much of a nod. A reasonable response, I suppose, to someone perched atop a bridge in a bright red lawn chair.
After becoming anxious in my not-belonging, I turned to leave and came face-to-face with an enormous male raccoon on the bridge.
He trundled along, back arched, not noticing me at first, then beat a hasty retreat.
A hard flapping I’d been hearing also gained its source, as a silver heron charted horizontally, leap-flying from tree to tree.
It battered thousands of feathers with each wingbeat, an impossibly dense sound, until I realized it was accompanied by a mate. Then a third, a fourth, a fifth heron.
They disappeared upstream, angling toward the position of the setting sun.
Old Man Coyote, that legendary sly fellow, next erupted : Ow-Ow-Owww! Then another: Owwww!!!! Then what seemed like a dozen: Eiiiiieeww!! Owwiieeoouuu!!
I walked back toward the car and noticed two white-tailed deer crossing the gravel road far ahead. Their coats reddish-orange as they crossed the soybean field north of the creek.
This place is so full of life, I thought.
Yet just as I began to philosophize, a woodpecker hammered against a nearby tree, the hollow knock interrupting thought and demanding it instead become observation.
THOUGH IT’S POSSIBLE these words will fail and disintegrate, I want to convey to you the sublimity of the Kansas sunset that filled the horizon north of that bridge and beanfield.
The treetops were black, with intricate outlines that, were I a red-tailed hawk or some other being whose religion is the sky, I might have been able to relate their nuance.
How do I convey the awe felt while facing the horizon’s aurora that night, its blue-green curves falling toward the earth, the hazy pink wisps and orange hues that lined those shadowy treetops?
How do I explain that out there, amid the fading colors of evening, the red-oranges and turquoise, the oceanic space carved out, hollowed and refilled — in that moment, beyond hope, I found a reason to keep living?
When I knew everything would be okay, even if it isn’t.
Because the sky is broad and the sun will set tomorrow until it doesn’t, when you or I are no longer here to see it.
When the creatures of Owl Creek are the only ones with eyes left to see.
But until then, I invite you to weep there, before that hallowed sunset, if only a single tear — there where the colors dim and turn and bleed, and the night blesses you as it comes.
Life does not make sense.
It never will.
But there on the edge of coming stars, in that place open to the cosmos, where arms of the Milky Way christen the darkness and make it holy beyond all human thoughts and words …
You will see Venus rise in the southwest, accompanying a rainbow that pervades the entire sky and overcomes the boundaries between darkness and day.
A unique mining operation was once the site of a pioneer gold rush.
Gazing across the expanse of the open-pit mine at Micro-Lite LLC just north of the Woodson-Wilson line, at first all I saw was sand, immeasurable tons of it.
I then had to pause as an immense yellow bulldozer, dirty with grit, rumbled by. I watched in subtle awe, unable to hear my thoughts, as the enormous scoop pivoted, dropping dusty material into a nearby grate.
“So what is it that you want, exactly?” the mine’s foreman had groaned in exasperation, clearly annoyed by the eccentric curiosity-seeker who’d ask to check out the area. Though after a fumbling attempt to explain myself while feigning curiosity about gadgets in the control room, he eventually gave in.
He even half-admitted that he knew why I was there, saying “Yeah, whenever we see something sparkle, we take a look.”
“Do I need a hard hat?” I asked.
“Ugh, I’m sure you’ll be fine,” he grumbled, then hastily jogged away toward a nearby building.
As I depart the mine’s processing area with its enormous rock tumblers turning incessantly, I recall that 90 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period a volcano began forming beneath this place. And as the nearby machines shook the earth, perhaps I gained some minute sense of that force.
Back in a dinosaur-inhabited world, molten rock bled its way up from a hundred miles below the earth’s crust, spreading like tree branches through fractures in the sediment, collecting in such great volumes as to cause the formation of dome-like hills throughout this area between Buffalo and the little village of Rose.
After noise from the heavy machinery and dozer finally thundered only in the distance and I was able to regain my focus, I noticed something glimmering nearby. I bent down and lifted a chunk of brownish-red material, then crumbled it in my hands.
When the sun’s light reflected just right, I saw it again. Those bronze-colored flakes that look as if a penny had been shredded and dispersed through the rock. The mineral is called peridotite or lamprolite, the residue of magma having cooled and hardened.
This igneous formation is one of the rarest and strangest substances on the planet.
The only other known lamprolite deposit in Kansas, the Rose Dome intrusion, is located just a few miles to the northeast.
In other places where deposits like these exist, such as the Kimberly region in western Australia, diamonds have been found. Murfreesboro, Arkansas, is one such place, home to Crater of Diamonds State Park, where tourists pay a few dollars to try their hand at prospecting for a day.
At Murfreesboro in 1990, a woman named Shirley Strawn found the world-famous Strawn-Wagner Diamond, a colorless, internally flawless stone valued at almost $35,000.
The undiscovered wealth lurking beneath Woodson County may be immeasurable, a seemingly wild supposition, though one geologists from Emporia State University even support.
It was a belief shared by prospectors in the late 1870s, who swarmed the area in droves when it seemed they’d discovered a paradise rich in gold, silver, precious metals and stones, recalling the fervor of the California Gold Rush and sites like Deadwood, South Dakota.
The sandstone that’s morphed into blueish-purple quartzite, which litters the mine floor and dyes the soil an inky hue, must have captured their imaginations as well.
As one countian, Eva Cox Depew, put it at the time: “Rumors of this newest El Dorado had spread like wildfire and daily through Yates Center by covered wagon, horseback and afoot, battered old prospectors shared the road with young fellows heeding the call of adventure for the first time.”
“No need to speculate on the destination of a man with a few possessions wrapped in a bandana and tied to the end of a stick carried over his shoulder,” she wrote in a letter a hundred years back.
Indeed, even though I knew better, I felt an uncontrollable giddiness as I scanned across the wall of the mine, where my own shifting movement seemingly caused the entire world to glint.
Every few feet as I traced a slow path around the mine’s rugged outline, I had to stop and touch a new surface, photograph another formation, break off another jagged fragment of amethyst or some other crystal.
Despite no town or even a post office having ever manifested, it became absolutely clear how this place earned its nickname, Silver City.
Yet it is a name shrouded in scandal, one spit with a curse from the tobacco-encrusted mouths of those who once uttered it. Around 1878-1879, poor farmers and naive investors threw away untold fortunes in the area in order to invest in mining operations with names like “Yellowjacket.”
Seems those poor fellows were the ones to get stung, though.
As I stood atop the hill overlooking the mine-pit, just south of where the tents and shanties stood so long ago, I could almost sense the ferocious ghosts of the place, the frustration and despair felt when it was eventually discovered there was no silver, no gold, no words of comfort to be uttered for those who had thrown away their livelihoods.
Although the mine shafts dug deep in the earth are all long filled in and covered over today, as I swam through the tall brittle scrubgrass near the old camp area, almost crawling while upright, I imagined falling, breaking my leg, and thinking this must have been how those prospectors had felt: shattered and alone.
It’s a revelation that so often comes too late: the blind pursuit of material wealth is a trap.
And the deadfall of Silver City is one into which many have stepped over the years.
Around 1943-1944, the Sante Fe railroad failed to repurpose the site in order to mine ballast material.
In the 1950s, one entrepreneur tried to market the lamprolite as a kind of energy-efficient insulation. Another unsuccessfully tried to get folks to purchase it as a food additive for human consumption.
Since 1961, however, the company Micro-Lite LLC has found a niche market by mining the mineral rich in magnesium, iron, and potassium in order to produce fertilizer and a gooey nutritional supplement for cattle and chickens.
“If you put it on your tomatoes,” said the foreman, betraying a slight hint of enthusiasm, “they’ll grow up all big and shiny.”
Yet perhaps also a bit blinding — like sunlight reflecting on the blue-black surface of Hill’s Pond near the original mining area.
Like the mine itself, the pond survives as a reminder of past blindness and a memorial to loss.
Or as one fictional account of Silver City puts it, “When the sun suddenly peers forth after a shower, that same hill sparkles as it has for thousands of years, as though studded with millions and millions of diamonds: now a silent monument to a thwarted dream.”
Not only a monument to the dream of unimaginable wealth, but something more, something haunting that whispers to us like wind on the vacant hill once occupied by a joyous tent city full of hopeful prospectors.
Silver City returns us to those moments in each of our lives when we placed our faith in the value of something ultimately revealed as valueless, those horrible epiphanies when we felt like fools, when it seemed life was laughing at us, taking from us something that we never really possessed in the first place.
Cave serves as a source for local legends in Woodson County
A heart of stone. Cold, unopened and unbending. Weary. Battered by the elements but unbroken.
About seven miles northwest of Yates Center, hidden in a pasture, is the natural geological formation known as Cooper’s Cave. Made of native sandstone, and carved by water and time, its series of boulders huddle together like enormous ancient beings that have solidified and become one with the prairie over the course of millennia.
The cave gets its name from a fellow by the name of William Cooper, who ranched this land along Owl Creek back in the 1870s. What many titles the indigenous people who lived here over the course of centuries had given it before, one can only imagine.
Not long ago, I visited the cave with its present steward, Nick Barney, who today, does a little bit of everything: cattle, hay, alfalfa, corn and beans. He mentioned that sometimes he and his dad grow wheat, but that in the last few years there hasn’t been any money in it.
Nick is also Chief of the Yates Center Volunteer Fire Department, though given the extensive time required to do so, he’s not bashful about saying he’d gratefully pass the torch. Nowadays, they mostly handle grass fires, he said.
We pulled up to the cave as his blue truck sputters to a halt, joking about how drinking in middle-age is a risky venture, where only a beer or two can bring about a surprising bit of pain and suffering.
Alerted to our presence, black angus cattle hurriedly cross the pasture, hoping for something extra to eat. As our feet shuffle through the dry grass, they call out in the distance: Muuurrrr! Muuurrrrrer!!
Approaching the open-air “entrance” to the cave area, the first stones along the rough path are imposing, some reaching as high as 20 or 25 feet tall. We navigate through them like a labyrinth, waiting to be tested by some monster like the minotaur.
Immediately the carvings in the rocks became apparent, the dates reaching back to the founding of Woodson County in some places. “Everywhere you look, there’s stuff carved in it,” Nick pointed out in his accentuated midwestern drawl.
For years, this was also a favorite picnicking spot. An entry from the Yates Center News in 1896 reads: “Wednesday about 30 young people drove out to Cooper’s Cave. They were taken by T.L. Reid[, proprietor of the Hotel Woodson,] in his picnic wagon drawn by four horses.”
Incidentally, T.L. Reid once picked a fight with Buffalo Bill that started a full-scale brawl, after Bill and his friends were squirting grapes at one another in the hotel lobby. It was all fun and games until a waitress slipped in the mess and spilled an entire tray of dishes.
Later, Nick showed me the place where the wagon trail led from Yates Center to the cave. We watched as the lights above the little town glowed red in the distance as night came creeping on. Everything became still, as the yellow sky burned to the point of extinction and the once-buzzing cicadas fell silent.
Pointing to the moss that half-covers many of the names and dates, Nick said “one of these days we’re going to bring a bunch of brushes.” I then spotted the signature of one of my ancestors, Bob
Cook, cut deeply in a nearby surface. Below his inscription are the words “Yates Center Kans.,” and he’s enclosed everything with a rectangle drawn in the shape of the state.
We turned around and peered down at the entrance to the cave proper, a triangular opening only a few feet across that guards a passage between it and the cave’s true interior. Though difficult, it’s possible to duck through this way, but we went around the back instead, moving along a narrow stone corridor.
As we began shining lights into the damp darkness of the water-filled cave, a slit in the stone only a few feet high, I’m reminded of another Cook, my 3-greats grandfather Henry, the first white person to discover the cave while on a hunting trip. Henry had lived near the cave, his homestead only about a mile to the east.
Unfortunately, his visit was not so pleasant as ours.
Legend has it, that when Henry leaned down to enter the cave, a mother bobcat had previously built a den for her cubs there. Not surprisingly, she didn’t take to kindly to the young man’s intrusion, and mauled him for his trouble. Though he had his single-shot buffalo gun, it was too cramped between all the rocks to take aim, and so Henry ended up with a series of nasty scars on his neck that he wore for the rest of his life.
As Yates Center’s mascot is the Wildcats, I’d like to think that Henry Cook’s encounter with the mother bobcat was inspiration behind the image.
Great-grandpa apparently didn’t learn his lesson, though, as on another occasion he was hunting near the cave when he wounded an elk. Rather than killing the magisterial creature, he only made it angry, and so was forced to take cover in a nearby ditch as the elk ferociously thrashed the earth with its antlers.
A Union veteran., Henry A. Cook died when he was only 30 years old, buried in a hidden cemetery north of Yates Center, two years before the town existed.
Exiting the cave, Nick and I passed through the triangular passage from the inside out, our shoulders barely fitting as we scraped the edges. We wandered through the boulders surrounding us on all sides, new names leaping out to remind us of all those who’ve come before.
Nick led me up onto the top of the cave area.We were able to peer down on the massive structure from above. The soft native blue sky was pastel and cut by wisps of thin clouds. Up here, there’s room to run.
Which is exactly what a brave fellow by the name of Dick Gatling once did.
When atop the cave structure, it’s possible to walk around a fissure between two of the main stones, which are nearly 15 feet apart and reach about 20 feet to the floor below.
An incredible rider and trainer of horses, who carried a blacksnake whip rather than a gun, one day Gatling decided he was going to jump the gap.
One can imagine the anxious anticipation as he rode back into the field for a running start. Whispering words of encouragement to his mount and perhaps uttering a little prayer for himself, he charged through the bluestem toward the gap with hooves pounding the earth.
The tale is told that for many years after this unbelievable leap, it was possible to see the marks where Gatling’s horse successfully landed on the other side.
As Nick and I paused near the exit to the cave area, the cicadas begin to chat as we do: Errreee…errreee…errreee.
He talked to me about his brothers, about local history and what it’s like to own a part of it. He seems proud of the cave, and delights in showing it to people, which is noteworthy as so many pieces of our heritage have become lost, obliterated or closed off.
“No trespassing” signs stare one in the face at historical site after historical site. At some, even after obtaining permission, one still worries about getting shot.
That said, most folks are hospitable and eager to show you what they have. Like Nick, they’re excited that someone else is interested and that they care. “You could always lock the gate,” he said, “but that just keeps honest people out.”
What might it mean, then, in terms of sustaining our local history and our culture, for each of us to open our own gates?
A cemetery north of Toronto marks the spot for a long-lost pioneer colony
Halfway in-between U.S. 54 and Toronto near the banks of Cedar Creek rests perhaps the oldest cemetery in Woodson County, with its first pioneer-era grave dating back to 1857.
Once called Pleasant Grove, it has been rechristened Cedar Bluff, due to the immense sandstone rock-face hiding behind it to the west.
At one time there were few trees in the area, and it was possible to look out over this vantage for miles across the Verdigris Valley.
In order to reach Cedar Bluff, I hitched a ride with locals Getty Tyner and Jessica Valentine. She smiles easily, gestures excitedly, and does most of the talking. He seems intensely focused on driving, but briefly interjects now and again, though his hushed and graveled voice is often difficult to understand.
The ash from their cigarettes slowly burns and takes flight as we approach the gate leading back into the pasture, and I wonder how the bouncing of the truck doesn’t spark a fire in the cab. Getty said he remembers when there were farms in these fields, both to the north and south of here. It’s clear his memory is deep, that he has ghosts of his own, and so is unsure of exactly what details to narrate.
Getting set ablaze, however, is not nearly as random and absurd a fate as that of the first person buried here. A young man by the last name of Foster, who’d been living at the Carlisle Branch settlement to the south of Toronto, was riding his horse up to Pleasant Grove when it happened.
Tearing through the cross-leafed post oaks on his mare at breakneck speed, he leaned one direction while his horse leaned the other, just in time to cause his head and face to strike a nearby tree. Dead. Just like that. I wonder if he’s watching us bounce along the dirt road. I wonder if he’s frustrated or simply bored.
Despite whatever audience might be present, we jump out and start to take a look. Most of the sandstone markers are worn and difficult to read, but that doesn’t dampen our spirits.
Jessica and I kneel at the grave of someone I have long been curious to meet. Julius Wilhite was born in 1797 and died in 1860, which makes his stone, a white marble slab, one of the very oldest in Woodson County. His relation, J.W., also buried here, was a member of C. Company, 10th Kansas Infantry, enlisting in 1864 when he was only 18 years old.
According to local legend, the younger Wilhite met his fate at the hands of vigilantes who claimed to deal out justice along the Verdigris River Valley. They’d accused him of stealing cattle, but others claim he’d simply come to learn too much about the group. … Enough that he was less a danger to them dead.
Jessica smoothed Wilhite’s grave with her hand, revealing a tattoo of a bird on her arm. Her simple act makes it seem as though she’s reaching out to comfort him, telling him that it’s alright, that he didn’t deserve what happened to him. That he was innocent.
Less innocent, however, is another ghost of this place by the name of G.W. “Wash” Petty, who was a sympathizer with the Southern Confederacy. His lieutenant was Robert Clark, perhaps the first white person to settle in the area along with his wife Mary Ann.
Given Petty’s political sentiments, it wasn’t long until trouble started brewing. Clark publicly accused Petty of conspiring to turn the company over to the rebels, which may not have been far from the truth as soon after Petty joined a group of Missouri Bushwhackers.
The dispute would have likely ended there, but when Petty returned to the Verdigris Valley years later, he found the elaborate tombstone of his dead wife defaced and ruined. White-hot with rage, he vowed revenge on the man he believed responsible, Robert Clark.
Looking for the stone belonging to Petty’s wife, I began applying chalk to graves, trying to make out the eroded letters. After coating the first in blue-green dust, an electric tingle trembled up my spine and I wonder whether continuing the ritual is wise.
After Petty returned to the Valley in 1866, one night he and three other men rode up to Clark’s log cabin near the river to gun him down in front of his wife and children. Clark’s wife is said to have recognized Petty and screamed his name in anguish as he thundered away. As for Clark, it is believed that, he too, is buried in the little cemetery on the bluff.
Though I’m curious to learn where Clark is buried, Getty tells me with a grim, wheezing laughter that even were I to find the stone, it wouldn’t be the actual grave, as the farmer who last cleaned up the cemetery moved the little sandstone markers in order to mow the plot, then forgot where each of them originally belonged.
Despite us not being able to find Clark’s grave, one of his sons eventually found Petty. Though Mrs. Clark had forbade the young men from taking revenge and continuing the cycle of violence, her oldest son relentlessly trailed Petty until apprehending him and having him arrested for murder.
Years later in southeast Woodson County, Perry Township, a man had left the train in Humboldt bound for Fredonia. Exhausted, he paused near a place called the 7-Mile House, a stopping-over point for weary travelers along the stagecoach line.
After securing a ride for $2, he would go on to confess to the driver, Jefferson Huff, that he was in fact Wash Petty. Petty said he’d recently been released from prison and remained furious at his attorney for not providing him an adequate defense, despite readily admitting that he’d indeed killed Clark.
Standing atop Cedar Bluff, surveying the brown-green ponds more than 50 feet below, I think about G.W. Petty and the pain he must have felt over all those years – the death of his wife, uncertainty over where he political allegiances lie, hatred for Clark following desecration of his wife’s grave, rage toward his attorney for failing to provide justification for what had happened, that is, by sharing a tale of retribution that in those days was grounds for being judged innocent.
As Getty, Jessica, and I stood in silent awe of this place, a flock of migrating pelicans began to soar overhead, their vast white wings bending and gliding along the wind. I hoped that Petty had finally found peace.
A look at Woodson County's lesser known third county seat, Defiance, and the tale of Lomando Pierce, who operated a county store along the Santa Fe Railway between Neosho Falls and Yates Center.
The first time I met Theresa McNett she said, “I have had spirits following me my whole life.” Looking back now, I recognize the ambiguity of the statement and realize she might have been referring to either one of us.
Indeed, I’d discovered Theresa while looking for a ghost, then eventually went searching for one with her. I initially knocked on her door while trying to find the abandoned townsite of Defiance, the seat of Woodson County in 1874.
Back then people were looking to start a town closer to the center of the county, and so folks in the south Owl Creek area decided to get in on the action, challenging Kalida’s claim to the seat of government.
Defiance-backers even went as far as to deliver whiskey-laced beer to a political convention in Kalida, the 1873 county seat, which they managed to reduce to a drunken revel.
When they eventually won the county seat election, the parade containing 4,000 people stretched out for over a mile, and those Fourth of July festivities must have been raucous.
Perhaps that’s why the Civil War soldier on horseback who Theresa claims haunts her barn continues to come around. He’s seen too much of war and would prefer instead to remember the bottom of a bottle.
After grabbing power — very likely through a rigged election — the town of Defiance began to take shape thanks to lumber hauled in from Humboldt. Along with the hotels, tavern and more was the original Woodson County courthouse that was later moved to the northeast corner of the Yates Center town square.
Other than some dry railroad disputes, the only trial I’ve ever found records of involved a man named Kluckhuhn, who struck his wife for speaking tongues in church. He was fined $5, and the couple eventually reunited.
Theresa had shaken me from my random historical recollections by reminding me that the trees in her yard are very much still alive and present, and that if you know what to do, it’s possible to feel their heartbeats.
Being one of the “oak people,” as she put it, she instructed me to hold my hands over the tree bark without touching it.
“Focus on the sky and the earth below you,” she intoned. “Clear your mind, then clap to get the energy going.”
Standing with eyes closed, I waited, listening to the cicadas whir.
“It’s not really a heartbeat like we have. It’s more like an energy.”
The autumn wind blew across the silent earth. Insects sang before the setting sun. And in that moment I recall wanting to feel that tree’s heartbeat, to leave skepticism by the gravel roadside and have a moment of spiritual awakening in the company of this medicine-woman who’d been “touched by the water-gods.”
“You only went to the shaman if you had a special need,” she explained. If only she knew how profound a need it is…
But there at the site of Defiance, the life of that tree withheld itself from me. Recalcitrant.
Theresa’s two red racing mules, Ruby and Lyndola, must have been watching the whole scene with curiosity.
I wonder how stubborn they are. Though they left us alone as we tromped through the golden-yellow prairie grass, looking for any remnant of building foundations.
The moon then began to rise along the horizon, a rounded plane of ageless light. Perhaps it was watching, too.
THE SECOND time I met up with Theresa, we visited the grave of someone I had previously searched for and failed to find: Lomando Pierce.
Born in 1852, Pierce had operated a little country grocery along the Santa Fe Railway between Neosho Falls and Yates Center, near the forested banks of Cherry Creek. In 1895, he named the post office there in his own honor, “Lomando.”
At the time, between 200-300 carloads of hay were shipped out of the Lomando siding per year. Today, all that remains are an iron “pony” bridge, an overturned car, and the store’s concrete foundation.
I also found a spotted antique bowl eaten away by rust, which I pugnaciously clung to despite it encumbering me. I had to come away with something tangible and refused to give it up.
All I’d really wanted was a photograph of the grave. So simple. But isn’t this very search an image for life, or at least the life of a writer or artist? One fights and fights, knowing there is a grave at the end of the journey — but if one can only make a record of life first, leave it behind, maybe the struggle will have felt worth it.
I had angrily called out in the woods that day, demanding Lomando reveal himself. From where, though, has this haunting desire come from? Why become a keeper of the dead?
Theresa informed me previously that she’d used intuition to find the burial place of her great-grandmother in Iola’s Highland Cemetery — “I was being pulled toward them,” she’d said — so perhaps she’d be successful in this venture as well.
That, and she and her partner Jim Weseloh had both been there before.
Surely this approach would be more successful than climbing a deer stand 25 feet in the air and surveying the timber.
Jim drove the four-wheeler through the brambles and briars, narrating, while we held on for dear life, feet dangling over the back, jeans collecting prickly stick-tights.
After coming to a halt, Theresa and I jumped off and started wading through the tangle of undergrowth. She repeatedly fell and laughed uproariously as I helped her to her feet.
“That’s a water tree,” she said, pointing to a branch that had been snapped and bent so that it pointed at the earth.
She claimed native people had marked underground water sources in this way, and later became adamant that Columbus Day be renamed in honor of indigenous peoples. She herself has both Cherokee and Choctaw ancestors.
As we arrived at the grave, I was astonished how close I’d been to it before without realizing it.
The marble shrine bearing Lomando Pierce’s name seemed to glow with an interplay of shadows and eerie light, a brightness in sharp contrast to the silver-blue melancholy of the forest scene.
One need not be an empath like Theresa to feel it: the heavy sorrow of the place, the unnameable melancholy that lingers and resonates like a cloud, especially when one knows more of the story.
Following Pierce’s death in 1907, along with his son Frank’s shortly after, Lomando’s wife Addah was consumed with desolate and inconsolable grief.
When the train no longer automatically paused at the rail siding, the custom was to flag the engineer if a stop was required to pick up passengers or goods.
One day, Addah stepped onto the tracks and flagged the train. But rather than step back again, in a moment of tragic resolve she was seized by the urge to end her life.
Standing frozen along the tracks, she remained until the engine struck and killed her, shattering her bones like glass.
A hard brittle smack.
It is a moment that seems carved out in space, an event whose timeless gravity is amplified and given form by the absence of dates on Lomando Pierce’s headstone.
“I see two children playing along the water,” Theresa whispered. “I hear her calling to them.”
Even now, as she stood silently near the creek bed with its damp broken sandstones, I can still see tears in her eyes.
Perhaps the most unique historical feature in all Woodson County, Kalida Castle marks the spot of the county's long-deserted second county seat.
After months of waiting to gain access to the sandstone castle cave at the old townsite of Kalida, southeast of Yates Center on Osage Road, I sat beneath one of its multi-ringed towers, reveling in the bursts of cool air that dipped and swooped in front of the structure.
All of that waiting, anticipation and curiosity, and yet I only felt longing, bearing the burden of someone’s absence.
The architectural marvel, inspired by the Chicago World’s Fair and constructed on the Davidson Farm in 1893, loomed above me, its wide base stretching more than one hundred feet, yet it was my new love’s slender frame that singularly occupied my thoughts.
DAYS PREVIOUS, Vickie Pickering, who today owns Kalida Castle with her husband Roy, walked with me through the nearby dilapidated farmhouse that she grew up in as a child.
“I really don’t mind people comin’ out and lookin’ at it,” she said. “My folks loved it.”
Doves called in the heavy evening — be-uu, be-uu — as we entered the house. Vickie lamented that “when [her] folks passed away, people started coming out here and vandalizing stuff.”
We had to watch our step to not lose footing and fall through the brittle wood floor. Vickie said the house didn’t have electricity when she was growing up, and that they “lived in the middle room” near the crumbling antique piano.
I WAS JUST NORTH of the house when I began to write — back on solid ground — and yet my feet still felt unstable, knees wobbly, as I reflected upon the excursion. I feared my chest might collapse like the old red barn behind the castle.
Large elm trees stand guard over the cave’s front entrance, though I could see around the corner to where its white wood door was cracked open beneath an ornate carving in the facade.
In keeping with its original function as a cellar, Roy Pickering had placed boxes of sour green apples just inside the threshold. Whether the cave can shelter one from romantic confusions, I have yet to find out.
Behind me, the cave-structure sloped down into the earth, allowing one to stumble up the rugged hill from either side and stand on top.
Large sandstone blocks flank the ascent, and at the bottom are curved ornamental decorations of immense weight.
I had wanted, like a knight-crusader from some Medieval legend, to scale the walls to find my princess, rescue her from her proverbial dragon, and bring her home.
THOUGH ONLY 4 o’clock in the afternoon, the crickets were chirping nearby, their hymn a fitting reminder of my own drowsiness.
Had I dozed off I would have dreamt of her: the color of her hair, her tiny wrists, the way she laughs with her whole body, eyes closing with the effort.
A single black cricket leapt from the grass and began to scale the castle wall, climbing straight up, then stopping. Suddenly, the ebony insect changed paths and in doing so increased the struggle destined in its ascent.
Perhaps it was searching for its mate as well.
IMPATIENT, I moved inside the cave itself and sat beside the boxes of apples, recalling how Vickie said her parents used to grow strawberries nearby.
Three vents are cut in the cave roof, and the original stone floor remains intact.
There’s a rusting toolbox nearby and several antique bottles for prescription medicines. A cure for whatever ails you.
A short-handled broom stood against the newly resurfaced wall, and through the rear entrance of the cave I watched the cattail stalks swaying lazily in the breeze.
Their drunken movement gave the scene a sense of activity, and for a moment I could almost imagine the several hundred people who once lived here, frequenting their businesses, hotels, churches and leisure-spots like the pool hall and tavern.
Not long ago, Kalida Castle was also a favorite party-spot for young people. But after such shenanigans, Roy said, “that’s when we shut it down, put signs up, started locking it up.”
“[People] got no respect for nothin’,” he’d angrily shot, looking up toward the sandstone gates plastered with countless scene-marring “No Trespassing” and “Smile, You’re On Camera” signs.
THE TRAIN began distorting the air as its weight thundered past to the east, and I wondered if the sound was reminiscent of when the first frame buildings here were loaded onto enormous ox-carts and wheeled into nearby Yates Center.
You can still find the drag-marks clawed in a nearby field.
Kalida is the place where Yates Center was born, and although the castle was constructed 20 years after the town moved, inside the cave you almost get the sense that you’re sitting inside a womb.
Like a smooth belly one stretches out one’s hands across, reaching around from behind.
When you stand in the kitchen rocking back and forth, a chin on a shoulder, dancing to a melody only the two of you can hear.
It was then I noticed there were several apples in the cave so ripe they’re starting to rot.
Withered and brown, I wondered if their seeds would ever fertilize the earth.
IN ANCIENT Greek, the word “kahlos” roughly means “beautiful,” and indeed it is, this uncanny architectural marvel. Yet the beauty I sensed there was a ghost’s.
I remember her standing in the cave with me, surveying the parapet, ramparts and square-cut blocks limning the castle’s upper walk.
I remember the delicate rasp in her voice as she whispered, “let’s get out of here and away from all these people.”
My reminiscing abruptly ended, though, as Roy fired up the lawnmower and began circling another part of the property, retracing the rows of once-cut grass.
He’s far enough in the distance that only the grinding echo of the machine is audible, much like the distant train.
And so my thoughts returned to her.
When I came to the castle, I knew the place would bare her haunting imprint, and that with indescribable melancholy I would write her form in words across the sandstone walls, the cellar cave and surrounding farm.
Like this place touches all who visit it, I knew I would be moved by the spirit of something at once both present and absent.
A trip to Cross Timbers State Park offers an opportunity to be alone with your thoughts, even if you're surrounded by much more than you realize.
No sooner had I descended the sandstone staircase leading to the ancient tree trail at Cross Timbers State Park near Toronto Point, than a white-tailed doe erupted from the undergrowth and set to crashing through the forest.
Like the name implies — though no one is for sure — this is a place of crossing-through.
I watched as she explosively kicked her hind legs and bright tail into the air, not weightlessly, but as if she’d been catapulted via some sort of natural machine.
It was my first signal to stop and take in the surroundings, rigorously hesitate and study the forest now engulfing me on all sides.
Here, a fern. There, a moss-covered rock. Few flowers. Innumerable saplings.
One could learn the name and nature of one thing a day, and barely finish in a lifetime.
First on my list were two of the deciduous standouts on this arboreal island in the Chautauqua Hills, as it stretches north from Texas through Oklahoma: the post oak (Quercus stellata) and the blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica).
You can tell them apart by their leaves.
Post oaks have five distinct shapes that look somewhat like a cross or star (“stellata” roughly means “star” in Latin, based on hairs that grow on the bottom of leaves), whereas blackjacks have three shapes that look somewhat like a bell.
Post oaks and blackjacks both grow acorns, which in turn are eaten by deer and turkeys, but post oaks reproduce more quickly, in their first summer, as opposed to blackjacks which need about 18 months to mature.
Both are also pretty hardy, “tough but ugly,” as one saying goes — evinced by their scaly, armored bark — and they can grow in poor, dry soil where few other plants can survive.
In 1982, scientists from the Tree-ring Laboratory at the University of Arkansas drilled samples from several tree trunks near the Toronto Lake area and determined them to date anywhere from 1727 to 1863.
This means that the youngest tree sampled was born during the Civil War, and the most senior was more than 50 years older than the United States itself.
AFTER taking a seat beneath the large sandstone outcropping that had been converted into a shelter, I watched a spider frantically kicking her legs as she spun.
Over and over she turned, weaving, as if threading time itself, such that the afternoon forest shuddered in stillness around her.
The lapping of the waves on Toronto Lake at the base of the hill intertwined with bird calls and wind and amorous insects.
I studied the post oak leaf I had plucked from a nearby tree, and held it up to the light so as to discern the individual veins and cells.
I tried to make out the names carved all around me in the fallen tree trunks and stones.
“BART,” BANFF,” “DAN,” “DEAN,” just to name a few.
Apparently capital letters are best when making one’s mark, when leaving behind a memorial.
Other creatures had resorted to less obviously symbolic means when they’d sojourned there, such as the birds with their white ink.
The rock overhead was combed with shapes formed by wasps or hornets, and racoon tracks littered the dirt floor.
At one time, the Cross Timbers were home to innumerable species: bobcat, bison, antelope, gray wolves, elk, deer, black bears and grizzly bears.
Today, only wildcats and white-tails remain.
At that moment, while contemplating marks, I became acutely aware of the franticness by which I was making my own.
Slashing and tearing at the scene all around me, I had become like some Spanish conquistador rending the woods to ribbons with my sword.
And as though such violence had become too much for the world to bear, the clouds overhead parted and produced a glare so bright I could no longer type.
Shifting angrily back and forth I continued writing, for some reason resisting the calming light as it bathed the scene in ghostly yellow.
Then the wind kicked up, shoving through the timber so as to silence every voice but those of the frogs.
“RrrrrR, RrrrrR,” they clicked, somehow impossibly fast and incredibly low at the same time.
I had encountered some hikers from near Wichita (Mulvane) on the path, and though I’d passed them, they eventually caught up with me, along with a bushy white dog that no one seemed to claim.
We chatted about what most folks do: the weather, more specifically, how much rain had fallen in the area last summer, and how now the banks of Toronto Lake are strewn with tangles of ivory-smooth debris.
As they parted I looked south, and the sky shifted as if it had designed to rain at that very moment, making me recall how the first time I’d walked the tree trail it had let go and poured.
That day, I’d stomped triumphantly through the trees, slipping on nearly every rock, yet basking in the absolute gloriousness of it all.
I was soaked to the bone and never felt more alive.
Despite feeling empty — I had been plagued with a sorrowful hollowness of late, perhaps an uncustomary peacefulness — I searched my thoughts to find the meaning of the place and returned with a reflection upon age and perception.
The trees in that forest are old, wizened, full of wisdom and stories, even as many of the oldest have fallen long ago.
What do they know that we don’t, having lived multiple human lifetimes?
An uncanny thought then leapt up: what if hollow emptiness is precisely their domain of expertise? And that in becoming quiet inside I had become more treelike?
In this place so much identified with the Old West, had I stumbled upon a very “Eastern” insight: namely, that there is wisdom in nothingness?
Indeed, when “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” writer Washington Irving passed through the Cross Timbers, he wrote of “weary days toiling” through forests he named “dismal,” wherein he said he would “not easily forget the moral toil, and the vexations of flesh and spirit” faced there, akin to “struggling through forests of cast iron.”
What else was I to do, then, but indulgently embrace such cold, dismal vexations?
So I closed my eyes and imagined being a tree, foolishly attempting to inhabit its consciousness.
No sight nor sound, though perhaps a certain tasting or smelling of sorts.
An imbibing of air and soil, like the transfiguration of Daphne in Greek myth.
Along with a strange sort of feeling — slow, imperceptible — as the wind blew and the sun withdrew and the rain began to fall in large intermittent pearls.
It began to drip from the overhang to the south as the sunfire blazed brighter.
Maybe she’d been right, the priestess-“seer” at Defiance: perhaps a tree does have a heartbeat, though with a pulse that’s glacial in its passage, making it seem absent.
Perhaps an almost eerie calm is necessary to sense the life that hides in so many things that surround us, yet to which we are blind.
When we are so often in the midst of a crowd, yet believe ourselves alone.
Images of Dry Creek Cave linger after a visit to the Woodson County site. A visit is almost a gateway into another world.
Long after I had crossed the Kimbell Ranch with its vast open sky, stretching and swelling with enormous oceanic depths, the experience stayed with me.
After I had seen the expanse of the Rhea Brush, and visited the graves of the Rhea family in Kalida cemetery, the feeling lingered.
For days afterward, even, every time I closed my eyes, the image of Dry Creek Cave pulled mercilessly at my thoughts, that geological black hole and singularity opening onto another space-time.
I would be miles away from that paleolithic gate near the northwestern corner of the county, yet I could feel it all the same: some primordial sense for that ancient Thing, that entrance into a disquieting zone before history as we know it began.
Yes, Robert Daly, Esq., stumbled across the cave in 1858 while on a hunting trip and recorded his findings shortly thereafter, and Alfred Andreas told the world of its existence in his 1883 tome “History of the State of Kansas.”
There is even an oblique sandstone memorial hidden nearby to the south, dedicated to a pioneer hunter-trader, that reads: “In Memory of James Jenne 1858.”
But this is “mere” history, when perhaps what we’re aiming for is mythology, metaphysics without mysticism yet with unquenchable mystery, a prehistory that perhaps only the earth itself can tell.
When Andreas wrote of the cave and its indigenous petroglyphs, for example, he interpreted the native writings on his own terms, seeing a man with a hat, a bird’s foot and a capital letter “A.”
Yet as I stood in the cave-mouth bathed in effervescent evening light a mere two months ago, I sensed that I was no longer in our present historical moment.
I felt the sandstone breakages tremble, their cleavages deepen, as the soil near me warmed, growing hotter and hotter as the campfires began to burn.
Not one fire. Not one flame in the darkening evening. But innumerable.
Not one face. Not one name that was sung within the folds of the coming pointillist starfield. But multitudes.
The portal had been opened, invited me into a place where the eons were stacked impossibly in layers like compressed translucent rock.
Something over and above me had offered up an irrefusable hospitality, invited me in, and in return, there was acceptance.
IN 1957, prior to the flooding of the Verdigris Valley that gave birth to Toronto Lake, James Howard, Ph.D., along with graduate students from the University of Kansas, set out to archaeologically survey the area.
On behalf of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology, Howard and his team performed meticulous digs in 57 locations around the Toronto area, including traveling north to the cave or “rock shelter.”
What they found was no less than an entryway to another world, a stargate.
Howard christened the cave “Site 14WO224,” and expressed annoyance that white picnickers had effaced nearly all of its indiginous images with their own crudely scratched names and markings, though the remaining petroglyphs were nonetheless astonishing.
One was, he said, a horse with a line passing through its neck, which signified the equine creature was “emerging from the earth.”
But emerging from where?
Though as one stands in the mouth of the cave, sheltered from the plains-wind within the cradle of living stones, the uncanny answer is already sensed.
It seems the horse-figure is passing through the liquid surface of time itself, piercing and plunging into the present, not from any past one can readily imagine, but from a plane that shatters time’s very kingdom.
Another traveler from the void is a figure Howard claimed was akin to the supernatural Ojibwa entity known as “Little-Water-Man.”
Water-Man has managed to clamor his way a little downstream over the last millenia, though, so when I found him, he was so surprised that he yelped and flew away, dissolving into the creek-scene in a flash of steam, yet flinging blue-gray mud about like a fish dying breathlessly.
Unable to process what I had seen, I stumbled further down the waterway and collapsed into the crackling mud.
Plunging two fingers into the sacred paint — used to decorate the dead — I drew lines upon my own face, not with any knowledge of what they might mean, but to give myself over, drop deeper into the sounds and silences of the timber, the separation from this now-time marked with the signs of a life become all-too-familiar.
Everything that had ever happened in my past was released, every event, every memory, if only for a single grace-pregnant instant.
Night was falling as I left the cave, an enormous yellow moon rising over the dust-colored prairie.
I had communed with the Aksarben (1100 to 1500 CE) and Great Bend (1500 to 1700 CE) and countless other peoples, from immeasurable oscillating times, though I could not hope to understand what I had seen or heard.
The meaning interwoven in their words and clothes, jewelry and gestures, leapt from me even as it addressed me and bid me pay attention.
Such were the peoples who made southeastern Kansas a transitory home long before it was ever called by that name, and their ghosts devotedly linger.
As did their artifacts.
When Howard and his team performed their dig in the cave and surrounding areas, they excavated objects of startling colors, textures and styles.
They found no less than five pottery rim shards, 66 pottery body shards, 13 projectile points, an in-tact blade, fragments of two “Harahey” knives, two knife flakes, a drill, 15 scapers, 38 flake scrapers, four choppers, a shaft smoother, a sharpening stone and two bone needles.
A truly stunning archive accumulated across ages and generations.
Though I had the urge to dig myself, for some reason I refrained, perhaps so awe-struck by merely standing within the temporal rift that it seemed a gift enough.
I did, however, remove a single flat and rust-colored sandstone which now rests beside me on the desk as I write.
It reminds me that our time is short, our lives and cultures and beliefs and knowledge so infinitesimally shallow, that everything we ever are and were and will become is but one flitting instantaneous flash in the primordial depths of time.
A coat theft in 1880 led to one of Yates Center's earliest gun battles, and the killing of John Welch.
I was sitting in Kalida Cemetery, near the final resting place of John Welch, who was killed in the infamous gun battle on the Yates Center square sometime around April 1880, when the town was only a few years old.
It began when John’s brother, Wiley, and other cowhands from Garnett had left a dance out at Dry Creek in northwestern Woodson County one frozen Christmas night.
Perhaps grimacing at the thought of the frigid wind sweeping across the open ranchlands, Welch stole a coat and pair of gloves belonging to Warren Walters.
Not long after, Welch was apprehended in Le Roy and arrested, and would spend the next three months in the plank-board jail near Yates Center square’s northeastern corner.
ON THE day of Wiley Welch’s trial, the townsfolk had gathered at the old Defiance courthouse in droves, which also sat on the square’s northeastern corner.
In a wild tear, though, they had poured from the benches and into the dirt streets after hearing gunfire, then just as quickly darted back behind whatever cover they could find.
Abraham Smith, who’d just finished his term as Sheriff, would take a less cautious approach and end up with a bullet-hole through his hat and bruise on his cheek where another stray ball just missed him.
John Welch and his accomplices, including Curly DeLang, the half-Cherokee mercenary, had begun their doomed adventure on the square’s opposing western side, at Clark Stewart’s harness shop, where farmer Albert Alvord had left his team and wagon.
That was all the opening they needed, seizing the reins and erupting south toward the place where Deputy Francis “Frank” Cannday was getting Wiley some air before the trial.
In a memoir written by eyewitness Eva Depew some 50 years later, she wrote: “As our home was just across the alley from the south side of the square, the furor of yelling and shooting that suddenly rent the air sent me hastily to the kitchen door. As the store buildings were pretty far apart my view was unobstructed. I saw a team and wagon carrying two men careening wildly down the street, pursued by a mob of some men afoot and some on horses.”
I was sitting on the square’s south side as I transcribed her words, dreaming Welch’s men thundering around the corner down the street.
That fateful day the sky might have borne little difference, with the wind weaving through the humid air, the clouds thin and frail overhead. The ebony swallows may have darted away from the wagon with jet black horses just as they now dodged the beat up pickups and cars with chipped paint.
Nearby, deputies Frank and Jim Cannady were taking cover, leaping up only when the moment arose to shoot.
I dreamed bullets whizzing through the air, the frantic shouting and confusion, the few wood-frame buildings that stood at the time being struck with stray balls or used as refuges from the melee.
Had I been sitting where I was while writing this account, might I have met my end as well?
Curly DeLang took a blast straight to the face from Jim Cannady’s shotgun, and was left permanently blinded in one eye.
I dreamed he and Welch’s other men trying to turn the horses from the square only to discover their newly acquired wagon had a broken rein and could only turn to the left.
Their plan of springing Wiley from custody and escaping to the cover of bell-leafed blackjacks north of town had failed.
John Welch was shot in the spine by deputy Frank Cannady, after demanding that he release his brother from custody.
The fatal confrontation catalyzed on the south side of the square, after Cannady lulled Welch into a false sense of security by telling him he was unarmed . . . then CRACK!
Despite the severity of his injury, Welch must not have died immediately. County records show commissioners entertained the following bills:
-Coffin for prisoner ($12)
-Medicine for prisoner (Not allowed)
-Coroner/Jury fees on inquest
AS FOR Welch’s final destination, I was sitting in Kalida cemetery when I again recalled Depew’s words, who wrote: “In an unmarked grave now scarcely more than a shallow depression in the earth filled with a matted profusion of weeds and grass, the slain bandit sleeps in old Kalida cemetery. Unclaimed, his body was buried at county expense.”
Thinking about Welch writhing in agony from the bullet lodged against his backbone, I could hear crows in the trees to the south, as a honey-bee flew circles around me then turned and darted north toward the sandstone Davidson memorial that looks as if it belongs to some rural Egyptian pharaoh.
“CAW! CAW! CAW! ” the crows cried, perhaps in warning. For on the day of John Welch’s funeral, as the priest intoned the last rights, his brother Wiley was standing cuffed nearby, coiled like a copperhead, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
As one of the deputies leaned over, with both hands occupied lowering the coffin into the earth along the rope, Wiley sprung for the man’s gun.
He failed in the attempt, and caught a fist in the teeth for his trouble.
One imagines the red rage smoldering in his eyes as blood ran from his cracked mouth, as his brother was laid beneath the earth which today is covered in dandelions, clover and saw-leaved moon daisies.
One imagines Welch later pacing the floor in Leavenworth prison.
IN THE aftermath of the Yates Center battle, Frank Cannady was only slightly better off.
For years afterward, he lived in fear someone would avenge Welch’s death.
Indeed, in 1925, a reporter from the Kansas City Star wrote “it was said of Frank Cannady to this day that he slept with a gun under his pillow and never sat with his back to the door.”
Hence I crept to the end of Rutledge Street as I had so many times before and stood beneath the shadowy cover of trees overhead, dreaming of Frank as he cut sandstone blocks from the earth for the Depews house nearby.
I watched as the sweat poured from his brow as he fruitlessly tried to work himself free of post-traumatic stress, straining to overcome the memories and the crushing, anxious fear.
“Hey you, there!,” he shouted, reaching for his repeating pistol. Though just as the gun clicked and I closed my eyes, he was gone.
In northwestern Woodson County, just south of the German-Russian settlement known as Nikkeltown, lies a pasture.
It looks like any other pasture, really, with dry, brittle grasses swaying slowly in the wind beneath a sprawling cloudless sky.
But this pasture has an incredible secret, and an equally terrible name — a name I will not write.
As I sat watching that sky, the moon grew brighter and brighter, turning my skin yellow-blue, yet on I watched, waiting for it to tell me what I should do, explain how to relate the story of its complex and subtle blackness.
For eight minutes and 46 seconds, I watched, as a thousand fireflies turned on their lights.
In the late nineteenth century, around 1890, there was a ranch to the north of this pasture at one time operated by J.D. Payne, who’d come from Texas and brought along several African-Americans in his service.
Among those cowboys were Jack Oliver and his half-brother whose name is lost to history, though it was said he was half Osage.
Both were outstanding ropers and riders, Jack especially.
After Payne sold his ranch, the Olivers moved into a small shack on the pasture in question, each day stumbling home exhausted and sore from hours of working cattle.
Or perhaps following a pint of whiskey.
At that time they had begun working for Jim Dye, whose land stretched clear into Greenwood County, and whose last name provides a clue to understanding the name I will not write.
It’s not a question of giving color to fabric, that name, of dying, but to death, to the underworld and underground, like the basement dug in that pasture for which I have searched and not yet found, that eludes me like some bashful wraith.
NOW Jack Oliver, by contrast, was anything but shy.
In life, he was a seasoned bronc rider and legendary tamer of outlaw horses.
Once, there was a ferocious stallion near Gridley, which someone brought to the Spade ranch to see if Jack might not meet his match . . . or his maker.
The horse was saddled with a halter and rope on him, but no bridle.
Jack then pulled a silver dollar from his pocket and held it up to the light, let it glimmer.
With a mean grin he turned around and said, “Whoever sees this fly; it’s theirs,” then placed the coin in the stirrup.
Like white dynamite, the bronc exploded, thrashing with every muscle, its body extending and tensing like a piston.
Again and again it kicked its hooves out and back, and in lunge after lunge of otherworldly strength, brought all four legs from the ground, forcing Jack to lie back along its spine.
Swapping end over end, the mount bucked as if hellfire itself was licking its backside, and the slaver leapt from its mouth.
At last, exhausted, the stallion was forced to relent, hanging its head in defeat as Jack led him back to the astonished audience.
All Jack said was: “Guess he’s ready for use now.”
JACK Oliver wasn’t always so fortunate, though.
His dark face, long arms and rough hands were covered in scars from rides gone bad, as well as from knife fights.
One night, he and his fellow cowhand, Ira Martin, had gone to Gridley for some excitement.
During a backroom poker match, the liquor was flowing, the smoke was rising and Jack and Ira were winning.
In response, Ace Merrill from Gridley grumbled a racial slur beneath his breath, and in response it was all Ira could do to pull Jack away and across the prairie back to Payne’s ranch before he added another long white scar to his collection.
Jack had asked Martin for his knife. Honor was more important than living.
It was the code Jack Oliver had come to live by, to fight at every turn, as he was being fought at every turn.
Spit on, degraded, disrespected, distrusted.
Jack was an angry man, and had come by his rage honestly though it caused him to race face-first into danger.
As I sat by the field named for him, though, watching as the moon reached the apex of the onyx sky, I dreamed him singing, perhaps while his brother played harmonica.
His haunting voice lifted across the brightening night, as a billion stars illuminated the vast ocean of a sky that consumed 360 degrees of horizon.
It wasn’t a beautiful voice, but harsh, full of pain and frustration and perhaps made coarse by more than a few hand-rolled cigarettes.
To the south a pack of coyotes began to join the chorus, their wails cutting the air like blades.
SOMETIME in the early 1890’s, Jack and several other cowboys journeyed to Virgil for a rodeo, out west of town.
This time, his luck had run out.
Jack Oliver drew the meanest bronc in the lot and was both thrown and stomped.
He told the pick-up man he was alright, that it was nothing, but on the return ride home, he began to grow pale and vomit uncontrollably.
“I can’t breathe,” he said, clutching at his sides, grimacing in pain, so much so that his companions decided to speed him back to Virgil for the doc.
The internal injuries were a death-sentence, and although Jack managed to make it back to the little shack on the pasture whose name I will not write, he died right there, with the night black and the moon bright.
Since Jack’s death over 120 years ago, folks have called that place by a name which combines a racial epithet with a curse that he and others like him should die, even to this day, often uttering the words blithely and without a second thought.
It’s a testament to the way in which racism creeps causally into our lives, digs in and festers, going almost unnoticed even as it shows itself to be an undeniable part of our local language and shared history.
It reveals to us how the mythic figure of someone like Jack Oliver can be all but lost, the grandeur of his deeds almost entirely faded from memory, when what hangs on is a slur, a curse that reduces everything he was to nothing more than a name which I will not write.
Instead, I sing the nightsong of his legend.
An otherwise innocuous parcel of land carries historical significance locally. It was the village site of hundreds of Osage warriors and their families.
"Disclaimer: I tend to drive this places where it’s not supposed to go,” J.J. Edwards maniacally grinned as he shifted the Polaris ATV into four-wheel drive and gunned it up the steep muddy embankment.
The door handle was stuck from the inside, basically trapping me, so there was nothing to do but hang on, pretending to study my books and maps, as we climbed what felt like an almost 90-degree ascent.
We were on the hunt for the location of an Osage village that was rumored to be on land once owned by J.J.’s father, Donnie, where the native people had camped during the latter years of the Civil War.
The group of about 1,000 people was composed of 600 warriors, many of whom had brought along their wives and children, after being hired by the U.S. government to protect settlers who’d been moving into the area.
The politics of the tribe seems to have been complicated, with some people having ties to the Confederacy.
As J.J. and I stood on what at one time had been the south bank of Turkey Creek (as opposed to a small lake built in 1974), feeling the wind and sunlight die in the summer evening, I dreamed them there, imagining the laughter of children, the men leaning against rifles, murmuring, the women perched over fires around teepees.
Few stories of the village remain, unfortunately, save tired tales of “thieving Indians” who couldn’t help but steal ropes, saddles and someone’s kitchen stove; and another wherein a white fellow had “gone native” because he liked having an Osage wife do all his work.
One genuinely fascinating detail that remains from their daily lives, however, is the story of a young Osage boy who’d been fiercely — and perhaps mortally — kicked upside the head by a horse.
A woman who lived nearby named Elizabeth Miller had traveled to the camp with fresh milk and a resolve to heal him, though her daughter Eliza J. left no mention of whether or not he survived.
In the 1970s, though, local historian Lester Harding mentioned how he and others had watched the opening of a grave at the site belonging to a small native child.
The ground being on the eastern edge of the Flint Hills, and “hard like concrete,” as J.J. had put it, the grave had been rather shallow, capped with a piece of flat native limestone and covered with only meager earth.
Whether it was the same boy cared for by Miller, Harding did not speculate.
He’d only suggested that the exhumation was prompted by a farmer who’d wanted to convert the ground for agricultural use.
AS FOR most land in the area, however, given its harsh and rocky nature, it’s far more suited for cattle than crops.
A few of J.J.’s own cows had just escaped that afternoon, and so as we bounced across the prairie in the ATV, we kept our eyes peeled.
“The old thistle’s getting high! Damn!,” he shouted over the grumbling engine as the grasses were ground beneath the hungry treads.
We had decided to check out remnants of the post office known as “Juse,” christened in 1884 by Jesse Pickering, following the pet name he’d given his daughter Jerusha.
Along the way, though, J.J., a former high school biology teacher, paused to give me a quick lesson in botany.
After jumping out — once I had extricated myself from the ATV’s door — we leaned down and he showed me a clump of sericea lespedeza, an invasive plant with stubbornly deep roots that secretes toxic chemicals into the surrounding soil, making it a real headache for ranchers.
Spray it and it sometimes comes back. Burn it and it often returns with a vengeance.
Yet despite his frustration, J.J. seemed to regard the sericea with a kind of begrudging respect, the kind of honor a soldier reserves for an enemy.
J.J. is a former Marine, after all, someone indigenous men from the Osage village may have at one time recruited to ride south into Indian Territory on a foraging trip.
As we neared the post office, we passed a tall red silo on the old Holmquest farm, which has somehow managed to remain standing after almost a century.
J.J. pinched a wad of Grizzly chewing tobacco between his cheek and gum, then sighed as he noticed the pasture gate beside the Juse site was open.
“It’s not supposed to be like that,” he said, shaking his head, then directed me to where the historical marker also should have been before being ripped to shreds by some piece of heavy equipment belonging to county road crews who’d gotten a little too close to the fenceline.
After fixing the gate, J.J. and I wandered over the sandstone foundations of the post office, which he showed me were made of stones that had been carefully cut, despite having been worn away over the course of the century.
I then dreamed Jesse Pickering there, in the small building with many drawers, filing away letters and other correspondence.
His prize-winning prototype miniature windmill was standing just outside, which he hoped would one day make him rich.
Over the years the post office changed hands and locations multiple times, as nineteenth century prairie post offices are wont to do, passing from Pickering to John Pace to Wilson Goreham to George Farnum, who moved its location to another nearby ghost town called Keck.
One tale vividly recalls Farnum carefully cutting out enormous blocks of ice from nearby ponds and creeks, then packing them in sawdust so as to save them for the following year.
The Juse-Keck area is still a bit of a wind-swept badlands to this day, so it’s not hard to see why Farnum would go to all the trouble.
EVENTUALLY J.J. and I returned to the Osage village site, this time on opposite banks, and I was taken in by the melancholy thought that all that remains now of the Osages’ stay are their undiscovered artifacts to compliment the many that have been unearthed there over the years.
That, and the indigenous burial ground west of the primary campsite, full of graves all unmarked with the exception of a particular chief.
The burial site had long predated the mobile village, and when J.J. and I had stood on the high hill where we believed it to be located, it was as if the world slowed down, making what is sometimes called by photographers “the golden hour” stretch out into a life-age.
Eliza J. had told the tale that the Osage chief who was buried there, despite the tribe being poor, had enjoyed a fairly elaborate funeral, with accompanying fancy dress.
She remembered him being a big man wizened with age, which perhaps made him difficult to carry on a litter up the steep incline to the cemetery.
After he died, she said he’d been bedecked with rings on his fingers and tiny bells on his toes.
A wide copper headband was wrapped about his temples, and accompanying him to the grave were an iron kettle, colorful beads, flint arrowheads and several other items.
By contrast, his final resting place was marked with only a small modest sandstone.
Intriguingly, it seems he chose to adopt the funeral practices of either the white Christian people he’d come in contact with, or perhaps that had been handed down to him as a member of one of the five “civilized” tribes.
When J.J. showed me a single plain flat stone atop the hill that may have been the same mentioned by Eliza J. and belonging to the chief, I couldn’t help but reach out and smooth its surface with my hand, wondering if it rock itself might contain some memory of the truth.
I’ve written before about the question as to how and whether a life leaves its mark on a place, as well as harrowing events, especially those fraught with trauma and excitement and death.
Yet a house or other place does not feel truly haunted unless one has access to its story.
And I have been nothing but saddened by the fact that when something terrible has happened to someone or something I’ve loved, I could not sense it from afar.
We carry our ghosts with us…
A group of Yates Center High School alums took a special walk through downtown recently to visit monument by the Women's Federation of Clubs nearly a century ago. A portion of the trek covered the "widow's walk" a long ago sidewalk project spearheaded by the club.
The June sun was blazing overhead when I met up with a special group of women from the Yates Center High School class of 1976.
They’d gathered for a mini-reunion of sorts — based on a foundation of “life-long friendships,” as one participant put it — and as part of the festivities had agreed to humor me by taking a unique kind of walk.
It would be a retracing of the path of industrious and community-minded women who’d come before them, a walk with busy ghosts.
On the corner of Main and Bell Streets in Yates Center, near what was once the extreme north end of town, sits an inconspicuous monument that reads:
Women’s Federation of Clubs
Beneath the dull and discolored marker — which looks a bit like a tombstone — hides a time capsule, more specifically, a copper box containing information about the project memorialized.
The story goes that in 1927, frustrated that the path from the north end of town to Graceland Cemetery wasn’t terribly hospitable to foot traffic, the 20-plus womens’ clubs in town decided to start a campaign to build a new sidewalk.
According to James Fisher, this was especially spurred by “the few newfangled motor cars speeding by walkers, that billowed dust or sprayed mud.”
Despite the path to the cemetery being somewhat treacherous, especially since at the time most folks couldn’t afford to buy an automobile, the city council at the time rejected the idea of building the walk as too costly.
Undeterred, the wily women of Yates Center sprung into action, starting a campaign where they placed tin cans all over town for donations that read “a penny an inch.”
AS THE CLASS of 1976 strode along these penny-inches, some reminisced about attending a rural school prior to Yates Center High, such as Perry School near the southern edge of the county.
“We were stuck out that direction,” said Debbie Stevens. “But I wouldn’t have given it up.”
Today, Perry schoolhouse serves as a hay barn, with yellow bales occupying what was once the gymnasium.
Many in the group who hadn’t returned to southeast Kansas for some time remarked on the housing blight and economic decay as they looked around from the memorial sidewalk, where they could point to places where house after house once stood.
It’s incredible, “the number of houses that look so run down and dejected,” said Kathy Alexander.
It’s just one more reminder of the many things that rural America has lost. The women had no problem enumerating events and activities that were once staples of their daily lives that are no longer present — everything from watching movies at the Temple Theater downtown to eating at restaurants like Woody’s and Peter Pan.
One thing that is still intact is their humor. When prompted to talk about any of things they’d lost more specifically, they responded, cackling:
“Our minds!” … “Our figures!”
The women seemed to have a pretty cheeky sense of humor when it comes to how rural women are often perceived.
They readily joked about “living in the stix,” seeing tornados and the supposedly perfect flatness of Kansas itself.
“Do you have electricity?” laughed Nancy Kelley. “I even have indoor plumbing!”
The peals of laughter reverberated down the dark and shadowy hallways of the high school once the group had made their way inside.
But the camaraderie had most certainly not dimmed; rather, it was clear the fellowship had been rekindled amongst the group.
It’s a spirit of solidarity I imagine bound together the womens’ clubs of 1927-28, and guided them in their civic triumph.
A victory of community and togetherness as such.
THIS MIGHT BE all to say that the women’s sidewalk project wasn’t merely about building a simple walkway, mind you, but about something grander and at the same time somewhat alien to us today.
A hundred years ago, visits to the cemetery were much more a component of daily life, part of a community’s sense of closeness, with school children and families often walking to burial places for gatherings, picnics and more.
When people died, in a gesture of empathy, someone would place a wreath adorned with lovely blood-red flowers on the door of their home, as a signal to others that someone there had recently lost their life.
The Graceland Cemetery was considered one of the pride and joys of Yates Center, something of strange and terrible beauty to be celebrated and shared with others.
There was a different sense of how our ancestors and their influence permeate our lives, how they continue to be present with us, guide us and haunt us, in senses both positive and negative.
It seems death was held closer at hand rather than distanced or dissociated from people’s worlds, evincing a kind of existential honesty about our inevitable demise rarely seen today.
… An honesty that perhaps the womens’ clubs understood in some profound way.
By Memorial Day 1928 — what at the time was called “Decoration Day” — the women’s clubs had managed to raise $1,854.25 for the sidewalk, which as Kelley pointed out was considered “quite a lot of money!”
And so it came to pass, that the subtle passageway running from east of what was once the site of the old Washington High School, then north along pasture fences, all the way to where the cemetery’s gazebo now sits today was constructed.
Sometimes called “The Widows’ Walk,” the pathway was dedicated at the same time as the bandstand sitting west of the Woodson County courthouse.
“I’m proud that women did that … that’s amazing,” said Kelley. The women of Yates Center “saw a need, and then did something about it … That’s what we need to do in our lives.”
Today, the sidewalk still serves as a path for reflection on mortality and community, as one vividly dreams the early twentieth-century women with black dresses and black hats treading along the same path.
It is a place for recalling what we have gained and lost, confronting the irretrievability of the past, and recognizing it as a situation which we all inescapably share.
I was standing by the river in Neosho Falls, watching dragonflies and listening to the murky water spill over the dam in a continuous rush.
It’s a sound from the source of Neosho Falls’ life, as well as its ultimate demise.
July 13, 1951, a day later christened “Black Friday,” the river crawled from its banks, and drowned the entire region beneath murky waters 16.5 feet above the floodplain.
Residents of the Falls had been warned of a flood but didn’t panic, as they were numbed to occasional sharp peaks in the river; but instead of one or two feet of water, they got between nine and 10.
Swirling white currents entered every business on Main Street, some up to seven feet deep. Five homes were entirely obliterated or washed downstream; and many others were ripped from the foundations and twisted in place as if by enormous wringing hands.
Already-weathered stones from Cedarvale Cemetery were washed away in the torrent, and with them the legacy of so many who’d once made Neosho Falls the most thriving place in all Woodson County.
Gazing into the water, breathing its fetid odor, I dreamed the primordial beast awakening … and swallowing me whole.
EARLY in the morning on July 12, between 2 and 3 a.m., the Neosho silently crept from its confines like a ravenous liquid shadow, and residents like Lon Wright soon knew it was time to flee, as ebony water began slithering up to his porch.
Reportedly only a single house escaped, that of John Sullivan on the west end of town, and the river left behind so much mud and debris that it was up to three inches deep in some homes.
After an alarm was sounded, volunteers from Yates Center and surrounding communities deployed more than fifteen boats, carrying people to safety and then disaster centers in Piqua and elsewhere, including the main relief area at Yates Center City Hall.
Many residents reached out to others in this apocalyptic hour, bringing friends and neighbors from the Falls into their homes so as to provide them shelter and food; hence it was not only perhaps the greatest tragedy in recent county history, but a moment that showed the overflowing compassion and resilience of those living there at the time.
A systematic relief effort was enacted by the National Red Cross, headed by a field director R. Munn, who first set up a headquarters in Yates Center City Hall, then later in the swampy wreckage of Neosho Falls High School.
Many residents of the Falls had taken refuge in the school, as well as on rooftops and the upper floors of various buildings.
Those who’d managed to park their cars and trucks at the school, like Corkey Yoho, watched in horrified awe as the floodwaters devoured their vehicles (along with Cork’s cowboy boots perched atop his truck), folding them into the insatiable maw of the Neosho River.
Today the school still stands firm, built from materials almost as stubborn as those who refused to leave their homes during the deluge.
I’ve wandered its cool, dark hallways draped in bright leaves and graffiti, dreaming the echoes of children, from a time when neither hope and color were in short supply.
GIVEN the vast scope of disaster on Black Friday, human refugees were not the only ones to take shelter in the high school.
Many pets and livestock hunkered down as well, and people’s cows and chickens were kept on the school auditorium stage, creating what must have looked like some terrible and inverted Biblical nativity.
At one point opaque water even crept up to immerse the auditorium stage’s floor, and as I stood near the place, I dreamed it rising to cover me as well beneath the sticky summer sludge.
One resident remembered seeing a horse swimming by in front of the school, desperately kicking against the current, screaming horribly, but it was too heavy and too far out of reach to be saved.
On the third floor, somewhere in the school’s southwest corner, was the “dog room,” where more than fifteen canines were kept as they nervously paced and panted in the dripping July night.
I once closed my eyes in what I believed was that same room, listening, attuning, and swore I could still sense their confusion and fear.
A few humans and other creatures would weather three to four nervous moons in those near-unbreakable concrete rooms.
Other beings scattered about town were affected by fates both good and ill.
A heifer found on someone’s porch was able to be fed and milked; pigs someone had been mindful enough to heft into the back of a pickup were just high enough so as not to be drowned; and horses gathered on the old Santa Fe right-of-way survived by standing upright and holding their heads aloft.
By contrast, countless others met their ends at the merciless tendrils of the Neosho; for instance, a group of sheep owned by Kenneth Ellis whose mangled, sopping bodies were strewn haphazardly along a fence-row.
Following the cresting of the olive, muddy waters, the roads were blocked to prevent curiosity-seekers from venturing into town, but a few folks still came and went, including county health officer A.C. Dingus.
Someone ferried Dr. Dingus into town with a rowboat, whereafter he deemed the high school entirely unfit for habitation by any living thing.
Today, a few fatalistic swallows are ignoring the order.
A MAN by the name of Bille Mentzer became a local hero through the above ordeals, as he braved the menacing water for hours, saving person after person, hardly seeming to think about his own life.
At one point, after being hurled from their motorboat, Bille and his father Leslie made their way back to aid a family who said they’d fire a shotgun if they needed any more help.
After hearing gun-blasts echo in the distance, the Mentzers returned to find the family lashed to an elm tree with electrical wiring in order to prevent being swept away.
Though the family was saved, Neosho Falls as a whole was not so fortunate. Indeed, the flood would continue to mercilessly suffocate the town beneath its waters, seemingly long after the Neosho finally receded.
What’s left today, following the title of a poem by Terri Lynne Henderson, is “Abandonment.”
She asks: “Why has the waterwheel stopped the wooden spokes like paralytic hands upon the face of time’s frozen clock?”
“Why has the band silenced its march? … muffled footsteps of high-laced shoes in the dirtprint street?”
“Why have the stained glass window eyes begun to collect gray hair … from spider to web … eyes; closed … Why?”
I imagine the answer is lurking somewhere beneath river water.
Baker's Bluff in Woodson County was once owned by Baxter Baker, who paid $200 for it in 1877. It has since been carved with hundreds of names.
The sun’s sickly pallid light was fading, receding from the forest floor as I proceeded north through the timber, following the line traced by a sandstone farm fence.
I was on the hunt for a place called Baker’s Bluff, which I knew was hidden somewhere nearby, though the armadillos and whitetails weren’t providing much direction.
One pink and banded fellow trundled along in the distance, too low to notice the wind, then scuttled away on my approach.
Breaking through the undergrowth into a clearing, I paused to watch the tall dry grass shift in the wind in places where it had managed to erupt around patches of red-orange stone on the surface.
It was as if each rock was its own smooth, flat island, which made movement across the field a dance as one moved from stone to stone.
At this point in the spring, the colors of Kansas had not yet folded forth, and rather than gold and blue and green, the scene was instead largely muted and dead.
Leaves from oaks and other species crunched and crackled beneath my boots, as I dodged beneath lichen-covered branches in my black wool hat.
I dreamed Baxter Baker there, wandering the woods beside me, on land for which he’d paid a mere $200 in 1877, perhaps with a rifle in hand.
I dreamed the way he moved, swaying and stealthy, still affected by his time training for Civil War battles with Company B, in the 119 Illinois Infantry.
As he floated forth with such loping grace, you’d almost not notice he’d taken a bullet to his left leg, after being set upon by a sharp-eyed Confederate May 18, 1864.
Baxter would eventually meet his end by bronchial pneumonia in Salt Lake City, though he’s buried in Yates Center, the place where he operated a very successful lumber yard. He first, though, was buried in Belmont, southwest of Yates Center.
Slowly winding my way up Sandy Creek, I couldn’t help but also be reminded of the thousands of Muskogee refugees who’d traced a similar path during the Civil War.
They, too, had been ambushed by Confederates, and chased north from Oklahoma Territory to eventually perish by the hundreds in the frigid Kansas winter.
They, too, would be buried in Belmont, though perhaps first unceremoniously scattering the frozen ground, producing a haphazard and hellish scene.
In the haunting shadows of the evening, then, it was clear I’d become surrounded by ghosts, whether the striking figure of Baxter P., or the destitute band of Opothleyahola’s innumerable dying people.
Such is Sandy Creek: a twisting spectral walk. A place where one is never alone. Where one traverses the uncertain line between the living and the dead.
Eventually, I burst through the thickly intertwined trees and found myself overlooking the creek with its steel blue-gray waters far below.
From such a vantage, it was possible to see how the shape of the creekbed wickedly looped back and the forth like entrails, and I also noticed a rotting deer stand in the distance.
A pale white sky sharply contrasted the moss adorning the cliff on which I stood, and suddenly there was nothing between me and a giddying 50-foot drop.
I had found the bluff.
But rather than bright elation, there was something else, some other sense or feeling.
The urge to become a ghost, join the black parade.
I was perched atop thousands of tons of native rock, and yet it seemed as if the mountain were instead crushing me from above, its weight cracking every brittle bone.
What if I simply cast it off?
I suddenly dreamed Baxter Baker as a child with his sister Rosannah somewhere in Gentry, Missouri, their father having just died.
He was just 2 years old. She was 4.
Though early youth likely spared them from full recognition of what had happened, I imagine it was apocalyptic all the same.
For with their mother Mary Ann widowed with seven children, they were soon “bound out.”
And the absurd horror didn’t stop there, either, as both their adopted parents, the Carters, died when Baxter was 14 and Rosannah 16.
Twelve years of traumatic echoes. Twelve years waiting for the inevitable. Twelve-year whiplash.
I closed my eyes and listened as the wind began to wail.
Scaling and sliding down the cliff face, I struggled to keep my footing on the crumbling soil and slippery rocks.
At the bottom was a gnarled barbed-wire fence that had long-since been ripped from the earth, and nearby, a neatly gnawed tree that had been recently felled by a beaver.
From the bottom looking up, I went from merely imagining the immense crushing weight of the bluff to actually feeling it, and held my breath as I crossed between the narrow ledge separating the cliff’s base from the creek bed.
Scanning the fissure in front of me, looking for snakes, I saw no movement and proceeded forward, though still wondering if I might get a shock — like when I was reading graves in the Geneva cemetery and had instinctively leapt out of reach of an angry cottonmouth at the last instant.
But all the fear and trepidation faded as I looked up and saw the names.
There must have been hundreds carved into the soft sandstone from across the span of 150 years, perhaps by knives or railroad spikes.
“Calvin Davidson,” one read, following a short climb. He died in 1940 at age 69. His wife’s name was Nettie.
“Joe Tracy,” read another. “Age 22 years. July 25 1920.” Below was a star carved into 10 equal segments.
Each signature, the mark of a life. A futile attempt to outstrip the inevitable by etching itself permanently in stone, even as every name already marks us for death by belonging to another even before we were born.
Perhaps that is to say the most honest place one’s name is written is on a tombstone.
Like “Baxter P. 1845 – 1919,” who’s buried next to both of his wives.
“Amanda I.” and “Sarah B.,” sisters keeping Baxter warm in perpetuity, and seemingly without a jealous word between them, perhaps because Sarah Jane Brock died when she was only 23 years old, binding the survivors in a shared grief that no one else could hope to understand.
Like bearing the weight of a mountain.
Sometimes nature itself seems to herald the birth of something magnificent.
The date was Oct. 4, 1895, and tornadic winds were rising and beginning to whip and tear near the Woodson-Allen County border.
A vaudeville troupe of actors suddenly found themselves stuck at the rail junction in Piqua, including Myra Keaton, who was multiple months pregnant.
Perhaps it was stress brought about by the weather, or was simply his time, but that night Myra gave birth to her son Joseph in a hotel not far from the railroad tracks.
One imagines a strange nativity there, with curious actors still in stage dress crowded around windows and doorways to catch a glimpse of the child who would become perhaps the greatest star in all American film history.
Was Joseph Frank Keaton crying and bawling when he came into the world, or was his face already made of stone?
HE DEFINITELY wasn’t “Buster” yet.
Legend has it that the name was given to him by the illustrious Harry Houdini, at least in Keaton’s version of the story.
Supposedly the young lad took a fall down some stairs in the world-famous magician’s presence, upon which Houdini roared “That was a real buster!”
It wasn’t the only time he earned the title, either.
As part of their family’s vaudeville performance, Buster’s father, Joe, would wildly toss the young lad around the stage, against the scenery, and into the orchestra pit/audience.
Meanwhile, Myra would play saxophone.
The perceived violence of the show was so great that audiences often called the police, and the Keatons would have to explain that it was only stagecraft.
TODAY, few traces remain of the Keaton family’s short but monumental stay in Piqua.
The hotel Buster was born in is long gone, yet there are multiple subtle reminders of what happened there.
A rough, often muddy street bears his name. A black and gold plaque tells his story. And best of all, a small but nonetheless packed museum is hiding inside the water and utilities building near the birthsite.
You’d never know it was even there given the absence of signage.
However maybe that’s appropriate, as it resonates with a certain legend about Keaton's own relation to the place.
One acidic local tale was that the time Keaton visited Piqua, he had his limo stop only long enough for him to turn his nose up at the scene.
He’d gone too far to ever return.
However, in recent years the local Buster Keaton Society was able to dispel this version of events, after being gifted photos of Buster standing in front of the Piqua depot, taken by wife Eleanor while the two were on a road-trip.
KEATON eventually went a very long way from the simplicity of southeast Kansas, that’s for sure.
Given his catalogue, Roger Ebert called him “the greatest actor-director in the history of movies,” and Orson Welles proclaimed that Keaton’s black-and-white masterpiece, “The General,” was not only the greatest comedy of all time, but the greatest film of all time.
Keaton worked with Fatty Arbuckle and started his own production unit, and he became one of the most death-defying stuntmen in movies (often destroying dozens of his signature pork pie hats in the process).
Eventually Keaton would star in films with sound and color, commercials, short cuts, educational pieces and television series (including an episode of “The Twilight Zone” where he was a time traveler).
My personal favorite is “Speak Easily,” a “talkie” where a mild-mannered professor, falsely believing he’s inherited a vast fortune, decides to quit his day job and embark on various misadventures.
YET AS with so many stars in film and other creative endeavors, Keaton led a very troubled and tumultuous life.
His creativity and drive for artistic perfection seemed to have led to a whole host of troubles, which, all too often, have been glazed over to create a more wholesome and whitewashed version of the man.
He was enraged after being stripped of creative control following “The General.” His later contract with MGM was a disaster. And his divorce from wife Natalie Talmadge led him to a place of nihilistic despair characterized by life-threatening alcoholism.
Keaton would eventually be institutionalized, where legend has it he escaped a straitjacket thanks to a trick learned from Houdini.
In 1933, he married his nurse, Mae Scriven, during an alcohol binge, and afterward claimed to remember absolutely nothing.
And perhaps strangest of all, he began collecting Saint Bernard dogs, all of which, inexplicably, were named Elmer.
DESPITE OR more likely due to all his eccentricities, Keaton would nonetheless emerge triumphant after a period of agonizing loss, even if he never returned to his former level of stardom.
And by accident of his birth, his legacy is ours to claim in Woodson and Allen counties, if we are brave enough to embrace his strangeness.
Certainly we can watch Keaton’s films, even hold festivals in his name, though to me the most interesting question is, once we’ve done so, how does this transform standing on the edge of Piqua? How does memory change the place?
If Keaton entered the world there, does that spot retroactively bear a haunting trace of his specter or his work or its influence?
Does the land vibrate with some strange frequency at the junction where Keaton tore his way into a world to which he never quite seemed to belong?
AS VEHICLES tore by along Highway 54 near the Piqua Co-op silos, I stood near the place where Keaton was born and simply listened.
The winter wind was still and the sky snowy white.
Though buried in the Hollywood Hills hundreds of miles away, did Joseph Frank maintain any power in this place?
Were his two stars on the Boulevard shining?
Not that one could ever glean such a thing from the immortal clown with the immovable face.
In the early days of Woodson County, a pregnant mother and her twins died in childbirth. A simple sandstone marker remains at their gravestone, but time has worn away the letters noting their brief existence.
Pioneer life was often nothing short of impossible.
One, for instance, need only examine the brief lifespans of pregnant women and children during this time, to get a sense for the difficulty of merely existing in a world where science, medicine and communication were fledgling in comparison to today.
There is so much we take for granted.
Along these lines, one of the saddest tales in the early history of Woodson County sends one hurtling backward in time, to a moment when every birth brought with it the distinct possibility of death. Of non-survival. Of blood.
And it begins and ends with a woman named Rebecca Mitchell.
Rebecca, or “Becky,” as some still lovingly refer to her 150 years later, was pregnant with twins and living in a cabin with her husband Lewis, along Owl Creek northwest of what was becoming the town of Yates Center.
They had first settled in the Verdigris Valley south of Toronto, though for whatever reason, decided to sell their claim to the village’s founder, Enoch Reeves.
The new, more easterly claim was coming along, growing it seemed in tandem with Rebecca’s pregnancy, and preparations had been made with the local midwife, Elizabeth Cook, for when the appointed time came.
Cook, incidentally, is this writer’s great-great-great grandmother, and she made a name for herself as both a female physician and medicine woman to the native people of the area. Most folks, though, simply knew her as “Aunt Toddy.”
As fortune would have it, however, when Rebecca Mitchell was to give birth one fateful night in May 1869, Toddy was on another assignment.
Mitchell would have to birth her babies alone.
By the time Lewis Mitchell returned to their cabin from running north to the Cook’s, it was already too late.
In a nightmarish scene, one dreams him breathlessly throwing open the door to their home only to find a terrible, creeping silence.
Rebecca was dead. The children were dead.
Crying out and throwing his arms around them, he fruitlessly shook his wife, calling her name in the blistering darkness.
Yet blood-soaked sheets and placental remains still contrasted against angelic blue faces, and in that moment Lewis also died, inside.
The Void had reared its monstrous, faceless guise and swallowed his heart forever.
Learning of the tragic scene, Toddy’s father, John Allen, and father-in-law, Hiriam Cook, crafted a single walnut coffin for the dead.
They placed Rebecca and the twins together, one under each of her arms, pressed against her hard, lifeless breast.
What prayers were said and what songs were sung on that bleak Kansas day, when it seemed all hope had drained from the world?
John Allen had lost his leg in the Civil War, and so stood leaning against his cane along the banks where Spring Branch empties into Owl Creek.
One imagines him attempting to comfort Lewis Mitchell with a simple touch of the shoulder, and words for his daughter to try and assuage the guilt of having been elsewhere.
Toddy, however, would not long after feel the crushing force of grief again, when in 1873 her husband Henry died, leaving her the single mother of three children.
By that time, Lewis Mitchell had already left southeast Kansas, never to be seen again.
Ever since learning the tragic drama of Rebecca Mitchell, I had wanted to visit her and pay my respects.
After all, she had been friends and neighbors with my earliest Woodson County ancestors, and the grief accompanying her death somehow still seems to linger in the unconscious of those who dwell there.
As luck would have it, it just so happened that the site where the Mitchells once called home now belonged to long-time friends, the Massoths.
So one warm afternoon, Jason Massoth and I jumped in his ATV and bounded north across the hills, forests and fields not far from his home.
He stopped to check his traps along the way, pulling steel jaws dripping from the water, hoping to find the corpse of some aquatic mammal.
More than once, I heard the crack of a rifle as Jason dealt with the undesirables.
I was hunting one kind of death, and he, another.
After pausing on the edge of enclosed farm ground encircled by timber on all sides, we again jumped out and headed west toward the creek.
“There she is,” he said, pointing, “the grave in your ‘In the Beginning’ book.”
Carefully approaching the iron bars surrounding the cemetery, we peeled away tall grass to reveal the simple sandstone marker.
At one time it read “B.A. Mitchell – May 69,” but time and the elements had long ago eaten away the inscription.
For a while we stood on the banks of the creek, listening to the water birds, and it seemed an unimaginable sadness pervaded every atom of the surrounds.
We, too, had become witnesses to a loss that continues to haunt the living world with sorrow, while filling the imagination with awe.
How can we not be moved by reminders of our own inescapable fragility and mortality, when we are exposed to the fact that life can senselessly end at any moment?
Youth. Health. Promise. … Nothing. For at any moment, death can annihilate us and bring the production of meaning in our lives to an end.
So I ask again: what is the significance of lives like those of Rebecca and her twins, who had only come into the world to immediately leave it?
Does the conceit of an immortal soul, divine plan or promise of an afterlife truly account for making sense of why such things happen? Can they even numb the pain?
That is, are we truly courageous enough to face what the tale of Rebecca Mitchell might philosophically reveal?
For many, the unavoidable contingency of death and vacuum of meaning thereby birthed is an existential situation too terrible to accept.
Yet such is life on the prairie.
Sheltered from the incinerating blast of noonday summer sun, I was walking down the dry gravel bed of Vegetarian Creek listening to the insects whir and grind in ecstasy.
Hundreds of dragonflies were spinning about, and I was in awe at the sight of an enormous owl that launched from the dark trees overhead.
I watched as long brown feathers winged her southwards toward the Neosho River, as she surveyed the site below where teacher Miriam Davis Colt and her family endured countless sufferings on the prairie in 1856.
A British journalist (and perhaps unrepentant swindler) named Henry S. Clubb had promised the Colt family they’d find a utopia in the Kansas Territory, surrounded by others who not only practiced “abstinence from the flesh of animals,” but likewise purified themselves by resisting coffee, tea, tobacco and alcohol.
A city was to be laid out in southern Allen County according to what Clubb had termed the “Octagon Plan,” a 2,500-acre plot bounded by eight equal sides, with an additional interior octagon set aside for those who had yet to build homes.
When Colt and her family arrived, however, despite having bought shares in the Vegetarian Kansas Emigration Company, they found the site nearly as desolate as it is today.
As I walked the settlement area, I dreamed them there, exhausted and dirty, having come so far by covered wagon only to have their dreams dashed.
In her book “Went to Kansas,” Colt confided that “the ladies tell us that they are sorry to see us come to this place, which plainly shows that all is not right.”
They’d been promised heaven and instead found purgatory, a boundless prison of waiting and suffering, but where at least hope had not yet been forsaken.
As I watched the tiny yellow butterflies drunkenly sway, I recalled Colt describing the daisies on which they landed as “glowing,” and when I looked close enough, I too was silenced by their luminosity.
“WHY do I have so many presentiments of coming sorrow?,” asked Colt on June 5, 1856.
“The dark storm-clouds, (to my mind’s eye,) are gathering in our horizon, and even now they flap their cold, bat-like wings about my head, causing my heart to tremble with fear.”
Indeed, much of “Went to Kansas” is a study in anxiety and foreboding and grief, though certainly not without cause.
Yet it is also a saga of triumph, as when Miriam first rides a horse without sitting side-saddle, an image of her own growing independence.
That said, whatever your worst nightmare, there’s a fair chance that Colt and her family experienced it on that unassuming plot along the Neosho.
The weather, for one, was rarely an ally, as I myself was reminded while standing in the field on the scorching July afternoon.
Colt herself describes “floods of heat,” and remarks that “I can’t step outside the cabin door without burning my feet.”
When the clouds were finally merciful enough to provide relief, they were often accompanied by brutal storms and tornadic winds that Colt said “discharged … the artillery of the heavens, burning the earth and air with lightning’s fiery chains.”
On other occasions, the primary threat was less the environment and rather the beings who called it home, such as rattlesnakes that had a penchant for joining pioneers in bed to keep warm, or slithering under cabins in droves so loudly one could hear their bodies twisting against one another.
There were plenty of tarantulas, too.
Wolves or coyotes would often serenade the sojourners at night, and though such creatures are often quite skittish, Colt nonetheless had reason to write “I sometimes fear they will surround me, and ‘take care of me,’ before I can reach the house.”
Food was scarce. ”I live entirely on food made of corn,” Colt wrote, often boiling hominy or local greens (with salt) for nearly every meal. Or perhaps rice with a little sugar.
Surveying the native and not-so-native grasses of the Octagon field today, it made me appreciate the ability to discern which species were edible, even if they weren’t entirely appetizing.
Fortunate enough to spot an asparagus stem, I snapped it off and started gnawing.
PERHAPS Colt’s greatest peril were the other humans to contend with, including Confederate-loyal border ruffians that had recently attacked Lawrence (and who would later burn nearby Humboldt to the ground).
Indigenous people also abounded, and though many showed the Colt family kindness — such as cutting open and sharing a watermelon with Miriam — their appearance often set them on edge.
At one point, Colt sprinted across a field in the black of night, looking for someone to aide her family, believing native people would murder them for squatting in an abandoned native structure.
While walking the creek and field, I dreamed them, too, wondering what stories the Osages who lived as Colt’s neighbors had to tell about the land.
What sacred meaning did the Neosho River have, for example? Where was its “center” in this area, the place where one would be capable of looking in all four directions so as to narrate its unique and holy geography?
What would ultimately justify Colt’s ceaseless sense of dread, however, was the threat of incurable illness.
It had been a wet spring in 1856. The mosquitoes were buzzing and ravenous. And as I knelt in the creekbed to examine a uniquely-shaped stone, I felt a tiny needle pierce my arm that — given the scene — took on an entirely new and terrible meaning.
“The mosquitoes come in swarms,” wrote Colt. “I lay awake. I can’t sleep for their music and … try to keep the children covered so they won’t eat them before morning.”
As the oppressive summer dragged on, all the members of Colt’s family, including herself, would become infected with what was likely malaria.
“My husband feels cold and sick,” Colt wrote. “Mother and sister are having chills. … They are calling for water! water! water! At the same time.”
She would later describe the smell of death as akin to “decaying cabbage.”
Eventually, everyone whom Colt held dear, save her daughter, was taken from her. Her father-in-law, husband William, her mother, sister Lydia and son Willie would all perish.
Purgatory had transmuted into Hell, and it would seem husband William’s dream of ferrying children across the river had come to pass, though instead of the Neosho, it was the Styx.
“This is a long, long Sabbath day,” Colt had earlier observed, unwittingly predicting a time when it would seem as though the divine had utterly forsaken her in perdition — bereft in a pasture surrounded by the endless repetitious void of Kansas sky and burning grass.
“Such is prairie life.”
Short-lived birthplace of Allen County was settled by pro-slavery pioneers. Free-state legislators soon moved the county seat to Humboldt, and the town failed.
Veteran Register reporter Bob Johnson and I were in Cofachique, the birthplace of Allen County, now nothing more than a field of soybeans.
Looking across the field, I marveled at the raw emptiness of the scene, taken aback by how the origins of more than 160 years of local history were now completely concealed.
James Barbee, president of the Cofachique town company, was quite literally the first recorded death in Allen County, though the location of his grave remains a mystery.
Many other firsts sprung from that seemingly blank template near the banks of the Neosho River as well: first county seat, first court (which reportedly met in a stable), first government, first post office … and first lynching.
Though Cofachique had been abandoned by 1870, a fellow by the name of E.G. Dalson had been strung up in a deserted house there by a vigilante group, after they burst into the first Iola jail, overpowered the sheriff, and led him away with a rope around his neck.
He’d been accused of murdering his adopted son, but the truth is more ambiguous, that the son’s death had perhaps been accidental, unlike the result of E.G.’s summary execution.
As Bob turned his eyes skyward, marveling at the massive turkey vulture circling overhead, I thought of Dalson, swinging lifelessly from ghostly rafters.
I wondered if the local Osages, who traded tobacco and furs with whites at Cofachique, might have been able to instruct me, gift me some basic vocabulary as to how to divine the truth.
However, they might have also said the request was impossible, since because Dalson was hanged, his spirit was ensnared with ropes and never released from his body, never became part of the wind that might have been able to convey the secret of his death.
ANOTHER indigenous secret is the town’s very name.
Was “Cofachique” a fabled Osage chief known for his magniminity? Is the name a reference to the “Cofachiqui,” a tribe from South Carolina?
Or was “Cofachique” a she? The fabled native chief’s daughter from Georgia who gifted the murderous Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto with pearls and a ruby ring?
Although it’s unclear who the town was named for, by contrast, it’s quite apparent who the people were that actually founded Allen’s first seat.
There, not far from the bends of that churning muddy river, once stood a band of pro-slavery pioneers from Fort Scott, who had every intention of helping to make Kansas a slave state.
They had the support of prominent pro-slavery statesmen like Territorial Secretary Daniel Woodson, namesake of neighboring Woodson County, who given its pro-slavery politics christened Cofachique “the permanent seat” of Allen County.
To put it baldly, the residents of Cofachique did not believe that Black people were, in fact, “people.” Instead, they were things, and as such possessed as much worth beyond their utility as do the hay bales dotting the Cofachique field today, southwest of Iola.
Whether there were actually slaves at Cofachique is unclear, but it’s certainly possible.
Yet the racist legacy of the settlement was not to last, for “in 1858, a Free State legislature, looking upon Cofachique as a pro-slavery nest, removed the county seat to Humboldt, a new town that had been laid out the year before, some seven miles south of Cofachique.”
The Free State legislators that replaced the “Bogus” pro-slavery legislators weren’t the only ones who gave Cofachique a disapproving eye.
Feelings of “enmity” were directed at Cofachique from anti-slavery settlers living in Humboldt and Iola, and soon the town began to fail (not to mention being surrounded with a hilly terrain and having no good source of well-water).
Once Iola was officially founded in 1859, most remaining buildings and businesses were relocated to the northeast, leaving only a few scant archeological traces behind.
They never even had the chance to fly the rebel flag, since by the time the Civil War had started, the town had already failed.
Had it survived, pro-Union forces would have likely burned it to the ground in an act of riotous, Jayhawking demolition.
Even the Cofachique Township had its name stripped, to become thereafter Iola Township.
That the townsite was not only abandoned but obliterated, “forgotten,” it seems was intentional. The people of Allen County had spoken and their values illuminated.
There is no place for the horrors of slavery here. Not even a trace of such hatred or malice will be permitted.
We will erase your very name. … In flames, if necessary.
THE wind was barely moving, the air heavy and stagnant, as I watched the children of a Black family playing at Cofachique Park in Iola, across from the armory.
An older daughter was chasing a younger one as she squealed with delight.
Of course, they would not have been welcome nor safe in Allen County’s first seat, unless they were destined for servitude as slaves, though that’s not something apparent from the memorial marker positioned there.
“Founded in 1855, the town of Cofachique was located southwest of where Iola now stands, and is believed to have been named for an American Indian princess. The town lasted only a few years and in 1859 many of the citizens of Cofachique literally moved their homes and business buildings to form the City of Iola.”
“In 1995, the Iola City Commission held a contest among USD 257 fifth-graders to decide upon an official name for this park. They selected Cofachique Park, which was submitted by the 1994-95 5th grade class from McKinley Elementary School.”
After kneeling to reread the caption on the marker, I rose to survey the adjoining wood sign as traffic tore by along the highway.
Nonetheless, the world slowed, and I thought at length about the question of naming, about remembering, and what we choose to honor from the past.
Was that what was happening here? Honoring?
I thought about men like Daniel Woodson and the settlers from Fort Scott who made Cofachique a reality, and to what end.
I dreamed them there, along that rise by the river, harboring murderous rage in their hearts borne of a sense of righteous and unquestionable superiority.
Had it been up to them, I shudder to think what the country would look like today. … and at the fate of those two young Black girls.
As night falls in Cottage Grove cemetery, that’s when the screams begin.
Old settlers used to claim there were panthers in the woods nearby, enormous cats with claws and fangs that move on deathly silent paws.
When children heard their terrorizing calls, they swore it had to be someone condemned to hell, begging for a merciful end.
As I walked the path to the cemetery entrance an icy wind sliced through me like blades. I swore I, too, heard voices and that every echoing step through the cold might be my last.
Despite the irony of dying in a cemetery, at least my final remains wouldn’t have far to travel.
BEFORE being called Cottage Grove, the cemetery was named Oak Grove, and before that, the Phillips family graveyard.
Its hauntingly moving aesthetic is immediately apparent upon approach, as are the impressive boulders that wrap around the site — which “Tales of Early Allen County” describes as being akin to “a protecting arm.”
Despite innumerable times the hungry waters of the Neosho have crawled from their banks, intent on consuming this elegant city of the dead, the barrier has nonetheless held fast, clothed in its ancient armor.
In winter, the enormous limestone blocks were draped in long, white icicles trailing to the ground, dripping slowly, slowly, eating away at the structure, meticulously shaping them, as has happened for countless millennia.
If the cemetery stands as a series of monuments to the lives of the human dead, to what, pray, do these strange and magnificent markers pay homage?
I imagine the Osage and other tribes had a story or two about these sacred forms, perhaps how they made the birth of a people possible, or marked the site of an epic primordial confrontation.
For as Suquamash/Duamish Chief Seattle once explained: “Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished.”
AS IS only fitting, the tale of how Cottage Grove cemetery came into existence involves an inconceivable local tragedy.
Dr. Isaac Phillips and his partner Elizabeth Holmes were staking out a claim in the area during the initial white settlement of the county, when just before Christmas 1859, their beloved daughter Maranda met a horrific end when she was only 9 years old.
An entry written for the Iola Register in 1931 by Lucretia Campbell outlines the event as follows:
“In 18 the Christmas holiday preparations were quickly turned to sorrow by the tragic death of the neighborhood doctor’s little girl.”
“She was helping her mother stir a large kettle of pumpkin butter over an outdoor fire when her dress was caught by the flames, and before they could be extinguished she was badly burned.”
“Neighbors and friends prepared the crude casket and dug the little grave in the southwest corner of the doctor’s homestead.”
“Later, when patients and friends were cut down by the Grim Reaper they too found a resting place in this same plot of ground, now donated by the doctor for a public graveyard.”
Campbell’s account is nothing less than transformative for the scene of Cottage Grove.
I was no longer simply enduring the bitter cold on a winter’s day near Christmas in a frigid, desolate graveyard.
I was standing near Dr. Phillips’ home, and instead of the screams of predatory cats, I trembled at the piercing wails of a young girl.
And as I knelt in the dry and crumbling leaves to touch the cold stone of her grave, I dreamed being surrounded not by a cemetery inscribed with misquotations from the Bible and Shakespeare, but sorrowful neighbors torn apart by grief.
NOT surprisingly, the death of his daughter took a seismic toll on Dr. Phillips, devastating his psyche in gruesome ways.
Legend has it that one night a corpse was secretly delivered to the good doctor for “medical research,” and only an empty casket was buried thereafter.
What Frankenstein-like experiments he might have had in mind, one shudders to guess.
In another version of the story, a body was being delivered to the cemetery on a lumber wagon, when something menacing in the darkness terrified the horses so badly that they ran, smashing the wagon across the rocks and throwing the corpse into the yawning and ravenous night.
Either way, one of the coffins buried in Cottage Grove is reportedly empty, and the body of the dead, long missing.
AS IF disappearing corpses weren’t enough, Cottage Grove arguably boasted its own “woods witch” of sorts, the one and only fiery suffragette, Lucretia Campbell.
Campbell’s life story could supply ample material for an entire autobiography, but her connection to the cemetery alone is fascinating.
Just across the Neosho was the homestead of Campbell’s father, William, where he had constructed a log cabin in 1855.
When efforts failed to convert the original homestead into a state park and the cabin was in danger of being demolished, Lucretia herself dismantled it piece by piece and rebuilt it on the cemetery grounds, veneered with slab logs, chinked cracks and furnished with antiques.
Her “pioneer museum” was born, and she lived out the remainder of her life there, determined to preserve the relics of a bygone era.
Campbell even is reported to have set out a perpetual “dining room” akin to that of Miss Havasham in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” where the furnishings were allowed to collect and rot in a kind of artistic exploration of ruin.
All that remains today of Campbell’s efforts are some of the stones from the cabin’s fireplace, but as I stood over them, I could nevertheless feel the revenant of their ghostly warmth and breathe the wispy smoke they slowly emitted.
Though Lucretia is buried not far away along with her father, it seemed as though those fireplace stones were just as true a memorial, a fitting monument to someone who seems to have longed to defy the passage of time.
For like Isaac Phillips’ anguish at the loss of his daughter, or Campbell’s own pain at the loss of her father and childhood home, the words of Miss Havisham still resonate in spectral refrain:
“The broken heart. You think you will die, but you just keep living.”
“Day after day after terrible day.”
The sky between Moran and Elsmore is open and dreamily quiet. There, late summer corn sways subtly upon warm wind and you can sense your heartbeat slowing to match its rhythm.
But in the 1870s and ’80s, this place was anything but tranquil, and more than once the blood of Allen countians nourished the earth.
There’s evidence of discord as early as 1873, when some 30 or 40 farmers assembled at the courthouse to protest the claim that the L.L.&G. Railroad had on their land.
Early settlers in the area who’d been squatting on and farming the land thought this made them de facto owners. But it was the railroads who’d actually purchased the acres there by the thousands.
“Land Leagues” were soon to form in order that squatters might defend their claims, by deadly force if necessary.
In 1877, they met at the Nilwood schoolhouse “for the purpose of organizing for their own protection in case said lands are restored to entry with no stipulation favoring present occupants.”
As I nervously peered through the doorway of another nearby schoolhouse that’s still standing, Prairie Rose, I dreamed them there, red-faced and bombastically shouting in the dusty little room, ironically incensed that lands which had been effectively stolen from native people had now been taken from them as well.
Four white barn owls gazed at me from the little building’s rafters and startled as I dared to get a closer look, their own silence suddenly turning as frantic as the livid farmers who’d once demanded the rights to their acreage.
It wasn’t a small group of those concerned, either, for a meeting in Ard’s Grove in Elsmore Township reportedly drew 800 wagons and 2,500 people who were living on railroad lands.
Demonstrations and protests were soon to follow, and on April 6, 1878, a makeshift parade of about 40 men passed through Iola with banners, including the demand that the Bowluses not sell any more “indemnity land” to the railroads.
When I last walked along the Iola square, I dreamed them there, slowly processioning, with long white sheets drawn between horses, streaked menacingly with paint and making not-so-veiled threats on George Bowlus’ person.
On the other hand were those who either recognized the railroads’ claims or didn’t want to see the situation come to blows, such as the Taxpayers Union in Moran who called the Land League’s actions “unwarranted and unlawful.”
They even went so far as to call the Leaguers “terrorists,” and 82 local men signed a document opposing their activities.
Given the contrast, it isn’t hard to see how the situation was ready to explode.
IN Moran cemetery, there’s a rare arched stone carved from what appears to be white granite. It’s doubly unique in that the two bodies buried side by side beneath it are both men, and appear to be unrelated by any obvious family tie.
What binds them together instead is having met their untimely ends due to the war over land not far to the southeast of the cemetery, near the little village once called “Elsinore.”
Surrounded by the ghosts of mourners in black, I recalled the story.
In February 1884, “Widow” Hawes had recruited her brothers James and John Herklerode, along with a young Robert McFarland, to come out to her land to start building a house.
However, the land on which this house was to be built was also claimed by another Leaguer, Hugh Guilland, who was rumored to be a pretty rough character.
As the builders were on their way to the proposed site of Hawes’ house, they were stopped by Guilland and his three sons who ordered them to leave, though eventually claimed they were content with letting the Land League determine who ultimately had the best claim.
Either they’d changed their minds or it was merely a ruse, for shortly after the Guilland’s came charging back fully armed and opening fire on the Herklerodes.
James was shot repeatedly by Hugh Guilland, including a bullet that passed through his heart, leaving him dead in the dirt.
Not to be outdone, Guilland’s sons (Ike, Joe and Andy) shot Robert McFarland repeatedly and, according to the Iola Register, “then finished with a 2×4 scantling, literally beating his brains out.”
Guilland and his sons narrowly escaped a local lynch-mob by fleeing to Humboldt to surrender, and though they were convicted would only serve short sentences before being pardoned.
It’s little wonder that while standing in the Moran cemetery, one can still sense feelings of rage and grief radiating from around the two young men’s pearlescent monument.
DESPITE the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the railroads’ various land titles, along with the protestations of residents (and livid newspaper editors), the conflict was far from over.
Houses were set ablaze. Former squatters rode up and shot at new land residents in broad daylight. The courts were in upheaval. Elections hinged upon whether or not one was “for the League.”
Perhaps the most incredible incident, however, happened in August 1888, in an altercation between Leaguer J.W. Crisler and Columbus Carter.
Crisler was a tenant on a farm where another Leaguer named Smith had been evicted, and Crisler and others therefore despised Carter merely for taking over the claim.
At one point, they crossed paths near Crisler’s house whereupon Carter drew a revolver on him and reportedly said “I might as well give you one right now.”
In response Crisler wickedly swung his pitchfork at Carter, disarming him, and the two gladiators then scabbled in an all-out brawl.
According to the Register, “the two men grappled and fought until one of Crisler’s ears and a part of his nose was bitten off and one of his eyes was gouged out.”
Columbus Carter was arrested shortly after, held in Iola and then brought to trial in the Mattox country school house.
During the proceedings, tensions were so heightened that “Carter’s attorney became convinced that preparations were being made to lynch his client,” which might have had something to do with the effigy that had been hung up by the mob.
Carter was therefore to be transferred from Iola to Moran, but along the way the wagons were overtaken by 15 masked horsemen who started firing and demanded he be handed over.
Supposedly, with a grim expression Carter said: “For God’s sake, boys, if you’re not going to shoot, give me the gun.”
So they did … though Carter only got off a shot or two before being commanded to stop.
Although the group somehow miraculously escaped, Carter was later killed on August 22, 1888, ambushed on his way home to Iola.
The Leaguers had hidden out behind a hedge fence, though some reports say in a corn field, and waited for Carter to pass.
Multiple rifle and shotgun blasts painted the soil red.
In the Bronson cemetery, I stood over the grave of Columbus Carter, thinking about how he’d bitten off J.W. Cristler’s ear, then evaded a posse only to be executed at the crossroads.
Patting the stone as a thunderstorm welled up and turned the sky blue-black, I couldn’t help but sense that, in response, oddly enough, Carter’s ghost wore a peculiar and undefinable grin at what he’d managed to accomplish.
Confederate supporters took revenge on Humboldt homes and businesses in response for the burning of Osceola, Missouri, during the Civil War.
Humboldt was on fire.
Red and pink light spilled across the town square, mixing with the orange and black blaze, yet I couldn’t pull my eyes off the northeastern corner where I’d seen the rebel militiaman take a bullet from somewhere hidden in the distance.
One moment the axe was in his hand, hacking away at the flagpole. The next, he was lifeless and dead.
The smell of ashes thickly swirled about the air, and the shouting had yet to cease along with the anxious cries of horses.
Heat from the inferno combined with that of the warm fall evening, and one would have been justified in believing that Hell itself had opened its doors and come spilling forth onto the prairie.
Through the destruction of more than 50 homes and businesses, Confederate supporters had taken their revenge for the burning of Osceola, Missouri, and the killing of Captain Matthews.
Camp Hunter would later be established near the river, outfitted with Union troops from the 9th and 11th Kansas regiment, but this evening there were few who might hold back the burning tide.
What few men remained who might lead a resistance were soon forced out of town at gunpoint, to what most feared was an execution.
Astonishingly, none of the home guard were harmed, but others were not so fortunate.
Soon to be joining the flag-chasing militiaman on his journey to the underworld was a farmer by the name of Seachrist, who’d refused an order to halt and took a ball in the shoulder.
Trying to save his rambunctious mules would cost him a nasty infection and a slow demise.
Other residents exhibited a canniness and subtlety that was rewarded not only with survival, but homes untouched by the torch.
Dr. Wakefield, a local physician (and secretly a Union officer), had his horses and medical lancets taken by guerrillas, but somehow managed to charm an opposing officer into joining him for dinner at his home.
Years later his daughter Elizabeth would write, “There was confusion as the house had been searched and some valuables taken but it was not on fire although the barn was burning.”
“A torch had been thrown into the front room but failed to ignite. The captain was soon having a good supper and put a guard around the house.”
“This was the night I carried our silver spoons under my shawl.”
Blocks south of the Humboldt square I dreamed of the Wakefields at their home, which is now nothing more than an empty lot with rough patches of grass.
Behind me, remarkably, militiamen were barking instructions as they helped carry housewares outdoors so as to spare their occupants the destruction of property.
With eyes closed, I saw Dr. Wakefield chatting and laughing with militiamen about “the good ‘ol days in Kentucky,” while Mrs. Wakefield was searching for something with which to poison the unsuspecting intruders.
Fortunately for her rough guests, she was unsuccessful.
OTHERS in town were also saving what they could by whatever means necessary.
Catching sight of the rebels from her house on Bridge Street, general store proprietor Sophia Fussman dragged a feather bed out back to her well so as to fashion a makeshift vault.
After tossing the mattress down the dark pit, she snatched up every valuable item she could carry and dropped them below onto the plush cushion.
Dreaming her releasing the books one by one, I wondered at their titles, as I watched silently from across the street as the sound of 300-plus guerrillas and horses drew ominously closer.
Along with their Confederate-loyal Native compatriots, they’d soon begun to touch bright torches to soft surfaces and tongues of fierce color rippled through the early evening.
One house kissed by fire was the Coffey’s, at the Corner of 8th and Bridge, where the militiamen had overturned what they’d believed to be a barrel of tar so as to hasten the blaze.
What they failed to realize, however, was that Coffey’s was also a grocery store, and what they’d spilled was actually molasses.
Thanks to the sticky-sweet retardant, along with an enormous pile of wet laundry, Mrs. Coffey was able to staunch the flames.
Another heroine was Kate Burnett, whose brother, J.C., was the register of the newly opened land office.
Legend has it that she gained permission to go into the building by, oddly enough, asking to obtain a candle, and while inside the office launched $25,000 in land warrants out the window into the tall grass below.
I dreamed her there, spellbound, as I watched from across the square while papers more valuable than currency drifted through the air like leaves, some of the edges singeing and turning black as they fell.
They danced and turned as did the wily women of Humboldt in outsmarting their determined arsonists.
THE AFTERMATH was a horror to behold.
The Rev. Berner, a minister serving the Owl Creek area in Woodson County, wrote in a letter that while visiting families near Humboldt he initially saw the devastation at the distance, then firsthand.
Narrowly missing an encounter with the rebels by hiding out in a cornfield, he said it was possible to “hear the roaring of the fire and the crashing of the buildings as they succumbed to the raging elements.”
“At 10:30 p.m. the miscreants left the town, after they had gratified their destructive lust and had pillaged all they could.”
The following morning, “nearly the whole town lay in ashes and ruin, [with] parents and children left homeless.”
“One mother was carrying her little child in its arms with absolutely no clothing on its body. Everything was plundered or burned.”
All worldly goods that Berner had left in town were gone as well: buggy, harness, saddle, money.
His church was one of the few buildings spared, however, unlike O’Brian’s Mill and so many others.
One dreams him there, that morning, October 15, 1861, as a blessed rain began to fall, extinguishing what fires remained.
One dreams him outside the church doors gasping, sobbing, thankful for his and others’ lives whilst surrounded by abject destruction.
One dreams him asking the only question that likely seemed to matter: Why?
Iola Mineral Water and resort drew travelers from Kanas City, elsewhere for 'miracle' cure for all that ailed them.
Pioneer life is hard. Time for a vacation.
But where to?
A charming city featuring scenic places to drive one’s wagon. Check.
Reasonably priced resort with free food. Check, check.
So where might one find this attractive gem, and will other members of high society be present to further distinguish one’s company?
Believe it or not, some of the finest ladies in all Kansas City, including Mrs. B.S. Henning, Mrs. Dr. N.N. Horton and others recommend the mineral well resort in Iola, Kansas, featuring its one-of-a-kind, unique-to-all-the-world Iola Mineral Water.
No sooner had they exited their posh palace car had they absolutely fallen in love.
“Mr. Acers, you have quite the little town here,” one dreams of them saying as they greeted their host at the park. “I also heard a rumor that the baths in your resort were once tubs from the distillery. Is that so?”
“Guilty as charged,” grinned the attorney-proprietor, as a blast from the jet black Santa Fe engine sounded on the tracks nearby.
The train hadn’t been passing through for more than a couple of years, but it was nonetheless a welcome sight bringing along with it the potential for countless guests.
Acers and crew had initially been prospecting for coal east of the tracks near today’s Riverside Park, but as former Register editor Charles Scott put it, “by a quirk of chance the bit that drilled into a gas pocket simultaneously opened a vein of mineral-laden salt water.”
The Water of Life. A wondrous substance to cure all that ails you.
Others, like the ladies from Kansas City, likely hadn’t come to be “cured,” but imbibed the putrid water all the same, with its delectable concoction of sulfurous saltiness.
Bathed in it, too, in their striped, full-body swimwear, while likely keeping their social distance from the afflicted.
In the 1870s, there was quite the menagerie of avoidables, though all listed as within the purview of the Mineral Water’s curative powers: erysipelatous, syphilitic, scrofulous and fever sores; sore eyes, catarrh, general debility, liver and kidney disease, blood poison, rheumatism, necrosis, hemorrhoids, pimples, asthma, headaches and heart disease.
But no matter what was bringing you down, you could be miraculously healed for “between seven to 12 dollars a week.”
Couldn’t make it in person? The proprietors shipped bottled Iola Mineral Water across the U.S. and around the globe, with enthusiastic converts as far away as Europe.
“Looking at the shipping book it appears the waters of the singular well have been sent out to 18 states, one territory, the District of Columbia and to London, proving clearly that how little value has been attached to the water at home, it has much significance abroad.”
INDEED, the devotees were innumerable, and fervent.
Consider the following testimonial:
“Sir, I am 74 years old, and for fifty years I had a fever sore on my leg. I tried all remedies in my reach, and was treated by many eminent physicians all to no lasting benefit.”
“In August 1874, I commenced using Iola mineral water very freely. I drank two gallons some days, and bathed my leg often. In two weeks the sore was entirely healed, and the lameness soon disappeared. I am now entirely well. I use no medicines whatever.”
Maybe one gets accustomed to the eggy smell and snotty texture after a while? I mean, anything that offensive to the senses has got to be good for you, right?
Just ask Dr. I.P. Randall of Holden, Missouri, who’d been a physician for 35 years.
Standing atop the Sante Fe railbed west of Acers Park, I dreamed him there, walking near the artificial lake surrounded by pine and cedar trees, taking a dip in the fetid pools heated by gas from underground.
Years earlier, he’d contracted smallpox, and would later suffer a skin condition from it. Yet no matter what he did, the eczema persisted.
After seeking a cure for years, he’d found it. That miraculous Iola Mineral Water.
Holden was so blown away he even bought a managing interest in the spa outfit. Like the railroads who advertised the destination, he meant to cash in.
Quite a few others did as well, and by 1900, you could even get a Mineral Water on draft in downtown Iola.
Spencer’s, a local hangout, once served two large tanks of the stuff to parched customers on a hot July day.
By 1912, “city and county commissioners agreed to a drinking fountain from which would flow Iola mineral water to be erected in the northeast corner of the public square.”
It wasn’t too much extra effort, as enterprising commissioners had already (unsuccessfully) drilled for gas in the southeast corner a few years earlier.
YES, gas. The other wondrous substance that was going to make Iola the industrial center of the midwest, maybe the entire country.
It was already the secret to the magic elixir at Nelson Acers’ resort, that which (at least temporarily) converted him from an attorney and politician into a slick entrepreneur.
And astonishingly, by the late 1890s wells were drilled that “turned Iola from a sleepy village to a roaring industrial center.”
By 1907, the town’s claim to industrial preeminence was undisputed and its economy was soaring.
But in less than a decade, the boom would go bust, with millions of cubic feet of gas having been unwittingly wasted.
In the words of Charles Scott, “the death of Iola’s dream of becoming the industrial metropolis of the state was swift and sure.”
Few traces remain of the Allen County Poor Farm. Some descriptions set the scene as idyllic with peach and apple trees, but the 'inmates' often came from bleak situations.
What social and moral duties we have toward the poor, the disabled and the elderly are perennial questions, but perhaps surprisingly, they dominated public discussion when Kansas was in its infancy.
One finds an answer to such questions, or at least its remnants, about four miles north of Iola on farmland once known as the Allen County Home, or as it was known by most, the Allen County Poor Farm.
Today, few traces remain, including building foundations, a dance floor, a pond built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and several metal crosses reportedly demarcating a cemetery.
Not to mention the ghosts, whose sadness and emptiness seem to echo on the prairie wind.
There are references to the poor farm as early as the late 1860s, when the editor of the Register advocated “that such a farm should be at once put in operation.”
Rather than any ethical argument, they simply pointed to the cheap cost of land, and contended that the institution might not only be self-sustaining but even profitable.
Such appeals must have worked, for by March 1872 county commissioners passed a resolution stating that “all paupers and charges upon Allen County, shall be conveyed to and placed in the care and custody of the Superintendent of the Asylum, for the poor of Allen County.”
Soon after, an idyllic scene emerges. A caring physician named Driscol had taken charge, new buildings popped up and the peach and apple trees were blooming.
By 1911, someone “who visited the poor farm … suggested the name of the farm be changed. Halting at the gate of the well-kept farm, surveying the broad acres green with growing grass and gardens, stocked with fine fat cattle, hogs and chickens, he commented it was more like a pleasant country home.”
Yet many starkly contrasting reports exist, such as a mention in the 1927 Register to the effect that: “trustees and others should not misrepresent the accommodations of the poor house. There are no changes of clothing kept for the inmates, nor is the house kept as a first class hotel. Some who have recently taken lodgings there are said to be sorely disappointed.”
Standing in the pasture south of the farm, watching the storm clouds gather, I found myself wishing someone remained to provide a picture of what life had truly been like there, to say whether the peach trees had made up for any shame, mistreatment or other indignities that might have come along with them.
Indeed, one dreams “inmate” eyes watching farm buildings burning at various points across the years, and wonders if they were accompanied by sorrow or strange elation, feelings of vindication by those pushed to the margins of society for being “abnormal.”
SO WHO were some of the “inmates” at the poor farm tended to by “the overseer,” those who had been categorically prevented from participating in society and perhaps disciplined and punished in the name of remaking who they were?
The infamous Daniel Boomhover was tried for insanity in 1876. “The jury returned a verdict of ‘unsound mind,’ but failed to find him a fit subject for the insane asylum. He was sent to the county poor farm.”
Ellen Freet was a 50-year-old woman whose health had been failing rapidly and had no place else to go.
Richard White, too, had been quite ill for some time, “with a decided disposition to dropsy.” He died on the farm at age 63.
What is most remarkable about these entries is the fact that they exist at all, and list proper names, as concerns over privacy would later make any records of this kind quite scant.
What few entries do exist, however, fascinate and draw us in, often calling us to weep as well as occasionally laugh.
One such unintentionally humorous note reads: “Humboldt Township sent 17 out of the 32 inmates of the poor farm, during the past four years. Just a little over half the total number from one township looks curious.”
Other cases are far more bleak, such as case after case where young mothers in poverty (often abandoned) are noted as giving birth there, or “foster” children who were forced to take up residence and eventually be “bound out.”
There was also significant heartbreak and anger afoot, such as in 1900 when “Oscar Eckler was found in the billiard hall playing pool. It was discovered he had yet to pick up his three children, (ages) 3, 6, 8, from the poor farm and so Allen County still pays the board for the family.”
Eckler was later convicted of child abandonment.
Perhaps the most detailed description of any “inmate,” though, is connected to Frone Wetke.
Wetke was found in a barn near Humboldt, and could neither speak English nor explain himself and his circumstances.
All anyone could get out of him was that he’d perhaps escaped from military service in another country.
Wetke was given work on a local farm, but “showed signs of insanity and was turned over to county authorities.”
Bound for the asylum at Osawatomie, he was turned away due to overcrowding and so the judge ended up “removing him from the jail to the poor farm.”
In less than a month, he escaped. I dreamed him stealthily creeping across the same field in which I had stood, as he frantically looked about for anyone who might hinder his passage to freedom.
Is it possible that today, with a greater understanding of post-traumatic military stress combined with a German translator, Wetke might have met an entirely different fate?
What does this case show us about the nature of diagnosing pathology and “insanity”?
SPEAKING of fate, southeast of the farm one finds several white metal crosses near the highway, which reportedly reveal the location of the poor farm’s cemetery.
As a light rain began to fall, I carefully examined the ground near said crosses, looking for indentations in the earth, any tangible proof that the memorials placed there did in fact denote a graveyard.
Various records and testimony over the years make it fairly clear that a burial place existed on the grounds — such as the death notice of John Newton Watson in 1912 — but as evidenced by dust-ups over wooden memorial markers and land-ownership as late as 2009, its location has yet to be absolutely confirmed.
In a news story from 2010, one county employee claimed he’d determined a location of 38 graves based on a folk technique known as “witching,” a process typically used to find water, where one uses a stick to point to something underground.
Perhaps it’s time, then, in the name of county history, local curiosity and civic responsibility to borrow the forensic or archeological equipment necessary to definitively answer the question.
To include those “othered” for so long, and thus removed from the sphere of our concern, even if only after death …
There’s something satisfying in that there’s no marker for John Brown’s Cave by the roadside, or even on the trail itself.
The path forks in multiple directions upon one’s approach, flanked by worn farm buildings and limestone fences, so without a map or prior knowledge, it’s possible to walk right by without knowing it.
It makes this landmark that supersedes all human history into a clandestine treasure, something that requires a bit of intimacy to encounter despite being in a public space.
The stone that comprises this “solutional” cave is perhaps over 250 million years old, and the structure itself about one-fifth that age, which means its memory is vast beyond what human memory and imagination can comprehend.
Instead there are only trembling echoes of ancient indigenous peoples and fearsome creatures swimming in the inland depths.
Over eons, the layers of soft sediment flowed into place granule by granule, hardened and hollowed, then became exposed.
What sacred significance was given it by the people of the wind and plains?
By how many other names has it been called?
EVEN before stepping inside the diagonal vault of the cave, you can feel the temperature start to drop and time begin to rapidly rewind.
Recently, I attuned myself to the precise moment so as to feel it — I had crunched through the recently fallen leaves, descending toward the mouth, when stealthily it struck me, enlivening my skin and filling my lungs.
That mineral smell of cold rock and earth that signals the cave is not merely an interior but an entire surrounds, something with the power to envelop.
The cave is a phenomenon that reaches out to greet you, as it has to its guests for an epoch, and its magnetic force actively draws one to its uncanny mystery.
A world of ghosts erupts therefrom, surrounds you and fills you, questioning:
Do I dare to touch the stillborn stalactites, with their alien, crystalline veins?
Do I dare to crawl the distance in the wet, rocky dark to emerge beneath bluffs in daylight?
Or do I hide, and disappear within the geometric folds of time?
INDEED, the cave evokes images of hiding and disappearance, and not merely because it is a place of concealment.
The cave's very name is a place of hiding.
Abolitionist John Brown, who came to Kansas about the same time as the founding of Allen Woodson Counties, had been a conductor on the underground railroad, ferrying former slaves to freedom.
Though it's likely only a legend, given Brown's haunting of the early history of Kansas, one dreams him there just as readily as "John Brown" the local farmer, the cave's likely actual namesake.
Sitting near the mouth of the cave, I first dreamed an almost inaudible voice along with the parting of the undergrowth nearby.
They emerged almost noiselessly, the young Black family, accompanied by an older white woman in masculine dress.
I watched as she whispered instructions, then left almost as soon as she’d come, disappearing to the south in tattered overalls.
Exhausted, the parents and children collapsed against the cave’s mossy olive walls nearby, their breathing still labored.
Then everything became motionless, save the buzzing gnats and purple butterflies tossed about by the wind.
. . .
When the middle-aged man with sharp features arrived at the cave that evening, I immediately remarked on his gray eyes, and how he seemed to stoop when walking.
He bore no feature that would mark him out as a saint or madman, devil or visionary.
Nothing to say he was an armed killer who “bled” Kansas.
He wasn’t even a giant in stature, despite enormous deeds that would earn him the reputation as a terrorist.
His ghost simply appeared, gathered the young family, and dispersed into the waiting stars.
ABOUT half a century later, other people began visiting the cave, though mostly for pleasure and leisure as opposed to subverting the scourge of slavery.
One early exception, however, came during the prohibition years (1910), when the cave’s reputation as a hiding place was once again earned:
“Chief of Police John J. Creed, Undersheriff Hoover Kerr and Marshal Jim Frederickson of Bassett, secured information yesterday that a barrel of whiskey was being hauled from a Gas City depot to the John Brown cave.”
“They got into a wagon and drove out to the cave but there was no liquor there. They did, however, find an empty barrel in the vicinity, and it is possible that the owners of the booze anticipated trouble, emptied the barrel and made away with the goods.”
Indeed, the cave seems to bear a fascinating link to illegal activities, and in the previous two cases, those bound to legal changes and social upheaval.
It’s almost as if the cave is a gestation-place, where that which is not yet ready to become the norm, must first undergo a period of growth.
Speaking of gestation, many young people over the years have enjoyed coming-of-age experiences at the cave, especially the girl scouts and boy scouts.
They hiked and fished and camped and cooked s’mores over open fires, in a time before American culture entombed itself in caves of air conditioned, digitized housing, away from the peskiness of neighbors and Nature.
Like scout troops, Sunday schools used to make regular excursions to the cave as well, perhaps premised on trying to envision a certain brown-skinned Palestinan carpenter making his postmortem emergence therefrom.
For instance, during the early 20s, young girls from the Methodist Episcopal church not only picnicked there, “they cooked a breakfast of bacon and eggs with buns.”
“Each one carried a pillow along and plenty of magazines were read during the rest hour.”
“Swimming in Rock Creek was a popular feature of the outing and explorations of the cave made interesting occupation.”
AND it occupies us still: this strange formation indicated by a tunnel through time.
It carries one from sunbonnets to whip scars to bison-hunts. From the love of Jesus to Freedom to the Land.
To a time of monsters, predators under the Kansas sea.
The infamous Charley Melvin blew up the saloons in Iola, believing he was chosen by God to do so. He was tracked down in Iowa and sent to the insane ward in prison.
For weeks, Charley Melvin couldn’t sleep. His body was failing him, his mind was on fire.
He was so “wild for relief,” he even tried whiskey-beer cocktails to stanch the insomnia.
Ever since that damned horse had kicked him, he’d ceaselessly and unmistakably heard it in his dreams: The Voice of God.
It would haunt him in the night until he’d leap from bed shouting revelations and terrifying his wife Etta.
But try as he might, he couldn’t escape it. He’d been “called,” “chosen.”
“God’s purpose has been given but to few people on this earth. I am one of that few,” he said.
“I have been led by the spirit of God in the pillar of fire, just as truly as ever Moses was led by God.”
On the outside, Melvin was a vegetable farmer, concrete factory laborer and father of eight.
On the inside burned writing on stone tablets, “a tendency to wildness” and a clear understanding of the enemy.
To the saloon-owners, he wrote: “as there seems to be no redemption for you, you might as well go to hell first as last, and we are going to send you there if you don’t quit the business and for good.”
The fact that prohibitory laws weren't being enforced, either, also further stoked his rage.
True to his word, Melvin was setting his mind to murder in accordance with the Will of the Almighty.
“I planned to kill the saloon men with my gun,” he told a reporter in 1905, “but they got in on my plans and postponed the act.”
By contrast, his other terrorist activities were met with a facility that likely affirmed Melvin’s own sense of divine destiny and purpose.
“After the explosion occurred I knew it had been a good job, even more than I had hoped for,” he said, betraying a hint of glee.
The Eagle, The Blue Front and The Red Light saloons, on West Street across from the post office, had been decimated.
Melvin was triumphant, like a ferocious Christ having just turned over the tables of the money-changers.
CAREFULLY surveying the buildings along West Street, searching for clues, I dreamed Melvin there setting his plans in motion, “the wrecker” staking out “the joints.”
Around midnight, he deposited the dynamite along alleyways, more than 100 sticks for each saloon. He’d carried it into town earlier with a little horse-drawn spring wagon.
Authorities also later found explosives on both the north and east sides of the square. And at the Campbell Saloon in Bassett.
An unassuming 42-year-old, desperate enough for meaning to do anything.
“I was so mad I decided to kill every jointist in town, or die in the attempt,” Melvin wrote, his righteous indignation seething up through the space between every word until …
The air was absorbed in fire.
Glass shattered in storefronts and homes.
Brick walls wrenched and cracked.
Trees and telephone poles bent.
The courthouse clock stopped dead.
The saloons, annihilated.
I had hit the ground but to no avail. I’d been knocked out cold and couldn’t hear a thing for the insane ringing in my ears.
Around 500 pounds of TNT sounding in two distinct blasts. Enough to raise the alarm in Neosho Falls and trap J.E. Thorpe, owner of the Blue Front, beneath two layers of rubble.
Standing under the awning of the Shannon Hardware building nearby, there Melvin stood with flames reflecting in his ghostly eyes.
“You as a class worship no God but Mammon,” he had written of the saloon-owners and those whose wickedness led them to drink. “In the name of mankind we arraign you at the judgment bar of God.”
His judgment hath come: Melvin and God, whose desires had become inextricably bound.
The “hot time in the old town” had been delivered as promised, as ashes spiraled up and down the street, around my feet, and falling upon my lips and forehead.
AFTER Sheriff Richardson tracked Melvin down near Keystone, Iowa, he submitted with very little resistance, maintaining an air of dignity.
Having been in and out of asylums for years, perhaps he was simply numb to the prospect of incarceration.
Or he’d given up the hope for freedom and joy as part of his mission, just as he’d had to accept as providence the debilitating grief of losing two children earlier in life.
In fact, he claimed that before the bombing he’d requested to be remanded back to psychiatric care, as “mind you, I was not crazy, but I was afraid I would be.”
Not surprisingly, supposedly he was found guilty in under a minute, and his troubled psychological health attested to by his wife.
(She further noted that multiple members of Melvin’s family suffered from psychological illness.)
At first it seemed Melvin adapted to life in prison, bearing his cross unflinchingly, after having been sentenced to 15 years behind bars.
By January 1906, he was “working in the twine plant of the penitentiary, and [had] charge of several spindles. He [was] a model prisoner, who attends his work faithfully, is never unruly and never gives any trouble.”
It wasn’t to last. Something would eventually break inside him. For after eight years in the psychological ward at Lansing, Melvin eventually stopped eating.
Eight years of suffering had reduced his fervent fire to ash.
A year and a half later, given his waning health, Melvin was released.
“A mental and physical wreck after serving nine years of his 15-year sentence in the insane ward, authorities believe he is being sent home to die.”
And so he was.
In those final hours, did he recall the glory of that hot July night when he’d carried out the mission given him by the Divine?
Did he forget, for a moment, those 9 years of anguish, and at the end trade them for those two glorious concussion-bursts that made all Allen County tremble?
When standing just off the west side of the square, I swear you can still feel it.
"It is what it is" ... except when it isn't. Pot's Corner, an intersection marked by chamber pots adorning corner fence posts, is an example of how you can take something crude and turn it into art.
There’s a saying folks in the Midwest often use, though I don’t recall it being nearly as prevalent when I was growing up here: It is what it is.
I can’t begin to tell you how much I loathe that phrase.
Some possible interpretations include: Nothing’s to be done about it. Nothing’s going to change. Deal with it. Accept your situation. Accept the pain. Move on. Etc.
It’s an ontology — a theory of existence — that succinctly and simultaneously articulates rugged, uncomplaining individualism with an almost obscene sense that the world simply cannot improve for the better.
Hence it doesn’t take much imagination to see how, as political, social and economic conditions have continued to deteriorate for most people here in recent decades, that loathsome phrase has only increased in its use.
It is what it is. … But what about when it isn’t? When something that exists has an existence so peculiar as to thwart traditional categories of understanding, even scrambling the distinction between being and not-being at all?
ENTER Pot’s Corner, the mysterious and historically laden intersection northeast of Moran at the intersection of Oregon Road and 4600 Street.
It at first appears to be an intersection like any other, with tall grass, weeds and thistles bristling about and gently shifting in the seasonal wind.
But then you notice the chamber pots, each one adorning a corner fence post, along with a recently erected sign reading “Pot’s Corner” in bright orange metal letters.
It’s at this moment, I think, one finds oneself transported to the margin and eventually the center of an enormous artwork, a place where everyday notions of “what is” begin to break down.
Most obviously, a chamber pot seated atop a fence post is no longer a mere “piss pot.” It has been transformed into something else entirely.
Here the lowly object is transmuted into something “higher” and worthy of artistic wonder and philosophical contemplation.
Is it what it is any longer?
SO WHO are the artist and curator of this strange exhibit?
As Dale Maley — who, incidentally, owns land on two of Pot’s Corner’s four corners — installed the neon orange sign in 2016, thereby officially setting the scene, it seems he is the framer or guide for our artistic journey.
Maley grew up in the area and his passion for local history led him to make a preservationist gesture of the place he recalls as standing out even a half-century ago.
By now, the number of vandalized or stolen pots he and his neighbors have replaced are likely beyond counting.
And the aesthetic genius behind the Corner itself?
It would appear southeast Kansas’ very own Marcel Duchamp and his “readymades” is a fellow by the name of Walker Albert Gillham.
“He started it,” explained his daughter-in-law Ruth, to Register reporter Rick Danley in 2017.
“He worked for the county and, at that time, they didn’t have mechanized equipment to work on the road.”
“He was clearing out a ditch and came upon this chamber pot, and so when he got to the corner, he just put it up on the corner post. And others, I suppose, followed his lead thereafter.”
Ruth Gillham further described her father-in-law as kind, hard-working and an avid fisherman. Unfortunately, he developed arthritis at an early age and had to use a cane or crutch for much of his lifetime.
Gillham’s grandson, Terry, confirmed the story, adding that the inaugural pot must have been placed no later than the 1940s, as Walker died of a heart condition in 1951 when Terry “was only a toddler.”
WHEN Gillham’s inaugural pot was put into place, it no longer was what it was.
No longer a container for refuse, but art.
Of course, Gillham had no intention of making art and in turn making history.
He likely was never even aware of the Corner’s function as a place for providing directions to those navigating the country-side, unless perhaps county workers were the first ones to do so as they were laying out roads.
The point is that Gillham turned some thing into something that it wasn’t.
And if philosophical acrobatics about art aren’t convincing, there’s always a more pragmatic approach.
Many of those from the area remember Pot’s Corner as a place of orientation, of giving direction, from a time when fewer trees meant greater visibility over large distances.
“Turn west at Pot’s Corner,” folks used to say, and some around the Osage Valley still do.
“It was a mark,” explained Patricia Ensminger. “So kids there would know where their corner was to turn.”
“There was a family that had some [cognitively disabled] children in the area and they put big targets on their barn so the kids would always know where home was.”
Once again, then, a transfiguration occurred. What began as so humble an object (or series thereof) became a way of finding home.
Perhaps the lesson here is that when life gives us … lemons … it might just be the very thing that gives us direction.
Or when we’re in deep … lemons …, at least we can always go home.
Even if we turn the wrong way, we’ll likely still find something interesting.
Go north of Pot’s Corner and one finds a locally infamous fungal growth spreading up the trunk of a Cottonwood tree.
Go east and one finds graffiti on a bridge where a disgruntled 1930s WPA worker scratched “Damn Roosevelt” into wet cement.
Stay put and encounter the vengeful ghost of Pot’s Corner, the “disturbed” son of a couple who once lived nearby.
Perhaps the young lad is simply confused and upset wondering who exactly “Pot” is, and why they had to mark the corner as theirs (with an apostrophe no less) when he was there first.
AS I passed through the legendary intersection on my last visit, the sun had just begun to set and the sky had turned from deep blue to explosive red.
I dreamed Walker Albert Gillham there, in the ditch, fading light reflecting in his eyes as he meticulously moved about on three limbs.
Stooping down, he grasped the lonely chamber pot in his hand, examined it and walked to place it on the nearest fencepost.
What was once a repository for detritus, had in his hands become art, a signal, something that had become immeasurably more than it had been only moments ago.
It is what it is?
That’s just a failure of imagination.
The ghostly echoes of 'the strongest, slipperiest and most expert lawbreakers' still haunt the original Allen County Jail, if you know how to listen for them.
Allen County’s first jail is brimming with ghosts.
Some are trying to escape. Others teeter on the brink of madness. A few are just plain drunk and disorderly.
Last time I walked by, the specter of Ada Rogers was busy sneaking her incarcerated husband various firearms, irrepressibly repeating an event from the summer of 1881.
She and two accomplices were eventually captured north of Burlington, and sentenced to five years hard labor.
This wasn’t the first time something of the sort had happened, either.
One of the first records regarding the limestone prison from 1870 notes how, on another hot summer night, “six prisoners escaped from the jail by sawing off two of the bars of the window grate.”
They, too, got help from an outsider.
The jail had barely stood a year and already its capacity to “hold the strongest, slipperiest and most expert of lawbreakers” had already come into question — especially after an angry mob lynched Elzy Dalson by pretending to be transporting a prisoner from Chanute.
For some, their struggles bound to the jail were psychological, like Thomas Vanmouse of Elsmore.
After speaking in tongues and being “possessed by the spirit” at a religious gathering (1895), he was thrown behind bars and left to rot after being judged insane.
Another desperate fellow by the name of Erickson had also been judged insane — 13 years earlier — and after his “friends” admitted him, he was found hanging from a makeshift noose in his cell.
If you’re quiet as death, you can still hear the echo of Erickson’s weight shifting and swinging as you tour the jail’s first floor.
Better to end it all quickly than be shipped to the hell of Osawatomie asylum with its thousands of lost and murmuring voices.
Better to meet the Void … after first scratching your will on the walls.
BETTER to have a drink and forget it — like Lulu Rosenburg, who in a news story from Halloween 1916, is reported to have gotten stumbling drunk before visiting her friend Anna Badgley, who’d been imprisoned for operating a house of ill repute.
Lulu already had the dubious distinction of being the first woman in Kansas sent to the penitentiary for repeatedly breaking Prohibition laws, and so was perhaps a bit numb to the prospect of being busted again.
But sure enough, remarking upon her impressive level of intoxication, the jailer decided that Rosenburg and Badgley should share a cell.
At night, near the northeast corner of the square, you can still hear the haunting yet heartwarming cackle of the two women as they laughed and talked and cried beneath limestone walls separating them from the starry darkness overhead.
Not surprisingly, Lulu wasn’t the only one to run afoul of the law in relation to the Devil’s Brew and end up in the pokey.
In 1884, Frank Babbitt, the county attorney, managed to convince other Allen County authorities that he could be released from the old jail so long as he paid all his legal fees.
He’d spent two months locked up after being convicted of selling whiskey.
Babbitt was especially fortunate, as a few short years later county commissioners decided that those imprisoned should pass the time by breaking rocks with a sledgehammer — perhaps to really stick it to those thespian degenerates who’d dare to schedule performances on a Sunday (1911).
As with all blind, fierce and traumatizing punishment, such “reforms” of course caused all crime in Allen County to abruptly come to an end, as well as forever reformed and bettered the character of those subjected to such indignities.
What other explanation is there for the fact that, after being incarcerated during the blazing summer of 1905, the saloon keepers in town paid to have fans installed in the already crumbling jail, including one in the jail’s main office (for free)?
ON A RELATED note, one actually and weirdly humorous series of “crimes” connected to those who did hard time in Allen’s earliest days regard sexual improprieties, many of a nature that U.S. courts no longer hear today.
Residents should perhaps beware, however, since according to sheriff Bryan Murphy, “adultery is still on the books.”
Stepping out on one’s spouse was not only considered immoral, but illegal, and hence “a person guilty of the crime of adultery [in 1904 could] be punished by six months in the county jail and a fine of $500.”
Indeed, in 1921 Iola police raided the West Street Hotel after “checking up the registry and selecting room No. 3.”
“They entered and found John Doe and Mrs. Mary Alias. They were placed under arrest and taken to the county jail. Before Judge Bartels … they were guilty of immoral behavior and each fined $100.”
Perhaps the most peculiar and noteworthy case of this kind, however, raises its spectral head in August 1906, when a fellow named Ira Tansey from Gas City and an unnamed Iola woman were arrested for “misconduct.”
“The mayor and some of the officers had seen the woman go into the residence of Tansey on south McRea several times and knowing his wife was away visiting in Missouri decided that the visit should stop.”
“At the appointed time Officer Hayt entered the house and found the Iola woman and Mr. Tansey sitting at a table with a couple of bottles of beer beside them.”
“They were taken in charge by the officers and hustled to the jail.”
For shame! It’s the rock-pile for you!
And don’t think they’ll go easy on “the fairer sex,” either, as evidenced from a case in 1911 when the local judge, D.B.D. Smeltzer, found himself searching for a pair of bloomers to fit Ella Reese while she worked on a street gang.
I darkly dream Reese there, exiting the old limestone structure in her “normal raiment,” cursing the August heat as she prepared to march across town or jump onto a wagon bound for labor on some of the county’s roads.
AS FOR LABOR of a different kind, battles by workers for fair pay and safe working conditions often resulted in imprisonment, especially for those considered to be organizers.
In 1920, for instance, Union men August Dorchy and Thomas Harvey of the Mine Workers of America ended up “staring at the faded ceiling in the Allen County jail” in connection with a mass protest scheduled to take place in Girard.
Almost certainly, Dorchy and Harvey were removed to the facility so as to hamstring the demonstrations and rallies, though their imprisonment was given the air of legality by claiming that the Union officers had been in contempt of court.
Likely possessing no evidence to hold them, the men were bailed out from their moldy cells two days later, after the protests in Girard were over.
As it has functioned so many times throughout history, incarceration and the law were spuriously wielded against those seeking justice.
Yet their revenant voices join the chorus of a thousand others, rattling the streets in a seismic wave of transformative energy that echoes still today.
Geneva’s memory is deep, with roots stretching back to the very beginnings of white settlement in Allen County.
Richard Fuqua (pronounced Funqway) set up shop to trade with the indigenous people of the area before Geneva and its sister city, Neosho Falls, had even come into being, in his cabin on a rocky hill beside a now almost-dry bend in the river.
Fuqua and his family arrived in the deathly frigid winter of 1855, bringing along with them about 60 head of cattle, and he took advantage of a nearby labyrinth of limestone that formed natural “chutes” to drive them to slaughter.
Running my hand along the pale stone formations one fall afternoon, I dreamed them there, the cattle pressing roughly through various apertures, calling loudly, perhaps already smelling the blood of others.
And above the din were the Fuquas, driving and prodding, east of the derelict log cabin that had once been their home.
While at the cabin as well, which had already been abandoned by the time early colonists arrived at Geneva, Fuqua and his sons, Leonard and William, acquainted themselves with the Sac and Fox tribe who camped along the river.
In order to gain their favor, Fuqua held sumptuous feasts featuring enormous kettles of stew, and in return, the native people showed their appreciation by performing intricate ritual dances.
Their favorite menu item? Dog.
Despite being friendly with the Sac and Fox people, especially when it came to wheeling and dealing, it seems by contrast Fuqua and his sons had trouble getting along with other whites.
In reference to a land battle, for instance, it’s noted how “Fuqua used his rifle as a club and Mr. Esse’s head still aches when he thinks of the blow he got that day.”
“J.E. Redfield also came in contact with this same gun barrel and for awhile it was thought he had received his death blow.”
Not surprisingly, then, at one of the first court meetings at Cofachique, Allen’s first (proslavery) county seat, several indictments were leveled against the Fuquas, though they somehow managed to escape prosecution.
Leonard Fuqua even went on to become the first sheriff of Woodson County in 1858.
AS FOR Geneva itself, a fellow by name of “Lawyer” Adams recalled visiting the settlement between Martin and Indian Creeks when it was still called Eureka, and hence made a bad pun about how the colonists must have “found it.”
He writes “I found the place and found that the town consisted of a hole in the ground (where they had been digging for water), and the people camped around the creek.”
Adams also mentions people gathering around Fuqua’s abandoned cabin, and a conversation he had with “Mr. Spicer and Dr. Stone” about how the structure was to become a Sunday school.
Thinking Adams was a minister based on his “two-story hat,” they even tried to recruit him, perhaps secretly to talk some sense into the infamous A.C. “Bully” Smith, who lived nearby on Martin Creek.
In contrast to the early abolitionist Genevans, Bully was a proslavery man and had thus been terrorizing the “Yankees” there, who literally happened to be from New York state.
For instance, when he suspected his new neighbor Anderson Wray had filed a spurious claim on his land, he saddled his mule and rode in a huff towards Fort Scott, trying to beat him to the land office.
When Bully found Wray camped along Turkey Creek in Bourbon County, he stormed into his tent and shot him point-blank in the leg with his revolver before anyone could stop him.
Bully Smith’s reign of terror spilled over into Woodson County as well.
One day Smith was drunk as a skunk and stumbled from Geneva over into Neosho Falls.
Furious at the world, he started cursing up a storm to anyone who would listen … $%#$! #$&^#@!, and when no one would pay him any mind, he launched a rock through the window of town founder and ornithologist Nathaniel Goss.
Despite his claim that “No man can take me alive!” Goss had Bully arrested and fined $10, which he reportedly paid with a single Golden Eagle coin.
Legend has it, this was the first money to ever belong to the fledgling county as such, and so the first funds to ever grace Woodson County’s coffers … then equal to treasurer Haughawout’s pocket … came by way of a drunk and disorderly Allen Countian.
Oddly enough — perhaps because he was out so much money — a penitent Bully later returned and apologized to Goss.
A wise and thoughtful man, Goss agreed to forgive Bully and return his money, though on a rather humorous condition.
Bully was required to buy whiskey for all the gentlemen in Neosho Falls and Geneva, and afterwards, so the story goes, they all became “exceedingly happy.”
Bully would later migrate to Montana so as to become an attorney like Col. Goss, and spend the rest of his days winning arguments by “shooting off his mouth instead of his gun.”
IN STARK contrast to the rough exploits of the Fuquas and Bully Smith, Geneva’s historic claim to fame came in the form of a refined institute of higher learning.
The town already featured two stores, a hotel and blacksmith shop, grape and sorghum farms, a wagonmaker, two carpenters, a lime kiln, and two churches, and by 1866-67 boasted of its very own Presbyterial Academy (which in its third year had 68 students, nearly half of whom were female).
Situated on the north side of the quaint village, the regal two-story building sported an elegant rounded cupola and was surrounded by a lush 10-acre plot enclosed by a hedge fence.
Geneva’s first hotel, operated by George Esse, served as a makeshift dormitory.
Standing by what I believed to be the academy’s old well near the academy’s southwestern corner, I dreamed the professors and students there, rushing to class, set on their at-once both sacred and secular mission.
I dreamed them completing their final examinations, then giving “orations, declamations and compositions” to a curious crowd, many of whom had likely not had the opportunity to complete primary school.
I dreamed elegant recitations of Homer sung in Greek and Virgil in Latin.
Having been a professor myself for years, the image brought burning tears to my eyes, both at my own unbridgeable separation from what had taken place there, but also at the thought of those so inspired by education as to trek halfway across the entire county on wagons through oft-impossible terrain.
Some nearer to home were also inspired as well, such as Professor Dilworth from the Normal School at Emporia (forerunner of Emporia State), who became the academy’s principal in 1873.
He was considered by many to be one of the best teachers in the region, though his tenure, like so many others connected to the institution, was not to last.
After 1878, mentions of the academy as such disappear from the records, and so it seems its total life lasted only a little over a decade.
The structure would later become a church, as well as a meeting place for the Modern Woodmen of America.
In 1940, the rotten and dilapidated building was razed to the ground, leaving only an ephemeral and haunting presence on the wind, its once-high ideals blown apart to ashes.
Ruins of an abandoned cement plant north of Gas City evoke comparisons to ancient temples. Was there something about concrete and Concreto that was intensely philosophical?
The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel once quipped that, contrary to popular opinion, the most concrete things in the world are heady, complex thoughts, whereas it’s everyday modes of thinking and speaking that are abstract, detached from reality for their lack of specificity and rigor.
Put another way, what seems like “common sense” is actually quite abstract given its vagueness, whereas artistic or philosophical speculation is concrete.
As I stood in the ruins of the abandoned cement plant at Concreto, an important early 20th-century labor center north of Gas City, I couldn’t get Hegel out of my head, wondering if the operation worked both ways.
That is, was there something about concrete and Concreto that was intensely philosophical? Did the place have the power to conjure deep and intricate thoughts or memories?
CONCRETO was almost named “Madeline,” an homage to Iola Colborn’s fourth daughter. And in Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” it’s a madeline cookie soaked with tea that prompts him to return to an intense investigation of childhood memories.
Concreto itself provokes memories of Allen County, launching one back to September 1903 when many people visited the little company town for the first time.
Many likely made the trip by way of the Iola Electric Railway, on a 10-mile track that connected Bassett, Iola, Gas, LaHarpe, Melrose, Layonville and LaGrange.
Probably more than a few saw the cement plant as an opportunity for work, one worth the risk despite harsh conditions not yet softened by labor laws and years of intense struggles on the part of unions and workers.
Indeed, the Concreto factory was a dangerous place, fraught with fires, explosions, and other novel forms of disaster.
Even the grocery store in Concreto (the town) caught fire, and burned to the ground in 1904.
In 1906, a fire broke out in the “south Griffin mill room” and caused $2,000 in damages.
Near what we thought might be that same room, Addie Thompson, who lives with her husband Jerry on the hill above the plant, pointed out to me where a tree had grown up and begun to lift a long rusted beam into the air.
Addie’s a stay-at-home mom to her son Thomas, and happens to be a Russian history buff as well as a reader of Trotsky.
Were she not home-schooling, at the time the factory was in operation she could have sent little Thomas to one of the many surrounding districts, perhaps Melrose, Sadietown or Lake View.
Mowing through the ruins on a John Deere gator, I marveled in awe as we passed bricked archways and structures resembling the remains of an ancient temple, many of the spaces once sites of back-breaking exertion as well as demise.
In July 1910, an enormous blast ripped through the plant killing Merlin Boyd, a chemist from Iola, and severely injured four others.
It happened in the regulatory room when someone lit a match near where gas meters were being tested.
I wonder how many smiling teens and their parents know that when they pose for senior photos along the concrete walls, with their entire futures ahead of them?
SPEAKING of life and death, the mortality of the plant at Concreto was recognized all-too-soon, and by 1910 the financial difficulties of the Portland Cement Company led to its closure.
Less than a year later, county commissioners ordered the area vacated to make room for agricultural pursuits.
It’s a result still being played out at the Concreto site today, where, on its north end, enormous structures are surrounded by round bales of crisp golden hay.
Stepping up the “stairs” of one tower until reaching a giddy height, I fought the haunting sense of vertigo as Addie shrunk on the ground below.
“It’s easy going up but harder coming down, huh?!” she exclaimed, as I gingerly tip-toed back down to solid earth.
Reaching the ground, the soil on which used to be two or three feet lower, I was reminded of how two years after the plant closed, another explosion rocked the end where we were standing and would’ve likely blown me to smithereens.
Apparently chemicals had remained in the laboratory near the boiler room and engine room, and reduced the entire building’s contents to $40,000 in rubble.
Less than a year later, an equally ruinous fate befell the Kansas Portland Cement Company, when it was forced to declare bankruptcy.
AFTER Portland Cement was sold, the Concreto plant found new life as a smelter for various metals.
A new rush of hope and optimism shot through the community, but the dangers of the place still remained.
In 1916, when John Suggs and Bob Gillsepie were dismantling old parts of the cement works, an entire wall fell on both of them.
Suggs’ leg was broken and smashed to bits and he likewise suffered internal injuries.
Such brutal fates were not enough to keep workers away, however, especially not when wages were raised at the smelter to a whopping $2.40 for unskilled and $4.50 for skilled labor.
That’s $2.40 and $4.50 … a day.
Throughout the tour, I couldn’t help but dream them there, the workers swarming about the once-pristine structures like hive insects.
Their faces were dirty and their arms and legs ached, but they maintained a deep integrity and purpose, no matter how badly they might have been exploited.
Their ghosts still haunt the structures as well, not only the wreckage of the plant, but also the dam, pump house and pristine quarry nearby.
They shout and laugh and share delightfully dirty jokes, perhaps while leering and cat-calling the girls on the train or at the nearby Concreto hotel.
Their specters move without hindrance, pressing through the native bluestem that’s returning to reclaim the fields that cradle the plant.
We take the brown grains in our hands and crumble them into the Sunday wind.
When the owls at Concreto call in the dusky evening, the men return their calls, and wish they were solid enough to hunt the white-tailed bucks that roam the fields — those that Addie and Jerry feed and protect from harm.
According to Hegel, these are men of abstraction, their speech coarse and amorphous, their manners uncultivated.
Yet with their hands they made something solid and unyielding, something truly concrete, exact and unbendingly specific.
And in that way, perhaps they, too, were philosophers.
My hands are still trembling as I write this. Fingers like ice.
Pray, dear friends, to never see what I have seen. For not only will the sane rhythm of your heart never return.
… No one will believe you.
If you dare continue, first take a deep breath and hold it. Taste the dryness of your mouth as a single bead of sweat snakes down your spine.
Are you afraid?
ON THE DAY they hung him in 1862, young private Bell, too, was seized by fear.
Though the July heat was suffocating, his limbs grew numb with cold, stomach acidic and bilious.
A week earlier, he’d been drinking and getting wild with his Union brothers near Humboldt, during a brief respite from his duties at the fort in Iola.
Now he was to “suffer death by being hung by the neck until … dead, dead, dead.”
If only he’d never touched her, Elizabeth Haywood. But he’d done it all the same. Threw her down, she said. Threatened to “blow her brains out.”
An example thus needed be made — the first execution in Kansas. This was no longer a lawless territory.
In order to avoid a spectacle, Col. Cloud had John Bell marched to the site of what would become Highland Cemetery almost 70 years later.
And that’s where I found him, ascending the gallows one wretched fall evening.
Drop. Snap. Swing. Back and forth he swayed, bloodless.
Then dropping to the ground, he stumbled and crawled in my direction, menacing, and with eyes full of the cruelty of hell itself.
I could only flee in horror, my mouth unable to articulate a scream.
Perhaps if I crossed running water, I thought, the ghoul would be unable to follow.
SO UP the Neosho now, just outside of Le Roy.
Last time I was there, jet black crows dotted freshly cut corn fields as I crept along obscure gravel backways.
The sun had begun to set, the light already gone.
Beneath a steel blue sky, the vehicle twisted, writhed as the GPS signal died out.
No worry. There was only one path left to take … deeper into the woods.
Suddenly there it was, the dark iron gate overhead: Lorenz Schlichter Memorial.
The cemetery was so still you could hear the yellowed leaves scratch and scrape the earth.
Schlichter was a farmer from Germany who came to Kansas in 1857. With his wives Margaret and Caroline, together they had eight children.
In the dying light I dreamed them there, putting young ones in the cold, hard soil, singing German hymns to a seemingly deaf God.
Before the Schlichters, this same ground had belonged to the Heddens family, where they too put their babies in the earth.
Little Edith and Flora and Frank. Also Len and Levi.
I had begun studying their ornate and broken stones when I first heard it: the haunting song of a European music box.
The sound lilted through the air, until it was cut with a laughter like broken glass.
Next came the creaking chains … and the Shadow. Clearly I was no longer welcome.
Hastily moving towards the car, I had just thrown shut the door when: BAM! BAM! BAM-BAM!
Throwing gravel in the vehicle’s wake, I tore back down the winding road, accompanied by a feeling like black widow spiders on my skin.
Once back to the highway, I felt compelled to check for damage and there they were: dozens of muddy handprints covering the hood and doors.
With the entire world collapsing around me like a black hole, it was then I recalled the cemetery’s other name: Child’s Play.
FROM Le Roy down into extreme northwestern Woodson County, it’s possible to follow the road near what was once an old wagon trail heading to Eureka.
The trail followed a high ridge, where the Flint Hills start to take shape and the prairie sprawls beneath an infinite sky.
That sky was navy and jet, pierced by a million points of terrible starlight when last I visited.
A crisp wind was picking up, wailing softly, but even today there’s almost no cover behind which to take refuge.
Undaunted by my having arrived so late, I retraced the trail in the moonlight, looking for remnants of an unique stone that pioneers once used as a landmark.
At one time, groups would circle around the flat orange sandrock and make camp for the night, so I suspected darkness would afford a unique perspective in my search.
Even if I tripped and fell over what I was looking for, I reckoned, I would still come out on top, unlike the nameless fellow that’s supposed to be buried nearby.
Apparently he’d joined in a poker game with other wagon riders and was gambling blithely, when he managed to enrage another player so intensely that his opponent murdered him with a knife.
But that wasn’t all.
So incensed was the murderer that he decapitated his victim.
Since that day, more than a few eerie tales have circulated throughout the area surrounding Gridley, Virgil, Keck and Dry Creek.
Not one to be superstitious, however, I never paid the stories of whiskey-drunk cattlemen much heed, so I continued along the moonlit trail, keeping watch for the sandstone landmark.
Noticing something in the distance, I squinted hard until my eyes began to water, but could only make out what vaguely resembled a flame.
Who was carelessly burning brush with so much wind?
But before I finished asking myself the question, I heard the unmistakable sound of hoofbeats thundering in the distance.
My heart stopped. And with a burst of manic adrenaline, I ran.
Though not before I caught a glimpse of a white horse with a headless rider wreathed in flame.
The whisper of his disembodied voice still fills my every nightmare.
The Swedish settlement in southeastern Allen County was home to a rich culture, transplanted from a storied land. Many remnants of it can still be found today.
Watching as the snow glided slowly to the earth, I wondered if the swirling white flakes would have reminded Swan Olson of home.
He’d crossed the Atlantic from Sweden to eventually find himself in southeastern Allen County by way of Illinois, trading wind-swept mountains for endless open plains.
It was a gambit Olson and others like Peter Hawkinson were willing to take, rather than perish in the agonies of famine.
However they must have wondered if they were doomed regardless, whether God had uniquely selected them for persecution given what followed.
For just five years after digging in and building a life for themselves along the banks of Big Creek, a Biblical plague of locusts descended upon the land, consuming everything in sight.
Swarming black clouds of the ravenous insects rose up to block out the sky, and it’s said they even ate the brooms used for sweeping cabin floors.
IT WAS after the locusts crawled from their eggs to wing away that for many the wandering truly began, the sojourn through the proverbial desert.
Some of the settlement Swedes walked clear to Fort Scott to dig coal for a living, a distance significantly farther than that of hoofing it to Humboldt for mail.
And they went everywhere else on foot, too, oftentimes without shoes, including to church, where caravans of people would often cross great distances together in a shared physical rite.
Between the Swedish cemetery and Friends Lutheran Church, I dreamed them there, chatting in their native dialectic as they strolled in a group of about 30.
In their overalls and calico dresses their banter resembled German enough that I was able to parse the occasional familiar word or two.
Perhaps they perceived the endless walk as a penance, I thought, an atonement for sin.
For as snow swept across the prairie through their ghosts, burning my skin with cold, every step became a means of purification.
… Like scaling an exposed cliff face.
OR PERHAPS these spiritual wanderers were simply as fierce and stubborn as their legendary Viking ancestors.
Continuing to put one foot in front of the other was simply what must be done to survive.
The querulousness of the early Swedes, however, seemed to bubble to the surface often enough that even a casual observer might notice.
One battle regarded placement of the church and cemetery, along with the “formality” with which religious services would be conducted (i.e., whether one was free to shout in tongues).
A pastor named S.J. Osterberg from Kansas City represented a clan that wanted to build in the northeastern corner of the settlement.
A layman named Andrew Haff and his clan wanted to build in the southwestern corner.
So nasty became the spat between factions that many a verbal and physical fracas broke out, and afterwards no new pastors wanted to serve the area lest get caught up in a combination of political and spiritual warfare.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that some deep, unconscious part of the Swedes had been reminded of when their pagan forebears had fought to resist assimilation by Christianity back in Europe centuries earlier.
IN TIME, tempers eventually cooled somewhat thanks to grumbling compromise, and under the leadership of Rev. Moren, the present church was finally built — to accompany the parsonage, country store, blacksmith shop, wagon shop and more.
Dedicated in May 1899 after being built by the Huff brothers, it’s steeple scrabbles 65 feet into the air, and when I was last there it looked as if its apex might pierce the moon.
Blue and white, silver and gray, it’s as if the structure itself is carved from snow and ice, reaching towards a memory of the Swedish homeland.
To wit, there weren’t services conducted in English for the first few years of its existence, which again points to a stubborn desire to keep old traditions alive.
One old farmer compared English-language services to “near-beer,” as flavorless and without any “kick.”
One of the matriarchs in the congregation expressed a fear that, as opposed to Swedish, those who heard services in English might not be properly “saved.” (Akin to music tastelessly played on a violin rather than a pipe organ.)
Indeed, linguistic resistance amongst the settlers was a common theme, and when it was announced that schools, both religious and secular, would be conducted in English, a few folks became as full of fury as a frigid mountaintop.
Though it’s not the first Odense schoolhouse building that still stands today west of the church and cemetery, one can nevertheless dream angry Swedes taking the floor there, making their opinions readily apparent to all in attendance.
ANOTHER tradition that the Swedes held onto when coming to the U.S. involves the ancient practice of eating lutefisk or “lye fish.”
It’s prepared by taking white fish and pickling it in a bath of lye and water over the course of several days until it becomes flaky and a bit gelatinous.
The practice evinces the memory of countries where life was tied to fishing, and preservation by drying and rehydrating so that one would continue to have food in cold winter months.
Legend has it that the dish was discovered after a Viking village was attacked and the hungry survivors had to figure out a way to prepare cod after it had been soaking in the ocean.
Lutefisk is typically served at Christmastime, but as suggested by the example above, was eaten long before Swedes became Christians historically.
It’s often served with butter or white sauce, and is accompanied by sides like boiled potatoes and mashed peas.
LEANING over Swan Olson’s grave, I wiped away frozen sleet and wondered if he’d be grateful for the assistance…or perhaps simply inquire after the lutefisk I just mentioned.
The silver-white sky sprawled in every direction as the wind screamed, and I marveled at the moment when my own stubbornness might have rivaled the Swede’s.
Had he found what he’d been looking for there on the infinite Kansas landscape? Had his existential journey brought him to where he’d imagined?
What wisdom might he have for me more than a century later?
It was at that moment I swore I heard him say, in uniquely lilting English: “keep walking.”
One of baseball's greatest pitchers grew up an average kid on a farm north of Humboldt. Walter Johnson discovered sports by tossing a rubber ball over the Crescent Valley one-room schoolhouse.
Long before Walter “Big Train” Johnson became arguably the greatest pitcher in Major League Baseball history, he was just your average kid on a farm north of Humboldt.
Though the family’s white clapboard house is long-gone from where it once stood, one dreams the place abuzz with activity nonetheless, breaking through the silence of farm fields under cloudless cobalt skies.
There in the river one could swim all summer in dark water, and fish under willow trees that still bend in the soft wind.
When he was young, Johnson exhibited an almost supernatural kinship with animals, whether it was trying to break in his father’s colts, or trying to capture and tame various wild creatures.
His brother Earl shared the story that once he and Walter spotted an enormous gray wolf across a pasture, and chased it back to its den beneath a rock.
Fearless, Walter started scooping up the five young cubs he found nearby, and as Earl observed: “Had the dens been connected, the mother would have torn him to bits.”
Earl likewise recalled his brother’s abilities with a rifle, and how he revealed early physical gifts by being able to target squirrels 60 feet away with a sling.
One wonders if he threw sidearm even then, a style that became a signature part of his lightning-speed fastball.
As for the beginnings of other athletic abilities, Johnson credited his physical strength and endurance on the ball diamond to endless labor on the farm when young.
But although well-suited for such work, Johnson suggested that farm life was also isolating, and he and his siblings relished traveling into “the big towns” of Humboldt and Iola in order to procure necessary supplies.
Upon entry into Humboldt, one has been greeted for decades now by an impressive billboard honoring Johnson, along with his contemporary phenom George Sweatt.
Given his famously humble demeanor, one wonders if the spectacle would have embarrassed Johnson, such as when thousands would later gather to celebrate him in town for annual “Walter Johnson Day” celebrations.
AS PER formation of Johnson’s early character, it’s intriguing how, according to his biographer (and grandson), Henry Thomas, the Johnsons were exceptionally upright people, but their moral education was more secular than religious.
As brother Earl explained, “it was wilderness-country where we lived, and churchgoing was difficult. But our father and mother taught us the Golden Rule, and we lived by it to the best of our ability. Walter, I believe, best of all.”
Standing on the edge of the field where the Johnsons once lived, with its carved stone memorial, one immediately gets a sense of the expansiveness of the scene, and realizes how a walk to church might have been quite the long trek.
In the absence of formal training, then, it would seem the character of the Johnson family was honed through an unwavering pragmatism.
The only “rules,” if one were to call them that, included tolerance, respect for others and just plain minding your own business.
Walter and his siblings regularly walked to Crescent Valley School, about a mile and a half from the farm.
Treading uphill both ways, rain, snow or shine, they would walk the dirt roads to the little one-room building, where around 20 or so other children attended as well.
Crescent Valley was the place where Walter discovered sports, first by simply tossing a rubber ball over the roof of the building.
Another game that was likely formative included “one old cat” or “one-eyed cat,” a rudimentary version of baseball.
Johnson recalled an occurrence at Crescent Valley where, in order to prove he was strong enough to pitch, he launched the ball over everyones’ heads, including brushing the teacher’s, where it then bounced up to the school building and smashed through its biggest window.
“I honestly thought I would be sent to jail,” Johnson said.
THOUGH of course Walter wasn’t bound for jail, ill fortunes struck the Johnson clan nonetheless.
Following a severe drought across Allen County, the farm was sold after being kept up for the previous 15 years.
The family moved to Humboldt in April 1901, renting a house in the southwestern part of town.
Only a few days later, a nearby stable burned down, killing the Johnson’s only cow.
“There was hard sledding in the Johnson home at times,” Walter remarked. “But we were all the better for it.”
He began working as a farm-hand on the ground his family once owned, earning 50 cents a day during harvest time, and around the same time, started attending Humboldt at the eighth-grade level.
The school didn’t have a ball field or diamond, so area kids would simply play in the streets, apparently much to the chagrin of the Humboldt Union’s editor, who regularly opined about the practice.
Perhaps the most entertaining tale from these escapades involved the time when, after beaning several players, an opposing team said they refused to play if “Wild Johnson” was going to continue to pitch.
“I’m going to pitch or there ain’t goin’ to be any game,” Johnson retorted.
“And with that, I laid right down on the pitcher’s mound and refused to get up until they finally agreed that I could pitch.”
It was a rare instance of contrariness or moodiness on Johnson’s part, but it also evinced a stubborn tenacity that would serve him well through his storied career with the Washington Senators.
According to grandson Thomas, Walter Johnson headed for California at age 14 so that his father could pursue work in the oil industry,
Johnson had yet to play an actual formal game of baseball.
Yet still somehow the streets of Humboldt helped give birth to a humble legend, and pave the way for greatness.
The Osage tell tales that connect their culture and find meaning in the world. One myth says an elk threw himself into the water and created the earth.
One day, an Osage chief was hunting in the forest, both for sustenance and for an image to inspire and guide his people.
After noticing the tracks of a giant buck, he whispered: “Grandfather Deer, I ask that you reveal yourself and affirm you are the symbol of my people.”
As the chief had become quite excited, he hurried less-than-carefully through the dense woods, his eyes fixed upon the ground. … until he ran smack into a gigantic spider web.
Angrily, he swatted at the spider who merely hopped aside and proceeded to ask what on earth he was doing, crashing through his web like that.
After the chief explained he was searching for an image for his people, the spider said, “Grandson, I can be such a thing. You may think me small and weak, but I am patient. I watch and wait, and eventually all things come to me.”
“Learn this lesson,” the spider added. “And your people will become strong indeed.”
The chief took heed, and thus the spider became one of the images of his people.
THERE IS a fine line between history and mythology, a line that blurs and deconstructs.
Yet myths are central to culture, and reveal how societies make sense of themselves and find meaning in the world. They even show one how to live.
(The most prevalent narratives for our own culture, in terms of reach and influence, are likely found in the Old and New testaments of the Hebrew bible.)
So certainly, the Osage people who forever belong to southeastern Kansas have experienced events recorded in written history (many of which depict subjection to tragic atrocities), but they also have orally-transmitted legends and stories that arguably provide an even more profound sense of their indigenous identity.
Let us dive into a couple more of these tales, then, and into the rich prairie landscapes to which they are inexorably tied.
Let us see what wisdom and religious/philosophical guidance they continue to provide, as they illuminate the culture of a people who, long before “us,” called this very place home.
(THE REVEALING of the earth.)
The Osages came from the sky, among the stars.
In contrast to the blue-black vastness of the cosmos, they called themselves “Little Ones.”
When the Little Ones decided they would descend to earth and become a people, after receiving guidance from four celestial beings, they followed the lead of young Golden Eagle.
The Little Ones and Golden Eagle passed through multiple realms, and eventually landed in the tops of seven enormous red oak trees.
Below the trees, unceasing waters covered the earth, so the Little Ones asked Radiant Star, the messenger, where they might find help.
Radiant Star brought back Great Elk, who threw his crushing weight down on the waters four times, until they withdrew and land appeared.
But Great Elk’s gifts did not stop there. He next took the different parts of his body, and transmuted them into facets of nature: tall grasses, rolling hills, twisting creeks and streams.
It is for this reason Great Elk is remembered as “Earth Maker.”
Once the earth had been exposed, the Little Ones divided into three groups, each with its own modes of survival.
One group became the Water People, after meeting the sacred river being. They were also known as the Givers of Names.
They named another group of Little Ones the Land People, and another group, the Sky People.
But there yet remained a fourth group, the Isolated, who had already been on the earth. And the Little Ones had to find them before becoming a complete tribe.
After journeying the land, crossing creeks and muddy rivers, ceaseless prairies, and looking deeply into an unending sky, they reached the Isolated and their village.
And the Little Ones were terrified. For they found a people both repulsive to smell or look at.
Throughout the village were the bones of dead humans and animals, excrement and buffalo guts smeared everywhere, piles of garbage, people fighting and doing indecent things, and both men and women with fearsome tattoos around their eyes and on their breasts.
After the leader of the Water People met with the leader of the village, talked for long hours and smoked the pipe, the Isolated Ones decided that they would join the Little Ones and leave that place of death, disease and decay.
Thus a new tribe was formed with four parts. They were from that day forth the Children of the Middle Waters.
(A MEANING in life and death.)
“What is the meaning of life? “Why must people grow old and die?”
Though he was young, such questions ate away at Little One, plagued his thoughts. He asked his elders for guidance, but their answers were unsatisfying.
Eventually Little One decided he would have to seek the answers in solitude, in his dreams.
The next morning, he set off across the open prairie toward the hills, taking with him neither food nor water. He kept walking and night after night hoped for a dream in which he would find a sign.
One night he came to a hill shaped like the rounded breast of a turkey, where a spring nearby burst from the base a giant elm tree. Surely this place would provide a vision.
But to no avail.
Weak with starvation, Little One was concerned, though not so much for himself but for his parents, and for those who might search for his dead body.
He decided therefore to follow a creek back in the direction of his village, and proceeded in this way until he collapsed among the roots of an ancient willow tree.
“Grandfather,” he beseeched the willow. “I cannot go on.”
It was then the willow spoke, its long tendrils swaying the wind: “Notice how you cling to me, Little One. Notice my trunk and its roots which hold firm to the earth. They are wizened and twisted with age, but they are strong.”
“Reach into the earth and find a way forward along the path of life.”
Inspired by the vision, Little One stood and began to walk once more. And with his village finally in sight he sat down to rest in the tall prairie grass.
Suddenly, an elderly man appeared before him. He was familiar to Little One, though he had never met him before.
“What do you see?” the man asked.
After being silent a moment, Little One said: “I see a man in sacred clothing. His head is adorned with the fluttering down of eagles. I see a wise person with the stem of a pipe between his lips. I see one rooted in the earth as a willow tree. I see one who is still and at peace.”
The old man then vanished like a ghost, and Little One was given solace.
For in this image of his future self, he had glimpsed the necessity of age, and of the fulfillment of a life that must end in death.
Immense native stone rise was once the site of the Humboldt Academy for Boys. Wealthy parents from eastern states sent their boys out west to escape the depravities of the city, but they found plenty of other temptations in Humboldt.
Near the southern tip of the Allen-Woodson border, is an immense native stone rise that’s known by many as Zeig’s Hill, and before that, Quackenbos Hill.
The name comes from Professor George Quackenbos, a nineteenth century schoolmaster from Connecticut who had the idea of pioneering a place of higher learning, one he would christen the Humboldt Academy for Boys.
Indeed, the distance between Zeig’s Hill and Humboldt is only a few miles, though this turned out to be more of a detriment to the school than a benefit.
Quackenbos successfully convinced wealthy parents from eastern states to send their sons out west to escape the typical depravities found in cities, but it seems Humboldt provided plenty of temptations of its own.
Though the inchoate German settlement had been in business only a little over a decade by the time the Academy got started, the students found no shortage of drinking and other appealing forms of entertainment there.
Saloons and beer gardens abounded, brimming with Civil War vets looking to drown their memories of war in alcohol.
AT THE base of the hill, near Scatter Creek, I dreamed the academy boys there, walking their pinto ponies slowly and quietly away from the hillside.
The moonlight illuminated the tall two-story Academy with its long white porches, allowing the fellows to escape its confines to make their way to town.
Full of liquor, their return journeys, however, surely lacked the initial stealth.
Fed up with the debauchery, Quackenbos gave up the Academy to try teaching elsewhere, though this was only the beginning of the lore surrounding the place that once bore his name.
For instance, it seems some combination of nuns and female students moved into the academy building shortly after, and supposedly exhibited behavior more restrained (or at least more sneaky) than their male predecessors.
WHAT occupied the house on Zeig’s Hill next was a flurry of classic Wild West imagery, and where the line between historical fact and folklore often becomes delightfully blurred.
In the 1870s, the impressive structure was converted into a stagecoach stop, with huge double-doors on the east side (facing Humboldt) that allowed one to drive an entire team straight up the hillside and indoors.
Herein was supposedly where the metal “Humboldt Academy” sign was hung that now resides in the Allen County historical museum.
The Academy building became a stage stop since it was positioned along the wagon trail from Iola to Buffalo, and was also not far from another famous coach stop called the 7-Mile House.
(Today, limestone fragments from the 7-Mile House are scattered across a nearby corn field, and hence the farmers thereof, Garrett and Shilo Eggers, joked that I should collect as many pieces as possible for my historical research.)
AFTER serving as an academy, place of Catholic teaching and a stage stop, the old house on Zeig’s Hill became quite the hotbed of lawlessness and legend.
This was due in part to the building’s location on a high hill, where it’s possible to see for miles in multiple directions and give warning, especially with help from the home’s upper verandas.
The house itself was also originally constructed over an opening in the stone several feet deep (some sources claim as many as 30), which was transformed into a cellar cave or basement, perhaps used for something as innocuous as refrigeration.
At one point, though, counterfeiters supposedly took up residence, and set up their forgery equipment in said basement until being raided by federal officers from the Treasury Department.
And if counterfeiters aren’t enough to give the place some flavor, moonshiners would also later take advantage of the unique setup during the Prohibition years.
They, too, were raided by deputies on the hunt for illegal activities, but the bootleggers always managed to elude them.
ANOTHER legend connected to Zeig’s Hill is that the Younger Brothers once herded cattle in the area and used the home for a base.
Story has it that Cole Younger, one of the most infamous figures of the Old West, was sitting on his horse with several members of his gang, surveying the valley around Scatter Creek.
Awed by the expansive, treeless terrain, and soft bluestem grass swaying in the wind, Cole turned to his companions and said “Boys, that country there will someday be the Garden of Eden.”
Though I can’t confirm the legend, I can certainly confirm the sentiment, for there are few sights in southeastern Kansas as breathtaking come sunset.
In that uncanny paradise near Scatter Creek, one senses that even death itself would be a not unwelcome proposition.
Yet if aesthetic beauty isn’t enough to sway you, there’s always money, for one last tale has it that the Jesse James gang and the Younger Brothers hid untold wealth somewhere on Zeig’s Hill, and that it has never been found despite the fastidious work of metal-detectors.
THE ORIGINAL house that served as a home for so many legendary activities was torn down in 1945, and another house was moved in and placed over the basement.
Afterwards, even more folks came in and worked on excavation with the help of the owners, trying to confirm the tales of buried treasure.
They managed to find tunnels thought to have been used for liquor-running and other ventures, but didn’t have much luck when it came to riches.
Despite such lack of success, Wallace and Teresa Zeigler (the Zeigs of Zeig’s Hill) for years still had to chase off “fortune hunters.”
That said, they loved the lore connected to the place where they made their home, and would even show people where they thought various tunnels and other structures once stood.
Today, though, what mostly seems to remain is the Zeigler name, and perhaps a few literal “foundations” upon which enduring tales have been built.
In “Tales of Early Allen County,” the writer called these remnants “mute witnesses [to] an easterner’s dream of the golden west.”
I prefer to think of them as what remains of the shattered gates to heaven.
The years of prohibition created a bootlegging culture even in conservative places like Allen County, including a place still called Horseshoe Bend on the Neosho River.
A yellow-white sun was descending the horizon in northern Allen County, not far from a place still called Horseshoe Bend on the Neosho River.
Soon, the setting sun spread a fiery band of color, illuminating the fields littered with corn cobs and stalks.
The detritus sent my mind spinning.
“It’s strange,” I thought after setting down my whiskey glass on the nearby table back home, “This was an illegal act for almost half of Kansas’ history.”
Perhaps longer than any other state in the nation.
Almost exactly 100 years ago, the federal ban on alcohol was enacted due to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.
At the time, someone in Iola wrote “prohibition is effective at midnight tonight … and declares places where liquor is sold to be common nuisances.”
No more public procurement of hooch, spirits or sauce.
And thereby, like many other reigning political issues, was an adjoining claim that rural America had imposed its more conservative values on the rest of the country.
Given today’s acceptance of alcohol, it’s hard to believe it was once regarded as an ill worth stamping out in the name of protecting society.
As a child around my grandparents, for instance, and in turn around their grown children, alcohol was never really a welcome guest at family dinners.
Now, there are parts of the U.S. where you can readily and legally procure full-spectrum THC cannabis products of all kinds, alcohols of unlimited proofs and even exotic items like psilocybic mushrooms.
For most of human history, there have been debates about whether or not one was free, without judgment, to transform and manipulate one’s consciousness via substances of all kinds.
But some, like Charley Melvin, Iola’s “Mad Bomber,” felt so strongly about it that he set out to destroy Iola saloons, maintaining imbibers were on the path to Evil.
So what of those local renegades, who for profit, proving freedom or whatever, have endeavored to flout the laws regarding substances?
From the outset, it’s interesting how we valorize and romanticize the bootlegger, while typically deriding those who peddle other mind-altering substances. Different substances garner different responses in terms of how they are accepted socially, and in reference to the groups who regularly use them.
Not long ago, I returned to Horseshoe Bend, after first journeying there with commissioner Bill King on an afternoon field trip.
He drives perched forward in his seat and talking fast, his mind always exceeding the speed at which his words can articulate. I’ve come to respect him as a statesman, always thoughtful in his responses.
Later I returned to the Bend on my own, looking for remnants of the Townsends and their bootlegging operations, wondering what there remained to find.
I first parked at a distance, not wanting to risk my Firebird getting mired in the sludge.
Then I walked north, towards the tiny Townsend family cemetery. It sits rather inconspicuously in the middle of the enormous cornfield, but you could be within 40 feet and still miss it.
The Neosho River arches to the east. There are also places one can climb up the bank to the riverside, where two whitetails recently erupted into flight upon my crashing presence.
I knelt over the two graves anchored there: Archie Townsend and John Cornell, wondering just how far away and precisely where their families had lived.
Could I dream while waking, and encounter the Townsends going about their business, their trying to carve out an existence on the margins of the law?
It wasn’t long until the authorities arrived, that instrument which would dramatically enforce morality along the wicked twist in the river.
On Oct. 29, 1920, a Register headline read: “Horseshoe Bend went bone dry yesterday.”
“So many of the boys about town had been getting stewed up and ossified that the county and city officials whose duty it is to enforce the law began taking copious notes on the source of the supply.”
Apparently some “local drunks” spilled the beans, and soon officers began to swarm Abe and George Townsend’s reported operation.
I dreamed them there, lights bright and sirens sounding, their antique cars hurling mud from along the narrow roadway.
When Chief Federal prohibition officer, Warren Wilson, climbed out to observe the scene, I hastily took cover behind brittle grass along the edge of the field.
Wilson had already swept through Iola, investigating grocery stores that were selling 80-proof peach extracts or simply “Peach” for short.
When Wilson later stormed the Townsends, he came across $1,000 in sweet wine made from elderberries and raisins, and not long after began pouring the effervescent beverages into the muddy river.
It was even more tear jerking than when, in Aug. 1925, Sheriff Custer David confiscated 55 gallons of Old White Mule and then ceremonially released it into the Iola sewers.
Luckily for Abe and George Townsend, no case could successfully be made against them, as no one would admit to buying, thus implicating themselves, and the Townsends had skillfully hidden their stills and other production equipment.
They’d live to “light up” the no-so-quiet town another day.
Like, almost two decades later, when Abe was again arrested and sentenced to 60 days in jail, after officers uncovered 450 gallons of wine.
They found even more weeks later, in barrels buried beneath the Townsends’ machine shed. Carl Huey, a former disgruntled employee, had turned them in.
Alcohol busts were becoming an everyday facet of the culture, though of course enforcement was not always the same, especially between places like Iola and Humboldt (with its “high-toned whiskey vendors”).
It’s interesting to see how social norms have transformed our attitudes over the past century to the point where many likely now feel sorry for the Townsends.
Perhaps we might even believe we have some sort of duty to protect men of that caliber and audacity from the overreaching arm of the government and its various legal enforcements.
All the same, to this day Kansas still has some of the strictest alcohol laws in the country, with multiple dry counties, and remains one of only a handful to have not legalized cannabis/THC for either substantial medical or recreational use.
In another 100 years, what will people retroactively believe about the substances that surround them, along with which ones are deemed dangerous vs. acceptable?
The LeHigh Portland Cement Company brought industrial jobs to Iola. What followed were decades of racial tensions among workers, and air pollution from the fine dust that settled over southern Iola.
Outside of my house, the soil remediation crew tore into the earth, seeking to remove harmful chemicals born of Iola’s industrial age.
The grinding sound was like some enormous angry insect, that horrible repetitious drone that every worker knows can be carried with them into their dreams.
LeHigh Portland Cement Company, I’m sure, was one of those places, where one carried its rhythm long after their workshift ended.
In 1900, Iola Portland Cement Company was the largest plant of its kind in the United States.
From 1900 to 1903, it was also the single largest employer in Allen County, and so had the honor of naming the factory’s housing settlement in honor of one of its own: S.H. Bassett, an official who worked there.
Not much of Bassett remains today, save a few foundations and “shotgun” style houses, which earn their name since it is almost impossible to detect an individual from out of a group.
The house-rows were all jammed together along the narrow streets, and the scene somewhat resembled an Old West boom town.
Like with all boom towns, this one had its trouble, one of the most notable being continuous racial strife accompanied by violence.
According to Daniel Fitzgerald, “in Bassett the black employees lived in a segregated section, and occasional outbreaks of racial strife shattered the tranquility of the community.”
He adds: “such incidents were not unique as they occurred in many communities where industries hired black and foreign labor in order to cut employment costs.”
In short, a town like Iola came into existence through an industry like Lehigh, and Lehigh profited countless sums through its exploitation of workers (of all colors).
That industrial violence then became racial violence, as different racial and ethnic groups ended up pitted against one another for the “right” to work.
Most shockingly can one see such racial violence erupt in an incident where, Fitzgerald notes, “occurred when the native white workers [in Iola] forced thirty-three newly employed Italian workers to leave town.”
This reportedly took place with several shots being fired but fortunately no one being killed.
As Fitzgerald so succinctly notes, “the cement company officials strived to treat everyone equally, but not all things were equal to all employees.”
Part II: Light and smoke
1907 was a peak year, but one connected with frenetic financial panic.
In sum, “the cement industry overproduced, the market was flooded with cement, prices dropped, and construction slowed down.”
Bassett would before long find itself in the throes of an “identity crisis” in contrast with Iola. Who it was, was falling apart as to its own identity and name.
A lot happened in the preceding decade for things to get to this point, though.
Iola sold out to Portland, and not long after concrete highways were being constructed all across the U.S. with cement from Lehigh Portland in the mix. In the 1920s, they sold the Oklahoma Highway Commission a half a million barrels.
Yet out of all the Register records that leapt from the pages, the two that stand out most regard plant signage and air pollution.
Aerial photos exist where you can see both the quarry being excavated as well as the impressive lettered sign to the factory, as if it contained an almost Las Vegas style glitz and depravity.
What a contrast. The words “Lehigh Portland Cement Co” 230 feet across, on fire in the night with the reflection of 120-watt lightbulbs.
It’s blinding in the night, that point when the day’s exhausted sorrow collapses from orange-red into the horizon.
The men rush about as Christmas comes, in and out the factory doors, each one bearing the weight of expectation to provide. Gender wasn’t exactly fluid back then.
“A real man’s got to provide.”
It would take us a few more years to get beyond that point.
In the meantime, it was all dystopia, all apocalyptic tears of blood and some such.
On March 1, 1923, the Register makes mention of a 275-foot stack being built at the plant “which it is believed will so lift and scatter the fine dust arising from the plant that it will not long be noticeable in Iola.”
Air pollution, “harmless” interwar style.
A dust was being produced in the kilns during the process of turning cement into other materials. So it apparently snowed a fine chalky dust in southern Iola, a late winter weirdness that temporarily pervaded the whole area.
Folks were apparently less litigious a hundred years ago, though, since “it is not likely anyone in Iola would ever bring suit to dispose of the dust, or that the court would sustain it. … The company has not been unmindful of the discomfort caused by a great many people and has been working on various plans.”
Ashes to ashes ...
The banks of the Neosho River hide a series of solutions caves where water patiently drilled through rock over millennia. They are also believed to be a stop along the Underground Railroad, where slaves hid prior to the Civil War.
Along the banks of the Neosho River west of Humboldt hides a breathtaking surprise, and an even more exhilarating story.
Lining the bluffs not far from the “Camp Hunter” park, a series of solutional caves reveals both places where water has patiently drilled through rock over millennia as well as where escaped slaves once hid themselves prior to the Civil War.
The caves were reportedly part of the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses established to help Blacks escape into “northern” free states, Canada and other places where slavery had been abolished (like Mexico).
According to John Rankin, “it was called [a railroad] because they who took passage on it disappeared from public view as really as if they had gone into the ground. After the fugitive slaves entered a depot on that road no trace of them could be found.”
Though it wasn’t a literal railroad, by 1850 the system of hiding places and travel routes had ferried around 100,000 people to freedom.
Near the site of Humboldt’s river bridge even, Col. Orlin Thurston and his friend/physician Capt. George Miller aided escaped slaves with the help of tunnels, caves and a couple unassuming sandstone buildings.
So not only are they an extraordinary natural feature, the Humboldt river caves are part of our country’s ongoing struggle to deliver on the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
According to area papers dating back to 1861, during the first raid on Humboldt, as many as a dozen fugitive slaves were captured and returned to Missouri.
Standing between the river and the sequence of cave faces, one is quickly launched back in time to when water and landmarks set the rhythm and geographic tone of our days.
Only those things as solid as a limestone cliff, or as pliable as black-brown waves will survive.
The winter air was cold and unbending when last I was there, and I found myself watching the crows who’d come to peck about and explore the earth below them.
Their calls were soft and crooning, as though they were trying to comfort the dead child whose gravestone someone had thrown from the bluff into the “dump” below.
“Walter Lee King/ December 25, 1935/ Our Darling”
An almost identical stone for the same person resides in Mount Hope Cemetery.
Surveying the stone at length, I stood there wondering what meaning echoes forth from a life that lasts only days, weeks, a single day.
Long smooth icicles dripped quietly in the strange slow light, and once again it seemed as though time had begun to distort and inflect upon itself.
What more might it be possible for us to dream, then, about an escaped person who’d managed to hide themselves within one of the caves on their harrowing quest for freedom?
They would have been one of many making the flight “north,” though likely traveling in a smaller group to maintain anonymity.
Children were hard to keep quiet and therefore a risk, but it’s one some were willing to take. Given their social roles, though, it was harder for women to break away from plantations and other settings without being noticed.
Once underway, traveling on foot was likely the way of things, and along routes that were purposefully confusing and meandering.
The escapees would have been aided by a “conductor,” like the inestimable Harriet Tubman, someone with abolitionist sympathies and often part of a religious organization.
Using codes and cyphers to communicate, they would often travel at night to avoid interactions and encounters. And along with the caves, they’d seek shelter in barns, under church floors, and other ingenious hiding places.
Legends have circulated over the years that escapees and conductors would use quilts marked with different patterns to indicate instructions, though this has not been definitely proven.
By contrast, there’s no need to prove the incredible courage and daring demonstrated by those who risked everything to find a new life; one that might have still been fraught with discrimination and struggle, but at least contained an elevated sense of dignity and possibility.
Given the location of the Underground Railroad caves’ proximity to Riverside Park, one would be remiss not to discuss the park’s historical significance as such.
Still known by many today as Camp Hunter (aka Log Town), in the years following peak “railroad” traffic, the site became a hive of Civil War-era military activity.
In spring 1862, for example, the notorious Kansas 7th was stationed there, and these Jayhawkers or Red Legs murdered, pillaged and burned Missouri towns much like the Missourians burned Humboldt.
Col. Jennison, who flouted traditional military law, and others would thereby keep in motion a cycle of violence that would claim thousands of lives.
…including that of one Private Driscoll.
Driscoll was being held on desertion charges at the Camp Hunter jail, when he decided to steal a horse and flee, following encouragement from Jennison.
Driscoll would end up shot to death by a firing squad on March 15, 1862, beneath the soft elms of what would later become the park.
Artifacts from this time continue to be found around the park as well, such as bullets, and the exceptional war diary of quartermaster sergeant Fletcher Pomeroy provides one an almost blindly bright window into this world.
In February 1862, Pomeroy mentions journeying from Garnett to the “small fort” in Iola, then onward to Humboldt, which he describes as being “about 100 population.”
He first points out how “our camp is between the river and the town,” then goes on to describe the bluff containing the caves as being about “twenty-five feet high, of perpendicular rocks … and about 100 feet the foot of the rocks to the water.”
Pomeroy recalls using a ladder to collect water from the Neosho, and mentioned how “a road [was] cut down leading to the ford opposite the camp.”
Pomeroy added that while staying at Camp Hunter, five men deserted the company so others were sent to retrieve them.
One dreams the search party departing west in darkness across the prairie until reaching Fort Belmont in Woodson County and Fort Rowe in Wilson County, while there encountering Chief Opothleyahola’s group of 6,000 Creek/Muskogee people who’d fled from Confederates in Oklahoma (and been left with nothing).
Around 1,000 of those in Opothleyahola’s band, which included Blacks as well as Muskogee, would later march south to Humboldt from Le Roy, thereby forming the First Indian Home Guard regiment.
After returning to Camp Hunter himself, Pomeroy described the indigenous group he’d met at the fort as “very destitute of clothing and food, [where] many of their ponies were dying of starvation.”
In fact, it was hell on earth.
But as for the deserters, “we heard nothing.”
As Zebulon Pike crossed the newly purchased territory acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, he stopped at several places in what became Allen and Woodson counties.
A new year presents an opportunity to see things with new eyes.
If it seems like nothing in life here is about the business of changing, perhaps one might find the way forward with a bit of imagination.
Dream the land afresh. Consider every gnarled creek and gentle prairie for the first time, dwelling in its shape and rhythm.
Put yourself in Zebulon Pike’s boots as he crossed the newly purchased territory acquired through Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase.
Return to a place seemingly untouched, yet eerily familiar. Where what was already home to thousands of indigenous people would soon become home to us.
Saturday, Sept. 6, 1806
The 27-year-old Lt. Pike and his band were in what would become Bourbon County, after embarking from St. Louis by boat.
In the expedition group were another lieutenant, three non-commissioned officers, 16 privates, two civilians (a surgeon), and 51 indigenous people, including an interpreter and chiefs from the Osage and Pawnee.
Their mission: to determine what natural resources were available in the new territory and to foster positive relations with native peoples.
While southeast of what would become the town of Xenia, Pike wrote about fishing with his men at the fork there in the Little Osage River.
The fish were striped and spotted and impressively sized, about a foot long, which Pike took to be either trout or bass. He lamented not bringing a net.
IT SEEMS that Pike and company next ventured west/southwest, crossing into what would later become Allen County, not far from the eventual site of Moran, until pausing at Elm Creek.
Along the way, he painted reverential pictures of the scenery, calling it “sublime,” especially along a certain ridge.
“The prairie rising and falling in regular swells, as far as sight can extend, produces a very beautiful appearance,” he wrote.
Perhaps it was in part due to such beauty that the company decided to camp along Elm Creek not far from present-day LaHarpe.
There, one dreams the sounds of September all around them, the light and colors of fall, when the leaves begin to gently tremble.
One dreams the white-tailed deer tracked and shot there by Pike’s men, its bright red blood staining the naked earth.
Sunday, Sept. 7, 1806.
After waking up early, on this particular morning Pike made note of having “difficulty” with the sons of one of the native chiefs, but apparently he was “accommodated.”
It would be fascinating to know what the young Osage or Pawnee was upset about, but this is one of those ghostly details that will likely forever remain hidden.
The group then proceeded until reaching a large fork in Elm Creek, perhaps directly southeast of present-day Iola, where they ate breakfast not far from the green-brown water.
Turning north, it looks as though Pike next traced the “White River” (aka the Neosho) and crossed the sprawling landscape until reaching Deer Creek.
There, the company bathed both themselves and their horses, as well as managed to kill four more deer.
One cannot help but picture them fording the river not far from what would become the county line, balancing weights, guiding horses and lines, fighting against the current.
Every time was a matter of life and death.
Monday, Sept. 8, 1806.
After entering what would one day become Woodson County, Pike’s group passed through its corner near the eventual site of Neosho Falls.
Many times I’ve imagined them there, marching along the river with its high banks flanked by trees, the clatter of metal echoing with every step.
Along this way to the northeast, in 1863 Jacob Spaugy would hitch up a plow in order to dig an enormous ditch along his property line for farming purposes.
To this day it’s still called “Spaugy Ditch” and, after a century of natural widening, is a nationally recognized waterway.
Yet it was the White River that concerned Pike, and so he’d continue north, eventually traversing near the present-day sites of Burlington and Strawn.
Hundreds of miles later, the company would find their way to “Colorado,” and stand in awe at the base of “Grand Peak,” later christened “Pike’s Peak.”
After being promoted to general, Pike was killed at the age of 34 while directing a military assault on the city of York in the War of 1812, a site that would eventually become Toronto, Canada.
PIKE’S legacy in relation to Kansas is a fascinating one, not only because he “discovered” it like the Spanish, French and millions of native people, but because his often less-than-flattering descriptions led travelers to avoid it for years.
In places he even compares the plains to an African desert.
“I saw in my route,” he said, “in various places, tracts of many leagues where the wind had thrown up the sand … and on which not a speck of vegetable matter existed.”
By contrast, Pike praises the local fauna especially, in particular, the large herd animals like buffalo, elk and deer.
At that time, of course, they were plentiful, having not yet been hunted into non-existence, and their reign over the prairie was total.
DREAM, then, if you will, as you enter this new year, with eyes like those of Pike and the explorers in his company.
Every creek or river can become an opportunity for exploration. Every living thing, every being encountered can become a gift.
Every new and different person we encounter can be a chance for growth, no matter how alien or strange they might seem.
The world is open and expansive, the horizon endless.
Iola was once the site of Civil War fortifications. One story tells of a widow who fled on her pony to warn the Iola fort about potential Missouri border ruffians headed their way.
When you’re a historian or a scholar in the humanities more generally, you tend to get excited by rather strange things.
Imagine the excitement when I discovered that where I live in Iola was once the site of Civil War fortifications.
Is it possible that a lingering memory of such events continues to exhibit its haunting force, its ghosts creeping in to fill my thoughts at night?
Do I unwittingly find myself in spectral company while merely sitting in my living room, writing this very article?
Although Humboldt was the more prominent military center in the area, along with other sites like Fort Belmont in Woodson County, at one time Iola’s “fort” had a force of 400 men and filled the area roughly demarcated by Madison, Jefferson, Broadway and South Streets.
In the northeast corner of the block stood the Parsons building, which was essentially a Civil War military headquarters (1861-1865), and where many were sworn into service.
The structure had initially been intended as a community safehouse in the event of attacks from hostile indigenous forces, but eventually concerns seem to have shifted from incursions by native people to pro-Southern militants.
In order to prepare for attacking Confederates or militia loyalists, the Parsons building was reinforced with stone and an earthen embankment, perhaps topped with logs, was dug around the fort’s rectangular perimeter.
Like Fort Belmont, the remainder of the space was likely filled with stables, tents and other more temporary structures.
Standing on my own front porch, I dreamed them there, Union enlisted men and militia fighters scurrying about the place, carrying out their various duties or simply trying to look busy.
Some were adorned in full military accoutrement; others, in the simpler garb of local folks who’d been asked to bring their own weapons and supplies.
There, just outside my window, I dreamed one man brushing down a horse with fine red hair. Another, I watched as he poked listlessly at the silver ashes of an extinguished fire.
Among those visiting the barracks and bivouac area were Company F of the 9th Kansas Infantry, including my Woodson County hero, attorney and Neosho Falls founder Nathaniel Stickney Goss, who was likewise a Darwinan with a passion for collecting rare birds.
Those serving and scouting around the fort area didn’t have much. “They were even reported to be destitute of equipment and … suitable clothing.”
But they had spirit, and in the early days of the war especially, provided at least some minimal sense of calm for those inhabiting the region.
By 1863, however, the situation had started to become increasingly uneasy.
Word had spread to the effect that “the rebels were coming to lay waste to the country as they did at Lawrence [during Quantrill’s deadly raid].”
“Rumor says [they’d] already burned the Catholic Mission among the Osages [at the present site of St. Paul] and are now making for Leroy.”
Following this, people panicked.
“Nearly all the citizens packed up what they could and scattered about in different places in the brush and prairies to hide, and there was general skidaddling.”
For around two breathless days, the first Iolans lived in constant fear of raiding parties, but blessedly discovered that it had all been a false alarm.
The Osage Mission had indeed been raided, but all who’d been captured were ultimately released.
Given the necessity for preparedness, it appears false alarms were not uncommon during this time, and having accurate information proved indispensable.
The most fascinating story I’ve found along these lines involves a woman named Mary “Widow” Brengle, who was in essence, a female Paul Revere.
Brengle lived and farmed near Circle Lake northeast of Neosho Falls, and given the absence of nearly every able-bodied man to the war effort, she took it upon herself to engage in a feat that I think the women of southeast Kansas can still be proud of.
Toward the end of the war in 1864, several women and children were gathered at the home of August Toedman, when a cry went up that armed horsemen were quickly approaching from the southeast along the trail from Humboldt to Fort Belmont (south of present-day Yates Center).
This was precisely what everyone had been dreading, that Border Ruffians from Missouri had come to burn them out of house and home … or worse.
Thankfully, not long after, messengers arrived in Neosho Falls to tell everyone that the threat had been turned away and the rebels had returned to Missouri. They even bore news that the war might soon be over.
But before the updated information could be conveyed, Brengle had already saddled her fleet-footed pony and ridden like lightning to the fort in Iola.
She must have soon been drenched in an icy sweat beneath her long cotton dress, her horse nearly pushed to the point of death.
One dreams her soaring across the virgin prairie night, the moon burning yellow, her lungs preparing to shout “The rebels are coming!” upon arrival.
Again, it all turned out to be a false alarm, but had it not been, Brengle would have likely saved many lives in the effort.
Nevertheless, I’m sure she still captured the attention and earned the respect of all those at the fort who saw her incredible ride.
After the war finally ended, the earthworks surrounding the fort in Iola were leveled in order to clear the way for entrepreneuring pioneers wanting to build businesses.
The “blockhouse” Parsons building was torn down in 1882 and replaced by the Klaumann building, whose owner was a local merchant.
Then in 1907, Klaumann’s was also torn down so that it might be replaced by the Iola State Bank building which still stands to this day on the corner of Madison and Jefferson.
The spot is therefore an remarkable study in historical stratification, a place where layers of “sediment” have built up over the years such that practically no trace of an original function and purpose remains.
Fortunately, we have imagination and dreams to show us the way forward, so that we might yet in some way experience this incredible series of moments.
… Where one finds the past unfolding in their own backyard.
Welcome to "Just Prairie," a production of the Iola Register Newspaper.
I am your host, Dr. Trevor Hoag, journalist and professor, and I am excited to lead you on a journey through southeast Kansas.
Is it possible to come home and rediscover it?
When I returned to Kansas last year after almost two decades of absence, never would I have thought that learning about the place I was from would become an obsession.
Such things interested me little growing up in the Woodson and Allen County areas, so what had changed? What was different?
I suppose the obvious answer is: me.
Having studied and taught ephemeral subjects like philosophy, literature and writing, the tangibility of history had become appealing. Unlike philosophy, history gives you something to hold onto, something to grasp and even measure.
And when I took hold of “home,” or it took hold of me, it was like opening a treasure chest that had been sitting patiently, waiting for me all my life.
Places I had seen hundreds, even thousands, of times before were coming to reveal themselves in a surprisingly novel way. The space of two counties — roughly 800 square miles — had become as seemingly vast as the cosmos itself.
Not only that, but studying a place and its history or ecology can take on a “religious” dimension, akin to how the indigenous people who called Kansas home (before it was called Kansas) made telling stories about the land an integral part of the meaning and greater significance in their lives.
I was in need of healing, and the place, the land provided.
Whether it was staring at the cloudless night bursting with stars or wind-swept fields on fall afternoons, the size and scope of the prairie seemed to dwarf my problems and make them recognizable for their insignificance.
It occurred to me moreover just how much southeast Kansas has to offer, even if this recognition requires overcoming traditional notions of tourism and getting one’s hands dirty.
Our home is a place of adventures, of bravery and risk, and as such it became a challenge to prove that, no, plenty happens here and plenty has happened here in the past.
That said, it has also become apparent that rural Kansas has a history connected with loss, and therefore produces a nostalgia for glorious bygone days that we might imagine were, if not better times, simpler.
There are many still alive who can attest to this creeping movement of loss, whether they remember soda fountains and booming businesses or simply hundreds more people being involved in the daily lives of communities here.
Regardless, we find ourselves surrounded with the often-invisible vestiges of the past, and thanks to a dearth or economic development, essentially inhabit an enormous museum.
(Though it is one which actually covers only a tiny segment of time.)
I continue to be blown away by the notion that white, Christian people have only been calling this place home for about a century and a half.
By contrast, cultures around the world have existed for multiple thousands of years, and so it’s worthwhile to keep in mind the youngness of who we are.
This is especially useful when applying historical insights to political and economic matters.
The American Civil War and Black slavery are only a few generations behind us, for example, yet many of the same cultural conflicts found therein still profoundly affect us today.
When people refuse to heed the lessons of these and other events, it’s little wonder why the same crises continue to repeat themselves.
WHAT THEN of some of the specific places I’ve learned about and visited over the last year or so? What has moved or surprised me the most during my adventures?
Before beginning to study Allen County, I had no conception of its myriad connections to the Civil War, and as such was particularly impressed by the caves found along the Neosho River that were part of the Underground Railroad.
The drama and terror faced by those longing for freedom is near-impossible for most to conceive, and confronts us with unsettling truths about our past that are necessary to confront.
The Vegetarian Colony, Octagon City, was likewise a site of immense drama, and through the diary of Miriam Davis Colt, one gets a taste of just how difficult (and often disappointing) life was for those who first attempted to settle here.
Her narrative also provides the key point that native people were already long-here prior to the arrival of whites, and reminds us that our very presence in Kansas is predicated on removal and genocide.
I also like that what exists today of the colony is basically nothing, as it reveals how rural tourism often involves staring at an empty field, trying to use your imagination.
Speaking of getting creative, although it’s no surprise that I love cemeteries, my favorite is perhaps Cottage Grove, mostly due to all the mythologies and legends connected to it (such as screaming panthers and undead bodies).
History is not a pure entity. It is inescapably “contaminated” by literary forms, and I think embracing these kinds of myths are not only entertaining and enjoyable, but make our seemingly simple existences become larger-than-life.
Sometimes, however, there’s no need for embellishment as a place speaks all on its own. Its very continued presence is an opportunity for wonder.
That’s what I found at the abandoned concrete plant at Concreto. Its derelict structures not only have the power to awe, but remind us of an industrial past and an entire system of labor and economics that once held sway in Allen County.
AS FOR my first home, Woodson County, I have read much in a short time and uncovered more than I can ever share. The investigation has taught me that a single place can become infinitely deep, and that any “map” one makes will never contain it.
Regarding maps, there’s a special place in my heart for Cooper’s Cave, even as I wish it were easier to locate and visit.
Its impressive sandstone structures point to a time long before human beings, and understanding this primordiality is important for providing perspective in our lives.
That, and I discovered my three greats grandfather, Henry Cook, once got mauled by a bobcat there after discovering her den. I like to think this is where Yates Center’s mascot came from.
Silver City as well is a site which points to a time before humanity, along with the human desire for wealth, but it is also a lesson in value.
The lustrous lamprolite found there, forged by an ancient volcano, was for a brief time prized as valuable as gold. Now, it’s sold as an additive to cattle feed.
Value, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.
On a related front, as far as I’m concerned Big Sandy cemetery and the cabin relocated from there to the Woodson County Museum might just be the most haunting place in southeast Kansas.
The cemetery’s rough and chipped pioneer graves recall a time when life was even more fleeting and fragile, and the cabin, of a frontier justice that was often anything but just.
Last on our list is the place that gave birth to Yates Center, the village of Kalida.
Though its sandstone “castle” and the graves belonging to the Davidson family were not constructed until after the town was no more, they are no less wondrous for it.
In fact, the castle might just be my favorite artifact re-discovered throughout my entire quest.
Its enduring and strange craftsmanship, its eccentricity and mystical feel make it a place where fantasy worlds come to life.
It’s the jewel whereby southeast Kansas gleams, and has the power to capture one’s imagination for a lifetime.
The Neosho Valley District Fair of 1879 attracted U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes and a crowd of more than 30,000. Kansas was booming, and Riverside Park in Neosho Falls must have been bustling.
Rural America really used to boom.
As evidence, look no further than the Neosho Valley District Fair of 1879, when over 30,000 people (perhaps as many as 40,000), including U.S. president Rutherford B. Hayes, descended on Neosho Falls.
It all started with an unassuming letter.
Maj. George Snow was chairing the newly formed four-county fair association with others from Allen, Anderson, Coffey and Woodson counties, when he had the idea of inviting President Hayes to stop at the festivities while on his tour of the west.
Everyone thought Snow was nuts, of course, but in response to his inquiry — mailed to Sen. James Harlan of Iowa — came the following message:
“To Major Snow, … My Dear Sir: I have the honor to accept the invitation to attend the Neosho Valley Fair on the 25th of September next. I shall leave my home on the 22nd of September and go on the most direct route to Neosho Falls. Sincerely, R.B. Hayes.”
Not surprisingly, reaction to the news was a mixture of elation and panic.
The eyes of the world would soon be on The Falls.
THE SCENE in Neosho Falls on Sept. 25, 1879, must have been out of this world.
Today’s Riverside Park, originally known as Goss Park to honor one of the town founders, was decorated in every fashion imaginable, and the grounds were swarming.
Every time I visit the site today, I dream of a bustling menagerie there east of the river, stretching out in all directions, with thousands carrying their entries of fruits and vegetables, leading livestock to sheds and prepping them for show.
There were 132 categories for grain, 223 for vegetables, 43 for butter, cheese and other dairy goods, and 86 for fruits like apples, peaches and plums.
Other less agriculturally-inclined guests were enjoying performances and galleries, playing games of chance, noshing hot candy or having their photographs taken (which of course was a novelty).
You could even get a haircut at one of the pop-up barber shops in the tent city of more than 1,000 people that had sprung up south of the racetrack.
If you’re deathly quiet, you can still close your eyes there today and sense the throng of innumerable ghosts.
When the big day came, the skies were blessedly bright and clear.
Before the light had broken, more than a hundred teams were waiting at the gate to the fairgrounds. The roads in and out of Neosho Falls were so choked with wagons, surreys and buggies that typical residents could barely carry out their daily business.
And that’s not even counting train traffic from the Katy railroad, with its bright flags bustling in the soft wind.
Enter president Hayes, who supposedly after disembarking his plush palace car grumbled about the place looking like a one-horse town.
Despite his grouchiness, he joined the fair procession, the head of which also included the Sixteenth Infantry Band, Capitol Guards, Gen. William T. Sherman, Gov. St. John of Kansas and hundreds of staffers on horseback.
After crossing the river, Hayes apparently changed his tune when he saw the incredible crowd, gasping “Where did all these people come from?”
Try to imagine it. The president of the United States crossing beneath the impressive archway erected at the park entrance made from woven sorghum stalks, heads of grain and corn of a hundred colors.
Inscribed on it were the words: 1856 Bleeding; 1860 Droughty; 1879 Booming. … “the history of Kansas in a nutshell.”
There, the president tipped his hat to Maj. Snow’s daughter, Emma, who was lavishly dressed as the Goddess of Liberty, and shook hands with “Uncle” Ept Bearden, a Black man who had at one time been a slave.
“Three cheers for President Hayes!” he shouted, in admiration of the long-time abolitionist.
Around 70 newspapers from across Kansas were on scene to witness the event, and Professor Worall of Topeka was there to draw sketches for Harpers and Leslie Weekly magazines.
The first speech on the platform was given by John Goodin from Humboldt as the rattling echo from a 21-gun salute still hung in the air.
Gov. St. John, President Hayes and Gen. Sherman then each presented speeches, which at that time was considered the height of entertainment.
I’ve often dreamed of standing in that massive yet eerily quiet crowd, listening as Hayes joked about telling the same speech over and over; and in a more somber tone, analyzed the conflicting views of state and individual rights that had fueled the Civil War.
In his own speech, Gen. Sherman spoke about rural prosperity, and jibbed about how much Kansas had improved since last he’d been there and had to sleep with rats in a corn crib.
When the speeches were over, George Crawford of the fair association presented Hayes with an unique and strangely beautiful artifact, a chair made from the horns of Kansas steers living on Warren Crandall’s Turkey Creek ranch.
The chair used to be housed at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., but now resides at the Hayes Library in Ohio.
After a simple bow from first lady Lucy Hayes, hundreds rushed the platform to try and shake hands with the president.
The most noteworthy of those who tried to do so, however, must have been a young man whose name remains unknown to me.
With some help from Sen. Finney, the eager fellow managed to make his way into the president’s presence at which point he stammered something like: “Last week my wife gave birth to twins, her first children, a boy and a girl, and I have come 35 miles from home in order to see the president and ask him to name them.”
To this, Hayes’ eyes twinkled above his bushy beard, and he promptly roared “Name them Rutherford and Mary!”
Unsurprisingly, the crowd went wild.
The main event of the afternoon was horse racing, including chariot contests “that would have made a Roman proud,” accompanied by plenty of excited and inarticulate shouting.
Many times I’ve stood there in Riverside Park, with the image in my mind’s eye, wrapped in the comfort of countless tall trees.
The terrain has changed. The squat red depot and Katy tracks are gone. The buildings Hayes and Sherman would have seen in downtown Neosho Falls are gone. The bridge they crossed is gone. The fairgrounds are no more.
Yet something remains, if only memory, along with the haunting reminder that at one time rural America wasn’t so “rural.”
It was a bastion of progressivism and promise.
The Carlyle area once boasted of a grand brick-making plant, but that hope soon crumbled. More than 100 years later, the castle-like remains still enchant.
Carlyle lies in pieces.
Since before 1858, its historical traces stretch from at least Cottonwood Creek to along the banks of Deer Creek and beyond.
The original cemetery, with its shattered stones belonging to the Vezie family and more, is hidden within what has become timber.
Almost a mile to the east, nothing remains of the original schoolhouse save a crushed foundation beside a resident’s shed.
Neither of these is actually in Carlyle as such, and neither are the remnants of the Funston family home or Lumberman’s Portland Cement facility.
Perhaps this is all to say that Carlyle — pronounced colloquially by emphasizing the “lyle” — is not merely a town but its own little region of Allen County, a space across which tens of thousands of fragments are strewn.
Not long ago, I had the good fortune of visiting what remains of the Lumberman’s Portland Cement facility with former commissioner Bill King and historian Donna Houser.
Apparently, locals refer to the factory’s remnants as “The Castles,” and upon viewing it’s easy to see why.
The journey began by taking an upward jog shortly east of Carlyle, where we bounced through dry pastures checking out what remained of old railroad bridges.
Our next stop was at a modest body of water called Crystal Lake, which was once the quarry for Lumberman’s. Afterwards it was converted into a privately owned public pool, outfitted with a surprising number of amenities.
An Iola Register entry from June 1919 reads: “Quite a number of young people are planning on going swimming in the old quarry north of Carlyle this evening if it doesn’t rain. Mr. Shore, the present owner, has ordered an oak plank for a new diving board. Visitors are welcome as ever to the commodious dressing rooms which he erected there.”
An uncanny sight it was, as I dreamed them there amidst the evergreen trees and smooth white stones. Young people catching rays and laughing brightly, not a care in the world.
When we arrived at the cement plant itself, I could see where its outlines broke through the trees, like an enormous creature leaning in to get a better look at our approach.
The work on this place had begun in 1909, and folks had high hopes that its delivery of both bricks and cement would be economically transformative … “giving Allen rank as the greatest cement producing county in the west.”
By spring of that first year, 120 men were already at work making bricks, and the company looked to hire some 70 more.
Lots were bought in Carlyle to build houses and a hotel, around the same time as the Presbyterian Church was celebrating its 50th anniversary.
The town sprouted grocery stores, a pool house, a drug store and more. There were likewise plans to form a new school district, which ironically, later hastened the consolidation process (since the other districts didn’t want to compete for resources).
For the time being, however, everything was rosy. The plant was cranking out 150,000 bricks a day, and it seemed Carlyle was ready to bloom.
Yet money woes persisted from the outset, not just at Lumberman’s but at the neighboring Lehigh Portland and Concreto plants as well.
Cement was in trouble and investors wary.
In just six months, $800,000 had been spent and nowhere near that amount had been repaid. Parts of the plant were poorly designed and had to be rebuilt.
Despite the efforts of the plant’s receiver, the facility was forced to close and in turn it “paralyzed” the businesses in Carlyle.
In June 1913, the plant still owed $400,000 to its stockholders, and the company was suing the manufacturer for a wagonload.
After the dust settled, Lumberman’s was sold to Iola entrepreneur L.L. Northrup for a measly $41,000, despite the original estimate for the plant being $2.5 million. “The unfortunate stockholders would get nothing.”
Things had come to a crashing halt, like in 1882 when a train wrecked in Carlyle, throwing seven cars from the track and killing 50 cattle.
Reflecting on the incredible loss of hope (and dollars) connected to the plant, I wove my way through the undergrowth, attempting to get a closer look.
Most of the concrete buildings had long had their contents gutted and reclaimed by nature. It was almost as if another civilization from a distant world had once inhabited the site, but had since returned to its home among the stars.
There was graffiti of a hundred colors, including the caricature of a bird-flipping Kermit the Frog, though I marveled most at what I believed to be the remnants of various brick kilns.
Their strange shape demanded closer investigation, and I closely scanned the structure on tiptoes, fascinated by its design.
I had become so focused that I didn’t even realize when Bill decided to pull a prank on me by driving farther ahead into the field and out of sight.
No matter. I was enthralled, and the wait provided an opportunity to chat with the ghost of E.W. Boulson, who had decided to interrupt my reverie.
On June 2, 1919, the 54-year-old plummeted from a 40-foot drop inside one of the Lumber’s buildings and was killed instantly. He’d been helping to dismantle the plant so that the materials could be shipped to Oklahoma.
He seemed melancholy when I left him, perhaps because he sees so few visitors.
Back in Carlyle proper, I searched for any stretches of brick sidewalks that had been laid down by the residents of town in 1915.
One cool day in March, they simply closed their stores and offices, donned work clothes and took up the backbreaking task themselves.
I ran my hand across a promising patch of material, feeling it break and crumble under and between my fingers, presuming it had been manufactured at the plant nearby.
Again, I reflected on the action of breaking apart, fragmenting, and on how so much of the history of rural America is tied to loss.
August 1877, a windstorm kicked up and demolished Garrison’s cheese factory near Carlyle. “It was utterly blown to pieces.”
In time, might this not be the fate of every rural Kansas village like Carlyle (and its rival town, Florence), barring massive cultural and economic change?
As for now, soon all we will have are pieces …
The Iola Coca-Cola Bottling Company operated just north of the Iola square for decades. The taste and quality of that early cola could vary depending on water quality in different communities.
The history of the Iola Coca-Cola Bottling Co. is a storied one.
Though the plant operated just north of the Iola square for decades, in the beginning it was anything but smooth sailing.
It all started in 1905 with a fellow by the name of John Copening, who after his first week in town decided Kansas might be a little too rough for his taste.
Not only “was the business district rocked by three dynamite blasts,” the result of Charley Melvin targeting local saloons, but Copening was unjustly arrested and had his team and wagon confiscated.
Two years later, though, he decided to buy the Iola Steam Bottling Company, and his cola odyssey had officially begun.
The Steam Bottling Company already made 30 different kinds of soda, mixing its own extracts and sometimes even its own carbonic acid gas (via a machine called a spider).
Copening recalled when the spider would vibrate wildly from internal pressure, and one day he witnessed the company boys wildly sprinting from the back room yelling “She’s a’ dancin’! She’s a’ dancin’!”
Thankfully, “the machine never blew up and no one was injured.”
Some of the other flavors of soda along with regular Coke included: iron brew, banana, vanilla, sarsaparilla, blackberry, tango, cherry, strawberry, orange, lemon and various “standard” flavors.
However, with regard to flavoring, Copening pointed out how “the taste and quality of Coca-Cola was so varied in different parts of the county that it was difficult to determine that it was Coca-Cola. Failure of bottling machinery to overcome the variance in water in different sections was largely the reason.”
In other words, product standardization wasn’t yet widespread, and so depending on the water where you lived, your Coca-Cola could taste radically different.
And yes, Coca-Cola syrup did contain actual cocaine up until 1929, though the amount had been continually decreased over the years. Concerns about the health effects of cocaine had indeed been raised, but the inventors were worried about removing it right away because, since the “Coca” in Coca-Cola is a reference to coca leaves, they were worried about losing their trademark.
In 1908, Copening bought the building at 204 North Washington, where the bottling company would reside the remainder of its life.
Around this time, he remembered leaving Iola with wagon loads of Coca-Cola, bringing along camping equipment and supplies for his team of horses.
He’d often have to spend the night in two or three different counties along his route that included, not only Allen, but Woodson, Greenwood, Anderson and Coffey counties.
The company was the first in Iola to buy a truck, but that wasn’t until around 1912 or 1913. (Copening also owned the first boat used on the Neosho River.)
One of the first deliveries that the truck made was to take a load of Coca-Cola to the Ol’ Settlers’ Days celebration in Neosho Falls.
Despite such humble beginnings, it wouldn’t be long until the plant was producing as much soda in a single day as it originally could in an entire summer, when Coke was largely considered a seasonal beverage.
Along with having to transport the soda by horse and wagon, keep in mind that sanitation practices were not nearly as stringent as they are today.
For instance, “when Copening first began bottling soft drinks he used bottles with wire stoppers which could be used several times and were permanently fastened to the bottles.”
However, that’s nothing compared to how he cleaned them.
“During this period, shot was used in washing the bottles. The method called for dropping a few steel shot into the bottle which was churned in sudsy water, rinsed and sterilized. Once in a long time a shot would cling to the inside of the bottle and some thirsty customer would be surprised when he found a tiny steel ball in the pop.”
Makes your teeth hurt just thinking about it.
Nevertheless, Coca-Cola of course went on to become a staple of American diets as well as an image for American culture.
When starting out, Copening could hardly give the stuff away, but by his retirement he’d become a “dean” among local manufacturers.
His exploits therefore belong not only to the industrial history of Allen County, but speak to a more pervasive attitude towards risky and unusual business ventures that would become a hallmark of American capitalism.
West of Iola once sat Charleston, the home for people of color and others who didn't quite belong. Former residents shared their stories in the Iola Register archives, telling of the challenges they faced from a very unique place in local history.
I’ve always had a penchant for misfits.
You know, those folks who, due to eccentricities, fashion habits, gender performance or whatever, have been pushed to the edges of society.
Such marginalization was, of course, prominently on display during the formation of Allen County as well, as evidenced by one of its least-known settlements.
West of Iola, just west of the Neosho River once sat Charleston, a haven for people of color and anybody else who didn’t quite belong.
No one alive seems to know exactly where it was, but every time I stand on the riverbank west of town, I close my eyes and listen carefully for the whisper of brown, Black and red ghosts, moving about their little cabin town.
The best window I’ve found into the forgotten world of Charleston is from letters written or dictated by former Black slaves.
One of them was Albert “Deacon” Woodard, described as a “pioneer colored man of Iola,” who was born into slavery in Tennessee in 1852.
The avowed Baptist enjoyed smoking his corn cob pipe, and was known for having giant feet.
Woodard was actually the name of Deacon’s former owner, and after the Emancipation, he rented his old master’s farm and worked it himself.
He then traveled to Kansas in 1871, along with a “‘herd’ of colored folks, about 40 in all.” It took them 65 days to cross the distance from Tennessee.
Although the party arrived in Iola, they were all soon settled in, you guessed it, Charleston. The place where, as Woodard put it, “nobody but colored folks lived.”
According to Woodard, in Charleston “there were no stores or public buildings, just a cluster of cabins,” none of which were likely standing by the dawn of the twentieth century.
And he describes how most made a living, saying “the colored folks over there lived by their labor, of course. Everybody around here burned wood in those days and most of the labor was cutting firewood.”
He even remembered that his first job was cutting cords of stove wood for Mrs. Harmon Scott, for which she paid him $2.
When Woodard corresponded with the Iola Register, the conversation concluded with the following attempt to transcribe his dialect: “He is 77 now. Weary totin’ such a load. Tredgin’ down dis lonesome road. … He don’ his sheer o’ ha’d wo’l an’ he goin’ tek it easy f’om now on.”
An even more colorful and detailed account of Charleston comes to us from former slave and Iola housekeeper Nancy Grubbs.
Grubbs did not belong to a white person, however, but to a Native American chief’s brother. Hence she came to Iola by way of Indian Territory in Oklahoma, and her parents/their owners likely walked the Trail of Tears.
She mentions arriving in Iola in 1862, a time when many indigenous refugees were fleeing north into Kansas (such as Chief Opothleyahola and his band of Muskogee).
She also recalled some of Iola’s very first businesses, including a blacksmith and saloon, and mentions that her French friend, Civil War nurse Victoria “Granny” Cowden, “was the first white woman in Iola.” (Some claim the first white woman in Kansas.)
According to Grubbs, Charleston was named for a Charles Ross, and “the Creeks [Muskogee], Choctaws, Freedoms [Freedmen], and Seminoles all lived together.”
She also noted that “there were many witches among the Seminoles and Choctaws,” including the head witch named Rock.
Charleston was therefore a highly multicultural place, mirroring the more expansive multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and linguistic diversity that characterized southeast Kansas in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Yet it was certainly not without peril.
For instance, Grubbs shares the story that “one day Granny Cowden and a bunch of us were walking over to Iola and we ran across two men that were hanged beside the road. One had on a hat, the other had a chew of tobacco in his mouth. Both were white.”
Not surprisingly, seeing the lynched men terrified Grubbs.
“I don’t know who was frightened the worse, the dead men or us. Granny Cowden never stopped running until she reached Cofachique,” Grubbs said.
That’s more than a couple of miles.
Indeed, Granny Cowden seems to have gone most places in a hurry, for as Grubbs joked, “someone said she don’t know she was born to die. Mrs. Case said she knew she was born to run.”
Even when Grubbs and others were fleeing in fear of an invasion by Southern Loyalists, Cowden said she preferred to depend on her feet rather than God’s mercy.
Times were especially hard during the Civil War when Grubbs first arrived in Kansas.
As she explained, “we had to eat stewed pumpkin for breakfast, dinner and supper. Once in a while Old Man Walters would kill a poor cow and bring meat, dividing it among us, saying he was always indebted to the poor. I’ve ate cornbread made of salt and water.”
She likewise mentions how “during the drought we would go and dig artichokes and stack them up to stew and bake all winter. Going to the bridge we would tap the maple trees and make maple syrup on the west side of the river.”
Indeed, even procuring the simplest of food items could be arduous, with the closest place to mill flour being Neosho Falls.
Regarding preparation, Grubbs said “we would pound our hominy and cook it in a big kettle, then we would feast. Hickory nuts were plentiful. We would take their meats, mix with the hominy and make connutiche.”
And so one dreams them there, not far from the river, people of a half a dozen colors, laughing and talking, brought together by a simple communion of corn and nut meat.
Spiritual life was important to the people of Charleston, and regardless of specific worldview, most everybody attended church, or what Grubbs called “the Creeks, Seminoles, and colored church.”
Likely the most entertaining church story involves when Granny Cowden corrected the minister while he was giving a sermon about David and Goliath.
Apparently she jumped up and said something like: “You didn’t speak that right. David killed Goliath and cut his head off with Goliath’s own sword!”
Dumbfounded, the minister groaned something about leaving his eyeglasses at home, to which everyone responded accidentally by singing a hymn about glasses.
By contrast, a far less humorous episode occurred while the Rev. Thompson was giving a sermon and half a dozen soldiers in Union uniforms showed up. One of them called Thompson an “old copperhead,” Grubbs recalled, then they threw a rope around his neck and led him away, never to be seen again.
Time to run.
And it wasn’t the last time, either, as one of the final tales Grubbs relates involves her having to run in the middle of burying her friend’s dead son.
While digging, she and others were warned of an incursion by Confederate guerillas near Humboldt, and so they left behind the boy’s pallid body as they fled the cemetery potter’s field.
Life had become a wild sprint between crises…
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved dinosaurs, fossils and all things prehistoric.
And believe it or not, Kansas is home to some of the most spectacular fossil discoveries in U.S. history, especially its western portion.
A fossil, by the way, is any preserved remains or trace of a once-living thing (usually over 10,000 years old); paleontology is the study of fossils.
One reason the state has so many paleontological treasures is because it was once the site of an immense saltwater sea that stretched the entire length of the North American continent.
About 80 million years ago and 84 million years ago, the Western Interior Seaway would have even submerged all of Allen and Woodson counties; its deepest reaching 600 feet.
Regarding evidence for these incredible events, one need only know where to look, as fossil-rich sites can be found everywhere from east of Lake Lehigh, south of Iola, to atop Biscuit Mound, a unique formation east of Toronto.
Most of what one can find in Allen and Woodson counties are the fossils of tiny marine invertebrates like crinoids, but in neighboring Anderson County, remains have been found belonging to ancient fish, reptiles and amphibians.
What else might be lurking just beneath our noses?
Try to imagine it.
It’s the late Cretaceous Period, last in the Age of Dinosaurs, and you’re standing ankle-deep in soggy soil that in millions of years will be named southeast Kansas.
The Western Interior Sea is currently retracted, leaving the territories of Allen and Woodson counties exposed to the bright light and heavy air, and you can see verdant swamp stretching in every direction.
Giant insects like dragonflies hum near the earth, and massive winged pteranodons cut the sky on enormous jagged wings. The biggest scorpion you’ve ever seen wanders by nonchalantly.
Plodding through the muck all around are countless strange and amazing creatures, such as gigantic amphibians, and in the distance are countless ferns and scale trees.
One plant called Walchia has been found in Anderson County, and in Woodson County, examples of ancient Scouring Rush have been retrieved.
This form of Scouring Rush was a bit like bamboo and could grow to heights of 60 feet. Local historian Lester Harding said he found a fossilized piece while exploring Dry Creek Cave and another along the creek bed in a gravel bar.
The remains of all these plants and animals would eventually form huge coal and oil deposits that would remain undisturbed for millennia until being tapped by human drillers.
Long before that, the fossilized remains of ancient beings would inspire awe and even a form of religious reverence in the lives of indigenous Native peoples. (This was especially the case with unusual extinct creatures found in what were called “Spirit Mounds.”)
While you’re visiting the prehistoric world and Western Interior Sea, I don’t recommend going in the water.
Although there are plenty of harmless critters around like ammonites, giant clams, crinoids, rudists, bony fishes and turtles, there are also a few less friendly inhabitants.
Enormous ancient sharks, along with dinosaur-like beings such as fearsome mosasaurs and long-necked plesiosaurs, are waiting patiently to bite you in half or simply swallow you whole.
In “Oceans of Kansas,” paleontologist Michael Everhart dreams a hungry mosasaur on the hunt, sneaking closer and closer to a flock of winged pteranodons, closing in for the kill:
“Slashing his powerful tail from side to side, he surged upward toward the body of the nearest bird. His mouth opened just before he reached the surface and quickly closed on the bird as his momentum carried his upper body several feet out of the water. Crushed by his powerful jaws, the bird struggled briefly and died.”
Hopefully now you’ll be extra careful.
So how’d all this water get here, anyway?
According to Everhart, “the Western Interior Seaway was formed by the flooding of low-lying areas of the North American continent during a period of the earth’s history when there were no polar ice caps and sea levels were at their highest.”
In other words, with the temperature of the ancient earth too high to form polar ice, the excess water flowed into and covered certain landmasses.
Unfortunately, when it comes to finding fossil evidence connected to these prehistoric occurrences, we aren’t as lucky in southeast Kansas as they are in western portions of the state.
This is because the layers of Smoky Hill Chalk found in western Kansas, which have housed most of the truly awesome paleontological discoveries, have all eroded away here.
The surface rocks that might have contained dinosaur remains — Triassic, Jurassic and early Cretaceous — are also mostly gone from the state.
Of course, there are still plenty of fossils around to find, and our being situated in Kansas’ southeastern corner means we have an opportunity to more easily see some of the oldest rocks on the planet.
For as Everhart points out, “as you travel roughly 430 miles from St. Francis (Cheyenne County) in the northwest corner to Baxter Springs (Cherokee County) in the southeast, you are descending 250 million years through time (geologically speaking) at an average of about 580,000 years to the mile. It is almost like being in a time machine.”
That is, as you cross Kansas from west to east, you’re not only descending in elevation, you’re also passing over the top of geological strata that get older and older as you proceed.
So what do I need to do to start fossil hunting?
Thankfully, not much. Since as Everhart notes, “sometimes having good eyes in the right place at the right time is more important than being an expert.”
That said, he suggests reading primers on Kansas fossils to help with identification, but anyone can have a successful hunt if they know where to look.
For example, without much assistance on our parts, last year naturalist Randy Rasa and I helped Iola third graders search for fossils east of Lake Lehigh.
“Is this a fossil? Is THIS a fossil?”
You never saw someone so happy from collecting a bag of rocks.
Yet it speaks to that childlike awe that each of us still possesses, and that can be reactivated, when we allow our imaginations to transport us places we might once have only dared to dream.
Get out there.
'Tank Farm' references the enormous oil tanks southeast of Humboldt that have been in operation since around 1904. It was once one of the largest tank farms in the world. But that's not the only historically significant feature along Delaware Road.
One of the most unusual names for any feature in Allen County has got to be Tank Farm Road.
Also called Delaware Road, this byway cuts straight through the county’s agricultural heart and is home to multiple historic sites.
“Tank Farm” is a reference to the enormous oil tanks southeast of Humboldt that have been in operation since around 1904, when Standard Oil built the first of eight 35,000-barrel containers along with a main pump building.
Originally known as the Durning Farm, by 1907 it had become one of the largest tank farms in the world, and boasted a storage capacity of more than a million barrels.
According to local Ken Johnson, in the 1930s “one of the oil tanks caught fire … and a cannon was brought in to punch a hole in the base of the steel Goliath so oil would drain into a reservoir.”
Seems like a great way to cause an explosion or catch half the countryside on fire.
Yet it was fire as well that caught the imagination of a young Bob Johnson, veteran Register reporter, when as kid he would head out to the tank farm to watch controlled oil burns.
“The fires lasted for days and melted the steel plating into grotesque shapes,” he recalled. “People gathered along the road to watch.”
Johnson also shared the tale of a fellow who took his own life at the tank farm, where he enacted not one but two grisly measures to ensure his success.
“He became so distraught that he climbed on top of a tank, put a chain around his neck, tied the chain to something on top of the tank, leaned over the side and shot himself in the head. He was found dangling along the side of the tank.”
What a way to go.
Journeying east to 2000 Street, you’ll next find the location of the fabled seven-arch bridge, a site that once graced the National Register of Historic Places.
The original structure is no longer standing, having met its demise in June 1999, but the mark left by its presence still seems to resonate, especially since the new “seven-square” bridge serves as its somewhat grotesque parody.
Indeed, if you close your eyes and listen carefully, you can still hear the echoes of horse hooves clattering across the 156-foot span.
Gottlieb Roehl, an immigrant from Brandenburg, Germany, conscripted his sons, Fred and Henry, along with other helpful neighbors, to complete the bridge’s masonry work over the course of a couple years, starting in 1898, in order to have better access to his farm across the creek known at that time as Schleicher’s Branch.
According to Register archives, “they used no mortar. The seven arches were constructed in such a way that weight from above compressed the wedged components of the arches more tightly together.”
Standing on the creek bank, I’ve dreamed Roehl’s sons and friends there, watching them work meticulously, hauling and shaping quarried limestone blocks, hoisting them into place one piece at a time.
If any ghosts shed a tear as the ornate structure was ultimately ravaged by the teeth of a backhoe, it was most certainly them.
Such was the fate of one the county’s most celebrated relics: to be unceremoniously ferried away in dump trucks.
Our last stop is at Delaware Road and 3000 Street, a place called Vincentville.
Today Vincentville Corner is mostly a landmark, but for a number of years it was the site of a service station and car repair shop.
I admit that when I first visited, I wrongly suspected it had been a country store and post office, akin to Charlie Brown’s in Mildred.
However, it’s actually christened after Robert Vincent, originally from Elsmore, who started the shop with his father around 1926. Vincent was also a mason and a methodist, and served in the LaHarpe Fire Department.
I wonder what he would think of the Vincentville site today, so overgrown with heavy vines that it seems as though it’s being ingested.
If you look closely, though, you can still see the words “Vincentville” emblazoned on the building there in chipped black paint.
Thus far, I’ve only come across one instance of “Vincentville News” in the Register archives, but I think it’s worth sharing if for no other reason than to smirk at its banality.
In November 1927, here are some of items reported:
• A new flue was completed at the service station, as well as a new stove.
• “Russell Jackson spent Saturday afternoon with Junior Butts.”
• Due to the coming winter, Pete Burglund, an assistant at the Vincentville station, traded his open car for a coupe.
• “R.H. Bennett is improving nicely from the severe kick he received from his gun last week.”
• “Dee Mynatt received a fractured ankle while helping move the drilling rig Friday afternoon.”
• “Miss Alma Jackson is assisting Mrs. J.M. Vincent with her housework.”
Personally, I love the idea that a neighborly visit, minor injury, or new amenities were considered newsworthy items.
Or perhaps our lives in southeast Kansas are simply more chalk-full of excitement than we realize.
The Mildred Store, formerly Charlie Brown's, and its owners have become caretakers of the town's past. The store dates back to 1915, not long after the founding of the town.
From the moment you cross the threshold in the Mildred Store, you find yourself immersed in the history of rural Kansas.
The first thing people bump into is the antique soda cooler, which despite not being the original, provokes a flood of memories in guests, especially those who recall the ice cold bottles found there when the place was still called Charlie Brown’s.
The Browns owned and operated the store for 99 years — starting in 1915 — before it changed hands to Regena and Loren Lance in the summer of 2014.
Having grown up with the store, Mildred native Regena already had an enduring emotional connection to it, and so when the opportunity arose, she and Loren decided to take the leap and restore the community gathering place.
Today, the Lances not only find themselves making sure folks are well-fed (thanks to their legendary sandwiches), they’ve become caretakers of Mildred’s storied past, sharing the tale of how an unassuming cornfield became a boomtown of 700 people.
The youngest town in Allen County, Mildred got its start in 1907 thanks to the Great Western Cement Company, and was named for the daughter of the company’s president, J.W. Wagner.
Remnants of the plant still lurk north of town behind tall grass and weeds, one of many local vestiges from a time when concrete was king.
At one point, Mildred also boasted a depot, hotel, drug store, doctor, dentist, church, high school, bakery, bank, tonsorial parlor (i.e., a barber), two garages/filling stations, four grocery stores and a movie theater.
The bank was located just west of Charlie Brown’s, and its concrete vault is still standing.
Shuffling through the snow, I peered inside to find, not piles of forgotten cash, but several rusted-out amenities such as an antique refrigerator.
The hotel was located just east of Charlie Brown’s, though beyond photos about the only remaining relic is a beautifully-preserved antique dish.
The most complete sketch I’ve come across of life in early Mildred, or at least the most humorous, comes from a Register article with the subtitle “Correspondant takes a full-length bath. Very interesting story of small town life.”
One of the first lines in the piece is “Anyone who does not like a small town ought to stay away from Mildred,” though the writer goes on to praise the little town as comparable to life in a Kansas City suburb.
He then goes on to list all the amenities one can find in Mildred, from electric lights to the movie theater, but truly seems enthralled by his amazing bathing experience, “one of the finest the writer has ever had.”
He apparently didn’t care for getting sweaty in the summer, and Mildred had just the remedy.
Back inside the Mildred Store, along with a plethora of classic product boxes, signs and posters, resides the city’s post office.
Charlie’s wife, Lucille Brown, was the last postmaster, and also operated the office when it was still across the street.
If you look closely, you can find the window marked “Registry/Money Orders,” through which Lucille often peered, but it’s now almost entirely hidden behind containers of Mildred Store special seasoning.
Noticing one of many antique telephones on the wall nearby, I indeed realized it was no exaggeration when the Lances said “all the antiques are still like they were when Charlie Brown was here.”
And that means finding quite the variety of items as well, since along with the grocery store, the Browns ran several other businesses including a stable, saddle and tack shop, fence-building supply, mechanical repair and more.
“There’s stuff behind the wall we haven’t even touched,” the Lances added.
The middle room of the Mildred Store is practically its own museum, dedicated to both the town and the store itself.
Newspaper clippings there celebrate not only the past, but efforts in the present to keep small towns alive through eliminating food deserts and maintaining grocery stores.
On the south wall is a brightly-painted covered wagon, bedecked with red and green, built by an Iowa company around 1866. It originally belonged to a rancher in Bronson, and was used on cattle drives to transport bedding and supplies.
Some of Charlie Brown’s original signage for the store, along with various pieces of farm equipment, dangle overhead, and not far away, rows of bright orange church pews line the space for Music Night.
There are even a few traces of when the Browns sold Model-T Fords out of the same spot.
Everywhere one looks, there’s something “new” to discover.
Not long ago, Regena Lance was kind enough to take a break from calf-sitting and share with me a map of Mildred drawn from memory by Robert Cunningham, who lived there between 1929-1932.
The sheer number of homes and businesses sketched out in fine graphite lines were jaw-dropping.
Regena pointed out several features, straining to read the tiny print, and laughed when she came to one in particular, “Silk Stocking Lane.”
Though it might sound scandalous, as far as we know the name refers to a type of “Modern Home” as opposed to a house of ill repute.
I asked Regena where on earth all the houses/buildings in Mildred disappeared to, and she said the majority had simply been moved elsewhere.
Along with map-reading, Regena shared some of her memories of Mildred and Charlie Brown’s from when she was young.
“I grew up about four miles east of here,” she said.
“We used the store all the time as kids. Charlie Brown, he had the most unique marketing strategy. … He’d say: ‘Hey Regena, go tell your grandpa I’ve got a whole new shipment of toys in.’”
Needless to say, it worked.
“The toy rack is still back there,” she gestured, pointing.
She further recalled the standing deal Brown had made with her mother, namely, “he gave mom all of the bananas that were going bad with the understanding that a loaf of banana bread came back.”
And Regena fondly remembered Charlie’s better half as well, saying “Lucille, she gave everyone free candy, handsful at a time.”
“People always said Lucille’d give away the store,” Regena said, laughing, “but Charlie’d make it up in the back.”
The tiny town of Rose was once known as 'the hay metropolis of the world.' There's not much left of the town now, but its history falls like petals over those who visit.
Standing between the Pleasant Valley cemetery and schoolhouse in southern Woodson County, I lost myself in the immensity of the sky.
Always looking, looking … but for what?
According to the sign above the doorway, the sandstone schoolhouse has been surveying this same horizon since 1881, but the district is even older.
First known as “The Brush School,” as it convened in Alva Brush’s house, District 18 had its start in 1867 in a little room about a mile to the north.
Laura Dumond was the district’s first teacher at the subscription school, and would witness not only construction of its “box building” replacement, but the replacement’s replacement, the iconic sandstone structure that stands still today.
In “Memories of My Valley,” Edith Mentzer recalled spelling competitions and other contests between Pleasant Valley and neighboring schools, and noted, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that “the debates became so interesting that it was necessary to limit the time for each.”
Pleasant Valley closed its doors to students in 1952, but has hosted countless 4-H meetings, weddings and family reunions over the years.
Yet its existence points to something even more intriguing nearby.
That something is the ghost town of Rose, founded in June 1870, which along with the rest of Pleasant Valley, is situated in the mouth of an ancient inactive volcano.
During the Cretaceous Period, last in the Age of Dinosaurs, veins of magma crept to the surface, and after the resulting formation expanded and collapsed, what remained was eventually termed the Rose Dome intrusion.
A similar expansion and collapse took place in relation to the town of Rose itself, though, and that’s what concerns us here.
Indeed, its population exploded after the Verdigris-Independence-and-Western railroad arrived in 1882, but by the middle of the Twentieth Century was a shell of its former self.
Over the course of 140 years, Rose went from numbering hundreds of residents, especially during hay season, to less than a dozen.
The name Rose comes from the daughter of the town’s first postmaster, George Trimble, who named the post office in her honor.
Today Trimble rests in Brush Cemetery, hidden northwest of Rose in the middle of a pasture. The burial ground started when Alva Brush’s daughter died suddenly.
I’ve only visited their graves once, however, as it requires tromping through grass six feet high and what feels like several feet thick.
Crouching amidst the tangle, I marvelled at blazing yellow sunflowers and the fact that the person who christened an entire town had met with such a clandestine end.
Nearby, the tall but similarly entangled headstones of Alva Brush and various Civil War veterans seemed to agree.
Back in Rose, I had stopped at the railroad intersection and was dreaming of the town in its literal “hay-day,” while horses muttered and sighed behind the fenceline.
Men of all ages had emerged from tents and were chattering at market about the dozens of train cars parked along the rail siding.
Others were just beginning to pull up with wagons brimming with golden feed.
One couple lingering at the blacksmith’s shop was approached by a spectral young man who asked if they’d seen Doc Higgins, as he was in “powerful need of a remedy.”
Residents darted in and out of the Rose Mercantile, operated by the Evans family, buying dry goods like flour and sugar. (Since milling flour yourself meant a multiple-mile hike to Humboldt or Coyville.)
One of the store ads read: “Ask old Gabe to fill your tank with Laughing Gas, and tickle Lizze’s carburetor.”
I’m not sure what that means exactly, but sounds like a wild time!
Following the train tracks north up the street, I paused in front of Rose’s most beautiful home, built in 1914, which first belonged to Frederick Dumond and his family.
Dumond was born on his parents’ homestead in a cabin not far away, and lived his entire life in Woodson County.
He sold heavy farm equipment and owned a general store in Rose, which was not far from the house and depot; he also kept watch over the post office and was a substitute carrier.
Dumond’s hay crews were legendary, and would compete with one another to see who could bale the most in a single day.
The record is supposedly 749, while using antique equipment, of course.
No wonder Rose was considered “the hay metropolis of the world.”
Although it’s gone today, another feature of town was the Methodist Church, where people received full-immersion baptisms.
Edith Mentzer said these were her first recollection of any religious services as a child, and added that “we learned songs on these occasions which linger in our memory. They are ‘Shall We Gather at the River’ and ‘On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand.’”
On the flipside, she also recalled the year when the murderous “Bloody Benders” herded cattle across pastures not far away to the north.
The Rose depot, which saw the coming-and-going of so many travelers over the years, was long ago relocated to Yates Center, directly south of Pizza Hut on Highway 75. The hope was that it would become part of a museum.
On the east edge of Rose one can also find another, much younger, schoolhouse: District 17, made from rich red brick.
This district, too, got its start early, around summer 1867, and also held classes in a couple frame buildings before inhabiting a more permanent structure.
Per the original schoolhouse, a teacher named Fitzgerald remembered “there were large cracks in the siding where little rifts of snow would blow across the room.”
Snow aside, classes were held at “the Rose School” until 1960, and so there are still quite a few folks around who can recall attending.
Finding myself contemplating a schoolhouse once again, reflecting especially on my life as an educator, I gazed at the crumbling sidewalk and took hold of the thin metal gate to brace myself.
I dreamed the voices of children in a yard now devoid and empty, and picked one of the small white roses growing nearby.
Petals began to fall as I turned the blossom over in my hand, just as they had fallen from the Rose all around me.
… Towards the earth in silence.
Like Prince Hamlet and his friends, when last in Elsinore I, too, saw a ghost.
It wasn’t atop the ramparts of an ornate castle in Denmark, however, but near the banks of Big Creek in Allen County, the place east of Humboldt later christened Old Elsmore.
I was wandering near the Old Elsmore/Elsinore Cemetery, using it to determine the location of a vanished schoolhouse, when first he approached me.
C.C. Thompson had momentarily vacated the undiscovered country, was circulating a petition to become postmaster at Elsinore and eagerly approached me to sign.
Knowing he was destined to lose, I nonetheless scrawled my signature in the air, though I also knew he was reported to have soon after “stolen” another office nearby.
According to Register archives from 1888, Thompson was accused of having relabeled his Elsinore signatures so as to become postmaster in Savonburg instead.
Suffice to say, it worked, though angered folks in a manner akin to other potentially-spurious elections around the same time, such as that of Iola vs. Humboldt for the county seat.
Humorously enough, C.C. Thompson wasn’t the only one engaged in antics around Elsinore.
“Some of the young men of Old Elsmore go to church with their breath heavily loaded with that which intoxicates, and then expect a young lady to accept their company home.”
Indeed, it’s hard not to dream them there, walking the road between the schoolhouse/church and cemetery, young women laughing and rolling their eyes while being enthralled by some Romeo full of liquid courage.
Together they would form part of a unique community that remained in the Allen countryside for years to come, proud of its ball team and grange, but whose existence is only scantily recorded.
Beyond a few newspaper records, about the only remaining artifact is a postcard bearing the name of Elsinore, addressed to Kate Bacon, who was attending Baldwin University in 1881.
“Dear Kate, Bring all your clothes and leave your bed and dishes,” read the near-ineligible graphite scrawl. “When you move, get Brother Jones to take your stove back to the man it belongs to.”
As for Elsmore proper, the town’s second (current) site came into existence with the coming of the Katy Railroad, as it extended from Kansas City to Parsons.
This was reportedly how the name change away from Elsinore took place as well, with someone sloppily painting what looked like “Elsmore” on the railroad depot’s signage.
In preparation for the coming tracks, N.L. Ard, H.W. Cox, O.P. Mattson, J.A. Nicholson and J.L. Roberts joined forces to purchase the town’s 20 acres, and within a few years, it had become a popular trading center and shipping point.
Along with the early boom, however, also came the infamous Land League troubles in the late decades of the nineteenth century.
The Katy Railroad had been given Allen County land by the federal government, which it then sold to settlers in order to finance future lines.
Problem was, when those settlers finally arrived in Kansas, they already found people “squatting” on their land, which led to various acts of deadly and outright murderous conduct as people battled for soil.
The blood finally ceased flowing when it was declared that the squatters had no rights and the railroad won the day.
In 1909, Elsmore was officially incorporated.
The population soon jumped to over 200, and the town boasted several goods stores along with small manufacturing enterprises.
More specifically, “Kelly Landers recalled that in 1909, Elsmore’s business district included a hotel, bank, drug store, three grocery stores, a restaurant, two hardware stores, a grain elevator, doctor’s office and two barber shops.”
The city’s first school was Wood Hall, and its first teacher was founder Henry Cox, whose reddish-orange headstone states that he and his wife “tried to make the world a better place.”
By contrast, natural disasters made early life in Elsmore a nightmare.
In 1916, a tornado ripped through the area, causing significant damage; and not one but three fires stuck.
One inferno devastated the north side of the business district, another torched a hardware store and harness shop. And the city’s restaurant was damaged in a blaze later in the decade.
Apart from “the thousand natural shocks /That flesh is heir to,” however, there were still plenty of high times in early Elsmore.
The high school women’s team won the 1917 state championship in basketball, for one.
And like many rural places, Saturdays in town were a blast, with band concerts, people visiting and shopping; they also held blow-out dances in the hall above the drug store.
If that wasn’t enough to get your blood up, there was always the occasional wolf drive, where one could test one’s aim against the “local nuisance.”
Things continued to look up thanks to oil being struck east of town in the 1920s, but when the Great Depression hit and Elsmore Bank closed, the town never truly recovered.
When looking down the town’s primary streets today, it’s as if the entire solid place had melted, thawed and resolved itself into a dew.
Or perhaps simply migrated again.
For if one continues east on Delaware Road out of Elsmore to the Allen-Bourbon border, one finds a third, though much younger, community: Lake Elsmore.
Though not an official town, it seems the lake community has more residents than Old Elsmore/Elsinore ever did, and likely also exhibits greater mischief.
Although the lake may look old, it’s actually a man-made creation that came into being in the mid-to-late 1950s, paid for by the sale of Kansas hunting and fishing licenses.
Construction was started in spring 1956, and the site officially opened on November 10, 1959, turning the tree-studded hills flanking Wolf Pen Creek into a fisherman’s paradise, originally stocked with channel cat, crappie, bass and bluegill.
Everybody’s favorite feature of Lake Elsmore, however, is the hidden waterfall tucked away on the north end of the lake.
It’s not terribly difficult to reach, even amidst the chunks of sandstone, where one finally joins the murmur of water crashing before a wall of blackened sediment.
It’s also possible to climb to where the water drops about 25 feet straight down.
The artificiality takes nothing from the scene, and so long as one does not dwell overlong on the fate of poor Ophelia, the shallow pool calls one into inescapable reflection.
Returning back through Elsmore, I watched as the sky turned a thousand hues of pink and gold, as the town’s black shadow resonated below.
I drove slowly past rows of cemetery trees into the coming darkness, wondering what other ghosts might now be about their business.
“Tis now the very witching time of night,” as Hamlet said.
Let the day quake.
Toronto Lake obscures much of the Verdigris Valley, which was once home to ancient indigenous people. Early settlers looked down upon the Verdigris River on their way to make their fortune.
When it comes to rainy day getaways, Toronto Lake isn’t likely the first place that jumps to mind, but never underestimate the power of stir craziness.
An almost uniform veil of silvery-gray storm clouds had blanketed the sky, and I watched as sequences of small waves disappeared into rocky banks.
On the high hill behind me, the cemetery and other remnants of the Carlisle settlement, south of Toronto, dripped with newly fallen rain, not far from the ridge where Thomas R. Carlisle himself once lived.
Carlisle was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Kentucky in 1832, but set on seeking his fortunes farther west, he settled in the Verdigris Valley atop the aforementioned ridge in spring of 1857.
The view would have been significantly different at that time, as the lake and dam wouldn’t be constructed for another hundred years, and the Verdigris River still prominently snaked through the valley.
Indeed, it’s noteworthy just how much the lake water ultimately obscured, from swaths of Carlisle’s original claim, to other homesteads, railroad tracks and geological formations such as the Outlaw Rock Shelter.
One item that remains, however, is a hand dug well on Carlisle’s claim, which retired pharmacist Wes Koschke was kind enough to show me, along with sharing a hilarious story about his neighbor, Big John, whom he once mistook for Sasquatch.
Speaking of fairy tales, three years after Carlisle arrived, Daniel Beane, along with his wife Effie and sister-in-law Lucinda, arrived in the Verdigris Valley as well, setting up camp not far from Carlisle’s cabin.
One day, Lucinda was watering oxen along what is now Carlisle Creek when Thomas Carlisle himself happened to be watering horses.
Cue cupid’s arrow.
Three weeks later they were married at Belmont, home of the Civil War fort several miles to the east, though during the war Carlisle and his neighbor Carey Mullinex were actually stationed at Fort Row near Coyville.
It was there, in 1862, that they witnessed Chief Opothelyahola and his band of several thousand Muskogee (along with other native people and slaves) die in the snow in untold numbers, after the aid they were promised by the Union was withheld.
The sky had begun to brighten somewhat when I moved up the road a bit, with just a hint of pastel blue creeping through the cloudbank.
In the distance, not terribly far across the water, sat Duck Island, so named given its particular shape, and to which I recently kayaked during warmer weather.
The island is unique for a number of reasons, one being that it was originally a high hill before the valley was flooded; and post-flooding, it possesses its own unique ecology, brimming with trees and grass and soil all adapting to the watery surrounds.
Around 1860, members of the Wilhite family built a cabin there, and about a half mile to the north, Smith “Smidty” Wilhite operated a rough-and-tumble tavern.
Smith, by the way, earned his name by fighting alongside Captain John Brown in his bloody campaign to end the horrors of slavery.
And John Walkup, who next bought the claim on the bluff for a mere $65, joined the Ninth Regiment in Humboldt to fight for the same cause.
While on the topic of noteworthy pioneers, across the valley to the north sat the claim belonging to the Carters, which today also borders the lake.
Stanley Curtis is a near-centenarian who lives at the site today, and vividly recalls his family battling the government when the lake project was originally proposed.
What’s wild is that the Carters are actually buried in the Curtises’ yard, though their shattered headstones have been moved around such that no one is exactly sure where.
Joshua Jasper Carter, whose stone is the only one legible, was born in Iowa, though died young of typhoid fever after deserting from the Union Army in 1863.
As for other noteworthy settlers, not far from Carter’s stone, Curtis also keeps what some claim is the chilling relic known as a “slave wheel” — a stone to which a slave was chained to prevent escape — providing evidence beyond the name “Negro Hollow” that, indeed, a group of freedmen established a colony to the northeast of what would later become the lake area.
Turning the clock back, not hundreds, but thousands of years, Duck Island and the Verdigris Valley hold even more secrets.
Thanks to 57 archeological digs performed throughout the area, just prior to creation of the lake, it was discovered that ancient indigenous people had been calling the valley home for millenia.
Perhaps the most exciting find comes from just north of Duck Island, at site 14WO203, where the Verdigris once linked up with Finger Creek.
In 1957, James Howard, Ph.D., along with graduate students from KU, determined that here once sat a village belonging to the Hopewell culture, which dates back to between 200 B.C.E. and 500 C.E.
That means there were native people inhabiting the area at least as far back as the days of Ancient Greece and the New Testament.
More specifically, Howard and his team unearthed pottery shards and flint tools, projectile points, scrappers, blades, drills, and more, which is why Toronto Point’s other name is Clovis Point, a pun that refers to a specific form of ancient tool.
Also found were trace minerals left behind by body paints, and from the specific chemicals found, it seems the Hopewells favored white and yellow, though they were likely delimited by what natural sources of pigmentation existed.
As the rain picked up again and tore through the still-bare blackjack trees, I dreamed them there, tending to children along with modest rows of corn and squash.
Speaking in a language unknown to any living person, they coordinated building some of the most intriguing “earth mound” structures ever found in the Americas (and of which traces still exist in Greenwood County).
Some of these mounds took on the shapes of birds, snakes and other living creatures, though it is still largely unknown what precisely their purpose was.
As only a few mounds were used for burial, the most fascinating hypothesis is that, somewhat like Stonehenge, they played a role in early astronomical observation or perhaps religious veneration of celestial objects like the sun and moon.
As for the demise of the Hopewells, no one is entirely sure, but some educated guesses include tribal warfare, natural climate changes, overhunting and the development of full-scale agricultural societies.
However, if you listen closely to the wind and water of Toronto Lake, one can still hear the whisper of a thousand murmuring ghosts.
Electric Park lit up the nights and the spirits in the early 1900s. A Labor Day celebration reportedly brought a crowd of 50,000.
Forget Disney World.
This summer, I’m going to Electric Park.
Last time I was there, on the shores of Rock Creek where it’s crossed by highway 54, I stood in awe of the lights and music.
You could feel joy radiating from the park entrance, blending with the heat of summer, as thousands of voices became one in an ebullient din.
Time to escape the oppressive smell of the factories and live it up, 1907-style.
What should we do first?
Just inside the gate with its elaborately landscaped gardens, I found myself distracted by the hot air balloon that was giving rides and almost bumped into some smelter workers with their lady-friends in tow.
I had seen them on the trolley, getting wild on the ride in, and one of the gents was already so tipsy that he could barely stand.
Factory life must have been getting to him.
When I saw his compatriots pulling him toward the figure-eight roller coaster, I knew he was in deep trouble.
Time to get some distance.
The midway, however, was completely jammed with people, and many were lining up to play games like bowling and Japanese Roller Ball.
Some had been there throughout the evening, having first gone swimming or held a picnic on the huge grounds that doubled as a public park.
Sidling up to the mirrors at the laughing gallery, I watched my shape warp as two young girls squealed with laughter at their own distortions.
They still wore their roller skates, and were practically having to hold one another up while trying not to drop their bright pink cotton candy.
Breathless with giggling, one then turned to her mother and asked if they could please, PLEASE ride the water toboggans.
It was then I noticed A.E. Robinson and Lee Massengale, the park managers, who waved me over, likely wanting to get in a good word with the Register.
Massengale had believed in the park from the beginning, though he really hadn’t been able to get things started until 1906; he was therefore fortunate to have Robinson’s experience, having run electric parks from Minnesota to Texas.
They both immediately began spouting park numbers at me, such as how many hundreds of thousands were slated to visit this season, or how much money they were making for the gas-field cities of LaHarpe, Gas and Iola.
I simply nodded to enthusiastic ghosts in agreement.
Having quickly been exhausted by the company, I decided to escape the throng by sneaking over to the creek.
A few teenagers were gathered around a swing by the bank, heckling those who were savvy enough to have brought dates.
The couples wanted to take boat rides down Rock Creek, presumably to smooch in the fading evening light, while the remainder wanted their fortunes read, or to be dazzled by Professor Garnett, the hypnotist.
They compromised, it seemed, by deciding to watch whatever “moving picture” was playing, such as “When Women Sin,” for example, though with the couples grumbling that the setting wasn’t terribly private.
Taking in a show did seem like a good idea, so I headed over to the outdoor amphitheater to see what the company troupe was performing.
People had complained about the vaudeville acts they’d put on last season, so they were trying their hand at the romantic drama, “Zaza.”
It was entertaining for a bit, but the crowds were so loud that it was difficult to hear, and one anxious actress kept forgetting her lines.
Frustrated, I left to grab a homebrewed Iola Coca-Cola, and although it tasted weird, it put me in a better mood along with watching folks embarrass themselves on the dance floor.
They busted out all the latest styles: the Grizzly Bear, Foxtrot, Duck Waddle, Bunny Hug.
My sides hurt from laughing at the creaturely imitations.
As it was Labor Day weekend, an enormous fireworks display was planned, with the smelter men chipping in around $3,000 for the show.
Supposedly, almost 50,000 people were in attendance, sprawling and crawling like ants.
Everyone was waiting with baited breath for the colorful explosions to begin, when suddenly someone “accidently” lit an entire box aflame.
Folks dived behind everything from benches to brothers-in-arms as pinwheels and rockets went flying in every direction.
Others went straight for the creek, and I followed, splashing through the muddy water until reaching the other side.
Collapsing on the opposite bank, I turned my eyes to the infinite darkness overhead and watched as the night sky was painted with a million blinding rainbows.
Coda: Like the trolley car, Electric Park met its end as gas reserves were depleted across the county, thanks to unwittingly wasteful collection methods.
The first smelter closed in 1909, and stunned residents learned of the trolley’s last run on March 21, 1919.
Electric Park ground to a halt somewhere in-between, the shining apex of the county’s early development gone dark.
The regal Catholic Church in Piqua was dedicated in 1922 and named for Martin of Tours, a pacifist in the Roman Army who later gained renown as a bishop.
The bells of St. Martin’s Catholic Church in Piqua had just ceased ringing when I crossed the threshold and sat down in a pew to write.
The bells rang at sporadic intervals, not indicative of the actual time, their weight subtly shaking the building with each pass.
That’s how this whole absurd adventure began, you see, with those enormous turquoise bells dangling nearly 125 feet above the earth.
I had just arrived back in Kansas almost two years ago, my entire life ashambles, when I learned a local priest had mischievously dared my brother and I to climb the rickety ladder leading to the building’s apex.
What did I have to lose?
Deathly echoes swept all around me as I craned my neck upward and started climbing, wrapping my elbows tighter and tighter as the ladder swayed and creaked with every motion.
After a series of dark antechambers, I emerged in the tower room to find not only the impressive antique bells, but the corpses of a dozen round-faced owls that had been trapped inside the space and died.
Patterns made by their tiny bones made it seem as though Jehovah had done battle with the goddess Athena and triumphed, though in a combat perhaps less bloody than that which erupted when it was proposed the Piqua church be rebuilt at its present location.
Eventually tensions cooled, and on a gloomy, rainy day in November 1922, the neoclassical brick structure designed by Grant Naylor and Fletcher Bird was dedicated, with silver coins and newspapers tucked away in the cornerstone.
The whole project almost never happened due to massive church debts and pre-Great Depression financial conditions.
Along these lines, the Rev. Augustine Heimann had noted how “the economic situation during the past few months has become acute, and our own community has become seriously affected by it … We are filled with gloom and dread lest our ship might wreck.”
The ship ultimately managed to stay afloat, but with great personal cost to parishioners, who were contributing both significant money and labor to the effort.
They were mostly poor farmers after all, and paying for the Chicago-sourced design work, plated lamps, marble tables, stained-glass windows, precious artworks and porcelain statues was no small feat.
One of those weathered but stunning statues is of Isidore, patron saint of farmers, and another is of Martin of Tours, for whom the church is named.
Martin was a pacifist discharged from the Roman army for refusing to kill enemies in battle, but as a bishop, he gained renown by destroying non-Christian temples, holy sites and sacred relics (including a mythical pagan tree).
That’s why inside the church he’s depicted wiping blood from his orange and pink cloak, perhaps a metaphor for having vanquished those cultures deemed “unholy.”
On a lighter note, the church’s name can also be traced back to Mrs. Martin Klocke, who won a contest to name the church by raising donations, and who wanted to honor her husband and the saint for whom he was christened.
At that time, however, the brick church in south Piqua had not yet been constructed, and mass was still being held in the original church on the west end of town (near the small cemetery where the graves of adults and children are segregated).
That first Catholic Church in Piqua was dedicated in 1884, when Charles Kearful was also still the pastor for Humboldt.
The church building is long-gone, but the rectory still serves as a residence, with its near-perfect cubical shape and chipped white paint baking in the spring sun.
Less than a decade later, the ambitious Nicholas Fowler took over for Kearful, and almost immediately started building St. Mary’s Mission Church at Owl Creek several miles to the south as well as raising funds for the present St. Martin’s building.
All sorts of inventive money-making methods were devised, including auctioning off excess church pews.
On Ash Wednesday 1900, unknown thieves ransacked and robbed the first church, stealing countless artifacts, including gold-colored communion callaces they seemingly presumed to be valuable.
For whatever reason, the thieves also scattered communion wafers all over the church, a somewhat cruel irony given that Martin of Tours was venerated for disrespecting and destroying the sacred spaces and objects of other religions.
Speaking of other cultures, the first Catholics who practised near the Allen-Woodson county line were regularly visited by Paul Ponziglione, a priest from the Osage Mission in St. Paul.
Ponziglione was fluent in Osage, and had set about trying to convert the natives farther south, but also set up a temporary mission in Collins home, which was likely the first site of Catholic worship in the area.
The only trace of these events is a tiny and secluded burial ground on Violet Road near where the Collins family made their home, usually referred to as Skeeters Cemetery.
Oddly enough, though, the most noteworthy person hidden in the little plot is not from the Collins clan at all, but a fellow by the name of Frederick Coleman.
Coleman had been working cattle in the area when a vigilance committee accused him of stealing livestock.
Young man though he was, in 1858 they nonetheless subjected him to a summary execution, lynching him for nothing more than the rumor he’d made off with someone else’s horse.
Over time, I’ve come to see Yohon’s story as illustrative, reminding myself that no matter what injustices I’ve been subject to in life, I’m still above ground and breathing.
But what is the effect of living one’s life believing things could always be worse?
For one, pessimism would seem weirdly antithetical to the image given us by St. Martin’s Church — though one certainly need not be religious to find inspiration in the iconic steeple that serves as a gateway between Allen and Woodson counties.
The tower’s story itself is one of growth and transformation, as its copper crucifix has been repeatedly retrieved, repaired and repainted, including after a tornado nearly snapped it off in the 1980s.
Although I have driven past the structure countless times, it never fails to fill me with a sense of possibility and joy, its magisterial lines carving out regal artwork against the endless depth of the Kansas sky.
The Marmaton River remembers.
And on Easter Sunday as I stood on its northern banks, not far from the deep, rocky-bottomed section called the Kettle Hole, I swear I could hear it whispering.
It might have been ghosts of “the Holy-Rollers,” for as Minnie Munson recalled in the Marmaton Valley Sun, at the turn of last century and beyond, this was a place where church groups performed full-immersion baptisms.
“This was an exciting time for us kids, as it was for the ones who were saved,” she noted, along with pointing out how the “sinful men and boys” tended to watch wolfishly from the background.
Those set to be baptized typically dressed in white muslin, and without any undergarments.
This unwittingly produced quite the scene, it seems, as the faithful not only had on fewer clothes, they’d come out of the water with “garments sticking to every curve of their bodies.”
In some instances, this drew long stares of “admiration,” in others, “smiles and snickers.”
Given the potential for said mortification, Munson herself decided that “if God couldn’t forgive me and accept me by being sprinkled, He would never get me. If I had to be half drowned and snickered at, I’d just be a sinner.”
The RIVER also recalls the days when the nearby Rocklow schoolhouse, district No. 36, doubled as a church.
For as Munson points out, “it was during a church service one night that a shot was fired at a preacher in the Rocklow school house. He happened to turn and the bullet hit and lodged in the blackboard near where his head had been.”
Apparently the bullet-hole remained unmended for years.
“Some history has it that Columbus Carter fired his high-powered rifle through the school house trying to hit the minister,” Munson said, though given all the mythology surrounding the Allen County Land Leagues (and anti-Leaguers like Carter), it’s difficult to verify one way or another.
Long story short, if Carter did fire a shot, it would have likely been due to his opposition to the Leaguers who met at Rocklow and contended squatters could lay legal claim to land that was in fact owned by major railroads.
Speaking of transportation, in the pasture north of the Kettle Hole are remnants of the wagon trail that led from Fort Scott to Humboldt.
Munson adds as well that “at one time there was an inn there that travelers going from Fort Scott to Humboldt stopped at overnight to rest and feed horses.”
The inn may be long-gone now, but the wagon tracks are still apparent, especially given the way the grooves augment how the surrounding grass grows.
It might seem like a stretch to claim that gashes in a field have historical significance, but what truly supports the claim is lurking nearby.
Called “Perry Rock,” in 1897, a large, uneven stone slab was carved with an intricate map of the trail, featuring an outline of the path from the rock itself to Humboldt.
There are also interesting figures etched into the stone such as a pioneer man and woman, a horse, various buildings and life-saving watering holes.
Of course, the Marmaton River was itself a mode of transportation, with its name coming from the early French fur traders who saw mammals like muskrats/prairie dogs lining the water and used their native word “marmiton” (nasal ‘o’/silent ‘n’) to describe them.
Since almost no one knew how to write the French word upon hearing it, you can imagine how many different spellings there were: Mawmetow, Marmeeton, Marmatin, Marmoton, Maratow, Mamiton, etc, etc.
The earliest people to frequent the area near the Kettle Hole were Native Americans, clear into the late 1870s, after most indigenous people had been forced to relocate elsewhere.
The space is one of intense silence and reflection; one that calls the occupant into an almost mystical state, “here and far beyond where the eyes can see, where lies the haven powers of Nature teeming with life.”
Thus Gustafson implores: “Put your ear to the stone wall and listen to the voices of the past and present. Share the sound of all living things that have become impart of the solid rock which breathes, murmurs, whispering gently a calmness and peace to comfort and cradle mankind.”
Just as the river remembers, so do the stones.
Two stones, boulders, in fact, also reportedly guard the grave of a particular native warrior near the Kettle Hole, and which have been dug beneath many times “by those seeking treasures.”
Indeed, the area has been picked clean over the years, including local Cassava pits, with the number of artifacts found now dwindling to almost zero (including running them over with farm implements).
This is likely for the best, however, as it permits the vital spaces described above to remain sacred and undisturbed.
For indeed, as Munson and Gustafson point out, the Marmaton River has its “moods,” and it would be wise not to anger such an immense and ancient force.
The articles on this site are historical narratives. They are dramatizations of local history and should not be considered comprehensive reports on their subjects. The Iola Register is solely responsible for the site’s content.
We are grateful for interest in our community’s history. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or suggested corrections.
Like local history?
Then you’ll love Taking Southeast Kansas History Online.
Simply navigate to the SEK History homepage at sekhistory.com, on either desktop, tablet or mobile, and you’re ready to start exploring.
Did we mention that it’s absolutely free, thanks to a generous grant from the nonprofit organization Humanities Kansas?
Your first option is to choose a quadrant on the splash page, out of Northern/Southern Allen County or Northern/Southern Woodson County. On your phone, simply press “continue.”
Once you’re inside the site, you’ll find a map of the two primary counties dotted with pins of different colors.
The colors of pins correspond to whether the land is privately or publicly owned, as well as whether tours are possible with a guide. Purple is a warning not to trespass without permission, whereas green signals land that’s completely open to traverse. Please be courteous of land-owners and pay attention to sign postings.
As the project continues to expand, there will also be sites marked on the map from other southeast Kansas counties as well, such as the Old Mill Dam in Fredonia or Dalton Defender’s Museum in Coffeyville.
Go ahead. Zoom in a pick a pin to click.
A new page then opens featuring a full-length story on the historic site along with photos.
The stories are familiar content from Register reporter Trevor Hoag’s “Just Prairie” articles, but they have been situated in the specific places to which they refer.
Again, thanks to the grant from Humanities Kansas, these stories are now freely available to the public.
Let’s say we chose the pin for the historic Allen County Jail, northeast of the Iola square. You’ll notice it’s colored yellow, which means it’s possible to get a tour of the inside.
Once the story tab is open, note the box that says “Let’s Go.” If you’re unsure how to drive to somewhere, click this option and driving navigation will automatically be opened in Google Maps.
Keep in mind that many of the pins are not in exactly the place where things are located, but are usually close by.
After you get a feel for the site, you’ll be reading and exploring in no time.
Along with Humanities Kansas, other sponsors for SEK History Online include the Iola Register, Woodson County Historical Society, Iola USD 257 and the Bowlus Fine Arts Center.
The primary content creators and site designers for Taking SEK History Online are Trevor Hoag and Tim Stauffer of the Iola Register.
They hope the website will continue to be used for years to come, and that it serves the following functions:
-To generate interest in the historical tales of southeast Kansas, whether among natives or folks visiting from elsewhere.
-To educate people young and old about the place that they are from, and to help them forge a deeper connection to that place.
-To draw in tourists who will spend money at local businesses and restaurants.
-To produce civic pride in our local stories, and to preserve them for generations.
A warm spring wind was bending the wild plum trees, scattering small white petals, when I arrived at the former Lily Church corner in Woodson County.
Constructed in 1896, and sharing a circuit with Salem Church west of Iola, the building itself stood in what is now a corn field, but if you close your eyes and concentrate, you can still hear the ghostly echoes of revival hymns that were sung there over the years.
Indeed, folks from both sides of this writer’s family once plodded down the long dirt roads there in order “to right themselves with The Lord.”
Lily Church closed in 1952, and its lumber was transformed into a house that once stood near the elementary school in Yates Center.
What endures still is the Lily Cemetery, although you wouldn’t know it at first glance. Until recently, the only trace of the abandoned burial ground was an inconspicuously uncultivated spot near the corner of the aforementioned corn field.
I say “until recently,” as last year I myself unearthed what I believe to be a crude sandstone marker belonging to one of those rumored to be buried here.
As for whom it may belong to, some possibilities include members of the Culver and Ralston families; or more incredibly, it might even belong to Dick Blandy, who had buried his foot amputated by a mower, hoping it would bring an end to his excruciating phantom limb pain.
Turning my attention back south, I remembered that it was almost possible from here to see the place where a uniquely famous Woodson countian had come into the world.
Just northwest of the US-54/Rock Rd. intersection, May Jennie Meadows was born to her family in 1871.
Meadows was a little person who stood only 3-ft., 1-in. tall, and would eventually go on to star in the Ringling and Sells Brothers Circuses.
Even more famous than Meadows, however, was her husband, William “Major” Ray.
Ray was likewise a little person and circus performer, but his greatest claim to fame came from being the image for Buster Brown of Buster Brown Shoes, supposedly inventing the look for the character.
Some dispute on this point remains, though ironically, it’s almost indisputable that the name “Buster” in Buster Brown was derived from the popularity of actor Buster Keaton, who, wildly enough, was born only a couple miles east of Jennie Meadows.
On Feb. 6, 1891, Meadows and Ray were married in Yates Center, signing their documents in the original courthouse on the northeast corner of the square.
Unfortunately, visiting their graves would be quite the trek from here, as both are interred at Hornersville Cemetery in Dunklin County, Mo.
There Meadows’ tombstone reads: “Rest in Peace and Love, Dear Little Jennie.”
Following the Missouri-Pacific line back towards the east, I watched as tree blossoms along the roadside began to blur: lavender, pink and pale.
And although I’m not the least bit superstitious, I always tend to hold my breath when crossing over the indigenous burial ground where U.S.-54 crosses Cherry Creek.
One body found there belonged to a revered chieftain, which isn’t too surprising, as many native people lived and camped along the creek, fanning out for miles.
The site was apparently unearthed when the highway was expanded, much like that of a pioneer cemetery near the Woodson-Coffey line that was rediscovered only to be destroyed in a petty land dispute between a brother and sister.
This burial place was connected with some early-day cowboys who’d been herding cattle throughout the region, and so interestingly enough, two of Woodson’s destroyed cemeteries are those belonging to people who pursued bovines across vast landscapes.
I soon after pulled to a stop just west of Athens, the name given to a siding on the Mo.-Pac. line during the early parts of the twentieth century.
A wheatfield to the north had just begun bursting through the soil, and so I couldn’t resist the temptation to nosh a few strands as the sun arced higher and higher overhead.
The siding at Athens was mostly used for shipping hay, and there was also a little country store there operated by at least two generations from the Caler family.
After the store closed, the building was moved to Iola and used by Lang Motor and Salvage Company for years, but apparently Athens missed its automotive garage so another one was opened there in the 1970s, same spot at the first.
While remarking on the bright plastic cemetery flowers that someone had hooked to a mile marker, I also remembered how, in the 1920’s, both of the massive hay barns in Athens burnt down, were rebuilt, then burnt down again.
One barn caught fire on Halloween, apparently ignited by some mischievous youngsters who decided to terrorize a church group with fireworks.
A spark caught some loose hay, and WHOOSH.
Remarking on hearing some of the first insect hymns of the season, I determined there was time for one last stop: the Lily Schoolhouse (District #52).
“Lily” refers to when, in 1882, after Jacob Haen painted the district’s first frame building, he said it looked like a lovely white lily contrasted against the vast green prairie.
The first, even older, #52 school actually met in a log cabin on Frederick Frevert’s claim, southwest of where the building currently sits, so the current structure is actually the third, as the frame building on Moerer farm burned down in 1915.
Classes were held in the current (also lily-white) structure between 1915-1961, and this writer’s grandmother, Opal Wagner, was one of the teachers there.
I therefore find myself wishing that she was still alive, one reason among many being that I would love to ask about her days there.
I dream her in my imagination, young and perhaps still optimistic about the possibilities of education, making the trek first from rural Humboldt and later Yates Center to stamp her daily mark upon young minds.
Making her way each morning to the shining white “lily” now crumbling to dust amidst a tangle of weeds, perhaps the world could yet be saved by knowledge.
A bridge is a symbol for so many things, so many passages and crossings in life.
We stand upon one shore, wondering if we have the means or courage to brave the distance, decide whether or not we will trust what might support us.
Of course, when there is no bridge, no way forward, sometimes we have to make one. Sometimes we have to risk the journey.
Standing on the west bank of the Neosho River in Humboldt, I wondered if the water had receded enough that I could cross on foot.
The speed of the dark current across the dam, however, was enough to give me pause, imagining myself swept downstream by the fluid rush.
Of course, for years, wading or fording were the only methods available for trekking across the span, often followed by a dripping climb up bright limestone bluffs lining the opposite shore.
From my specific vantage, I scanned for any remains of the Thurston Ford, which stretched diagonally across the water not far from the current bridge.
It was there I saw the ghost of Eleanor Gibbs, who in 1870 managed to ride her horse from one side to the other, racing against a deadly floodtide.
Only a few years before, Col. Orlin Thurston and his friend Capt. Dr. George Miller, had used two unassuming sandstone buildings on the shore nearby to help runaway slaves find their way north to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
Before any bridges were built, a couple different ferry services served to aid with crossing, though they came with fees ranging from a nickel to 35 cents, depending upon whether one was transporting humans, livestock or buggies.
I must admit I smile at the thought of a nineteenth-century farmer loading up a single hog and using the raft to cross his or her main barrier to town.
Charles Lander provided an account wherein he recalled using a self-drawn ferry pulled hand over hand. Its path reached from the west end of the current bridge to about as far north as one can get before the river’s course cuts back west.
Despite the potential benefit to the community, though, when the county first voted whether or not to build a bridge spanning the Neosho in Humboldt, the measure was actually soundly defeated (29 – 377).
Seems times haven’t changed much, as I guess hardly anybody thought they should support something they believed would only help other people.
Ultimately, it wouldn’t matter. With the prospect of the railroad coming through, a private stock company decided to support the first bridge anyway, paying a “mere” $2,000 to the King Bridge Company out of Ohio.
When the first bridge was finished in September 1870, it was actually a toll bridge that would cost you a nickel or dime, and when the toll house was eventually demolished, a remarkable trove of coins was discovered that you can view at the Humboldt museum.
The tolls indirectly led to tragedy as well, as one year around Christmastime, a woman named J.A. Nichols and a young girl in her charge drowned while attempting to avoid incurring a 70-cent fee. Apparently, their wagon box separated from the frame, and soon the icy cold current had filled their lungs.
After a series of accidents and political battles, the tolls were eventually dropped and the first bridge was opened to the public in 1878.
It would operate for another 55 years.
After finally crossing the river, I had to swing in and stop at the site of O’Brian’s Mill, which is marked by an impressive limestone memorial.
O’Brian also had a sawmill a couple miles north of Humboldt, but it was the two-burr gristmill designed for grinding grain that Confederate troops torched during the Civil War.
The guerillas sacked the fledgling town for the second time on Oct. 14, 1861, and having been caught by surprise, the 20 or so Union men who attempted to regroup at the mill were ultimately captured (though survived).
Indeed, I dreamed them there, listening to the rush of water, outnumbered and afraid, as they watched the town’s primary method of subsistence becoming ashes in the fragile evening light.
After the war ended, the mill was eventually rebuilt, and by 1875, both a stone river dam and the Humboldt Water Mills were officially in action.
Humboldt Water Mills ground had a big three-story building with a solid rock basement, and they used enormous rotating turbines to grind four, apparently lady-like, types of flour: Cora, Daisy, Lily and Rose.
Many remnants from the bridges and mills can still be found today, especially since the last mill wasn’t dismantled until 1948.
In fact, veteran reporter Bob Johnson showed me several places where, following a series of rusted stairways, one can “safely” reach the water’s edge to make a closer inspection of period foundations and masonry.
In 1871, Charles Lander, who we earlier mentioned crossing the river using a hand over hand ferry, started his carriage manufacturing shop just east of the mill at the corner of what is now Fourth and Bridge Streets.
It’s incredible how well-preserved the building is, with its weathered limestone facade and myriad metal-framed windows and doors.
Landers’ first structure, however, was actually a little frame building on the site.
As sorts of things were manufactured at the carriage shop over the years, including wagon parts and bicycles, along with various blacksmithing tasks.
Perhaps best of all, is that a family of artisans now owns the shop once again, father-son craftsmen Patrick and Collin Haire, who work wood and blow glass, respectively.
It was almost time to head out for the evening, but I couldn’t leave before returning to take a closer look at the present Marsh Arch Bridge.
The historical marvel almost met its end when a proposal for a new bridge popped up, but quite a few folks from the community stepped in to save it.
A similar style bridge spanning the Neosho in Iola was not so lucky.
Constructed in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, it had been brought into being after the old bridge had been deemed unsafe.
Many in the community have family members who worked on those concrete rainbows, such as Bob Johnson’s grandfather, Sherman Oliphant, who accepted pennies for the work because times were more than tough.
As the light faded and a yellow sun blended with fields of gleaming purple dead-nettle, I dreamed them there, toiling still after almost a century.
Their brows dripped with sweat as they swung hammers into rocks and hauled wheelbarrows brimming with earth.
They were building a crossing, yes, but they were also trying to bridge their way from that place to somewhere perhaps far, far away, free from the injustices of poverty and the silent resentiment of exploitation.
The Allen County Historical Museum is located at 20 S. Washington Ave in Iola, Kansas.
The Humboldt Historical Museum is located at 416 N. 2nd St. in Humboldt, Kansas.
The Woodson County Historical Museum is located at 208 W. Mary St. in Yates Center, Kansas
Bressner Pasture in Woodson County carries a history of violence, but you'd never know it today. The field was once home to the Osage, and also served as part of K-State University's range research unit.
The afternoon sky was cloudy and dark as I knelt down near the base of the Bressner Pasture waterfall in Woodson County.
A gurgle of bubbles bounced from the tangle of sandstone boulders, and a meadowlark was calling from the field nearby.
Although the scene was one of radiant stillness and peace, I couldn’t chase away the nagging thought that this was also a scene of violence.
For not only was I attuned to the rhythm of those native people who once drank from this same pool; it was as if their blood had begun to flow from it.
Indeed, several patches of Woodson County prairie carry a history of violence, though you’d never know it today.
Bressner Pasture, named for donor Willie Bressner, provides a concrete example of how, not terribly long ago, native people had their lands nefariously seized and repurposed.
For a time, the field was part of K-State University’s range research unit, where experiments were conducted on everything from grazing to burning.
And as Extension agent Dale Lanham explained, the goal is to “save the farmers a lot of money.”
Of course, it’s the Osage people who lived on this land for generations that primarily concerns us, how they galloped through the tall bluestem grass on painted ponies, bounding in an intricate movement forever linking them to the land.
After inhabiting “Kansas” since the seventeenth century, on June 2, 1825, the Osage signed a treaty saying that they ceded and relinquished all claim to their lands south of the Kansas River and west of “Missouri.”
They retained the right to continue living on the land as well, but would not remain for much longer.
When “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” writer Washington Irving was traveling the prairies around the same time, he marvelled at the Osage people, calling them “stately fellows; stern and simple in garb and aspect.”
He mentioned that they wore leggings and moccasins, but little-to-no jewelry; and he remarked on how the men wore their hair in long scalp-locks (that he compared to a kind of helmet).
Irving also added that “they had fine Roman countenances, and broad deep chests … [such that] they looked like noble bronze figures.”
Other accounts describe the Osage people wearing tattoos consisting of irregular blue lines or face paints, and carrying bright blankets of white, blue, green and red.
Known to many as “blanket Indians,” the Osage kept mostly to their wigwam villages with the exception of annual hunts, when they would trek far to the west pursuing buffalo for meat and hides. It was a family affair, and everybody went along.
The Osage also liked to trade, and were especially partial to items such as flour, sugar and coffee. In the spring, the women planted corn and pumpkins in small patches. One delicacy included bread fried in rich buffalo tallow.
Like many folks then and now, the Osage also kept dogs, though these canines were much more feral and wolf-like than any breed we’d dare domesticate today.
When Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, it worked by turning land taken from tribal nations into seed money for higher education, with more than 920,000 of those acres being in Kansas.
Of course, the Morrill Act itself left out the fact that these grants depended on dispossession.
Lands that had once “belonged” to indigenous people were first obtained by the federal government through spurious treaties or seizures, then given as gifts to universities so that they could fund their building aspirations.
As Jim Leiker, professor of history at Johnson County Community College, explained, “it’s almost like a 19th century form of money laundering.”
In the case of Bressner Pasture, land was seized from the Osage, then given as a gift to Ohio State University, which shows how the beneficiaries of land-grant colleges were often many miles removed from the lands from which they were benefiting.
“Children of elite families who graduated from these institutions had no idea that what made those institutions possible in the first place was the result of what was happening 1,500 miles away,” Leiker added.
Moreover, according to research conducted by High Country News, “tribes who were forced off of their land were paid less than 2% of what the states raised from selling that same land.”
In Kansas, tribes were paid only about $18,000 for land that was worth $1.15 million.
Along with the Osage, the Kanza and many other tribes were robbed, with Kanza chief Allegawaho calling it the “darkest period in our history.”
It’s not hard to see why, for as Jameson Sweet, professor history at Rutgers argues, “you can point to every treaty where there’s some kind of fraud, … some kind of coercion going on.”
Had the native people of Kansas not been cheated out of their lands, today the same grants born of those seizures would be worth around $500 million.
Walking along the tall orangish bluffs near Bressner’s south end, I once again marvelled at the serenity of the land.
Bright moss and lichens were sprouting from every crevice, and the wind seemed to murmur as though it had a secret to share.
Tiny blue flowers had crept through a crack in the rocks and were vibrating subtly in the evening breeze.
To find my way back, I had returned to the creek and headed north towards the waterfall, calculating which path would meet with the fewest briars and thorns.
I found myself dreaming the Osage people all around me, following a similar path upstream.
Speaking in their native dialect, I could only listen to the inflection of sounds and syllables, but still it held my curiosity.
Then suddenly, the speaking became a cry of mourning, and the log drums began to beat, as they raised a lament for this land upon which a white man now walked.
No matter the degree to which he’d “nativized” himself by learning the tales of this ground, he still did not belong.
In that moment, it became clear to me that this place was forever theirs, and that no amount of violence or lies could sever the bond they’d forged.
We must therefore learn to live with their ghosts, and with the solemn and terrible truth that they carry with them.
(Many thanks to staff at the Kansas Reflector online newspaper for their research and interviews in Woodson County that laid the foundation for this article.)
Levi Lee Northrup and his sons constructed beautiful homes and founded countless projects in the community. Many of the homes remain, including one on the National Register of Historic Places
What makes a house a home is memory.
Whether log cabin, wood frame, brick or native stone, such materials activate and retain an imprint of those who dwell within them.
Those memories may again be called forth, urged from the surrounds, so that the story of a life might manifest in all its glory.
For instance, when Levi Lee Northrup came to Allen County in 1858, perhaps he never would have imagined the mark he’d one day leave behind.
However, between the breathtakingly beautiful homes constructed by Northrup and his sons, and the countless other projects funded by his bank (such as the MoPac line, natural gas fields and Presbyterian Church), it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Northrups built Iola.
They therefore provided myriad spaces for its memory to be housed and grow.
Levi Lee Northup’s rise, however, was an unlikely one.
Born in New York in 1818, his mother died when he was only two years old. His father also wasn’t in the picture, so he was raised to adulthood by his uncle.
Despite having little money or education, Northrup eventually came into his own, and started wool manufacturing businesses in both New York and Indiana, but in an incredible run of bad luck, both his factories burned down.
Looking to start again, he relocated to Geneva, Allen County, in 1858, bringing with him general store goods and the materials for a saw mill.
According to the Register’s archives, “the mill was brought in according to contract and set upon the banks of Indian Creek. Northrup also started a store in the village.”
However, after it was apparent that Iola rather than Geneva would become a city, Northrup moved south, and at the time when the Civil War had begun ramping up, set up the city’s first bank on the west side of the square (where the Masonic Temple building sits).
The original safe weighed over 6,000 pounds, and had a time lock feature similar to the one that foiled the Dalton Gang when they attempted to simultaneously rob two banks in Coffeyville.
Against all odds, Northrup’s bank was one of the few to survive the financial calamity of 1873, and continued growing until, by 1900, it became a national bank that served all of southeast Kansas.
When in 1896, L.L. eventually died from a nasty flu-like illness, all of Iola suspended business in mourning.
Although Levi Lee Northup has been gone for 125 years, one of the most incredible items he left behind is his three-story home at the end of South Cottonwood Street.
The home's black iron gate holds a special aesthetic attraction.
However, Northrup’s three homes on East Street typically draw the most attention. These were built by L.L. Northrup’s sons, Lewis and Frank, who also had a home built between them for their mother, Mary.
Local attorney and historian Clyde Toland informed the Register that the Northrup family members built and lived in two houses behind the three Northrup Houses in the 300 block of East Street. Thus, the entire block was Northrup houses and had the only paved alley in town. Toland also noted that the Delmer Northrup house at 502 East St. was torn down in the 1930’s to build the tennis courts, not the high school, as the Register originally reported.
Another structure worth mentioning is the Northrup Bank building that once sat on the northwest corner of the Iola square.
Around the same time as the family’s lumber business was really taking off, the moulded brick structure came into existence, and for a time housed the Elks Lodge, Iola Library and Ramsay Bros Dry Goods along with the bank.
It was destroyed by fire in the frigid January of 1949.
As it is one Allen County’s few structures to grace the National Register of Historic Places, some special attention is warranted for “The Northrup House” built by Lewis Northrup in 1895, just before his father passed away.
The inviting nine-tone color scheme, elliptical tower, pyramidal roof with gables, sleeping porch, greenhouse and stained glass windows are almost certain to evoke an awed stare.
Thanks to research conducted by Register reporter Vickie Moss, we know that the house began as a Queen Anne style cottage, and that additions made in 1912 reveal how the home signals a transition from an asymmetrical style to a more “disciplined” Colonial Revival one.
“The Northrup House” remained in the family until 1927, four years after Lewis died.
Since then, it’s served as a bed and breakfast and private residence.
According to present owner, pharmacist Nich Lohman, there are pros and cons to owning a home on the National Register.
The good part is increased property values, along with access to grants and tax write-offs. This is critical when repairs are almost always more than a traditional property.
The bad part is exorbitant insurance costs, and companies unwilling to incur the risk of covering an 125-year-old structure.
“You really have to be committed to preserving it,” Lohman said. “You can’t modernize things and that really limits what you can do.”
This is because, in order to remain on the National Register, no contemporary restoration methods can be employed.
That doesn’t deter Lohman, however, and he affirms his role as the historical home’s steward.
“I don’t necessarily ‘own’ it,” he said. “I’m just caretaking it and eventually we’ll pass it to someone else who will care for it.”
“Hopefully, it will continue to be unique, and a source of interest for the community for years to come.”
Such interest, it would seem, is bound to a longing for memory, for keeping the memory of the community itself, and not just one family’s legacy, alive.
Indeed, whenever I visit the Northrup homes, I’m transported back in time as though the East Street block is some sort of singularity with the potential to warp space-time.
When last I was there, for instance, I ran into the ghost of Roy Sleeper.
In 1897, just after the Northrup House had come into existence, he was innocently passing by when Lewis “Lute” Northrup’s giant, slobbery St. Bernard dog ran out and jumped on the fence.
Roy’s horse was so terrified that it ran away with him down the street, and although he held on for as long as he could, was eventually thrown from the buggy when rounding a sharp corner.
Having fallen right on his head, Roy lay stunned until help arrived.
Although shaken up, he wasn’t seriously hurt, and so the trembling ghost scooped himself up along with the help of other spectral apparitions.
I myself could only watch as they disappeared into the early morning mist.
Durand, a railroad junction east of Yates Center, never grew to rival other area towns. A lack of investment by the railroad and multiple fires kept the town from realizing its full potential.
The train calls. Do you hear it?
Though you can feel it in your bones, that strange magnetic energy that holds you in place despite tons of speeding and unstoppable machinery careening your way.
Near the turn of the last century, trains were regularly passing to and from Yates Center, but had to twist uphill and jog out of their way to do so.
Enter plans for Durand, a rail junction east of Yates Center, that around 1901 was imagined as having a depot, car yards, water facility and more.
Though little remains at the site today, one can nevertheless peel away various historical layers to be transported back, not only through both world wars, but to the earliest settlement of southeast Kansas.
In order to prepare the site at Durand, the Condon Brothers and stone mason Harry Ashley soon set to work after erecting their temporary construction camps. (Incidentally, Ashley was an British immigrant who became Yates Center’s first mayor.)
Enormous piles of dirt were moved mostly by wheel scrapers/slips pulled by teams of mules or horses, and the work was back-breaking, especially in the muddy swamp ground near where Owl Creek creeps through the area.
When it came time to build bridges that would cross the creek, supports were put in place by antique pile drivers, where a crushing weight would be dropped over and over again after being hoisted into position on a derrick.
Much of the work was performed by immigrant laborers, especially a crew of Italians who had to rely heavily on their translator, George Rallis.
If the situation that unfolded around the same time at Iola’s Lehigh Portland Cement is any indication, racial tensions were hot and workers were often armed.
And they weren’t the only ones.
Legend has it that when Durand’s surveyors led their chain in one window of a house and out the other that happened to be standing in the way, a disgruntled resident assigned them a new route by way of a loaded shotgun.
After the tracks were tamped down, the little town began to take shape, and featured a depot, hotel, eating house, store and several homes.
An ad for August Krueger’s shop in the Yates Center News read: “NEW STORE at Durand. Ready for business in connection with our lunch room at the cutoff. We have opened a complete general merchandise, with the highest prices paid for butter and eggs.”
Another figure connected with Durand is C.F. Harder, who, after losing a nasty land battle to the railroad, decided he’d turn the situation to his favor by building hay barns for local farmers, though he ended up losing that battle, too.
In the end, Harder settled for constructing a set of rental houses, though others would eventually prevail on the barn issue.
Also of note, is that early development in Durand made folks in Yates Center nervous, perhaps recalling county seat battles from previous years.
Hence, one reason Durand never grew any larger than it did was because the railroad had been pressured into not granting the fledgling town any incentives.
The first hotel at Durand bloomed around 1902 thanks to a fellow named Webb, who also happened to be roadmaster for the railroad.
However, it’s believed that both this and another early hotel burned to ashes shortly after being constructed.
Heavy troop traffic during WWI called for a new lodging place, though, and by 1919, the Van Noy Company had forged a replacement.
It had 18 rooms (with 27 beds upstairs, five down), a giant kitchen, dining room, rec room, storerooms and innumerable nooks and crannies.
Quite a few families took turns running the hotel in its gritty early years, but it was the O’Brians who tended to all the troop trains during World War II.
On one particularly crazy day, the O’Brians helped over 300 hungry soldiers stuff themselves with pancakes.
A decade later during the infamous Flood of 1951, aka Black Friday, the hotel at Durand became essential, since the extremely high waters necessitated numerous train re-routs.
This was a godsend to the hotel operators, perhaps until they realized they would need to prepare enough food for a Rock Island Special filled with almost 400 passengers.
The Durand hotel continued to operate until Sept. 23, 1965, when it met the same fate as earlier hotels and burned to the ground.
It’s said the blaze started in the basement and quickly engulfed the entire wooden structure.
By contrast, one structure that’s still standing is the last Durand schoolhouse, which in the past year went from being painted a rambunctious baby blue to muted tan.
The building was built around 1919, but has been a private home since the ‘70s, most recently belonging to a friendly roofer/Pontiac enthusiast named Ron.
Before that, the structure served for a time as USD 366’s kindergarten.
Of course, like many rural schools, this building was preceded by multiple others used to house students.
In 1867, when just starting out, District 15 wasn’t yet called “Durand,” of course, and it was held in August Lauber’s house northwest of where the school was later built.
And whenever you hear tell of the old “Stone School,” this would have been the building built in-between structures one and two, constructed by the same Mr. Oderlin who made an ornate rock house belonging to the Stockebrands.
Speaking of the Stockebrand family, I was excited to discover recently that the Durand area was where they and some of the county’s other first pioneers settled.
In early 1857, German immigrants William and Ernst Stockebrand, August Lauber and August Toedman made their way to Woodson County from Illinois, and soon after, the Toedmans built the first log cabin near Owl Creek.
A single lonely grave hidden in a pasture serves as evidence of these first settlements, where the Toedman claim was east of the current Durand school, and August Stockebrand lived where Durand itself sits.
What strikes me most about these early settlers, I think, is how many legends have been passed down in connection to their encounters with indigenous people.
One tale involved Mary (Stange) Stockebrand, who while her husband was traveling, encountered native people near her home.
So frightened was she by their “alien” appearance, that she ran from home and hid in a cornfield, trembling with her infant son for several hours in the blazing heat.
On another occasion, when native people were moving south into Oklahoma Territory from “Kansas,” William Stockebrand came across a young brave who’d been badly wounded.
Left behind to die, the indigenous man’s plight so moved Stockebrand that he tenderly nursed him back to health. Stockebrand even provided him with a horse, so that the brave could rejoin his people more quickly.
Years later, early one morning Stockebrand found three painted ponies tied up in front of his cabin that the grateful native had left as a gift.
Unfortunately, such luck would dry up, however, as shortly after, Stockebrand was shot through the left wrist by another native man during an attempted theft (which involved using a hat for bait); though perhaps said disability indirectly saved his life by leading to an early discharge during the Civil War.
Brought to full existence by the coming of the railroads, Lone Elm was once a thriving community and hay center. Remnants from its earliest settler yet remain.
A single tree was standing.
Tall grass was swaying in the wind as Isaac Reeve led his rented horse across the expanse of southern Anderson County.
He’d set out from Colony around 1873, searching for a place to settle, and would go on to buy much of the land where Lone Elm sits today.
The price was only about $2 per acre.
Having established himself, around 1879 Reeve then fetched his new wife Hannah Winters from Pennsylvania, and soon after established a post office in a cabin on their farm just southwest of the future townsite.
IN 1885-86, when the St. Louis and Emporia railroad was slated to cross their land, the Reeves made a plot for a town that they, naturally enough, named “Reeve.”
Reeve also absorbed folks and their houses from a small settlement nearby called Equity, to the northeast, which spurred additional growth.
The name of “Reeve” was not to last, however, for when the post office was moved in town from the cabin on the Reeve farm in ‘86, the town’s name was changed to Lone Elm.
As for the name itself, according to resident Gary Holloway, “how it got that name, I really can’t verify any of it. But I was always under the impression that south of Lone Elm, [where] there was a big bridge and some timber there on the east side … I was under the impression there was an elm tree off by itself in there.”
“Supposedly the tree was never in town.”
“Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know,” he added, but I must admit that the story of this legendary ghost tree still strangely fascinates.
Perhaps that’s because the only evidence for its existence is a name, and memory, and imagination.
Where even today, one can dream the sight of a majestic arboreal being stretching out its wooden capillaries beneath an expansive Kansas sky.
Even after Lone Elm became established, Reeve continued staying busy.
He had a number of buildings in town, and became one of the original stockholders of the bank there (and in Kincaid as well).
He also had to deal with hired hands drinking copiously on the job, with clever workers hiding alcohol in farm wells to keep it cool.
Of note as well was the difficulty in hauling lumber, as prior to the rail line, building materials had to be hauled overland from Colony.
Eventually a hardware and furniture store sprung up, though, as did a merchandise dealer, livery barn, grocery store, lumber yard, drug store, physicians/veterinary offices and more.
The freight train was coming through town every day from both directions, east and west, and soon Lone Elm earned repute as a shipping station for grain, hay and livestock.
By 1933, however, like many local communities (e.g., Elsmore), the Depression would deal Lone Elm and its bank/rail economy a blow from which it never recovered.
Before the bottom fell out, however, as Holloway explained, “Lone Elm was a thriving community for 30 or 40 years.”
Townsfolk worked exceptionally hard year-round, but still found time for leisure on weekends.
In his book “Lone Elm Days,” by Olin Church, he notes how “one of the early sports was to borrow a railroad handcar and take the girls for a ride on Sunday afternoon. They had good sport in pumping the handcar up the grade west of town and coasting back like a roller coaster.”
People also loved throwing horseshoes, racing nags, sledding, buggy rides and attending shows at the local hall where the Odd Fellows, Masons and Eastern Star met.
Church recalled in particular how, “one of my earliest memories was of attending a Memorial Day service at the hall. The Civil War veterans were seated on the stage, some in uniform.”
Afterwards, everyone would form a line and march to the cemetery behind them to pay homage, a wide-spread “Decoration Day” practice.
It was said that one Civil War vet in particular, by the last name of McDowell, had escaped a Confederate prison by rolling up in a blanket and playing dead, making his way out with a wagonload full of corpses.
Life may have been simpler in those days, even if much harder physically, but Lone Elm also saw its share of excitement.
In the 1920’s, when outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde were making their rounds, the Lone Elm State Bank also got a visit.
After studying the habits of the townspeople, two men who were railroad vagrants broke into the bank on a Sunday night after stealing tools from the local hardware.
They shattered the lock on the vault door, grabbed what they could and made a giant mess in the process.
Olin Church even recalled seeing a wheel of cheese at Ellington’s Store that one of the thieves took a bite out of, leaving teeth marks behind in their quest to also steal food before leaving town.
Though the two bandits were eventually caught and given severe sentences at Lansing prison, they managed to escape the jail at Garnett before being incarcerated and were never heard from again.
Some other wild stories shared by Church from the early days of Lone Elm include recollection of the 1930’s Dust Bowl and rabbit round-ups.
Due to an absence of irrigation, along with little rain or snow, “when the March winds came, the soil began to blow due to the dry conditions.”
The sandy local farm ground soon took to the air, as did red Oklahoma soil and dust from Nebraska to the Dakotas.
As Church recalled, “this was a terrible experience and one I shall never soon forget. … The dust drifted across the roads like drifts of snow. … Many days, the sky was filled with dust so that visibility was limited to a quarter of a mile or less.”
“One storm rolled in and it was pitch dark at three o’clock in the afternoon.”
And along with said darkness, around the same time came the strange and bloody ritual of rabbit roundups.
According to Church, “hundreds of Jackrabbits would eat wheat fields like a herd of sheep.”
And although his memories of the rabbit hunts specifically took place around the ghost town of Manter, Kansas, Church intimates that the conditions were more widespread, occurring around Lone Elm as well.
He recalled driving around fields and shooting more than 50 rabbits in an hour, and likewise remembered a New Years day hunt in 1934, where more than 3,500 rabbits were killed after being herded into a giant trap.
Their furry brown bodies were then sold for a penny as hog feed, a perhaps more merciful end than starving to death due to their food being eliminated by dust storms.
In August 1870, a station was built near the highest point between Kansas City and the Gulf of Mexico. It was called Divide. A colony would settle nearby, and eventually changed the name of Divide to Colony.
It’s through division that the One begins to multiply.
That’s just what happened in August 1870, when a station was built near the highest point between Kansas City and the Gulf of Mexico along the Leavenworth, Lawrence and Galveston railroad.
This Ozark Ridge not only contained the area’s high point, but was seen as dividing the watershed of the Arkansas and Missouri Rivers; hence the new town was called Divide.
Before that, the only white settlement in the area was a halfway house and tavern operated by a man named Wagner, along the mail/stagecoach route between Lawrence and Humboldt.
Given the difficulty in obtaining water, early development at Divide was slow, with only a depot/post office, cattleyard and small store coming into existence.
Moreover, according to Florence Fivecoat, most of the townsfolk were men, with the few females resigned to careers like prostituting themselves at the hotel or bar.
Indeed, “[Divide] became an ideal haunt for wanderers, wastrels, [homeless people] begging for rides on freight trains, and homeless men uprooted by the Civil War,” Fivecoat writes in “Colony Days, Vol. II.”
Gunfights over cards games or ladies were a near-everyday occurrence, and infamous bandits like Billy the Kid perhaps frequented this “Little Chicago.”
But all that was soon about to change, thanks to the arrival of a certain “colony.”
Before exploring said colony, however, let’s first take a step back in order to explore an earlier settlement close by.
Thomas Day was the first pioneer on Deer Creek in 1855, and Joseph Price arrived shortly after, whereafter they set up a joint ranching operation.
Another fellow named Jim Dorsey soon got in on the action, and together they formed a site called Elizabethtown, named for the postmistress, Elizabeth Cook.
There, miles southeast of the rise where the colony would later settle, a store was opened along with a post office, but it wasn’t to last.
The railroad never passed through Liztown, and so by 1899 it was abandoned, though not before several townsfolk met their ends.
Thus the primary remnant of Elizabethtown today is its haunting and remote Ozark #1 cemetery located on the eastern edge of a cattle pasture.
Many of the stones have been moved or destroyed due to agricultural efforts involving a bulldozer, but if you’re brave enough to confront the electrified fences popping and cracking there, it’s certainly worth the challenge.
But let’s return to our colony.
In March 1872, Col. Henry Wilson, Col. N. Bostwick, J.G. Norton and J.J. Fairbanks, arrived in Divide followed by about a hundred other folks.
Together they formed a town company and changed the name of the site from Divide to … you guessed it, Colony.
Not everyone was cut out for pioneer life, though, and so many of these early settlers soon fled back to their homes in the east.
I can imagine facing down a stormcloud made of grasshoppers on your simple Kansas farm as having that effect.
Though according to Fivecoat, “the majority of these people were blue-blooded Aristocrats with regal airs whom fate had favored and who could date their heritage back for generations … or were aristocrats from the South who were disenchanted with their homeland after the devastation of the Civil War.”
Yet by 1877, those stubborn enough to remain had built a dry goods/grocery store, blacksmith shop, wagon shop, real estate office and more.
(Though rather humorously, according to Henry Johnson, the Grand View Hotel’s “view” was of “a stubby corn field with two razorback hogs rooting in it.”)
The Sells Bros. Circus visited around this time as well, with crowds coming afoot, on horseback, wagons and buggies to see African creatures most country folk would have only seen in books.
Colony soon also became the most vital hay center in Anderson County, and even adopted the mantle “Hay Capital of the World,” which may make folks from Yates Center a bit uneasy as they lay claim to a similar distinction.
There were also quite a few townsfolk who traded for a living, in items such as real estate, livestock, horses, cattle, milk cows, etc.
Fivecoat described them as “paladins of the town. They were men of pride and were seldom seen on Broad Street attired in anything but white shirts and spats. A tie was as much a part of them as the tailor-made suits they wore.”
“The gaited horses they rode were slick and shiny, curried and groomed by livery stable hands. Their general appearance was sparkling, slick and suave.”
… Even if they were trying to cheat and swindle everyone in sight, resulting in “grudges that lasted a generation or two.”
Though a much more significant source of danger arose In 1881, when a fire ripped through town and destroyed many of its most prominent buildings, including the meat market, grocery and furniture stores, and various other structures that were quickly reduced to ashes.
In 1886, the Santa Fe railroad built a line running from Colony to Yates Center (which included Geneva, Neosho Falls and Lomando), in order to replace an existing stagecoach route.
Perhaps this isn’t an exciting detail on its own, but it’s one to which I nevertheless have an intense personal connection.
The Santa Fe depot in Yates Center sat only a block north of where my parents live, just southeast of Yates Center Elementary School.
Remnants of the depot still hide in what has become a pasture for horses, three of whom greedily chased after me expecting a treat.
It’s there I dreamed climbing aboard a passenger car pulled by the engine “Old Jerky,” then bouncing across the open prairie until arriving at the high point near Colony’s own depot (razed in July 1973).
This ghost-line was abandoned in 1934, yet it’s strange quasi-presence still lingers.
For as Fivecoat notes, “the engines whistled and tooted at crossings. Their wheels screeched as they skidded to a stop. Steam hissed and puffed as they started again. All of these sounds were like a symphony, the sweet sound of progress coming in and out of town.”
No wonder one can still vaguely sense the presence of such haunting forces.
Fort Row in Wilson County served as the site of some of the worst atrocities against Native Americans in Kansas. Thousands headed to the fort from Oklahoma. They were attacked by Confederates, then found the fort was not prepared to handle their arrival. What followed was gruesome.
The past is full of horrors.
And although they have seemingly passed, such events still haunt in the present, demand our attention and force reevaluation of our values.
One such nightmare occurred at a place called Fort Row in northern Wilson County, just east of Coyville along the southern banks of the Verdigris River.
The fort sprung up in fall 1861, built by local mounted militia to protect against the Confederate guerillas who were terrorizing Kansas from the east.
Indeed, Humboldt had just been burned to ashes by Bushwackers and proslavery men from Missouri, and hence their fears were far from unfounded.
John R. Row, the fort’s namesake and veteran of the Mexican-America War, was selected as militia captain, and he eventually had upward of 70 to 80 men in his company.
Remnants of their occupation of the river banks are few, though a large white sign with black lettering was erected not far from the site a couple decades ago, though has since fallen into disrepair.
Fort Row was built on a fairly flat area not far from the “green-gray-bark-waters” of the Verdigris, in order to provide a wide view of the surrounding terrain.
The steep river banks also served as a natural shield to interlopers, and I myself can attest to the near-impossibility of scaling them.
There were three log blockhouses inside the fort’s perimeter, and a horse stockade that backed up to the river’s edge with rifle portholes cut into its walls.
Row’s militia made the fort their home during its first winter, but in spring 1862 they abandoned their posts in order to join up with the 9th Kansas volunteers.
Shortly after Fort Row was abandoned, however, it bore witness to one of the most devastating human tragedies of the Civil War.
It began when Muskogee/Creek chief Opothleyahola was unsuccessful in his attempts to keep the tribe neutral during the conflict between states.
Not wanting to be drawn into the war, Opothleyahola set out from Oklahoma Territory to Kansas, along with 9,000 Muskogee and 2,600 people from other tribes, including Seminoles, Delawares and Cherokees.
(3,000-4,000 of an even larger original group defected to join the Confederacy).
They’d received communications from the Lincoln Administration promising that if they could make it to Fort Row in Kansas, salvation would be waiting.
On the way to Kansas, however, the fleeing refugees were attacked not once, but thrice, by Confederates, and in order to escape the final conflict at Bird Creek, they had to jettison the majority of their supplies.
Despite the bitterly cold winter, many Muskogee were without footwear and some were nearly naked, and their vast numbers overwhelmed any efforts to help them.
Without food, they trudged northward while leaving behind “a trail of blood on the ice,” across a terrible journey that lasted for over 100 miles.
Between 2,000-3,000 native people perished along that icy road, and many more would have died had they not eaten some of their trusted dogs and ponies.
By the time the vast assemblage of indigenous people arrived at Fort Row, the scene was beyond bleak.
More and more natives were coming every day, and William Coffin from the Indian Affairs Bureau was desperately pulling out all the stops to help.
He quickly burned through $10,000 in supplies, and then a combination of his own money and various borrowings.
It was all for naught.
Hundreds were starving to death in the menacing cold, and Army physicians were forced to perform dozens of amputations.
As the ground was too frozen to dig graves, many of the deceased were placed in hollow logs and dead trees, though most remained unburied.
One local account has it that many of the bodies were simply rolled onto the frozen river, and eventually so many accumulated that the water could no longer flow after thawing.
Allegedly, dynamite was used to blast the putrid mass to bloody, rotting pieces.
It’s said that when the weather warmed in spring 1862, a terrible deathly stench swept across the prairie and the earth was littered with bones.
Those who survived would move forward to Fort Belmont in Woodson County, and then an Army post at Leroy.
The conditions at Fort Belmont remained ghastly, and perhaps as a means of survival, many young indigenous men signed up to fight for the Union along the way.
Indeed, more than 1,000 braves marched from Leroy to Camp Hunter in Humboldt where they were inducted into the Union Army as the First Indian Regiment.
As for Fort Row, after being abandoned, the buildings were eventually destroyed by flooding, but that’s not to say nothing remains of these harrowing events.
Standing on the edge of the Verdigris, overlooking its muddy banks near the fort, I must admit I wept for what I felt there.
The lives of the indigenous people did not truly matter, neither to the Confederates that hunted them across the plains of Oklahoma nor the Unionists who refused to allocate adequate aid to them in Kansas.
It is unforgivable.
My dreaming becomes a night-terror as I imagine them practically crawling through the snow, bleeding and starving to death, beyond the point of frozen tears, only to become so many sun-bleached skeletons.
Their terrible wailing seems to rattle and echo through the swaying trees, and their deathsong burns the very air.
What reckoning must take place to assuage them? How must we change so as to prevent such terrors from revisiting in the present?
It is not only a matter of remembering, but of challenging the dehumanization and devaluation of those who are perceived as “different” or “other.”
Only then, might one begin to make legitimate reparations in the wake of atrocity.
Teter Rock in northwest Greenwood County soars above the prairie landscape in southeast Kansas, offering a wider perspective on the region and the past.
Time for a wider perspective.
But in order to get there we’re going to have to climb to reach a vantage point high enough to provide a more encompassing story of southeast Kansas.
Luckily, I know just the place.
Teter Rock in northwest Greenwood County soars above the prairie landscape to the point that the separation of “you” and “All” is overcome.
IN THE nineteenth century, pioneers crossing the expansive silence of the windswept Flint Hills would scale Teter Hill in order to navigate their way to the south fork of the Cottonwood River where they might settle.
I dreamt them there, taking in the view, calico skirts and covered wagon fabric tugged subtly by the wind, feeling the elation of discovery of such beauty.
In order to help more early travelers find their way, in the late 1870s and 1880s, James Teter, a farmer, rancher and oil man, had a stone marker built atop the notable rise. The monolith became a beacon of hope and possibility.
The goal was to help travelers not mistake the Verdigris River as their final destination rather than the Cottonwood and its southern fork.
Hence Teter Rock essentially served as a dividing-point, that said, in accordance with the Manifest Destiny of the times: Go West!
ALTHOUGH Teter was born in today’s West Virginia, he’d come with his father to Coffey County around 1859; though it was in Greenwood County that the family would build a reputation along with significant wealth.
Think 11,000 acres spanning two counties and covered with innumerable Hereford cows.
One humorous, though slightly cringe-worthy, legend is that James Teter’s life as a businessman sprung from his having convinced a naive native man to trade him a chicken for a pony while he was still a boy.
Teter would eventually pass away in 1929, a decade after the first oil wells were drilled in the area, and that in turn spurred major economic development.
FOLLOWING the oil strike, the Teter family provided land so that a base camp could be established by the Emprise Oil Company, and before long a little boomtown had gushed into being.
It was called, of course, Teterville.
Boasting a population of 500-600, the unincorporated community soon had a post office, grade school, two general stores and quite a few “shotgun” houses, so named because their walls were so paper-thin that a gun blast fired through a front wall would supposedly come out the back one as well.
One of these stores was even open clear into the 1960s, long after the time when building materials were stolen from nearby drilling rigs to literally “set up shop.”
Getting water out to the remote site, however, was a bit of a problem.
No one had indoor toilets, and the water that flowed to houses was actually undrinkable, especially after salt from wells created wide-spread contamination.
The “Golden Lanes” of Flint Hills oil kept on giving, though, and many stubbornly dug in so as to grab their share of the wealth.
Today all that’s left of Teterville are mostly cracked structural foundations.
BUT let’s get back to our incredible vantage point and the monument found there, which is actually not the first, nor the only.
What happened is that the original marker atop Teter Hill was torn down by oilfield workers who needed rocks for the cement work they were doing nearby.
This happened sometime in the 1920s, and afterward the pinnacle would remain bare for the next 30 years or so.
During this time, the Teters would continue building up their cattle business, owning over 1,000 head and leasing grazing space for another 5,000.
The first “replacement” stone was actually connected to these ranching efforts, though it wasn’t atop Teter Hill.
What’s said to have happened is that a cowboy working for the Teters perished in a nasty snowstorm, and so a monument rock was erected in his honor.
The memorial was fenced with piping and is sometimes known as “small Teter Rock.”
HOWEVER, the primary replacement stone that one still finds today, high atop the hill with its celestial views, has another story.
According to his widow, Paulyne, around 1954 James Teter’s grandson J. Murle decided to replace his grandfather’s absent marker with a new one.
Though it wasn’t as “painless” a task as it might seem.
J. Murle Teter managed to find an immense flat limerock to use for a replacement, but the slab was so enormous and heavy that he couldn’t at first move it.
Fortunately, the Arapahoe Pipeline Company was working nearby, and had heavy road equipment capable of lifting the stone.
They plunged one end of the slab six feet into the earth to stabilize it, with another 16 or so feet sticking out above ground.
With its peculiar shape, some folks have said they think it looks like a giant shock of wheat, or perhaps a bone jutting from the earth.
According to Paulyne Teter, “it was something [J. Murle] had wanted to do for a long time. He told me that you can see into four counties from the rock: Woodson, Elk, Butler and Chase.”
THAT’S the kicker.
There are traditionally fifteen-seventeen counties ascribed to southeast Kansas, and we want to find a way to see them from a height, both physically and conceptually.
We want to begin drawing connections, see how things hang together aesthetically, historically, scientifically, philosophically, and to delight in the expansiveness of the land writ large.
We’re going to widen our search for what this corner of the world contains, swim in its colors spanning from golden brown to navy sky to green growing things of a thousand hues.
But we’re going to have to be infatuated to do it, irrepressibly drawn to the contours of every curve and shape, every feature and memory.
Yes, this is a love story.
Come with me…
The Dalton gang's attempt to rob two banks at once in Coffeyville ended with numerous deaths, as locals stood up against them for a final showdown.
The autumn air, still and breathless.
Deathly light crept from thin clouds to illuminate Bob Dalton’s footfalls as he and the rest of the gang exited the alley near the crumbling Coffeyville jail.
They held long Winchester rifles close to their legs, dog-trotting, so despite Grat Dalton’s enormous fake mustache, a shopkeeper recognized them immediately and fled.
Others quickly divined what was happening as well, including workers attending to the city’s streets, and soon the cry went up:
“The Daltons are robbing the bank!”
ENTERING the Condon Bank, Grat leveled his rifle at the cashier and handed him a sack, likely accompanied by the threat to paint the walls with his brains.
However, Grat’s attention quickly turned to the bank’s vault safe filled with gold, and in what was one of his fatal errors, believed the safe was on a time-lock that couldn’t yet be opened.
At the same time, Emmett and Bob Dalton had swept into the First National Bank just across the street, and in a flash, procured a bag of gold from the cashier, Thomas Ayres.
With Ayres as cover, they moved to make a hasty escape, but instead found an American Express agent waiting for them outside with his revolver.
With bullets now cutting the air, the Daltons dropped Ayres in the street and darted back inside to find more hostages.
BY this time, local hardware stores had armed a number of Coffeyville residents, who had begun shooting through windows at the Condon Bank.
Grat, along with Dick Broadwell and Bill Powers, returned fire from inside, wounding several locals while unwittingly waiting for the firmly-locked safe to open.
Having regained their composure, across the street Emmett and Bob decided to make a run for the First National’s back door.
A local named Lucius Baldwin was waiting for them, gun cocked and loaded, but Bob shot him dead after he refused to drop it.
Others would fall to Bob’s sharp shooting as well, including George Cubine and Charles Brown, who’d been lying in ambush at a nearby drug store.
Cashier Thomas Ayres, who’d initially been dumped in the street, was likewise given a life-long disability, when Bob put a bullet in his head from over 200 feet away.
WITH a hail of bullets now showering the Condon Bank, escape became imperative if near-impossible.
Yet somehow both teams from the Dalton Gang managed to find their way back to the alley where they’d hitched their horses, sacks of cash in tow.
Town Marshall Charles Connelly, thinking the Dalton’s were still on the plaza, entered the street with his back turned and got a bullet in the head from Grat for his trouble.
Local John Kloehr had better luck, however, and before Grat could turn his gun from Connelly, Kloehr shot him in the throat, sending a spray of dark blood into the air.
The alley, which had not originally been part of the escape plan, had become a death trap, as shots blasted out from the nearby hardware store and elsewhere.
Bob was hit in both the head and heart, killing him outright, and Powers was killed as well as he tried to mount his horse.
Dick Broadwell managed to escape, but having taken several bullets, was found dead around two miles from town.
Not realizing Bob was already dead, Emmett tried to rescue him, but was shot in the back with a load of buckshot for his heroics. Incredibly, he took 23 gunshot wounds in the melee, ranging from his right arm to his groin.
EMMETT may have regretted surviving.
But despite being given a life sentence at the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, he was pardoned after 14 years.
Thereafter, he moved to Hollywood, Calif., and became a real estate agent, actor and author, though many claimed the events in his book, “When the Daltons Rode” (1931), were mostly a fabrication.
He later noted that one factor behind the attempted double-robbery was that the Gang had been pursued mercilessly by Deputy US Marshal Heck Thomas.
They’d hoped that a large enough score would allow them to escape both the area and Thomas’ relentless pursuit.
STANDING outside the Condon Bank in Coffeyville, I dreamed the aftermath of the failed robberies.
The smell of gunpowder and blood and sweat still hung in the cool air, and like other curiosity-seekers, I elbowed in close to get a look at the dead bandits.
There they lay, lifeless, on display like trophies or mannequins: Bill Powers, Bob Dalton, Grat Dalton and Dick Broadwell.
Hands were folded over chests, Bob’s rifle splayed across his body.
At one point, local law enforcement even scooped up Bob and Grat’s corpses to pose for a grim victory photo.
BUT what does it all mean, I thought?
Perhaps the lesson is one regarding memory, and the fervent quest to enshrine oneself in the pages of history.
Certainly, we remember the deeds of the Dalton Defenders, those courageous fellows who protected their town and its meager wealth.
I even made a Sunday afternoon pilgrimage to Burlington, just to visit the grave of Lucius Baldwin, a citizen who perished in the fighting.
But we all know who the real legends are, those anti-heroes whose deeds precipitated this recounting of events from that fateful day, Oct. 5, 1892.
BOB Dalton, it seems, had an inkling that this transfiguration might be possible.
He once claimed he’d “beat anything Jesse James ever did—rob two banks at once, in broad daylight.”
And though he failed, it didn’t ultimately matter.
He had nonetheless found a path to immortality.
Early life at Fort Scott was filled with boredom, with a desertion rate as high as 16 percent. The fort's history includes a variety of Civil War-era uses, including training Black soldiers for the Union, as a supply depot, military hospital and prison.
The plains perfectly still as the clock strikes slowly.
Such was early life at Fort Scott for most soldiers, who were cranky from living in tents, and with only the occasional prostitute or whisky-peddler to liven things up.
Many of the officers had brought personal slaves with them, but they were focused primarily on their unpleasant labors as opposed to entertaining anyone.
Hence the grog shop just across the Missouri border was a constant temptation, with soldiers often going AWOL while drinking at the joint.
In fact, desertions ranged as high as 16 percent, thanks to boredom, bad pay and outright hatred for military life.
As for those who remained, in the words of Capt. Thomas Swords, “wolf chasing and duck hunting” were about the only way to stay sane.
THE fort’s story stretches clear back to April 1842, when soldiers first arrived on the spot from Fort Wayne to the south in “Oklahoma” (aka Indian Territory). It was christened for General Winfield Scott, who himself was nicknamed “Old Fuss and Feathers,” given an insistence on military decorum.
The Cherokee didn’t care to have Fort Wayne so close in proximity to their territorial lands, which had precipitated the relocation efforts, along with the desire to provide settlers and Native people some measure of mutual protection from one another.
The Osage, for example, had been conducting raids in response to white encroachment throughout the area, and the situation had become increasingly violent.
Oddly enough, though, the fort itself didn’t have defensive walls, as the wide-open views and high-powered artillery made such an enclosure unnecessary.
Capt. Swords, the quartermaster, didn’t have much lumber to work with anyway, since the Kansas prairie had few trees, and significant building materials had been destroyed in various strange accidents.
Moreover, Swords’ workforce consisted of only two bricklayers, three carpenters and his personal slave.
Nonetheless, when he subjected the fort to inspection in 1844, Col. George Croghan said, especially in comparison to other frontier battlements, that still he found the setup to be “above average.”
That assessment didn’t prevent Fort Scott from falling into disuse, though, as in April 1850, it was decided to cease further construction after eight years of work and $35,000 spent.
No fighting had taken place there, and the Mexican-American War had become of primary importance at the time.
FORT Scott’s second life would arrive just prior to the Civil War.
After its military buildings were sold to civilians, two were converted into hotels, namely the pro-abolition Fort Scott Hotel and the pro-slavery Western Hotel.
As they weren’t that far apart, you can imagine how tensions were simmering at a near-continuous boil.
At the time, most residents of Fort Scott supported slavery, with one group traveling west to establish Cofachique, Allen County’s first (proslavery) settlement, and who engaged in murderous activities in both Allen and Woodson Counties.
But most folks in the Kansas Territory outside Fort Scott were abolitionists, so it’s not hard to envision all the screaming matches and straight-out fist fights over the matter.
Local incidents of murder, attempted arson and more were all totally commonplace.
DURING the Civil War itself, Fort Scott once more became a military post, and in August 1861, the Union Army took command.
Troops arrived from as far away as Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin, and were sent forth to “subjugate” locations in Missouri, Arkansas and “Oklahoma.”
Of note as well, is that Fort Scott was one of the only places that trained Black soldiers, namely, for the United States Colored Troops of the Union Army.
The Fort’s major supply depot made it a target for Confederate General Sterling Price, though he was never able to mount a successful attack.
By contrast, the fort’s hospital facilities and on-site prison were quite effective, and would remain in use until after the war’s bloody and bitter end.
FIVE years later, in Jan. 1870, the Army returned to Fort Scott with the formation of the Post of Southeast Kansas.
Interestingly, soldiers rarely used the original fort, and preferred to camp along the nearby railroad tracks.
This was in part due to their charge, namely, protecting railroad property and workers from angry settlers, who’d formed Land Leagues in order to defend their claim to properties upon which they had squatted and thus believed they owned.
Indeed, it’s possible that Leaguers who organized in Allen County near Elsmore, for example, actually hated the military, since they were viewed as toadies or lackeys of the powerful railroad interests that threatened their land claims.
By the spring of 1873, however, the US Army withdrew troops from Fort Scott for the last time, and it would take until 1965 before major efforts to preserve the historical structures would begin, following action by the National Park Service.
THANKS to local efforts, today you can visit an impressive array of structures from across Fort Scott’s lifespan.
For instance, the original hospital has been converted into a visitors’ center, and the infantry barracks has been reconstructed to become a museum containing many period artifacts.
Dragoon stables of impressive length along with a dragoon barracks have also been reconstructed on the fort’s northwest side, as was the Post Headquarters where many courts-martial took place.
Original officers’ quarters have been restored as well, including the posh spaces where Capt. Swords and his wife once lived.
Other buildings include a restored quartermaster storehouse, a reconstructed prison guardhouse and powder magazine (for storing explosives, cartridges, primers and fuses), and my personal favorite, the restored post bakery.
Bread was a staple of a Fort Scott soldier’s diet, and they were sustained by a daily ration of about 18 ounces.
Close your eyes, and dream the smell of warming flour as it lingers about the place, bursting and blending with the prairie air. Let the ghostly smell surround and permeate your nose.
Feel the power of the past as its folds make the present possible.
Bill Mentzer and his father used their boat to rescue neighbors trapped during the Flood of 1951 in the Neosho Falls area.
"I’m no hero,” said Bill Mentzer.
“I just felt so sorry, and my heart went out to those people.”
Mentzer, now 90, was referring to the historic “Black Friday” Flood of July 1951, when much of Iola was submerged under water, and Neosho Falls was all but destroyed.
Yet despite his humbleness, Mentzer didn’t just watch as events unfolded. Rather, the then 20-year-old jumped in his boat and set about rescuing folks in the Neosho Falls area near his family’s farm.
“It wasn’t anything exciting. It was just something that had to be done,” he said. “That’s all there was to it.”
At the time of the flood, according to Mentzer, “I was just helping dad, starting junior college. We were milking a lot of cows by hand.”
The Mentzer farm is located in northwest Allen County, fairly close to the Neosho River, though perched at a safe elevation.
“That’s up on a high bluff there,” he said. “So we were on the edge of the water.”
“The flood was going on, and dad and I were looking at it,” Mentzer continued. “It just kept coming up and up.”
“We could see that our neighbors were going under water, so we went back and loaded up my old boat,” he said.
“It wasn’t much of a boat. It was a homemade boat. … though I’d bought a 5-horse motor for it.”
IT WASN’T long after taking to the water that Mentzer and his father, Leslie, started finding folks in need of help.
The Smading family were first in line.
“We stopped at their back porch,” Mentzer said, “and when we were going in, we had to maneuver through the farm implements.”
In order to slow the boat, Leslie reached out and grabbed hold of a tree, but the fierce current jerked his feet out from under him such that he’d be forced to wait there until his son’s return.
“He grabbed the tree and I kept going, and there he hung in the tree,” Mentzer said.
When he arrived, the Smadings said they were alright, but told him that they would fire a shotgun blast if they eventually needed help … which they did.
Not long after, the small house was torn from its foundations, lodging between an elm tree and an upright gas tank, and then: “Bang! Bang! Bang!”
By the time the Mentzers returned, “they’d chopped a hole in the roof, and got out on the roof,” Bill recalled. “I picked them up and took them back to the bank and dumped them off.”
BUT YOUNG “Billie” Menzter was just getting started.
Next were the Hyde family, and “there were five of them. So I had a boatload,” Mentzer said.
“But they all got in the boat, and I took them out.”
“The neighbor to the north and west of them had 50 fat hogs ready to ship,” he added. “And those hogs had all floated away, and it dragged some of them into their upstairs window, into their bedrooms. They had chickens in the house, too.”
WHEN MENTZER arrived at the Samson home, “they were all up on the porch,” he recalled.
Mr. Samson had also just watched as his hogs floated down-river, the sale of which were supposed to pay for the farm he’d just bought.
“You take the kids and I’ll row out,” he told the young Mentzer.
“So anyway, I took the family back up to dad,” that is, to where Leslie was waiting to drive folks back into town or somewhere else safe.
WHEN Mentzer made it to the Chriestenson family, “there was a hole in the hedge I could barely get through,” he recalled.
“And the current was so strong I had to go up, then come back down with the current.”
“They were out on the roof, and they were a big family, but I don’t remember how many there were. Some of them are still alive today.”
But when Mentzer arrived at the Holtz place following the Chriestensons, Bob Holtz told him: “I’m not going.”
In his signature slow drawl Holtz said, “I got a loaf of bread, and I got kerosene. I’m just fine. I’ll catch the chickens as they go by.”
LAST ON Mentzer’s list were the Cope family, who lived near the rural Punkin Kolig school.
“They were a Quaker family, and they didn’t have an automobile. They did everything by team and wagon,” Mentzer said.
“They’d taken everything they owned and put it in the hayloft of the barn,” he continued. “They were up there with their clothes and their bedding and their chickens and animals.”
“They didn’t realize that the house was higher than the barn.”
Mr. Cope didn’t want to leave behind his team and wagon, though, so he and Mentzer got them hitched up so that Cope could drive them out.
The water was already as high as the wagon box.
Returning with the Copes to safety, “just as I pulled up to the bank, my motor died,” Mentzer remembered, since someone had forgotten to add oil to the outboard motor’s gasoline.
“The Lord was with us. I was going fast enough that we floated right up to the bank and the family got out.”
“That was the end of my outboard motor,” Mentzer said. “But luckily, that was everybody.”
DESPITE the harrowing experience, when it was all over, a sense of hope and even joviality persisted, perhaps at the knowledge that everyone had survived.
“Mom cooked, and all the ladies cooked, and we ate all the stuff we had in the pantry,” Mentzer said.
“We had people there for several days, and the men all slept in the barn. The kids thought it was just fun. They really enjoyed it.”
Mine Creek Battlefield near Mound City saw a clash between Confederate and Union troops in 1864, near the close of the Civil War.
The ground was swampy and saturated the afternoon I wandered Mine Creek Battlefield near Mound City.
Though I cursed the mud aloud, I soon realized how appropriate it was, as conditions were similar on Oct. 25, 1864, the day of the events in question.
Confederate General Sterling Price had set out to wreak havoc across eastern Kansas near the close of the Civil War, but things weren’t going as planned.
His forces were retreating south not far from the state line, losing battle after battle, and when their wagon supply train became stalled at Mine Creek crossing in Linn County, he’d have to fight again.
2,500 Union cavalrymen were bearing down on them on “the Butternuts” from behind, yet even with superior numbers of between 7,000-8,000, the situation soon became grim.
BY 10:30 that morning, despite the wet conditions, with horse hooves and wagon wheels getting constantly mired, both sides moved into position.
Confederate artillery opened fire first, with cannons belching black and red, and the Union followed suit, until blood and screams began to mix with the previous night’s rainfall.
The first Union troops, of the Tenth Missouri, started toward the Confederate line with bugles blaring, but froze in their tracks after realizing they were outnumbered nearly three to one.
General “Fred” Benteen, who later gained fame at Little Big Horn, rode out front, screaming at the men to advance while swinging his sword about wildly, but to no avail.
Troops behind the Tenth kept pushing, however, and soon the charge was reignited following a chain reaction down the Union line.
ACCORDING to historian Arnold Scholfield, it was an absolute sight to behold.
“The Union soldiers are stirrup to stirrup. You’re seeing a blue mass come towards you,” he said. “And as it gets closer to you, the ground starts to shake and pulsate underneath your horses’ and mules’ feet.”
The Union, “they are in a massive formation, and they are charging down that hill, and it looks like rolling blue thunder,” Scholfield continued.
“And when it collides with the Confederate line, the force of the impact carries them through it like hot knives through butter.”
DESPITE superior numbers, most of the Confederates only got a single shot before they had to reload, which meant being overwhelmed by gunfire.
Some simply fired that shot, then turned and fled while they still had a horse beneath them.
Others would stand firm, using their rifles as clubs while still riding, leading to brutally fierce eruptions of hand-to-hand combat.
Such close fighting was further complicated by the fact that many Confederate soldiers, needing improved equipment, had confiscated and were wearing blue Union uniforms.
Confusion was rank, and friendly-fire a terrible reality.
Moreover, it was through this scrambled understanding that 20-year-old Private James Dunlavy managed to capture Confederate General Marmaduke, when he mistook the young man for one of his own.
SPEAKING of young people, it’s worth an aside to note that many civilians were witnesses to the terrible carnage as well.
For instance, on the morning of Oct. 25, something eerie happened while the Union men had stopped for breakfast.
“Suddenly a little cry was heard quite near at hand … and looking about, we found lying in the grass … a little girl hardly more than six years old, with blue eyes, light hair and very pretty. … She had a school book in her hand, … and was mute to all questions.”
One possibility is that this girl was actually a refugee who had been fleeing with her Confederate-loyal family down the state line, but no one knows for sure.
Local Barbara Jane Dolson recalled holding her infant daughter in arms, watching as Confederate troops marched by her parents’ home on the morning of the battle.
Chaos would soon unfold not 100 yards from the house, and Dolson would quickly find herself becoming an impromptu field nurse.
“As soon as the firing ceased,” she wrote, “Mother and I went to see what we could do for the wounded. … They had fallen all about the house and crawled away to fence corners or brush.”
“When all the wounded were taken from the field,” Dolson continued, we went to the hospital which was established in a cabin north of the creek. … Here was a sickening scene. … Some were bearing their pain without a murmur, some groaning, some crying, some praying and some dying.”
AS NOON approached, the Confederates were in full retreat and the creek crossing had completely devolved into chaos.
The water was high and rushing, and hundreds of horses and wagon wheels had turned the mud there into an absolute mire.
As I leaned near the water myself, I dreamed the cacophony all around me, the wagons stuck or overturned nearby, the smell of gunfire and entrails already beginning to rot.
In time, the Confederates would be decimated.
And indeed, later that evening, perhaps for both strategic reasons as well as out of frustration, Gen. Price ordered half his wagons burned.
After that, the Confederacy never again troubled Kansas.
THE AFTERMATH, however, was beyond words.
The Union suffered 94 wounded, 15 dead; and the Confederacy 250 wounded and between 300 and 600 dead.
Decaying horses and mules littered the battlefield for months following, producing a stench that sickened locals, who continually implored military officials to have them removed.
Two young boys were killed/maimed while playing with an unexploded shell they had found near their home.
Yet I don’t think the reality of such losses, such death, truly hit me, though, until I visited the stone memorial to fallen Confederates near the creek.
There, in a tranquil and tree-shaded grove, the number of casualties is listed as 600, but the most harrowing detail is that “many of those killed in action were buried in unmarked graves on this battlefield.”
I had been walking through a vast cemetery and didn’t even realize it.
The dead were all around me, and there was nothing I could do but listen to their stories as they wafted on the blood-stained breeze.
Osa and Martin Johnson traveled to Africa in the early 1900s to film cannibalistic tribes. They brought the so-called "dark continent" to the light of the public eye.
"America, probably because it is the most civilized place in the world, is the most dangerous.”
Such was the observation by adventurer/film-maker Martin Johnson during his final interview, not long before perishing in a tragic plane crash in 1937.
Perhaps he’d been reminded of something he’d seen more than a decade earlier, on a visit to Chanute with his wife and fellow explorer Osa, namely, a Ku Klux Klan march.
Upwards of 5,000 Klan members had rallied there with white robes and blazing crosses, and as Martin put it, “I did not like the way they looked in my direction as they marched past.”
He also wondered if his efforts at depicting African life and the lives of other people of color across the globe had made him a target for their rage, for not only did most Americans not understand the indigneous people that he and Osa had encountered, many actively despised them for doing so.
The pair were bringing the so-called “dark continent” and elsewhere into the light of the public eye, precisely where many folks believed such “savage” places didn’t belong.
OSA and Martin Johnson’s first shared adventure took them to the South Seas, where Martin was obsessed with capturing cannibalistic mourning rituals on film.
Of note, is that just before departing, Osa had undergone surgery on her reproductive system, which likely rendered her incapable of having children. This haunted her throughout her life, but it also set her free from the obligations of traditional motherhood.
After landing and asking the locals for assistance, the pair headed for Malekula, the largest of the New Hebrides Islands, which was home to the Big Nambas (or “Big Numbers”) group, and whose leader Nagapate, was considered “a holy terror.”
Indeed, the people Osa and Martin encountered had already sent chills of terror through Osa, and apparently reinforced certain problematic attitudes, as she said she found “it hard to believe they were men at all.”
When they finally encountered Chief Nagapate after a 3,000-foot climb to the top of a mountain, his appearance was likewise a shock, but that didn’t stop Martin from casually cranking his camera during their first encounter.
THE INDIGENOUS people were fascinated with Osa, especially Nagapate.
He couldn’t stop himself from touching her skin, puzzled by the color, and marveled at her blondish hair as well.
Nagapate momentarily ordered the Johnsons to be seized, but he was made wary by the presence of a British patrol boat nearby.
Though the Johnsons managed to escape, the footage shot by Martin on Malekula deeply unsettled American audiences, reinforcing their racism.
For as historian Kelly Enright explains, “instead of garnering understanding of indigenous cultures, it testified to the dangers of so-called savages.”
And it certainly didn’t help that racial tensions across the country were already at a boiling point, so much so that, “white-black riots raged throughout American cities.”
NEVERTHELESS, the Johnsons would soon after return to Malekula, after the release of their film “Cannibals of the South Seas.”
This time, Nagapate and his warriors received them warmly, offering gifts and even agreeing to sit down and watch the Johnsons’ film about them.
The indigenous people were especially awe-struck when they viewed footage of a man who’d recently died, as though he’d risen from the dead.
Soon after, Nagapate’s trust in the Johnsons had noticeably grown, which Osa described as “the greatest compliment … that the savage chief could have paid us,” though she had also grown weary from living “among dirt-encrusted man-eating strangers.”
Hence, one can see how, as Enright puts it, “Martin and Osa respected [cultural] differences, even as they found them repulsive.”
OF COURSE, as people belonging to their own historical moment, the respect the Johnsons exhibited toward other cultural practices was limited.
For instance, on another island near Malekula, Martin found the actual cannibals that he’d been looking for, and couldn’t stop himself from capturing their sacred rituals on film.
He photographed a Native man who was smoking human heads for the purpose of curing them, and who explained that only the heads of family members are given such delicate care.
The experience must have whet Martin’s whistle, for after witnessing a similar ritual on the island of Espiritu Santo, he didn’t stop at only taking photos of “a human head in the embers.”
According to Enright, “he wrapped the head in a cloth and took it with him. [For] finally, he had proof … that cannibal rituals still existed in the South Seas.”
Such an example illustrates well how the Johnsons were both simultaneously forward-looking in their views of Native people, and yet thoroughly embedded in the problematic anthropological assumptions and in-sensitivities of the times.
BY CONTRAST, it’s difficult to overstate the impact of Osa’s life in relation to gender, and what she believed (and demonstrated) that a woman is capable of, both prior to and after Martin’s death.
She may have cultivated the image of a glamorous and intriguing celebrity, especially given her entrees into the fashion world, but she was so much more than a pretty face and a media curiosity.
Osa Johnson was integral to the couple’s entire operation, which she revealed time and again through everything from hunting animals for food, to driving now-antique Ford motorcars across forbidding landscapes.
Indeed, even following Martin’s death, she proclaimed, “I was scared when we first started these expeditions. I guess most women would be. But now I love it. I can’t wait to get back in the jungles.”
YET although Osa continued to enjoy many successes after Martin’s passing (despite facing widespread sexism), from publishing children’s books to helping with multiple charities, the hole in her heart could not be filled.
For certainly, in many ways, the story of Martin and Osa Johnson is a love story, even if it contains more “respectful regard” between the pair than passionate romance.
“We are pals and co-workers,” once wrote Martin, “and that is more than a lot of married people can say.”
Is it any wonder, then, why Osa’s drinking and depression began to consume her later in life, and why she found herself in unfortunate and exploitative relationships?
“I don’t quite know what has happened to me,” she once wrote, as though presaging the future, “but I feel so new and different, as if nothing mattered now, and as if my soul was as blank as the Sahara desert.”
Loneliness had already begun to hollow out her world, yet even through the pain, the anxious allure of the “wild” would continue, inexhaustible in its demands.
“The sun is shining so beautifully, and these great waves of deep blue water seem to be so restless and discontented with themselves,” Osa continued. “They seem to be always seeking some new kind of adventure.”
… And it is a call that, given ample courage, we too can answer.
It was a warm summer day more than 145 years ago that townsfolk in Howard discovered a pair of buffalo — previously thought extinct — had come to town. The story of how those "beasts" were chased Main Street until being gunned down by local pursuers has become legend — and likely a little embellished along the way.
It was a beast born from the depths of hell …
At least that’s what the editor of the Howard Courant said of the infamous buffalo that found its way onto the city’s streets in the summer of 1875.
It all began on a warm Sunday morning, folks recalled, when Frank Dewey sent his 12-year-old grandson, Van Flagler, to tend the cattle.
Not long after leaving for his chores, however, the boy returned looking as though he’d seen a ghost.
Two alien beasts, it seems, were grazing with the usual herd, and looked like nothing that the young Flagler had ever seen before.
AFTER quickly mounting his horse, Dewey rode out to investigate.
He galloped across the landscape at a clip, the surprisingly soft July air lightly playing with his movement toward the destination.
It was then he saw them: two lumbering giants, namely a shaggy buffalo cow and bull, who had decided to share breakfast with the herd of cattle.
There they stood, nonchalantly chewing away, as though they’d always belonged there, barely even looking up to note Dewey’s presence.
In response, he decided it was time for a buffalo hunt, and returned to fetch his gun.
MIND YOU, by this time, most folks thought the buffalo had been completely eradicated, and thus the story is told as involving “the last wild buffaloes” in the region.
That didn’t stop the residents of Howard, however, from determining it was time the beasts met their maker.
Dewey returned with gun in hand, flanked by several friends, many of which were also armed.
The group separated the buffaloes from the herd, and soon the chase was on, with them stampeding across the wild and untamed prairie.
A shot from Dewey quickly felled the buffalo cow, sending her crashing into the dirt.
THE BULL was still on the loose, and perhaps enraged by the loss of its mate.
It trampled in the direction of the Elk River, as it headed up toward Howard, making a bee-line for an unsuspecting group of boys who’d skipped Sunday School to go skinny-dipping.
Upon seeing the mighty creature, they let out a series of panicked yelps and scattered in multiple directions.
Dripping, shoeless and half-naked, one boy ran like lightning into a nearby stand of cottonwood trees, while the rest took shelter in a native stone barn about 300 yards in the distance.
(One of the young men in question happened to be Henry Zirn, who went on to gain local repute as the president of the First National Bank of Howard.)
It wasn’t enough to elude the buffalo, though, who not only noticed the fleeing youngsters, but decided to charge them head-on.
No one was hurt badly, but the buffalo’s anger was growing, not only from being provoked, but having been repeatedly shot at from behind.
It’s said that although several wire fences blocked its path, the buffalo charged right through them, and made its way to town.
WHEN THE buffalo passed the schoolhouse where the Sunday School classes were taking place, pandemonium erupted.
Not only did the classes come to an abrupt end, many of the children in attendance joined the train of pursuers that were chasing the mighty bison.
A few, though, chose to cower beneath their desks.
Inside homes, parents locked doors, pulled down shades and prayed to the almighty for protection.
IT WASN’T until it had run practically the entire length of the main street and reached the north end of Howard that the creature was felled.
Its blood-stained rage had drained out, the mighty bull came haltingly to a stop, putting a single hoof in front of the other slower and slower until … collapse.
When the buffalo was skinned, it had no fewer than seven bullet holes in its flesh, since none of the small arms possessed enough firepower on their own to end the animal’s life.
Estimates say that the bull was chased nearly 10 miles before reaching its final destination, and after both the bull and cow were dressed out, the people of Howard literally savored the taste of bloody victory.
YET NOT everyone in town celebrated, including young Clarence Aitchison, who at the time was working as a printer’s devil at the Howard Courant, under the tutelage of editor Abe Steinberger.
While Steinberger wrote up what would become the perhaps most legendary tale in the town’s history, Clarence set the type, and ruminated.
He’d read the account that his boss had written, wherein the buffalo bull was depicted as having been loosed from the jaws of damnation itself, and the townspeople depicted as heroic angels full of wisdom and reason.
There was just one problem.
Clarence had been among the group of boys who’d skipped Sunday School to go swimming, and he’d seen the “beast” first-hand.
He knew that the buffalo had simply been afraid, upset and trying to escape, regardless of Steinberger’s wild exaggerations made for the sake of selling newspapers.
By contrast, in the boy’s estimation, what had happened was merely cruel, pathetic and unnecessary, with hardly a bit of actual sport in it.
He couldn’t stop thinking about how, once something is dead and gone, such death is totally final and without the possibility of return.
Clarence therefore decided that day he’d become a newsman, and that he’d always tell the truth, no matter the cost.
The Bender family would never be held accountable for the horrors found at their rural Kansas home in 1873. Their neighbors found numerous bodies buried on the property, sparking lore that continues to fascinate.
In the spring of 1873, young Billy Toll was driving cattle past the Bender Inn in Labette County, on his way to Sunday School, when he noticed the place looked deserted.
His suspicions were confirmed when he discovered a desperate sow dying of thirst, along with a young calf and its mother whose corpses were decomposing.
When he managed to peer through a crack in one of the inn’s broken windows, he found only silence.
By the time township trustee Leroy Dick found his way out to the house in order to investigate, an overpowering stench permeated the air.
The smell of death was rank, and the horrors in store, unimaginable.
Not long ago, when I stood on the edge of that same unassuming field myself, I swore that that terrible wind lingered still.
THE MORNING following Toll’s discovery, Leroy Dick and others converged on the Bender Inn, armed with shovels, spades and a plow.
In short order, the number of searchers jumped from around 40 to upwards of 1,000, and people swarmed the property like flies.
The search proved fruitless until Ed York, who was seated in his buggy with head above the crowd, suddenly shouted: “Boys, I see a grave!”
Probes and shovels then attacked the prairie earth in the Bender’s half-grown apple orchard, and soon after discovered a naked body facing downward with legs bent, skull smashed and throat slashed from ear to ear.
It was the body of Dr. William York, who had been missing for more than a month.
Accounts state that eight more bodies would follow, including that of a young girl, the daughter of George Loncher, who had been buried alive.
SHORTLY after the bodies were unearthed came the vultures.
Not those of the kind with enormous black wings, mind you, but curiosity-seekers determined to own a piece of history.
According to local teacher and author Fern Wood, “with no one to restrain them, every visitor went away with a board from the house, a loose shingle, or even a stone from the well.”
They stripped the entire property clean, even including the smaller trees.
And the Thayer Headlight newspaper noted that, even after everything had been taken, “thousands of people daily visit the grounds,” compelled to witness the scene of community trauma.
The pioneers had to see the place that would later be christened “Hell’s Half-Acre,” where hammers struck unsuspecting heads from behind a curtain, throats had been opened time and time again, and for what?
… Only a little money.
DESPITE an award of $2,000 offered by Gov. Thomas Osborn, the Benders would never explicitly stand trial for their crimes, and what happened after their escape from the Cherryvale/Parsons area is shrouded in just as much legend as fact.
One popular theory is that the Benders never escaped at all, but were apprehended by folks from the surrounding area and summarily executed and burned near a riverbank.
Fern Wood, however, tells a different story that includes several additional twists and turns.
She argues that Leroy Dick, Col. York and others actually pursued the Benders for the next decade and a half, after first finding out that they’d fled to Humboldt to board the train(s) there.
They then followed lead after lead, including to Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, with the final destination especially piquing their interest.
Dick and the gang had received word that four German-speaking travelers revealed they were headed to an outlaw colony near the Texas/New Mexico border, and where state lines were not yet well-defined.
Unfortunately, everyone advised Dick’s posse that they would forfeit their lives if they dared enter the area of the colony, and so once again they found themselves at a dead end, since the Texas Rangers refused to intercede and wipe the colony out per Dick’s/York’s request.
ALONG with Wood’s theory regarding the outlaw colony, another character she highlights in her book, “The Benders: Keepers of the Devil’s Inn,” is that of Frances McCann, who later came to believe she was the orphaned granddaughter of “Ma” Bender.
It began, Wood says, when McCann was nursing daughter Kate Bender following a nasty fever, and during which she revealed incriminating things to her caregiver, including that the Benders may have killed her birth parents.
Following the murderers’ trails, then, McCann first supposedly found that “Ma” had visited “Pa” Bender at a Presbyterian hospital in Michigan, and after which, they quickly vanished.
McCann also presented evidence to Leroy Dick that the Bender women were awaiting trial in Berrien Springs, Michigan, for theft, after having been kicked out of multiple logging camps.
Dick was skeptical at first, Wood says, but eventually came to believe McCann, and therefore traveled to Michigan to see for himself.
It took one look for him to be convinced. Absolutely. He remembered Kate Bender from singing school at Harmony Grove.
DESPITE the convictions of Leroy Dick, Frances McCann, the local sheriff and others, the Bender womens’ trial was a complete farce.
Kate and “Ma” mostly hurled accusations back and forth at one another, Wood writes, and charmed the jury with their humorous wit.
The Benders’ story was also so twisting and incoherent that it apparently bludgeoned the audience into being incapable of reasoning soundly.
Found not guilty, both “Ma” and Kate were allowed to walk out of the courthouse Scott-free.
And it wouldn’t be the last time.
IN NOVEMBER 1889, the women were once again bound over to district courts for trial, this time, for the actual murders in Labette County, Wood claims, but just when it seems the noose would soon tighten, Leroy Dick was told by the Parsons chief of police that Benders had been set free, given the costs associated with housing them.
The well-meaning people of Parsons, moreover, having been swayed by Kate’s infamous beauty and charm, even provided them money so that they could travel to Fort Scott.
The last time Leroy Dick would see the Bender women, Wood says, was on the streets of Oswego, only to be screamed at and threatened by the wild-eyed pair.
At the end of his patience, he ranted and raved back, only to leave the two women alone after they turned on another in a dissociative rage.
Tell a lie big enough, or an entire series of them in a convincing or confusing way, and you can get away with almost anything …
Emmett Kelly grew up in Sedan with the lullaby of nearby train tracks. He would become one of the most famous clowns of all time with his "Weary Willie" sad clown act.
The blazing sun was beginning to blast the summer air as I shambled down the streets of Sedan in Chautauqua County, half asleep.
I’m the polar opposite of a morning person, but sleeping in a hard bed at the hunter’s lodge may have had something to do with it.
The Emmett Kelly Museum hadn’t yet opened its doors, so I wandered into a nearby historic area known to locals as The Hollow.
Though the scene of natural beauty near the “cave” was tranquil and soft, I couldn’t shake a feeling of rigid overwhelming melancholy, and a palpable sense of loss.
But as it turns out, given whom I’d come to meet, experiencing a creeping sense of despair in the midst of a joyful scene was perfectly appropriate to the occasion.
Before becoming the most famous clown in the world, Emmett Kelly was just a country boy from Sedan.
Born Dec. 9, 1898, to a section foreman on the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, his “principle lullaby was the sounds of the rolling cars, clicking wheels and lonely whistles in the night.”
Years later, Kelly wrote in his autobiography “Clown,” that he still associated the sounds of the circus train with growing up in rural Kansas.
Given his lineage, schoolmates christened him “The Irish Potater,” or simply “Tater,” which enraged the boy, but didn’t stop him from getting into various hijinks.
For indeed, another of his early recollections from Sedan included “being hauled out from under a string of freight cars after I had climbed our fence,” and after which a railroad worker would always find him and return him to his yard.
KELLY grew up poor, although he didn’t realize it at the time, his father making only about $1 a day.
And indeed, the family’s poverty didn’t stop him from remembering fondly how their country home had bright lilac trees in the yard or a garden or chickens or a cowshed where his mother kept a Jersey.
Kelly likewise recalled the day when he received his very first spanking, after climbing a telephone pole like a cat and sitting atop the cross beam.
“It was a lot higher than the tent where I did my first aerial work,” Kelly wrote, “and of course it terrified my mother and the neighbors.”
Another of Kelly’s most prescient memories of growing up in Sedan were the band concerts held every Saturday on the public square.
“I always loved the music of the band,” he wrote, “and even now when the great circus bandmaster, Merle Evans, leads his boys into a break-neck galop I get bubbles in my blood.”
Hence getting into trouble for sneaking out to attend, Kelly said, “was worth it.”
AN ADDITIONAL one of Kelly’s fond memories from Kansas included a particularly poignant Christmas, where his mother strung popcorn from the Christmas tree boughs and made the whole house smell seasonal.
He received a drum for a gift, he recalled, and his sister, “a doll and a set of dishes.”
Kelly and his family’s time in Kansas was not to last long, however, as his father was worried about being forced to retire early from the railroad.
“Hell, they’ll never fire me; I’ll quit first!” he vowed, and so set about saving up money to transplant the family to Missouri, to a place known, oddly enough, as Texas County.
“We cried ourselves to sleep, lonely for our home,” Kelly remembered. “George Wheeler said he bet we were the only people in the world who were lonesome for Kansas.”
OF COURSE, Emmett Kelly’s fame came from developing the character of “Weary Willie,” a melancholy clown whose image sharply diverged from that of traditional clowns with their bright and exuberant appearances.
Willie started out as a drawing in the early 1920s, which was Kelly’s original passion, but would only take on a life of his own more than a decade later.
This would have been when Kelly was performing for the Gertram Mills Circus, though it was with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey that he would ultimately become a legend.
BUT WHY precisely was Willie so depressed and blue? What was the source of his incessant existential malaise?
According to Kelly, following his divorce with wife Eva Mae, “my family scattered, I had only the sad-faced hobo and we became at this time indistinguishable.”
And it was an image he continued pushing to its limits.
“I did everything I could think of in contrasts,” Kelly wrote. “Where other clowns were white and neat, I was unshaven and ragged. They were active; I gave the appearance of doing almost nothing, and what I did accomplish was geared to a tempo so relaxed that it would make a snail seem jet-propelled.”
CONTINUING to unpack the character of Willie, Kelly notes how “I am a sad and ragged little guy who is very serious about everything he attempts — no matter how futile or how foolish it appears to be.”
“I am the hobo who found out the hard way that the deck is stacked, the dice ‘frozen,’ the race fixed and the wheel crooked.”
In other words, Willie is a champion of the downtrodden, the one who realizes too late that the Dream of American prosperity is perhaps just that, a dream, and that the opportunities supposedly presented by society are illusory.
Willie is disenchanted and distraught, for instance, while reading the Wall Street Journal, knowing full-well that the news either isn’t good or isn’t for him at all.
Willie is poor and abject, and despite any rose-colored optimism, that isn’t going to change.
IN “CLOWN,” Kelly further observes that, with regard to Willie’s attitude, “all I can say is that there must be a lot of people in this world who feel that way.”
For as he explains, “in my tramp clown character, folks who are down on their luck, have had disappointments and have maybe been pushed around by circumstances beyond their control, see a caricature of themselves.”
“By laughing at me,” Kelly says, “they really laugh at themselves, and realizing that they have done this gives them a sort of spiritual second wind for going back into the battle.”
In other words, the social and economic situation may be bleak for Willie and the rest of us, but laughter provides a certain manic power of resistance and a levity in the wake of insurmountable obstacles.
The truth that only a clown really knows …