O little town of Williamsburg


At least three days each week, our travels take us through the little town of Williamsburg, Kansas, population 370. Now that winter has set in and the days are shorter, the tiny three-block main street–Old U.S. Highway 50–is a cheerful and bright respite sandwiched between miles and miles of darkness.

Just three blocks long, the commercial district of Williamsburg has more Christmas lights than people. I spent five minutes standing in the middle of the main road to take this shot.

I was going to write about the efforts little towns make to sparkle during the holidays. Emporia and Ottawa also string up the lights and baubles to infuse holiday cheer into an otherwise dreary, dark and cold season. But it wasn’t until I began to research the buildings in the shadows behind the lights in Williamsburg, trying to match them with historical photos, that I began to understand why Williamsburg is such an interesting town.

It shouldn’t have survived.

“Look at this old picture,” I said to my husband as I flipped back and forth between my shots of Williamsburg and an old picture I found of the business district, shot well before cars replaced buggies. The historic photograph of the Williamsburg business district, which I found at the Franklin County Kansas History Portal,  included a furniture/undertaker shop, a grocery store, and a post office.

The building I was especially interested in identifying was one that looked like it had only recently gone out of use. The windows were mostly blocked by the building’s contents, and we’ve never seen cars parked in front of it during our rides through town. Yet the words “Lucille’s Cafe” are neatly and fairly recently painted on the window glass.

A snowflake hovers in front of the storefront that was once Lucille's Cafe. Williamsburg, Kansas.

“None of these buildings look quite right,” Jim said, flipping back and forth between the two tabs, old and new. “Of course, that first picture is at least a century old.”

What began as a fun little Christmas post turned into a quest for photos and the history of downtown Williamsburg. According to William Cutler, whose History of the State of Kansas is still considered one of the first places you look for early Kansas history, the 30,000-acre township of Williamsburg had a strong start as a railroad and coal mine community. The Williamsburg Coal Company was able to mine over 25 tons of coal a day. By 1870, the town had a school, wood frame and stone homes, drug and grocery stores, a wagon shop, a church, and a mill. Within the next decade, there were banks and hotels, hardware stores and blacksmith shops, physicians, a newspaper and more about 400 inhabitants.

The town’s greatest folly, long before Interstate 35 moved in and turned U.S. Highway 50 into Old U.S. Highway 50, was its peculiar determination to burn itself down. Repeatedly.

According to “Williamsburg,” from The History of Franklin County, Kansas,

…there were four general stores, two butcher shops, two drug stores, three lumberyards, two hardware stores, a post office, a printing shop, a grain elevator, two livery stables, a jewelry store, a tin shop, two blacksmiths, two wagon shops, two boot and shoe shops, two harness and saddle factories (Ringer’s and Magrath’s), and eventually two banks—E.M. Bartholow’s, established in 1881, and F.W. Olson’s, established in 1882. There were two hotels—Stauffer’s with rooms for 40 guests, and The Lamont. A newspaper, the Gazette, was established on April 3, 1880 by Frank Bennett.

There were also cheese factories, a saw mill, a flour mill, and law offices.  The town was on its way to being a prosperous, growing community.

In 1890, a fire destroyed half the town. A few years later, lightning caused another fire that burned down the barn and carriage sheds behind one of the banks. Later fires would destroy the hotels, and yet more fires would ultimately burn down every single building on the business block except for the D. Fogle store, a stone building Fogle purchased shortly after it was built in 1869.  As one final insult, the school’s auditorium-gymnasium burned down in 1942.

And yet.

Despite the relatively few remaining buildings downtown, despite the fact that other previously thriving nearby communities like Silkville and Ransomville are now nothing more than the names of ranches, despite the redirection of a main trans-Kansas thoroughfare, despite the fact that the railroad tracks were removed for good in the 1970s, Williamsburg is a tidy community with a stable and young population. The town has held on to its elementary school. Their local watering hole, Guy and Mae’s Tavern, produces the kind of BBQ ribs barbecue lovers dream about and connoisseurs are willing to travel long distances to eat. Williamsburg’s most recent achievement is the new community library, a charming community gathering place that offers books, technology, and meeting space.

Despite the fact that the town has a few gaping holes where buildings stood a century ago, despite the fact that its streets are quiet enough that I once had to pass a deer walking down the center of the business district, Santa will be coming to town, because Williamsburg is still a a living, breathing town.

And Santa, Guy and Mae’s will pack you a to-go order of ribs.

Santa hangs out just a few doors down from Guy and Mae's Tavern, home of some of the state's most famous BBQ ribs. Williamsburg, Kansas.

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14 thoughts on “O little town of Williamsburg

  1. Natasha

    Lovely little article, Diana! I shared with my aunt and uncle, who are partial owners of G&M. I had NO idea about the town’s coal mining history. Coal Culture is one of my interests and that made my day.

    n

    Reply
    1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

      I was surprised to learn about the coal mining history in that area, too! Ransomville was a big coal mining town. In one of Daniel Fitzgerald’s Ghost Towns of Kansas books (volume 6, I think) he talks about Ransomville and the fact that there are still visible mine shafts in the area.

      Reply
  2. Lori T

    Diana,
    As part-owner and granddaughter Guy & Mae, I would like to thank you for writing a nice article about our tiny little town that doesn’t make fun of our down-to-earth ways. We are trying our best to nurture our little burg into a strong community. Thank you, again. We rather enjoy our quiet streets and no traffic lights. I think that’s the main reason we have so many visitors from the city–a chance to slow down and recharge.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Sunset in Silkville « Diana Staresinic-Deane

  4. Jon Horne

    Diana,

    I just came across your post through Google Images. Wanted to take the time to say thank you for writing such a great piece about Williamsburg. We are striving and determined to keep our town alive. It is a great place to call home.

    Jon Horne
    Mayor of Williamsburg, Kansas

    Reply
  5. John Horne

    I grew up in the apartment above Fogle’s Store. When my mother closed it down it was over 100 years old. The founder, Daniel Fogle, was my great-grandfather.
    My branch of the Horne family came through Jamestown, Virginia and settled in Goldsboro, North Carolina where they were slave owners. At a heated reunion in Indiana some added the “e” to their names. From there some moved to Kansas and others to Oklahoma. From Oklahoma some migrated to California where they got rich.
    The high school was the binding that brought the expatriates back to Williamsburg. Now it is closed. Sad.
    The current Horne residents of Franklin County are not directly related to my branch of the family.
    John Horne

    Reply
    1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

      I have heard that a lot of people were upset when Williamsburg High School closed, and understandably so. There have always been a handful of things that make your community perceived as stable, and local schools are part of that. I love the new community library, though, and hope that it will continue to serve as a core community center for Williamsburg.

      Thank you for sharing your family history and connections to the town! I am fascinated by the notion that a family would choose to break apart by changing the spelling of their last name. Also interesting is the fact that your family came from North Carolina. You don’t hear much about Southerners finding their way to this portion of Kansas.

      Reply
      1. John Horne

        The Horne family in North Carolina had – apparently – migrated there from the Jamestown area of Virginia.

        My grandmother was a Fogle. The Fogle ancestors had come from Germany to Pennsylvania where they were in the lumber business. Some of the successful family members were returned to Williamsburg for burial at Mt. Hope Cemetery, about a mile East of town. The early Horne ancestors
        were buried at Central Cemetery near Pomona. My immediate relatives
        from both sides were buried at Mt. Hope.

        None of my Horne family members are living in Kansas today. One Fogle relative is a widow who lives on a farm near Williamsburg. Other Fogle
        relatives live in Ottawa.

        We lived in the apartment above the store. I still remember the fire about 1929 when the owner of the store next door burned down his building to
        collect the insurance. I remember hearing that my mother testified in court that she had seen him removing his stock of goods at night before the fire. She was able to observe the events from the back wareroom roof just behind the kitchen door of our apartment.

        There were many stories about Halloween. One year an outhouse was found in one of the alcove doorways to the store. A vehicle was found on
        top the barbershop. A goat was found in the school principal’s office.
        Revenge was swift, but I can’t tell that story here in polite company.

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