Category Archives: Exploring Kansas

Appanoose Museum in Franklin County

JIm and I first noticed this charming school building on one of our weekend wanderings not long after moving to Franklin County a couple of years ago. It was only recently, though, that we discovered the building is still in use as a museum and community center.

Appanoose School continues to serve as a community center and museum.

Appanoose School continues to serve as a community center and museum.

The first thing we learned: this is not the original school building. The first school, designed by Ottawa’s own George P. Washburn, was built in 1919 and burned down in 1934. The current building is the second building, which was used as a high school until 1963, when the high school consolidated with Pomona. In its history, the building has also served as an elementary school and, at one point, the school taught kids from first through twelfth grade.

The original Appanoose High School, which burned down in 1934.

The original Appanoose High School, which burned down in 1934.

Today, the building serves as a community gathering place, a small free lending library, and a storage space for the new elementary school. The gymnasium floor is maintained and often used for practice. But Jim and I were there to see the museum, which is open on Sunday afternoons from Memorial Day through Labor Day. This is truly a grassroots museum, a collection pulled together by a group of local history enthusiasts who wanted to preserve the story of Appanoose.

Appanoose was never a town, but rather a rural community. The museum shares the story of those who were brought together by Appanoose School, as well as the small surrounding communities, some of which only exist today in a church or cemetery name, like Richter and Greenwood. Displays also showcase rural life in the early 1900s.

A model of the Richter General Store.

A model of the Richter General Store.

Though not high-tech by any means, the displays are thoughtfully and cheerfully laid out, and despite having lived in Franklin County for more than two years now, I realized I still had a lot to learn about some of the smaller communities in the county’s history.

I was particularly charmed by a room filled with technological odds and ends, including a wonderful set of old typewriters and a telephone operator switchboard.

A telephone switchboard that was once in use in Franklin County.

A telephone switchboard that was once in use in Franklin County.

The museum also honors area veterans, and there are several displays about the local men and women from the Appanoose community who have served. There is also detailed display about James O. Baxter, a Pomona man who was shot down over Germany during the Battle of the Bulge, but whose remains were not recovered until 1999.

Admission to the museum is free, though donations are appreciated. The volunteers are truly interested in local history and are happy to answer questions. The museum is worth a look, and it’s a lovely introduction to the history of the northwest corner of Franklin County.

Go read this book now: Waiting on the Sky by Cheryl Unruh

Waiting on the Sky: More Flyover People EssaysI try, really try, to articulate the soulful bond I feel with the Kansas earth and Kansas sky, but I doubt I will ever do it as skillfully as author Cheryl Unruh, a native Kansan whose second book, Waiting on the Sky: More Flyover People Essays, just hit the Kansas bookstore shelves earlier this month.

Unruh wrote a column for the Emporia GazetteĀ for more than a decade, and I rarely missed it. Even though her book is a compilation of those columns, she’s edited and arranged them in a way that makes them fresh and meaningful and provides a window into her own heart as well as the heart of every Kansan who knows what it means to pull over on a country road and look west because a sunset is too beautiful to ignore.

Waiting on the Sky is a biography, and Unruh guides us through her life and her relationship to the world around through carefully selected essays on community, death, childhood, and the act of being. Her pieces on lost family members, especially her father, are reverent, and I was particularly moved by her descriptions of the everyday moments with her father–maintaining the local cemetery, working in his woodworking shop.

Waiting on the Sky is also the story of the bond between Kansans and the earth and the sky, and why, once we have that connection, we’re loathe to want to live anywhere else because Kansas is part of who we are. Or, as Unruh writes, “The skies over Kansas have absorbed our stories, our conversations…Our existence here has been noted. This geography holds our biography.”

If you’ve ever felt a little weepy at the magnificence of the Kansas prairie, if you’ve ever felt your worries blow away while watching the the wind push the clouds across the sky, if you’ve ever found your inner peace driving down a gravel road without another soul passing you by–you’ll find your kindred spirit in Cheryl Unruh and Waiting on the Sky.

Sunday Snapshots: Weather and wandering in southeast Miami County, Kansas

Our drought-plagued state breathed a small sigh of relief this past week as rainstorm after rainstorm swept through much of the state. It’s not enough rain to repair the damage of several dry years, but it’s helping. Between the storms, Jim and I have found ourselves wandering the countryside and enjoying the late spring weather, especially in the evenings. Yesterday, we wandered around southeast Miami County, which is currently lush and green. The rural landscape is dotted with old cemeteries and a handful of tiny towns, though our truck’s brakes got a workout as deer, loose cows, and rabbits dashed across the gravel roads.

Wednesday Evening Storm in Ottawa, Kansas

Wednesday night: In a matter of minutes, this rolled into my neighborhood Wednesday night.

Wednesday evening storm in Ottawa, Kansas

Those clouds were followed by this.

Last night was lovely, so we jumped in the truck and went for a drive with no particular destination in mind. We found ourselves on our way to Miami County, and as we drove past Princeton, we saw a sun dog near the water tower.

Sun dog near Princeton, Kansas water tower

As we drove through Southwest Franklin County, we spotted sun dogs in the sky near Princeton.

In Miami County, we discovered an old country cemetery. Spring Grove Quaker Cemetery was established in 1860, and it was especially picturesque in the setting sun.

Many of the headstones have weathered well, and their art, as well as the epitaphs, are still visible.

And just before the sun sank completely, we were treated to miles and miles evening primrose blooming along the gravel roads of Miami County.

Evening Primrose in Miami County

Evening Primrose blooms along Miami County roads.

Exploring Fort Scott, Kansas

Novelist E. E. Burke found her inspiration for her Steam! Romance and Rails historical romantic suspense series in Fort Scott, Kansas. To celebrate the launch of Passion’s Prize and Her Bodyguard, she gave away a two-night stay at the amazing Lyons Twin Mansions in historic Fort Scott. I never win anything big, so I was giddy when she e-mailed me to tell me that I was the lucky winner.

So Jim and I packed our bags and headed to Fort Scott a few weekends ago, where we got to stay in one of a pair of elegant twin mansions on National Street. Built by wealthy New York bankers during the 1870s, the mansions were never lived in by their owners, who moved East after their prospects nosedived. Today, both homes are owned by members of the Lyons family, and Ms. Pat is the ultimate B&B hostess. The rooms are airy and comfortable and the house is true to its roots without being overly fussy.

Usually when we’re traveling, we tend to eat on the cheap. But Ms. Pat suggested we head to Crooner’s Lounge, a surprisingly nice little restaurant tucked in next to the historic Liberty Theatre. It’s only open three nights a week and their menu varies night to night, making it a nice place to go out for both locals and the tourists.

Crooner's Lounge was the perfect place for a nice dinner.

Crooner’s Lounge was the perfect place for a nice dinner. Chalkboards on the walls list the night’s menu.

What I love about Fort Scott is that the town understands that their history is one of their greatest assets, and they go out of their way to make it accessible. We headed for the visitor’s center and took a Trolley Tour of the town. Even though Jim and I love exploring towns on our own, I recommend Fort Scott’s Trolley Tour. It’s a great way to see most of the town and our tour guide taught us a lot of local history. For example, Fort Scott once had three big brick factories, which is why everywhere you go in Fort Scott, you see locally made bricks in the streets and sidewalks.

Fort Scott was once home to three brick factories.

Fort Scott was once home to three brick factories.

Next, we visited the Fort Scott National Historic Site. When I think of early Kansas history and westward expansion, I tend to think of Kansas during the years leading up to the Civil War. But Fort Scott’s roots are much older than that. Established in 1842, Fort Scott was one of a line of forts that was supposed to protect the boundary between white settlement and the lands designated for Native Americans. This was important at a time when the Santa Fe Trail and Oregon Trail were both bringing non-Native Americans across that boundary.

Fort Scott National Historic Site, as seen from the parade ground.

Fort Scott National Historic Site, as seen from the parade ground.

The Fort was originally home to infantry soldiers and dragoons. After the U.S. gained large sections of land once belonging to Mexico, the government’s attitude toward land use changed dramatically and, in 1853, the Fort was abandoned. Two years later, the buildings were sold at auction.

The Fort’s story didn’t end there, though. Being only a few miles west of the Missouri-Kansas border, Fort Scott became an important strategic location during the Civil War. Injured soldiers were hospitalized there, and many of the old buildings were put back into use. Once the war was over, the buildings fell into private hands. Many were destroyed or nearly destroyed during the subsequent decades. During the 1950s, concerned citizens and historians worked together to restore still-existing buildings and reconstruct buildings no longer standing in order to recreate the 1840s version of Fort Scott.

The fort is a treasure. The site does a wonderful job telling the story of what life was life for soldiers in what would have been the edge of the western U.S. boundary during the 1840s. A short video at the Visitor Center gives a great introduction to the fort’s history.

Many of the surviving buildings were in use for years after the military left the fort. One of the Officers’ Quarters was a private family home from 1855 through 1958. Instead of restoring it to a particular time period, the National Park Service chose to use what’s known as the Wilson/Goodlander Home as an opportunity to show how the building transitioned over the decades by peeling back the layers. Literally.

The Wilson/Goodlander Home, once part of the Officers' Quarters at Fort Scott, is used to showcase decades of alterations made to the historic building. Here a cutaway shows visitors the original location of a fireplace and a floor cutout for a furnace.

The Wilson/Goodlander Home, once part of the Officers’ Quarters at Fort Scott, is used to showcase decades of alterations made to the historic building. Here a cutaway shows visitors the original location of a fireplace and a floor cutout for a furnace.

After our trip to the fort, we visited Fort Scott National Cemetery. Originally called National Cemetery No. 1, the cemetery, which was originally a Presbyterian Graveyard, is one of the original fourteen national cemeteries. After it was officially designated a national cemetery in 1862, the remains of soldiers and prisoners originally interred at the old cemetery west of the fort were moved to the new site southeast of town.

Fort Scott National Cemetery, also known as National Cemetery No. 1.

Fort Scott National Cemetery, also known as National Cemetery No. 1.

The cemetery is the final resting place of the remains of more than 50,000 veterans. The stone wall surrounding the grounds was built in 1873. I was especially moved by the graves of 13 Confederate Soldiers who died as prisoners of war and the mass burials of World War II crew members who could not be individually identified in the days before DNA testing. It is a solemn and beautiful place, with little to disturb it beyond the occasional cries of crows and hawks overhead.

On our final afternoon in Fort Scott, we hit downtown on foot. Despite losing an entire city block during a terrible fire in 2003, downtown Fort Scott is beautiful and very much alive. We wandered in and out of antique stores and walked around the last remaining lunette, or block house, preserved between downtown and the Fort Scott National Historic Site. Several block houses were erected in 1863 as part of the effort to guard the large quantities of supplies stored at Fort Scott during the Civil War.

Finally, we traveled to the outskirts of town to visit the local civilian cemeteries. Thanks to early settlement and early railroad lines, the citizens of Fort Scott had access to finer materials and the cemeteries reflect that. Evergreen Cemetery is a large burial ground with many mausoleums and ornate headstones. Across the road is Pine Lawn, a Jewish Cemetery.

An entire weekend was not enough time to see everything in Fort Scott, which has become one of our favorite historic Kansas towns. It will be worth revisiting again. We’re especially grateful to E.E. Burke and Ms. Pat at Lyons Twin Mansions for making this trip an extra special one.