Tag Archives: Baldwin City

Sunday Snapshot: Old Castle Museum at Baker University

This weekend, I took advantage of the Museum Day Live events–when more than 1,400 museums across the U.S. offered free admission–to visit a museum that’s usually only open by appointment: the Old Castle Museum in Baldwin City, Kansas.

The Old Castle Meseum was originally known as The College Building. Founded in 1858, Baker University is the oldest continually running university in the state of Kansas.

The Old Castle Meseum was originally known as The College Building. Founded in 1858, Baker University is the oldest continously running university in the state of Kansas.

The Old Castle Museum was originally known as The College Building because it was the only college building in Kansas. Founded in 1858, Baker University, a Methodist university, is the oldest continuously running university in Kansas.

As soon as the Kansas territory opened for settlement, the Methodists, who were staunch Free Staters, put down roots in Douglas County. Their land was very close to the Santa Fe Trail and Palmyra, which was an important watering stop that would later include a post office. The post office building, which was in operation from 1857 to 1862, was moved to Baker’s campus and is next to the Old Castle Museum.

Saving its land for the long-term buildings that would require more funding, the Old Castle Museum building was technically offsite when it was built in 1858. According to Jen McCollough, the museum director and archivist, classes were held in the Old Castle while funds were raised for a new building. One of the donors was President Abraham Lincoln, and it is said that the gift to Baker University was the only gift he ever gave to an academic institution. The building he helped  establish, Parmenter Hall, is still in use today.

Baker University is the only university to receive a gift from Abraham Lincoln. His contribution to the university would help build Parmenter Hall, the first official university building on university land. Lincoln's donation is the second entry listed.

Baker University is the only university to receive a gift from Abraham Lincoln. His contribution to the university would help build Parmenter Hall, the first official university building on university land. Lincoln’s donation is the second entry listed.

Parmenter Hall, the first official university building, is still in use today.

Parmenter Hall, the first official university building, is still in use today.

The Methodist university would attract other national leaders in its history, including U.S. President William Taft and Senator Charles Curtis, a Kansan who would go on to become the only Native American to serve as a U.S. Vice President.

Famous signatures: President Taft and Senator Charles Curtis.

Famous signatures: President Taft and Senator Charles Curtis.

After the Civil War, the Methodist Church took up another cause: Prohibition. On display at the museum is a document bearing the signatures of all but three Kansas Methodist ministers in support of Prohibition. An interesting fact: As Baker University sold off tracts of land, the deeds included a clause that said if alcohol was ever sold on that land, ownership would revert to the university. Much of what is now downtown Baldwin City is part of that original land grant, and it wasn’t until 2008 that the Baker University president officially revoked that portion of the deed, allowing local businesses to sell alcohol.

This ream of papers includes the signatures of all but three Methodist ministers in Kansas...in support of Prohibition.

To show their support for Prohibition, the Methodists collected the signatures of all but three Methodist ministers in Kansas.

The College Building was never intended to be the university’s permanent home, and by the 1880s, it was sold and turned into a grist mill. The university repurchased the property for its fiftieth anniversary.  The building has undergone numerous changes during the years. The original third floor was constructed of sandstone, an unfortunate building material that disintegrated from the vibrations of the grist mill and hand to be pulled down. An extension was added to the west side of the building and was later removed. Then the university rebuilt the third floor.

Today, the Baker University Archives maintains the building as well as much of the local Methodist history for the state of Kansas. According to Jen McCollough, if churches or other local Methodist institutions close, their historic information goes to Baker University–an important thing to know if you’re researching your own Methodist ancestors. The building is an artifact in its own right. It reflects the history of both the university and Baldwin City, having served as an academic institution, a grist mill, a boys’ dormitory, a dining facility for post-WWII married student housing, and later a museum. Its exterior walls are covered with the names and initials of former students and grist mill workers.

Methodists indulge in graffiti, too. This sandstone patch on the south side of the building bears many names.

Methodists indulge in graffiti, too. This sandstone patch on the south side of the building bears many names.

But what about the name? There are two stories that suggest why the building became known as the Old Castle. One is that one of the original university leaders was a fan all things Scottish and referred to the building as the Old Castle. Another story suggests that because the building was the only stone building in the area in those early years of Kansas settlement, the building became known as the Castle.

Should you find yourself in Baldwin City, the university and the museum are worth a look. They will further enrich your appreciation for how religious institutions contributed to the state’s heritage.

Exploring the Santa Fe Trail: Douglas County, Kansas

Two wonderful things happened during the past few weeks. The first is that Joanne VanCoevern, manager of the Santa Fe Trail Association, shared with me a series of very detailed maps of the Santa Fe Trail. The second is that a fellow writer introduced me to Google Map Engine Lite, which lets you draw your own maps. So, after our recent adventure following the Santa Fe Trail in Douglas County, Kansas, I’m able to show you where the trail runs (roughly) and how we followed it.

My very first Google Map Engine map. The black line is the Santa Fe Trail; the red line is the route we followed.

My very first Google Map Engine map. The black line is the Santa Fe Trail; the red line is the route we followed. Click on the map to visit the Google Map Engine map.

The black line represents what is officially believed to be the common route of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. An important thing to remember is that people didn’t really follow the trail like a road. If there was a lot of mud, they veered off the trail onto dryer land. If they thought they could take a short cut, they took a short cut. Today, though, we have to stick to the roads (the red line). The local farmers and ranchers frown upon driving through their fields just to follow the trail.

We started our adventure at Simmons Point Stage Station and followed the trail backwards (people heading to Santa Fe would have moved in a southwesterly direction; we were on the return trip). We’d noticed this building before, but we didn’t realize its historic significance until we were studying the trail map. While it is believed to be a fairly “new” building–Simmons Point wasn’t constructed until the 1880s, after the trail was technically decommissioned because the railroads were in place–it’s still considered an important trail site. The trail itself runs right behind the house. Unfortunately, this building is in terrible disrepair and likely won’t survive much longer. Go see it now while you still can.

Simmons Point Stage Station, which was likely built after the Santa Fe Trail was in heavy use. This historic building is in terrible disrepair and will likely collapse in the near future.

Simmons Point Stage Station, which was likely built after the Santa Fe Trail was in heavy use. This historic building is in terrible disrepair and will likely collapse in the near future.

Next, we headed northeast to find the marker at Globe, which was once a mail stop. From the marker, looking southwest, you can actually see the silo and tower next to Simmons Point.

We then zigzagged northeast until we found Willow Springs, which was a major watering hole along the trail. Today, this area is surrounded by beautiful farmland and there is a historic German Baptist Brethren church just south of the historic marker.

Willow Springs, once an important watering stop on the Santa Fe Trail. Today it is also the location of one of the oldest German Brethren churches in Kansas.

Willow Springs, once an important watering stop on the Santa Fe Trail. Today it is also the location of one of the oldest German Baptist Brethren churches in Kansas.

As we headed east, we watched the land for any signs of trail ruts, but most of this area has been heavily cultivated for farming and nothing was obviously visible. We crossed U.S. 59 and headed toward what the trail map called The Narrows: an area where there was only a thin strip of land high enough to keep wagons and beasts of burden out of the mud.

We found a marker for Brooklyn, which was once a trading post on the trail. The post was destroyed by William Quantrill’s raiders in 1863. A weirdly cheerful marker just across the road highlights the area as being on Quantrill’s trail.

The trail slants to the southeast toward what was once Palmyra, a little town that was quickly incorporated into the larger Baldwin City. Historic Markers near the high school give a brief history of the town. An important well is just a block east of the school.

Southeast of Baldwin City are some of the most impressive trail ruts along the trail. The camera just doesn’t do justice to what you can actually see on the ground. The satellite images are even more impressive. Because it was already dark when we reached this point, I’m posting a photo I shot in May when we were visiting Black Jack Battlefield, which is just south of the trail ruts.

Santa Fe Trail ruts near Black Jack Battlefield east of Baldwin City. The ruts are deep enough that they're visible in satellite images.

Santa Fe Trail ruts near Black Jack Battlefield east of Baldwin City. The ruts are deep enough that they’re visible in satellite images.

The Santa Fe Trail Association is a fabulous resource for trail history and location information. There’s something magical about knowing that this important road, which once wandered out into the unknown, now flows through today’s farm fields and backyards.