Tag Archives: Small Towns

And then we discovered a town called New Lancaster and the New Lancaster General Store

The past few months, Jim and I have spent every available weekend to get out of the house for a few hours, even crossing into Missouri–gasp!–to visit Civil War battlefields we discovered through the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area website. So I have pictures and stories dating back to January that I’m just getting around to telling, and one of those stories is about the town of New Lancaster.

But first, some history. If you’ve read Jeff Guinn’s wonderful book Go Down Together: The Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, you know that Guinn suggests that part of the infamous duo’s success had to do with two recent inventions: the Rand McNally highway map and the motor inn.

Yes, before the early 1920s, Americans apparently bumbled around the countryside, following vaguely pointed fingers and obscure directions like “turn left at the Smith’s barn,” only to find out hours later that they were supposed to turn where the barn was before it burned down 20 years earlier, and which, as people from out-of-town, they had no reason to know about. And after an exhausting search for the long-gone barn, their only option for rest would be to pitch a tent in the field next to the dirt track that passed for a road when they were too tired to go on.

You can imagine how maps and motor inns might have improved the traveling experience.

Anyway. Jim and I were wandering around Miami County and I was studying Google Maps on my phone when Jim reached behind the seat and pulled out the giant paper Delorme Kansas Road Atlas, circa 1997. Despite cellphones and GPS, we haven’t let go of our paper maps, but I was still surprised when Jim actually found where we were on the back cover page index and flipped open the atlas and said, “New Lancaster? Have we been there?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, so off to New Lancaster we went, using an 18-year-old map, whose road names did not necessarily coincide with anything in reality.

But then we found New Lancaster, a town so tiny that you can stand in one place and see the “Pavement Ends” signs on both sides of the community just by turning your head. The the really amazing find was the New Lancaster General Store.

New Lancaster General Store

The New Lancaster General Store.

The New Lancaster General Store’s roots date back to 1874. After the original building was destroyed by fire, the New Lancaster Grange, a prominent community organization, bought the land and built a new structure in 1903. During the next century, the building would be bought and sold a few times, serving as a general store, a co-op, and a distributor for cream separators and John Deere implements. At different times it housed a telephone switchboard and the post office and operated a creamery, an ice stable, a poultry house, and a livery on the property.

Stephen and Kristin Graue, the owners and operators of Middle Creek Winery, took over the property, and last fall, they reopened it as a general store that specializes in Kansas goods and honors its historic roots.

The New Lancaster General Store is an outlet for Middle Creek Wine, and Kristin is happy to pour you a sample to help you decide what to take home.

Kristin Graue pulls down a bottle of Middle Creek Wine.

So many of these types of false-front general stores have had their bones destroyed by constant repurposing. The New Lancaster General Store managed to survive the decades without too much carnage. The original floors, shelves, and tin ceiling are still in place, and I was especially charmed to see they still have a functioning rolling ladder that long-ago clerks would have used to reach the high shelves.

The rolling ladder at the New Lancaster General Store.

The rolling ladder at the New Lancaster General Store.

The Graues have also turned one of the back rooms into a country-chic meeting room that would be a lovely place for a getaway luncheon, bridal shower or baby shower.

The meeting room at the New Lancaster General Store.

The meeting room at the New Lancaster General Store.

Should you find yourself in Miami County, this little country store is worth a stop. And feel free to ask questions! The Graues love to talk about the products they sell and the process of restoring the store.

And the Graues’ next project? Restoring the town’s old church-turned-Grange Hall, which will some day be another great place for weddings and other events.

The old Grange Hall is a block away from the New Lancaster General Store.

The old Grange Hall is a block away from the New Lancaster General Store.

Read more:

New Lancaster General Store National Register of Historic Places Application

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.