Tag Archives: Travel

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.

And now for some laughter: Welcome to Ottawa, Kansas!

Sometimes it’s the lack of big-city amenities that give a small town its charm. Don’t believe me? Just watch this kid sell you on vacationing in Ottawa, Kansas.  His gosh-golly goodness in this vacation video spoof is proof that not every kid is spending the summer developing brain rot in front of a television.

Just imagine what a local historian could do with this in a hundred years.

Why everyone should take a drive through rural Chase County on a summer afternoon

Because the cows want to share the magnificent view with you.

Because driving across low-water crossings makes you feel adventurous.

Because Chase County is one of the few places where you can stand alone, experiencing the hum of the earth.

Great Scott!

Whenever time, good weather, and a little cash coincide, my husband and I like to putter around a Kansas town we’ve never seen before. Today we made the trip to Fort Scott, Kansas, to see both the town and the original fort. After a trolley ride on Dolly the Trolley (Fort Scott is extremely visitor-friendly), which took us through several streets of some of the most beautiful homes in Kansas, National Cemetery No. 1, and the historic downtown district, we set out on foot to tour the fort.

Downtown Fort Scott

A small portion of the beautiful historic buildings in Fort Scott.

The fort itself was built in 1842, which is pretty old in terms of Kansas history. It served as a sort of buffer between European westward expansion and what was still considered Indian territory. It was considered obsolete by the middle of the 1850s, but became active again during the Civil War. In the meanwhile, a gorgeous town, whose many original buildings still stand and are in use, grew along side the fort.

The fort itself presents a forum for an interesting discussion on what constitutes a true historic site. Does the building have to be the original building? Should it be restored? What about the furnishings? Do visitors expect to see the actual bunk beds shared by enlisted men, or are replicas okay? Is the Magazine – the building where gunpowder was stored – historic if it was completely rebuilt on top of the remnants of the unearthed foundation?

The fort’s hospital is a great example of resurrection. As one of the exhibits indicates, the building was ultimately salvaged after years of abuse and disuse, returned to look as it did when it was first constructed. But in the process of restoring it to its 1850s appearance, nearly 100 years of history had to be erased.

Information Placard of Fort Scott Today

A map of Fort Scott in its current state. Note, at the bottom, the series of photographs depicting the deterioration of the hospital building.

Diana Staresinic-Deane at Fort Scott

Me, at Fort Scott. Notice the restored hospital building behind me. The rebuilt Magazine is over my right shoulder. Yes, my hair tends to stick out like that.

What the site does extremely well is tell the story of those early years, which is exactly the point of a National Historic Site. The fort feels large, but I’ll bet those dragoons felt like they were living on a postage stamp of land in the middle of the vast prairie in the 1840s and 1850s. The information placards are very well done and convey the experience of life at Fort Scott, both during its early years, and when it was caught in the crossfire of the pro-slavery and anti-slavery movements prior to the Civil War.

The city of Fort Scott offers to much to see and do in one day, and merits at least a second trip. Photography lovers will appreciate knowing that city is the home of Gordon Parks, and much of his work is on display there. The Marais des Cygnes Massacre Site and Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic Site are also nearby. A few days to shop, eat, and walk through the historic neighborhoods are a must to really appreciate all that’s there.