Archive for Friday, August 13, 1993


August 13, 1993


I don't imagine I would have fared too well on the Santa Fe Trail of old, say, about 1860.

Trail dust makes me sneeze. I am psychologically allergic to outdoor temperatures in excess of 85 degrees. The only trail mix I'm willing to eat is full of granola and M&Ms.;

So it's a good thing, I guess, that when I finally got the chance to travel the Santa Fe Trail and take a day trip to Council Grove, I was able to do it in air-conditioned comfort.

And yet, I find it fascinating to think about those pioneers and merchants heading west from Kansas City to Santa Fe, driving their wagon freighters across the gently rolling hills of northeast Kansas on their 600-mile journey.

I tried pointing this out to David Doemland, the Journal-World photographer who was my travel pal, as we headed west on U.S. Highway 56 toward Council Grove.

"Did they have it paved then?" David wanted to know.

Hmmmm, I thought to myself, he's not really getting into the spirit of this.

David later confessed that he's not much for historical vacations. That's a shame, because Council Grove is rife with history. The town, about 80 miles west of Lawrence, achieved fame as the last resupply point on the Santa Fe Trail.

The trail would not have been possible, however, without the right-of-way agreement reached on Aug. 10, 1825, between U.S. government representatives and chiefs of the Great and Little Osage Indians. The meeting, or council, was conducted in a grove of oak trees, hence the town's name, Council Grove.

Of the 18 historic sites on a walking-driving tour in Council Grove, seven are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

We decided to tour the 18 sites, most of which are in downtown Council Grove or nearby. If you are hauling heavy camera gear -- like David was -- or it is a hot and humid day -- as many summer days tend to be -- you might either want to do your sightseeing earlier in the morning or drive from site to site. We went for Option No. 2.

`Too much fleas'

Council Grove has three museums, although only one is open throughout the week and weekend. The Kaw Mission State Historic Site-Museum is a two-story structure built in the winter of 1950-51 by the Methodist Episcopal Church South to serve as a boarding school for Kaw Indian boys.

Visitors can watch a short slide show downstairs and then wander past exhibits detailing the histories of Kaw and white settlers in the area. Artifacts include an oak table made from a limb of the Council Oak, a round walnut card table from the Seth Hays Tavern of the late 1850s and an Indian war club with attached scalp.

Lindsay Gauron, a 13-year-old visitor from Summerville, S.C., said she liked looking at a newspaper dress, a white muslin dress covered with newsprint that was made for an Alta Vista reporter to wear at a masked ball in 1902.

Outside the museum stands a replica of one of the 150 cabins the U.S. government constructed for the Kaw on their nearby reservation. The cabins were not comfortable, however, and Chief Al-le-ga-wa-ho reportedly said as he abandoned his new home, "Too much fleas."

The Kaw Mission museum, operated by the Kansas State Historical Society, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Council Grove's other two museums, operated by the Morris County Historical Society, are in the Seth Hays Home on Wood Street and the Post Office Museum on Main (next to the Post Office Oak, where earlier Santa Fe Trail travelers cached their mail). Both are open Sunday afternoons or by appointment. The Morris County Historical Society's phone number is (316) 767-5559.

Shady history

The Post Office Oak is one of several historic tree remnants in Council Grove. The town's most famous is the Council Oak, located in Durland Park east of the Neosho River. Under the oak the Osage got $800 in exchange for the right-of-way for a trail between Missouri and Santa Fe.

The massive oak blew down in a 1958 windstorm and now has a bright orange roof overhead to protect the stump from the elements.

A few blocks to the southwest are the remains of the Custer Elm, reportedly a resting place in 1867 for Gen. George Custer and his 7th Cavalry Regiment. The lifeless tree also is sheltered by a roof, which covers a cross-section of the tree's huge trunk.

Touring the historical sites exposes visitors to Council Grove's varied architectural styles and building materials. Early settlers used blocks of limestone to construct the Kaw Mission, Seth Hays' Old Stone Barn about one mile east of town on U.S. 56 and the Last Chance Store.

The Last Chance Store was aptly named because it was, for a while anyway, the last supply point for westward travelers. Once again I found myself harking back to those travelers of 130 years ago, who had to do their last-minute shopping in Council Grove because they wouldn't be able to stop for burgers and fries along the way.

Two Main Street banks, the red-brick Farmers and Drovers Bank with Byzantine dome and minarets, and the Italianate-style Council Grove National Bank building, reflect the town's prosperity at the end of the 19th century.

Just around the corner is the Cottage House, a historic hotel-motel that began as a three-room cottage in 1867 and was gradually expanded, with a Queen Anne addition of gazebo porches and stained glass windows.

Housing in Council Grove ranges from sumptuous to spartan, or at least it was spartan for an Italian hermit who lived in a cave for five months in 1863 before walking westward on the Santa Fe Trail.

Hermit's Cave, now mostly inhabited by spiders, can be reached by descending a steep stone stairway on the side of a bluff next to Belfry Street.

We encountered Texas visitor Sundance Waters at the cave with his grandparents and uncle. After peeking inside, Sunny announced it would have been "boring" to live in a cave 130 years ago. The youngster said he wouldn't have minded shooting off a gun or some bows and arrows, however.

Rut over here

In keeping with the day's theme (the Santa Fe Trail), we decided to head west on Main Street (U.S. 56) to look for trail ruts. From the Last Chance Store the unpaved turnoff is exactly 5.7 miles west, and it's a good idea to keep an eye on your odometer because the road is unmarked.

After turning left we drove .6 of a mile and then found signs on the barbed wire fence pointing to where the trail had been. Summer is probably not the best time to peer over a fence into a field of weeds and grass for some depressions in the ground. David did find a tick, however.

For lunch, we decided to follow the footsteps of our Santa Fe Trail predecessors and made a beeline for the Hays House. Founded by Seth Hays in 1857, the building was used as a mail distribution point, courtroom, theater, church and newspaper office.

Faced with a menu full of tasty vittles, David ordered the skillet-fried chicken, while I decided to try the crunchy chicken salad -- big chunks of chicken mixed with grapes, water chestnuts and celery in a sweet creamy dressing.

For dessert we tried the cranberry-strawberry pie, highly recommended by a threesome from Ottawa we had met earlier in the old KATY depot, now a quilt store.

"Sweet and tart," David pronounced.

Indeed. Beats trail mix any day.

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