Archive for Friday, January 23, 1998

STONE RUIN MIGHT BE FIRST STRUCTURE IN LECOMPTON

January 23, 1998

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— Lecompton residents are working to restore a stone cabin thought to be the town's first building.

This history-rich town overlooking the Kaw was one of the state's first territorial settlements and a political hotbed in the 1850s when the slavery issue made Kansas bleed. Now local residents have unearthed a stone ruin thought to be part of Lecompton's first permanent dwelling.

"We think it might have been the residence of the (Simmonses)," said Tim Rues, curator of the Constitution Hall museum here. "That's our theory, our best guess, backed by historical research."

William and Thomas Simmons, father and son migrants from Indiana, operated a simple ferry at Lecompton. It was a boat called the Fairy Queen built from a hollowed sycamore log. They also were commercial fishermen. The two are thought to have used the building for about four or five years.

The surviving small stone edifice, dilapidated but largely intact except for the roof and flooring, once was the wing of a log cabin built earlier. This is known because Henry Worrall, a noted early Kansas illustrator, made a sketch of the complete building in 1877 to illustrate an article in the now long-defunct Topeka Commonwealth newspaper.

Worrall labeled the drawing, made a generation after the Simmonses used it, "Democratic Headquarters."

"Most people consider Lecompton to be the birthplace of the Democratic Party in Kansas," Rues said. But what part, if any, the stone building played in the party's nascent activity has yet to be confirmed by Rues or other historians.

"It's still to be determined why Worrall labeled it headquarters of the Democratic Party," Rues said.

Before statehood, Lecompton briefly was declared the Kansas territorial capital by pro-slavery Democrats. Pro-slavery territorial governors appointed by presidents Pierce and Buchanan sat here.

In January 1861, Kansas became a state. Within months, the Civil War, well rehearsed in Kansas as a regional guerrilla conflict, split the entire nation into rival armed camps.

By the end of the war in 1865, Rues said, Lecompton had been largely abandoned by the inhabitants. The title of the article that Worrall illustrated was "Lecompton: Lonely Widow on the Kaw," which suggested the town's ghostly quality after slavery was vanquished.

The stone cabin, atop the town's last bit of unquarried bluff rising from the Kansas River, remains in private hands. The view from its tattered, six-above-six pane window frames is a majestic, riverine panorama that often includes soaring bald eagles. The birds aren't recent arrivals.

Rues said the town's first white settlers called it Bald Eagle. It later was renamed Lecompton. On the north bank of the river, across from the cabin, was Rising Sun, a settlement that long since has disappeared.

"Rising Sun was where all the outlaws were and the vice occurred," Rues said. "But Lecompton got blamed for it. Lecompton actually was a clean-cut town."

But the stone cabin and surrounding ground was neither clean nor cut when Pat Istas, a former construction worker and current Lecompton city councilman, bought it about a year ago.

"It was cars and boats and junk and every kind of trash imaginable," Istas said. "I had a Dumpster brought in and hauled out two loads full of nothing but whiskey bottles."

Istas, with help from Rues and other volunteers, cleaned up the site over the summer. The trash is gone, the brush cleared and new grass has been sowed. The cabin lot has a park-like quality and has been incorporated into a public hiking trail that links the site with Lane University, another of the town's historic buildings.

The transformation of the formerly derelict location has thrilled some local residents.

"We refer to it as the miracle on East Second Street and that's what it is," said Paul Bahnmaier, president of Lecompton Historical Society. "This was a real challenge and much, much credit goes to Pat Istas and Tim Rues for the work they did."

Bahnmaier, Rues and others want to see the cabin site incorporated into a proposed river view park, perhaps as a staging or launch point for a Kansas River boat access proposed by Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. The Legislature is considering the agency's funding request.

Istas has offered to donate the site to the historical society.

"The historical society has only discussed it," Bahnmaier said. "We haven't taken any action because we're waiting to see what develops. We're most interested in the property. We would like to see it developed in conjunction with the boat access and the river view park. At present the emphasis is to preserve the stone structure. It's had absolutely no care for many years."

Istas, his arm in a sling from a shoulder injury, said he might start reconstructing the building when he heals.

-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is shields@ljworld.com.

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