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Archive for Monday, September 15, 2003

Town determined to rebuild after devastating tornado

September 15, 2003

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— When a massive tornado hit this southeast Kansas community in May, it destroyed about a third of the homes and leveled the community center and post office. Many figured that was it for Franklin.

But the Franklin Forever movement isn't ready to hang it up. Its members are working to rebuild the unincorporated community and make it better than before.

"We have a common goal, to rebuild Franklin and get it back on its feet. We're all trying to keep the small-town spirit," said Phyllis Bitner, who grew up in Franklin and still lives in the area.

In the 1930s, Franklin was a Crawford County coal-mining town of nearly 1,700 with stores, shops, a school, a church and even a saloon. Seven decades later, all that remained was the post office, community center and about 500 residents in 150 homes.

Twister strikes

When the twister struck the afternoon of May 4, within seconds there were 50 fewer houses, and the post office and community center were leveled.

"It opened up a lot of eyes to see what they lost. If any good comes from this, it's the reuniting of people and the desire to get it back," said Veda Maxwell, who moved to Franklin from Chicago a decade ago.

She said the community will grow because it's an ideal place for those who want to work in Pittsburg, about 10 miles south, but raise a family in a rural area.

Some residents, including Catherine Lovelady, say the post office and community center are essential for community survival.

John Houck, left, and Hank Pichler discuss plans to rebuild a civic
center and post office in Franklin. The men last week talked about
the post office, which once stood where the flag in the background
flies. It was destroyed by a tornado that struck the small
southeast Kansas town May 4.

John Houck, left, and Hank Pichler discuss plans to rebuild a civic center and post office in Franklin. The men last week talked about the post office, which once stood where the flag in the background flies. It was destroyed by a tornado that struck the small southeast Kansas town May 4.

"Without those things, we'll probably just dry up and blow away," said Lovelady, who has lived here 15 years and has no plans to move.

John Houck has been spending a lot of time working to restore the town, including finding grant money. But he shuns the label of community leader.

"In a small community, everybody just steps up and does what they can," said Houck, who grew up in the area and moved back last year after being gone 45 years.

Community centers

Just about all that remains of the post office is a concrete slab and a flagpole with an American flag flying like a lone sentinel. A drop box was installed at the site so people can deposit mail.

"We want the post office because we don't have a place to get the daily news in the community. It's the identity of the town," Houck said.

Postal officials haven't written off Franklin -- ZIP code 66735.

"We want to maintain a presence in Franklin, but we don't know what the time frame will be," said Richard Watkins, spokesman for the Postal Service's Mid-America District in Kansas City, Mo.

"We aren't looking to abandon any of our small offices, particularly when they are damaged," he said.

Dating from the 1920s, the 4,000-square-foot community center was the place where people gathered for meetings, family reunions, wedding receptions, dances, funeral dinners and bingo.

Plans call for a 4,500-square-foot replacement, and Houck said there were two federal grants to help pay for it. Now it's an empty lot and a sign: "Future Home for Franklin Civic Center," but he hopes to have it completed by the end of 2004.

Some of the original wooden dance floor was salvaged, and Bitner would like to make it part of the new floor.

"If people can walk in and step on this floor that their grandparents danced on, it gives you a connection to them," she said.

Bitner set up a Web site that chronicles the community's history and hopes. She also designed two pins to sell, along with T-shirts to help raise money for the rebuilding project.

Most of the homes destroyed were in the middle of the community. All that remains are a few foundations in an open field rapidly overtaken by weeds. Houck said 11 families who lost their homes have moved back.

Deciding to rebuild

Hank Pichler's home of 47 years was among those destroyed. Wooden stakes outline where his new house will be, which he hopes will be ready for him and his wife to move in by Christmas.

"It's a great neighborhood, maybe a little too quiet now. People think we're crazy to rebuild because we're so old, but to us it's home," said Pichler, 77.

Houck said a key component to revitalizing the community is a $2 million sewer system that has been in the works for nearly seven years. It would be financed by a federal grant that Houck said the community expects to get in about a year.

With a sewer system, Houck said, the next step could be constructing a small apartment complex for the elderly so those who lost their homes could return.

"This is still home to them," he said.

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