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Archive for Tuesday, May 30, 2006

House a key link in free state history

Preserving Topeka structure would support national heritage plan

May 30, 2006

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— As homes go, this brick and stone two-story in east Topeka is what real estate agents like to call a handyman's special, with most of its plaster gone and ceiling beams exposed.

But it has quite a history.

It was a stop on the Underground Railroad, which smuggled the enslaved to freedom before the Civil War, and a pro-slavery federal marshal died inside in 1860. Susan B. Anthony, a leader of the fight for women's voting rights, was a family friend of its first owner, John Ritchie.

Local history enthusiasts raised $300,000 during the past decade or so to repair its roof and strip away layers of nonhistorical paint, plaster and decor. They're about a third of the way toward raising the $1 million needed to restore the 1880s home next door as a visitors' center.

The home, a short distance from the Statehouse, has an open house from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday.

They're not alone in trying to preserve the history of the turbulent times between the creation of Kansas as a territory in 1854 and statehood seven years later. Legislation in Congress would create a Bleeding Kansas National Heritage Area covering 26 of the state's counties, including Douglas County.

Shawnee County Historical Society trustee Bill Wagnon talks about plans for the John Ritchie house in Topeka.

Shawnee County Historical Society trustee Bill Wagnon talks about plans for the John Ritchie house in Topeka.

Last month, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed a bill allowing the Kansas State Historical Society to transfer 30 acres of state-owned land in Wabaunsee County to the state's Audubon Society to preserve its pastoral views, with plans for walking trails and signs.

Luring tourists

Such proposals are supposed to lure tourists and make sure important historical stories aren't lost. There's also another goal of promoting the state's image.

"It gives people a pride in their place and community," said Michael Stubbs, a retired film location manager active in preservation efforts in Wabaunsee County. "Kansans are famous for having an inferiority complex, and we have a fascinating history."

History buffs are hoping to restore the 150-year-old home, left, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The home next door would be used as a visitors' center. The project would be part of a proposed Bleeding Kansas National Heritage Area covering 26 counties.

History buffs are hoping to restore the 150-year-old home, left, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The home next door would be used as a visitors' center. The project would be part of a proposed Bleeding Kansas National Heritage Area covering 26 counties.

In 1856, the Beecher Bible and Rifle colony arrived there, intent on making Kansas a free state. It was named for The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, an abolitionist, and it carried 25 rifles along with 25 Bibles.

Today, the state's congressional delegation, led by Sen. Sam Brownback and Rep. Jim Ryun, is backing a proposal to create a heritage area, which could make federal funds and other grants available for preservation projects. A bill establishing it and five other heritage areas across the nation won Senate approval last year.

Ryun said he hopes a bill will go to President Bush this summer. A bill he sponsored last year said there are at least 49 historic sites in what would become Kansas' heritage area.

"They're all over, and that's one of the reasons we've worked on this," Ryun said.

But work on the Ritchie House predates Ryun's decade in Congress. The home passed out of the family in 1939 and was a serious fixer-upper when two Topeka women decided to buy it as an investment property. Their husbands' law firm ended up owning it.

How to help

The campaign to renovate the historic John Ritchie house in Topeka needs donations and volunteers. To help, contact Bill Wagnon at P.O. Box 2201, Topeka 66601 or by e-mail at bill.wagnon@washburn.edu.

By the early 1990s, the city was ready to demolish it to help make way for a development project, but that project foundered. In 1995, the Rev. Richard Taylor, a retired Methodist minister and history buff, worked for months to persuade local nonprofit groups to accept the property. Eventually, the local historical society did.

"A lot of things are saved at the last minute," Taylor said.

Ritchie's history

There's little doubt in the minds of Shawnee County preservationists that the Ritchie House always has been worth saving. Ritchie and his family were among the city's earliest residents, having arrived in 1855 when the city along the banks of the Kansas River consisted of six tents and log huts.


Shawnee County Historical Society trustee Bill Wagnon walks away from the partially restored John Ritchie house in Topeka.

Shawnee County Historical Society trustee Bill Wagnon walks away from the partially restored John Ritchie house in Topeka.

Ritchie was a passionate slavery opponent, and he'd hide runaways in a wooded area behind his home. Abolitionist John Brown visited the home in 1859 with escaped slaves.

In April 1860, a pro-slavery marshal entered Ritchie's home, determined to arrest him. Ritchie told the man he wouldn't be arrested alive; the two men leveled pistols at each other. The marshal advanced, and Ritchie shot him. A judge declared the act justifiable homicide the next day.

Ritchie later developed a reputation as a philanthropist. He helped found Lincoln College, which later became Washburn University in Topeka. He gave away pieces of his land to former slaves and established a cemetery for the poor.

And he was an early champion of voting rights for women, a position that prompted one newspaper to describe him as "a radical of radicals." At an 1867 rally, he introduced Anthony and another noted suffragette, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, according to one contemporary account.

Ritchie died in 1887, and the city grew up around his home.

"To know where a community is going, you have to know where you are right now and where you came from," said Doug Jones, president of the Shawnee County Historical Society.

Right now, the home is what Jones calls a "jewel in the rough," with no bathrooms or other amenities and open by appointment. But he and other historical society members seek a grander future for a site dedicated to the past.

"Our vision is that someday we're going to see the street out here lined up with yellow school buses and kids piling off those school buses," said Bill Wagnon, a Washburn history professor. "The opportunity here is really great."

Comments

geekin_topekan 8 years, 3 months ago

John Ritchie? That is Sid Vicious' real name.

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Confrontation 8 years, 3 months ago

I think this is a great story about a rare type of man. Ritchie truly cared about the rights of others when those around him were still racist and sexist pigs. Even today, there aren't many men who would care like he did and actually do something about it. The men of today "talk big," but a lot couldn't care less about the rights of women or minorities.

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willie_wildcat 8 years, 3 months ago

Sounds like to me that Ritchie was way ahead of his time in terms of wanting to see women have the right to vote and about minorities. And I agree with Confrontation....the men of today all they do is talk talk talk and do nothing.

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