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Archive for Sunday, October 31, 2010

Kansas town dwindling down to almost nothing

October 31, 2010

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— Preparing to haul water to thirsty cattle during October’s dry spell, professional steer wrestler Jule Hazen peered across a landscape where a lively town once stood.

An old bank — now a heaping pile of bricks — sits near the corner of the city street that leads to his ranch house. A few foundations are scattered in the neighboring pasture where cattle graze across sidewalks that lead to nowhere — signs that people once inhabited this farming and ranching community.

But not anymore. Living in the nearly 100-year-old home he and his wife, Heidi, bought earlier this year, Hazen is the last cowboy in Sitka, population 2.

“My cousin said you can still see where the city blocks were at from the top of the elevator,” Hazen said, gesturing to the town’s last business, a cooperative open only during harvest seasons.

Rough beginnings

Those taking U.S. 183 to the Oklahoma border will find Sitka, Kan., a small pit stop in southern Clark County. It seems the town, once a center of commerce, has quietly slipped away.

Eldora McMinimy, who lives on a farm just outside the city limits, said Sitka was once a thriving community. With the help of Ashland’s Pioneer-Krier Museum, she published a book on Sitka’s history in April.

Her husband’s ancestors were among the area’s early settlers, homesteading the land even before Sitka’s first post office began in 1886.

As the story goes, Sitka got its name from a fierce winter when temperatures dipped to 17 degrees below zero. A group of men had gathered to discuss what to name the town, and one suggested Sitka, saying, “It’s as cold as Sitka, Alaska,” McMinimy said.

Sitka’s initial start, however, wasn’t prosperous, she said. The terrain rough and the winters cold, those trying to eke out a living off the prairie left. The post office closed in 1888.

Still, others persevered, and by 1900, several families had established farms and ranches. The post office reopened in December 1908, and the town began to grow. The Feb. 11, 1909, Wichita Eagle reported, “A new Town to Rise on Old Site of Sitka.” By October 1909, the Clark County Clipper reported that Sitka had a population of 41 — counting five pigs.

Something in the water

Growth continued, McMinimy said. Sitka boasted two lumberyards, a drugstore, a couple of groceries, plus elevators, livery barns, garages, a railroad, depot and hotel. A school had nearly 80 children in 1924.

One local resident told McMinimy she recalls as many as 300 people living in Sitka at one time, but McMinimy considers that number a little high. She does know that Sitka Township peaked at 559 residents in 1916.

With the advent of railroad lines in other towns, Sitka began a slow decline.

The post office closed in 1964.

In a Kansas City Star interview in 1995, former restaurant owner Buddy Probst, according to McMinimy’s book, blamed Sitka’s decline on the water situation.

“Sorriest water you ever drank,” he told the reporter. “Hook it up to an ice-making machine, and it’d eat the tubing.”

Probst closed his restaurant, which he operated out of the old school, in 1999 — partly due to state regulation issues, McMinimy said, noting there were other reasons for the town’s demise.

Transportation was a major reason, she said, noting the advent of cars made it easier for folks to travel to the county seat town of Ashland, just 7 miles away, for supplies.

Signs of life

The school, once the home of Probst’s restaurant, still stands, as well as well a few dilapidated homes. Trucks loaded with grain come in to dump at the elevator during the season. Old cisterns and well pumps are scattered about, including one near Hazen’s home and one near the site of the Methodist church. A few sidewalks are still visible amid the grass and weeds. In the distance, not far from Hazen’s home, is a railroad bridge.

During the summer, Hazen stays busy traveling the rodeo circuit. But rodeo season is winding down, with Hazen working around the home and tending to cattle while Heidi teaches school at nearby Ashland.

Meanwhile, there will be growth in Sitka in the future, the cowboy adds with a grin. He and Heidi will increase the population by one come April.

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