Ash Valley Dan Kalal didn't know what he'd find as he drove his motorcycle down the back roads from Wichita to his destination — a long defunct town on the western Kansas prairie.
He had heard of the Pawnee County town of Ash Valley from a coworker whose ancestors had once lived there. Kalal has traveled many a Kansas back road to many a ghost town, but never had he been to this spot. Thus, one day, he jumped on his bike and began the journey westward. He didn't know what he would find by making the trip. His suspicions were there would be very little left of the once thriving railroad city.
"I thought I'd go there, park the bike and take a look," he said.
Ash Valley isn't an old town, by any means. Compare it to the likes of Kansas settlement, and most would consider it a youngling — born in 1917 along the Anthony and Northern Railroad.
However, residents here had the same dreams as any town's founding fathers: they wanted to see it grow.
Settlers were in the area as early as 1875, including native Kyle Pieschl's great-grandparents who came to the Ash Valley area in 1877 and lived in a dugout not far from the future town site. At that same time, the government established the Ash Valley Post Office, most likely located in a resident's home a half-mile south of the present town site. By 1886, locals had built the Pleasant Hill School, paying a teacher $33 a month for a four-month term. The same year, Methodists organized a church.
With news of a railroad coming through the area, excitement developed for a new town. The town was first called Ely, named after a Larned real estate man and land owner. according to a Feb. 13, 1967 article in the Pawnee County newspaper, The Tiller and Toiler. The paper reported in a later edition that by the time the railroad had built through the area in 1917, entrepreneurs already were flocking to the proposed town site.
By 1919, the old school was moved to Ely and became a grocery. A new school was built at a cost of $5,620. As other districts closed, the Ash Valley School had an enrollment of more than 40 students and two teachers offering grade and high school education. Meanwhile, the post office, which had been discontinued in 1908, was reestablished inside the general store on May 15, 1922.
But residents started to dislike Ely for some reason, said former resident Wilma Cook Creed, who, at 97, was born in a house at the site before the town was even developed.
A Tiller and Toiler article said Ely's name change could have been related to a sensational criminal case in 1924 when Mary E. Eggleston, a widow, was accused and convicted of attempting to murder businessman Ely, also a widower.
"The case became a hot issue when Eggleston appealed to Gov. Davis for pardon and 3,800 citizens signed petitions asking that the pardon not be granted. However, the pardon was granted and reaffirmed by the Kansas Supreme Court in April 1925."
How long it was named Ely is anyone's guess, said Kyle Pieschl, another longtime resident who is working to preserve the memories of Ash Valley. A 1925 Tiller and Toiler article mentions the town is now named Ash Valley and the railroad had become the Wichita and Northwestern. The town at the time had a bank, a garage, one lumberyard, an elevator, two general stores and a blacksmith shop, along with other businesses.
Advertisements tried to sell the town, including one by the bank that boasted "Kansas grows the best wheat in the world — the Ash Valley territory grows the best wheat in Kansas."
According to the Tiller and Toiler article, in 1924, the elevator shipped 250 carloads of wheat from the town. One of the newspaper's reporters predicted a prosperous future for the little wheat capital. "With its favorable situation in a wide, fertile territory, its substantial growth from year to year is a foregone conclusion." Creed, born in a four-room prairie house in 1913, said there used to be many similar little houses when she was growing up. She recalls attending the local Methodist Church and going to 4-H club meetings at the school. Other stories include the banker, who was up on a windmill on a windy day, getting blown off and dying from the injuries.
In the 1920s, according to a Tiller and Toiler article, there were more than 100 people living at Ash Valley.
But the town began a gradual decline thereafter. The bank was liquidated, probably during the depression Pieschl speculates. By 1941, the railroad was abandoned, as well.
"My dad remembers walking down the railroad tracks around World War II watching the crews tearing it out for the war," Pieschl said.
Meanwhile, the school, with just three pupils, closed in 1962. One, a senior, was the last to graduate from the school. What remained of the elevator was razed in 1967. The church, destroyed by lightning in 1944, was rebuilt. It closed in 2001.
These days, Ash Valley is nothing more than a ghost town on a ghost railroad with just a few remnants of the past.
Kalal's motorcycle trip, at first, took him to a barren spot in the road — the GPS markings for the town off by about a mile. He soon spotted the school, which has been kept up, as well as the well-maintained church and the brick remains of one of the garages.
Pieschl, who grew up four miles from Ash Valley and now works for a Great Bend landscaping business, said he felt to passionate about the town to see what remained fall to ruin. He purchased both the church and the school, as well as the two remaining houses — one of which was his grandparents' home.
He doesn't know what he'll do with the school, but wants to keep the roof and windows in repair so it won't cave in. The church is now a community center with more than 70 members that pay an annual due to help maintain it. Four times a year, the members get together for fellowship, celebrating birthdays, having pot lucks and, at Christmas, worshiping together. Pieschl also rents out the building for gatherings.
A few foundations also are scattered about, including for the bank and drugstore.
Pieschl also puts flags up on the old street corners at holidays. Another remnant is about a mile east of town, a limestone marker honoring a man who died before Kansas was a state.
Cliff Line, a former resident of Ash Valley, was digging a post hole in 1916 when he hit a rock. When he unearthed it, he found lettering on it and realized it was a grave from 75 years earlier.
The stone said: "A.D. 1841 June. W.D Silverton."
Speculation is he died from an Indian attack. The site, according to The News article, is 30 miles from the Santa Fe Trail and the man could have been hunting before he was attacked.
Pieschl said the railroad erected a monument that still stands today along the former railroad line.
These are just some of the memories that linger, he said.
Creed, who lives with her son, Doyle, at Little River, said her found memories at Ash Valley in 4-H helped her, along with six other women, start a sorority, Alpha of Clovia, at Kansas State University in 1931 — a group students looking for an economical place to live while attending college during the beginnings of the Great Depression. The 4-H scholarship house is still in existence today and celebrated 80 years this spring.