Kansas town of Elmo now quiet after a busy past
Elmo ? It’s not all quiet in Elmo, although there isn’t much left.
On a Sunday afternoon, the voices of children come from one of the few homes still here. And, at least once a week, area residents traipse through the front door of St. Columba Catholic Church for Mass.
Other than that, however, the Dickinson County town of Elmo has been subdued for decades. Only a couple of abandoned buildings are left on Main Street, which face a less traveled gravel roadway. The shell of an old gas station sits on the corner. A path through the weeds leads to the site of where one of the town’s elevators once stood — only the remains of a scale house signify the plot ever saw the bounty of the area’s crop fields.
Yet all ghost towns once had life, as did Elmo.
It’s a town known by paleontologists around the world for its variety, quality and quantity of Paleozoic insect fossils, drawing university scholars from across the globe to study the site not far from town.
And, at 94, Bonnie Feeney recalls the day she moved to Elmo: a young bride in 1924 who found herself living on the land her Irish in-laws homesteaded. Back then, there were two groceries, a hotel, a barber and a post office “among a few other things,” she said.
For years, she said, this is where she and her husband, John, did their business. Elmo is where they raised the four children they adopted. It’s where they attended church.
From her home in Abilene, the Dickinson County seat town less than 20 miles to the north, Feeney’s voice becomes jovial as she reminisces about the past.
“Wonderful,” she said. “We had a wonderful life in Elmo.”
Tale of two towns
“There are none left to take us down memory lane to Banner City of 1886 and to Elmo of 1885; only faded photographs prevail,” Jeanne Bonfield, who documented the town’s history, stated in records.
Elmo’s past involves two towns: the “first” Elmo and Banner City, situated a mile away.
According to the book “Past and Present Towns of Dickinson County, Kansas” by Helen Dingler, the first Elmo village consisted of six families within a quarter-mile radius of a country store. There also was a blacksmith shop. The town never had more than 100 people.
No one knows why it was named Elmo.
There was a post office at this site as early as December 1884, according to the Kansas State Historical Society.
However, according to information written by John Bonfield, the town was located on sloping ground. The railroad said it would be easier to put in a sidetrack and switches if the ground was level.
Thus, Banner City station was petitioned in 1886 one mile east of Elmo after the railroad failed to go through Elmo, according to John Bonfield. Banner City was platted with 30 blocks.
Banner City had several businesses, including two implement dealerships, a couple of grocery stores, lumber yard, hotel, livery, hardware and elevator. Old Elmo’s post office moved to Banner City around 1887.
Banner City by name, however, was short-lived. Jackson and Trego counties both had towns named Banner, “which may have had some bearing upon the discontinuation of using Banner City postmarks in 1902.
“Because of the postal designation, Banner City became widely known as Elmo and eventually the Banner City name was forgotten,” according to Jeanne Bonfield’s written documentation.
According to state historical society postal records, there is no Banner City ever listed as having a postal office, only Elmo.
Elmo had a population of 225 in 1910, according to “Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History,” published in 1912. This book called Elmo a “thriving little town of Dickinson County” that had a bank, grain elevator, money order post office with one rural route, express and telegraph offices, telephone connections, Catholic and Methodist churches and several stores.
In his memoirs, John Bonfield also said he recalled two grain elevators, two garages, two filling stations and an automobile dealer. There also was a restaurant, butcher, barber, doctor, hotel and general store.
Few Kansans are aware the state contains one of the most celebrated sites for Paleozoic insect fossils.
According to the Emporia State University publication, The Kansas School Naturalist, which published a pamphlet on the Elmo fossils, the site is a “fossil bonanza.”
Much of Kansas was a coastal plain at the edge of an inland sea during the Permian period, which scientists say was 245 to 280 million years ago.
In 1899, a man named Elias Sellerds, while working on his doctorate at Yale, discovered a well-preserved trove of insect fossils beneath the Kansas prairie in the limestone beds southeast of Elmo. Over a few years, Sellerds collected more than 2,000 specimens, according to the Kansas School Naturalist publication.
Kansas State University possesses a 7 1/2 inch dragonfly wing, the largest ever found. And, according to another ESU publication, the Elmo site has produced tens of thousands of specimens, with more than 150 species of insects described.
Unfortunately for fossil hunters, according to a website managed by Roy Beckemeyer, Wichita, who wrote the Kansas School Naturalist publication on Elmo’s fossils, the landowners of the fossil site no longer allow access to it.
As the years went by, Feeney watched as the little town she called home began to wither away.
The bank closed in 1930, the school in 1963 and the post office in 1966, according to John Bonfield’s documents.
One by one, other businesses followed, with Feeney recalling when the grocery shuttered, noting it was somewhat of a surprise. Yet, eventually even Feeney moved to Abilene.
The railroad tore up the tracks in the 1990s.
John Donnelly, whose great-grandfather homesteaded in the area, said he remembers a circus coming to town when he was a boy. He also recalls going to the elevator and scooping coal into the back of a pickup to use on the farm. He attended first grade at Elmo the last year the town’s school was open.
An older couple lived in the hotel until it was eventually torn down, he said. There were two groceries when he was growing up, one on either side of the street.
But all those structures are long gone, except for a handful of homes, a couple of old buildings and a cemetery, which is still called Banner.
There also is the Catholic church, a town mainstay that has been in existence for more than a century. Donnelly said he and his wife, Linda, are among the small congregation that attends St. Columba every week.
People ask him “where is Elmo?” he said, when he tells folks where he lives. Fewer and fewer people have heard of the tiny hamlet.
Elmo’s demise, however, doesn’t surprise him, he said.
“There really isn’t anything out here to draw people to work,” he said.