East Lawrence has always been different.
The neighborhood began as a squatter’s camp for pro-slavery settlers and later became the part of town designated for immigrants and African-Americans — including Langston Hughes. It also has a history of industry and a checkered past.
Abby Pierron, education and programs coordinator at the Watkins Museum of Community History, is eager to tell those stories. For those with a bicycle and a few spare hours on a Saturday, she will give a guided tour of East Lawrence’s historical landmarks. Pierron said that, while the rich history of west Lawrence is well-appreciated, people sometimes forget that the east side of town has its own unique set of traditions.
“That’s where the working class of the city lived, since the 1850s,” Pierron said. “Just socially, it’s got a great history from the first days of the city.”
Pierron gave the first of those tours Saturday afternoon, leading a group of 10 curious cyclists on a three-hour tour from the Langston Hughes home at 731 New York to the Free State Brewery bottling plant at 1927 Moodie Road.
Along the way, the tour stopped at the Shalor Eldridge House at 945 Rhode Island, where the Eldridge family lived while the town was being built in the 1850s. Back then, East Lawrence had a bad reputation.
The original settlers of Lawrence, many of them from New England, found pro-slavery camps here when they arrived and moved temporarily upriver until they persuaded the squatters to leave. The New Englanders considered much of what is now East Lawrence, downriver from the center of town, to be contaminated by “miasmas,” or unhealthy air emanating from soggy riverbanks.
The tour also visited the Turnhalle building at 900 Rhode Island. Turnhalle, built by German immigrants in 1869, served for decades as a community hall for physical education and gymnastics during the day and dancing, drinking and playing cards at night. Dennis Brown, president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, was on hand Saturday to talk about restoring the building, which has fallen into disrepair. The LPA bought the building last month and plans to rehabilitate it for commercial use. On Saturday, he pointed out original elements still remaining, including the stage and balcony.
“The roof structure is just a work of art,” he said.
On New York Street, the group saw one of the sites where Langston Hughes lived — the house no longer remains — around the turn of the century and the St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church at 900 New York, where he attended services with his aunt and uncle. Pierron took a moment to talk about the style of segregation that existed in Lawrence then and for decades after. As the African-American community in East Lawrence grew in the 20th century, the dormitories at Kansas University were still off limits to black students. In the 1930s, city planning documents recommended that African-Americans stay in East Lawrence and not “encroach” on neighborhoods near the university. Pete Williams, an East Lawrence resident, went on the tour to learn a little more about his neighborhood. He said was surprised to learn that East Lawrence was once home to 43 grocery stores.
“I think I already enjoyed the working-class flavor of it,” he said. “That’s still there to this day.”
East Lawrence’s industrial past is still visible around the Poehler Loft Apartments, at 619 E. Eighth St. The apartments, one of the last stops on the tour, were built in what was once a grocer’s warehouse. In the 19th century, the city invested heavily in railroad infrastructure and industry in this part of East Lawrence, only to see those efforts ruined by the recession of 1873. Where industry failed, prostitution and illegal liquor followed.
“The seedy enterprises that flourish in the industrial areas really took over,” Pierron said.
The bike trip ended Saturday at Free State Brewery’s bottling plant, where the cyclists toured the new operations of Kansas’ first legal brewery. The brewer in charge offered a glass of beer to the thirsty cyclists at the end of the tour.
Pierron said she would like to schedule more tours, if there is enough interest. They are open to casual riders ages 15 and up, with a fee of $10 for historical society members and $20 for nonmembers. For more information, visit watkinsmuseum.org.