Only in Lecompton: Tim Rues and the small town with the big history
When new visitors climb the steps to Lecompton’s Constitution Hall and cross the antiquated building’s cottonwood floors, they’ll find Tim Rues waiting.
He’ll quietly ask his audience where they come from and point to the building’s timeline, which is posted near the entrance.
“We’ve been waiting for you for 159 years,” he’ll say, highlighting the 1856 date when the hall was first built.
For the past 20 years Rues has worked as the administrator of Constitution Hall, 319 Elmore St., one of the town’s museums and a United States National Historic Landmark. He keeps watch over the grounds and teaches elementary students on up to professional historians about Bleeding Kansas, a seven-year period of political discourse, warfare and turmoil between the area’s pro-slavery and abolitionist populations.
Many of the roots for the Bleeding Kansas period lead directly back to Lecompton, Rues said. The period, which began with the 1854 signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, predates the attack on South Carolina’s Fort Sumter in 1861, which is often marked as the beginning of the Civil War.
“As far as I’m concerned the Civil War began with the Kansas-Nebraska Act,” Rues said. “This is ground zero, right here, for the Civil War.”
In those days the discourse in Lecompton was a matter of national and global interest, said Paul Bahnmaier, president of the Lecompton Historical Society. What happened in the town changed the fate of the entire country.
“They’re talking about Obama and Trump today,” he said. “Back then they were talking about Lecompton.”
Back then, Lecompton had a different look, Rues said. Before Kansas was a state, it was a territory. And Lecompton was the territorial capital of Kansas, he said.
With an outstretched arm, Rues gestures toward the rest of Elmore Street, noting the minimal traffic and empty lots. In the mid-1800s, the entire street was lined with buildings like Constitution Hall, he said. All of them have since burned down or fell into disrepair and were demolished.
“They called it Wall Street of the west. They were expecting this to be the major metropolis of Kansas,” Rues said, shaking his head. “And this building has been around to see it all. It’s pretty remarkable that it survived.”
While Rues has studied and taught Bleeding Kansas for nearly three times as long as the period itself lasted, he said there’s always something new to learn.
Sometimes he’ll even pick up new tidbits of information from visitors, whether they’re amateur or professional historians, he said.
“The final history is never written,” he said. “It’s interesting to draw parallels to what’s going on today.”
Rues will also frequently re-enact the Bleeding Kansas days with fellow historians, always playing the part of then-United States senator and Union general during the Civil War, James Lane.
“We bring these characters to life on stage for students when they come,” he said. “It’s a simulated political town hall meeting with costumed re-enactors, men and women who get up and talk about whether Kansas should be a free state or a slave state.”
In addition to researching, teaching and reenacting the history, Rues plays a strong role in preserving Constitution Hall itself, said Kevin Griffin, one of the museum’s volunteers.
In a strong departure from his job description, Rues will mow the lawn, landscape and sacrifice his own personal comfort to maintain the integrity of Constitution Hall, Griffin said.
“We’ve got to keep the temperature balanced to preserve the building. He’ll bake in the summer and freeze in the winter,” he said. “You don’t have employees like that. Tim’s one of the best assets the state’s got.”
Vicki Leochner, a tour guide at the Territorial Capital Museum just a few blocks away from Constitution Hall, said over the years Rues has earned a local reputation as not only a historian of the highest caliber, but also:
“He’s excellent at everything he does,” she said. “He will bend over backwards and do flip-flops to make sure everything is right.”
“Vicki and I know more than the average people, but Tim is the expert,” said Lynn Ward, the museum’s curator. “He knows everything about Lecompton and Civil War history.”
Having studied Bleeding Kansas, a relatively short period, for decades, Rues is quick to joke about his expertise.
“I know a lot about a little,” he’ll say.
All the same, the period has kept his interest, and Lecompton, “the little town with the big history,” is where Rues said he wants to continue work.
“Constitution Hall has a real historic mystique to it,” he said. “You can just feel it. History happened in this building.”