Santa Fe Trail post office on Baker campus being restored with help of grants
photo by: Elvyn Jones
Baker University will be richer for preserving the 162-year-old post office from the long-gone Santa Fe Trail settlement of Palmyra, the university’s archivist says.
The historic post office, which was also a general store, is getting a much-needed restoration, thanks to a $65,000 Douglas County Natural and Cultural Heritage Grant awarded in 2018, plus $7,500 from the Douglas County chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Historical Society, said Sara DeCaro, Baker’s archivist and museum director.
The old post office and store were built in 1857 along the famous frontier trail that passed through Palmyra just northeast of what is now Baldwin City. The Santa Fe Trail, connecting Franklin, Mo., to Santa Fe, N.M., was a vital transportation and trade route in America’s early days. That history alone makes the building worth preserving, DeCaro said, but the building has other important community connections.
It was also an important site in the Palmyra settlement, where Baker was conceived when ministers attending the 1858 gathering of the Kansas/Nebraska Methodist Conference agreed on the need to found a university.
The building eventually became the home of former Baker professor Arthur Bridwell, an avid collector of historical artifacts, she said.
“That association makes the post office important to Baker, and then you add in the connection with one of our professors,” DeCaro said.
The old post office is the only building that survives from the Palmyra settlement, DeCaro said. The community’s blacksmith shop, hotel and cabins didn’t survive the end of the Santa Fe Trail in the 1870s and the growth of Baldwin City to its southwest, which the founding of Baker encouraged.
“Not much from Palmyra has survived, not even the archival record,” DeCaro said. “We do have a few military survey maps that reference Palmyra. That is another reason it’s important to save the post office.”
DeCaro is not the first to understand the building’s importance to Baker. After Bridwell’s death, the building was moved to the school’s Baldwin City campus in 1953 and was situated near the university’s oldest building, the Old Castle Museum.
While the Old Castle Museum still stands sturdily, the Palmyra post office had suffered the ravages of time, DeCaro said. Its siding and windows had deteriorated, and it was located on ground especially subject to erosion, she said.
With the grant money, the post office was relocated on a sound foundation, and its siding and windows are being restored with historically accurate materials, DeCaro said. The building will also be outfitted with electricity for the first time.
“When we’re done, we will be able to allow people inside,” she said. “We can’t do that now.”
DeCaro also hopes the restored building will attract more visitors to the Old Castle Museum immediately to the north. The three-story limestone museum has a rich history of its own.
The castle was Baker’s academic hub from its opening in 1858 until the larger and more architecturally elaborate Parmenter Hall was completed nine years later, she said. The castle would later become the home of Joseph Denison when he served as Baker president from 1874 to 1877, DeCaro said. Denison, who helped found Manhattan and what was to become Kansas State University, gave the building its name when he referred to it as his castle, she said.
The Old Castle Museum has exhibits relating to Baker, Baldwin City, Palmyra and Santa Fe Trail history. It is open to visitors from 1 to 4 p.m Saturdays and Sundays. Appointments to visit the museum can be made by calling DeCaro at (785) 594-8380.