March 26, 2017
“She caught the Katy and left me a mule to ride.” – Taj Mahal
That classic blues song has been echoing in my head as my route shifted about 25 miles to the west and picked up the main line of the old Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (MKT). The Katy was absorbed into other lines in 1988 (today part of the huge Union Pacific Railroad) and now exists in history only. Indeed some of the small Kansas cities and towns that owe their origins and growth to the railroad have been in slow decline ever since. Population statistics for many of them peaked in the railroad heydays of the 1920s, before better roads brought other forms of modern transportation.
For major entertainment, people don’t seem to mind driving as far as two and a half hours to cities such as Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City, and a half-hour each way trip to a regional Walmart is seen as a brief errand. As a result, many small local businesses have closed, mourned by the residents but not enough to be willing to pay the somewhat higher prices due to the lower volume. The lure of better selection and lower prices is seemingly irresistible.
The other reason for the population decline is the vast increase in the efficiency of farming. The 19th century Homestead Act offered 160 acres to those who could clear, fence, farm and live on the land. Large families were necessary to perform the manual labor required. With the 20th century came electricity and machinery that greatly leveraged the work one person could do, to the point where today in this region the average farm is much larger than 500 acres and growing. As people have moved out, large agribusiness concerns also moved in. These corporate holdings can add up to multiple thousands of acres over several counties.
The weather for my trip has been unsettled lately, with strong winds and scattered severe thunderstorms over wide areas of the plains. It makes it difficult to plan. It’s not the peak tornado season, which won’t be for some weeks until May and June, but it’s enough to be a concern. Lightning, 50 mile per hour wind gusts and heavy downpours are not to be trifled with on a bicycle.
So far I had not canceled or postponed a day’s ride, although I have ridden on a couple of days when good common sense might have suggested otherwise. I finally decided to let better judgment prevail and stay two nights rather than one in the small town of Erie, Kansas, hoping to wait out a storm the second day. With a population of 1100, down from a peak of 1400 in 1980, Erie is the county seat of Neosho County. It sits in the river valley of the same name, a medium-size stream that is one of the longer waterways in Kansas.
My motel was pleasant enough, perhaps the nicest little (only 18 rooms) mom-and-pop establishment I’ve encountered so far. But I had no idea what to expect in the town itself. Nothing seemed to distinguish it based on a quick ride-around, which took only about 10 minutes: a convenience store, a dollar store, one grocery, two restaurants, one bar, a school, half a dozen churches and the aforementioned motel. The courthouse and county offices, which I later found out had been built in 1964, had a purely utilitarian look, as opposed to the historical attempts at a grander vision seen in some others.
And there was the public library, which I zeroed in on. It was a wise choice. The librarian was friendly, offering coffee and homemade cookies, and she responded with interest to my questions about the town. She immediately offered to call the area’s unofficial historian, who showed up in a matter of minutes.
No Dante had a better guide, a role performed in the classic literary work by the poet Virgil, than I did in the form of 73-year-old Bill Lock, a gentle, kind spirit with rather wide-ranging interests. I’d say we were well-paired. Almost immediately he said, “Let’s get in the car. I want to show you around.”
And show me around he did, with the kind of detail that only someone who really knows and loves a place can provide. Although raised by his grandparents on a local farm, like so many young people, he left after graduating from high school, was drafted during the Vietnam War and eventually settled in Southern California with a career in mental health and corrections services, and then as a manager for a large corporation. He never married. “But I always came back to visit,” he said. Then late in the first decade of the 2000s, his brother in Kansas developed health problems. “It just seemed like the right thing to return here,” is how he puts it.
Since then, his passion has been local history. He combs through the microfilmed back issues of the local newspaper, vital records and accounts of local events catalogued in the library, items that people may have forgotten or misremembered. The results are published in a weekly column under his byline. To dispense with an obvious question, the town’s name probably came from an early settler who was from Erie, Pennsylvania, although nobody knows for sure.
One of the few growth industries in Kansas and neighboring states results from the aging population. As people live longer, they have more time to ponder the past. This has produced a grassroots local history movement, a kind of bootstrap effort that relies largely on volunteers and local interest rather than government initiatives. Bill is in touch with others who maintain a network of small-town museums and archives. Their labor of love has borne remarkable fruit, but it takes some time and effort to discover it, perfect for someone like myself who wants to dig below the surface of a place. I confess it makes me want to know more about where I now live, what motivated people to come there and how they lived their lives.
Our first stop was the museum in Erie, recently relocated to new and larger quarters in an old creamery built in the 1920s and closed some 60 years later. The museum was locked (a shortage of volunteer staff), but of course Bill had the key. At first glance, it seemed more like someone’s attic, until the artifacts began to tell their own story of a small town settled in the late 1860s and early 1870s by Civil War veterans, mostly from Indiana and Kentucky, who were offered additional land, beyond what the homesteaders were entitled to, in return for their service. Next the railroad came, Erie was named the county seat, and several generations built homes, opened businesses and raised their families. As did the rest of rural America, they prospered and suffered with the vagaries of the economy, went off to various wars and witnessed history on the larger scale. Eventually they died and were buried in the local cemetery, which we later visited.
We also went down to the Neosho River about a mile south of town, where an ancient steel truss bridge survives from the 1880s, at least the parts of it that haven’t been washed out in periodic floods. There, the river falls over a low-head dam, about six feet, built to provide a reliable source of water for the town. The site has long been popular for fishing and a swimming hole for the local kids. We got out of the car, listened to the river, watched the catfish jump, and said hello to a couple of kids on four-wheelers (the local schools were out for March break).
Back in town, I saw a sign for the Erie Dinosaur Park. “What’s that?” I asked. “What do you think it is?” Bill replied. I said I thought it might be a site where dinosaur bones were discovered. “Then you’ll have to see it for yourself.” He turned down a side street, and there on about a quarter-acre lot was a sight to delight any child at heart. It seems that a local farmer had a love of both paleontology and welding. Over a period of about 20 years that included a trip to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, he had constructed, from parts of old cars and farm implements, life-sized and anatomically quite correct replicas in iron and steel of the giant reptiles that once ruled the earth. When their creator passed on, his widow donated the collection, which had been a kind of local curiosity down on the farm, to the town, which provided an underused playground. There was no point not in smiling at both the skill and humor of their creator.
Our last stop for the day concerned Erie’s one claim to national fame: the longest continuing local homecoming celebration in the country, the annual Old Soldiers and Sailors Reunion, which has been uninterrupted since 1873. Such events were once a fixture of many communities, conceived originally to honor those who had served in the Civil War, and later extended to include all veterans as well as those who had grown up or once lived in the area and who wanted to return to visit old friends and places.
Erie’s twist on this celebration is the “Free Bean Feed,” intended to remind soldiers of the beans that were a staple of military life during the Civil War. The recipe is basically unchanged for more than 140 years. On the morning of the event, more than 50 iron kettles are set up on the courthouse lawn, fires are prepared and over 1400 pounds of beans are cooked beginning at 11:00. At 6:00 they are served to the thousands of residents and visitors who gather to enjoy them as a reminder of a long tradition and past times.
I returned to my motel intending to write a blog entry, but turned on the TV to accompany my dinner of microwave pizza. As chance would have it, a classic movie channel was playing The Blues Brothers, for which the song that begins this entry is the opening musical number (reputedly John Belushi’s favorite). Sometimes you just can’t get the music out of your head.
The local fishing/swimming hole on the Neosho River near Erie, Kansas:
My knowledgeable guide and small-town Kansas historian, Bill Lock:
Something to delight kids of kids of all ages at the Erie Dinosaur Park:
Another life-size saurian fashioned from old junk:
One of the iron pots used for the annual Erie Free Bean Feed:
A constant of my springtime all the way since Houston has been the blooms of the eastern redbud tree: