Travel column: Santa Fe Trail crosses Kansas

8:13 PM, Oct. 25, 2013  |  Comments
Cemetery at Fort Larned, Kansas.
Cemetery at Fort Larned, Kansas.
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I stood for a minute in the 150-year-old Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts in Kansas last winter, imagining a stream of wagon trains, pack mules and horses hauling immigrants and materials 865 miles, between New Mexico and Missouri - gold seekers heading to California and Colorado, adventurers, fur trappers, mail haulers and stage coach lines.

Along the trail, we explored Fort Larned. Before starting west on that trail, we had stopped at the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, Kan. The wild pioneer era of the westward migration seems so long ago ?

During the period the trail was active - 1821 to 1880, Janet's genealogy records remind - our great grandparents were on a boat from Germany to the U.S.

Carl's great-grandfather Joseph Roehl was born in 1845 and immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1858. Grandpa John A. Roehl and Grandma Anna Stehling were born in Milwaukee as the trail was waning in 1879. In 1889, Carl's great-uncle, Rev. Hubert Stehling, was born in Milwaukee. At age 26, in 1915, he became the first pastor of newly formed Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Marshfield.

In 1845, Janet's great-grandfather, John Proesel, immigrated to Chicago from Germany. His son, Janet's grandfather William Proesel, was born in Chicago in 1865. Their home was destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871.

As trains supplemented wagons, in 1897, Grandpa William, along with cousins and a friend, moved to Arpin via the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. They brought with them on the train: two teams of horses, several cows, sleighs and wagons, household goods, furniture, stoves and tools. They cleared land and began farming.

Most wagons carried 5,000 pounds of freight, pulled by mule or ox teams. Feeling the warm (for January) wind trifling with the tall brown grasses, it's thrilling to imagine the thundering hooves of buffalo that once stormed past, the Indians and settlers hunting them for food and other necessities, the hardy homesteaders building sod homes. Merchant caravans, mostly of Conestoga wagons, could number 10 to more than 100 wagons, making 15 miles a day.

The museum two miles west of Fort Larned, Kan. has artifacts from when this route involved the Indian, Mexican and American cultures. Most of the travel began after 1821, when Mexico became independent from Spain, opening trade opportunities. By 1880, the railroad arrived near Santa Fe, mostly replacing the wagons. And between 1859 and 1878, many Cheyenne and Lakota were relocated to reservations.

Fort Larned is said to look much as it did when Gen. George Custer first saw it in April 1867. The fort was an army base from 1859 to 1878, built to protect westbound white men from the elements and the native residents - the Indians who were riled up by having their homeland defaced.

Now displayed in the mess hall, "The Cook's Creed," from Capt. James Sanderson's "Culinary Hints for the Soldier," 1862, advised that "Cleanliness is next to godliness, both in persons and kettles ... Remember, beans, badly boiled, kill more than bullets; and fat is more fatal than powder ... always make haste slowly. One hour too much is vastly better than five minutes too little ... skim, simmer and scour are the true secrets of good cooking."

Disease and accidents were more dangerous at this post than battles with Indians. Few died from battle wounds. Most died from cholera, typhoid fever, gonorrhea and dysentery. Infection often led to death after even a small injury or cut. After the fort's closing, the 68 soldiers buried there were moved to Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery.

To explain and help preserve the unique geology and terrain of the tall grass prairie region of eastern Kansas, the city of Manhattan opened the Flint Hills Discovery Center. A circular, multi-story glass and steel structure, it has large, colorful wall, floor and ceiling murals; student-oriented hands-on and changing visual displays; period-costumed guides; audio-video components and dynamic play areas to help kids and adults laugh and learn.

The center depicts the plains states' history. The 250,000 farms of 1900 have dwindled dramatically, but the average size has risen from less than 200 acres, to more than 800. Much of the grassland of the 1800s became free range for cattle, then fenced pasture, then corn, wheat and soybean cropland.

The area's geology is "a limestone layer cake" - shallow rocky soil. More than 250 million years ago, it was an inland sea, depositing layers of limestone, shale and flint. The Indians saw that fires brought new growth that the bison followed. Today's preservationists mimic natural fires to encourage the various grasses.

An endless sea of tall grass once stretched over 140 million acres from Texas to Canada, from Nebraska to Indiana. Today, this prairie, or meadow, is mostly gone. In fewer than 200 years, over 95 percent of the grass has disappeared, replaced by miles of crops.

Council Grove was the only trading post on the route for many years - rendezvous of westbound travelers, freighters and traders crossing the plains. Some architecture and décor have been preserved in a number of buildings, notably the Trail Days Café, which is also an 1861 home/museum. Ironically, we were ushered out abruptly by the owner who couldn't serve us because he was late for a heritage days planning group.

Railroads made wagon trails obsolete. Trains carried emigrants onto the prairie and transported products to grain markets and slaughterhouses. Kansas' population grew from 140,000 in 1865 to 1.3 million in 20 years.

A familiar story in our history: Towns without rails disappeared; those with tracks grew. Then cross country highways replaced trains, and later, interstate highways often determined which towns shrank and which decayed or died. New highways usually are designed to move traffic fast between cities, rather than serving local business districts which they bypass. Technological advances, economics and government helped determine winners and losers. As "survivors" grow, small town businesses find "shopping local" means regionally, in nearby, larger cities. Children grew up and left dying towns, finding work in urban centers.

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