BY DALE HOGG
Local group hopes to rebuild city park and their community
GORHAM – This could be a story of a dying town, fading into the dusty pages of history.
It could be a story of despair as aging residents watch while the community they call home dries up around them.
It’s about a youthful revival and an effort to remake a Russell County town of 360 residents, starting with the city park.
It’s about hope and the future.
In 1944, the small community of Gorham was not so small.
It boasted three grocery stores, three grain elevators, four gas stations, a pool hall, a barber shop, a cream station, a car repair shop, a drug store, a medical doctor, a hotel and coffee shop, a post office, a lumber yard, two beer joints, a telephone office, two oil field production companies, and both a Catholic and Community church.
Of course, there were schools, a Catholic and public grade school, and a public high school.
The first oil well in Russell County hit pay dirt 10 miles north of Gorham, and the ensuing oil boom starting in the 1920s blessed the town. For the first time since its founding in 1886, it was more than a spot on a map.
A brick elementary school rose in 1930, followed by Gorham Rural High School, with the first graduating class in 1947.
However, times change.
Forced school consolidation in the 1960s merged Gorham’s school district with that of the larger nearby Russell, the county seat. The high school hung on until 1984, when it was closed. Residents operated it for a few years as a private school, but that ended in 1989. By 1997, even the elementary students were being bussed to Russell.
As it is now
Today, little remains of that boomtown past. A local eatery, Oilers, pays tribute to both the history of the community and its school’s former mascot.
Little else dots Market Street. The restaurant, a bar, a bank, a telephone company and empty buildings are all that line the main drag through town.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
Gorham City Park, a block-square patch of rusting playground equipment, dilapidated tennis courts and old picnic tables, sits in the heart of the city.
This park also sits at the heart of the revival, as an enthusiastic group of new, younger residents fight to breathe new life into the town.
“You can’t put a value on your kids,” said Dru Miller, president of the Gorham Community Development Association, a small, grassroots group of recent transplants to the community. “That’s the focal point of our town.”
The association’s goal – turn the park into a public showcase. But, it’s about more than a park – it’s about establishing a new community identity.
“There are a lot of growing families moving to town,” Miller said. He and his wife both work in Hays, a scant few miles west. Like so many other young couples, they had a difficult time finding affordable housing in the larger community.
They found Gorham, with its close proximity to Interstate 70, Hays and Russell. It had paved streets and a close-knit feel. In an age of telecommuting, it makes an ideal location.
“When a lot of people think of an old town, they think of a bunch of old people,” said Jeremy Martinson, Gorham mayor and one of the youthful wave. He also works in Hays.
Martinson said the average age in Gorham is probably nearing 35. “I like the freedom. It’s less expensive and its slower.”
With this resurgence as a backdrop, the GCDA is now meeting almost weekly at Oilers as its members chart the future.
A new park makes sense as a place to start when you have a bunch of families with young kids, Miller said. “Now we have to go to Victoria. The closest park is 10 miles away.”
And, if you have small children, that’s a big deal. You can’t just tell them to walk down and play.
“I think it will be a huge boost to the community,” Martinson said, referring to the park.
But, a lot of work must be done.
Much of the equipment in the park came from the former grade school. It was old then, and even older now.
The tennis/basketball courts, ringed by a barbed wire-topped fence, are broken up by a spider web of cracks.
“This is not only important for the kids, but also for the adults,” Miller said. It will provide entertainment as well as exercise.
They have big plans, but the time line depends on funds. Group members envision a new play station (which is the first priority), new courts (second), a fancy shelter with restrooms (third), a walking trail and horseshoe pits.
They’ve applied for a grant through the Kansas Department of Commerce’s Small Community Improvement program, as well as other grant programs.
But, they aren’t relying on the state money. “We’ve got a lot of valuable resources to help with these projects,” Miller said. From contractors to electricians, “we have a large knowledge base.”
What’s more, all this volunteer effort, or “sweat equity,” looks good on the grant applications. “We should impress them,” he said.
Even if the grants are approved, they won’t cover the entire cost. So far, GCDA has raised $5,000.
The annual city dance in the park, alone, brought in 600 people and raised $1,200, and Miller said more fund-raising events are planned.
“We’re just a volunteer group that lives in the community and looks for projects,” Miller said of GCDA. That’s how the park plans came about. “It was just a bunch of us talking.”
There is also an annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, holiday house award and a Mardi gras celebration.
As the old image of Gorham fades like so many yearbook photos, the new residents hope a new one will emerge.