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Town, founder succumb to tragic circumstances
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NETTLETON (AP) — The old mansion still sits near the banks of the dry Arkansas River — one of the only remains of this town with a tragic tale.
And somewhere nearby, amid the once elaborate plantation, three unmarked graves of the home's former owners rest — the exact location forgotten with time.
Edwards County has several extinct towns — towns like Charlet, Ardell, Wendell and Centerview, said Ted Taylor, curator of the Edwards County Historical Society Museum in Kinsley. Founders of these trading posts had big ideas that their little community would someday become a county seat and a prosperous metropolis, only to watch them disappear from the map.
Still, Taylor often thinks about the little town of Nettleton, which carries perhaps the most catastrophic tale of them all — where a rich man's dreams were shattered by plagues, poverty and eventually death.
"We think about it every time we go to Larned," he said, noting the town is just five or six miles northeast of Kinsley on U.S. 56, right at the Edwards/Pawnee county line.
John Fitch, a wealthy man from Chicago, wanted to establish a plantation in Kansas, according to a book by local historian Myrtle Richardson. Around 1874, he purchased land that included the settlement of Nettleton, a town formed by the Santa Fe Railroad and named after a railroad official.
Fitch changed the name to Fitchburg and, with visions of a big city growing up, he began spending a fortune on his plantation, according to Larned's Tiller and Toiler newspaper from Feb. 11, 1916.
Fitch had materials shipped from Chicago for his estate, which was equipped with plumbing and all conveniences.
"Even a gasoline lighting plant was installed — a wonder at that day and probably the first of the kind in Kansas," the newspaper reported.
The home also served as a hotel of sorts for a doctor and others, Taylor said.
According to a Kansas Historical Quarterly from 1940, Fitch raised corn, barley, millet, sweet potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes and other products, and became postmaster and railroad station agent. For a while, there seemed to be no limit to his ambitions and energy.
Then disaster pursued him.
According to the Larned newspaper, grasshoppers came and drought hit. The prolonged droughts caused people to move from the community. Fitch's mill stopped grinding and Fitch watched as his once wealthy fortune dwindled away.
"Finally, to provide his family with the necessities of life, he had to engage in manual labor," the newspaper wrote. "Hwe had lost all his property, save a little stretch of land along the river. This he was trying to redeem by hard labor."
But plagues continued to hit. In 1877 or 1878, his wife died, and then a baby. Fitch himself died that year from injuries received by a runaway horse. All were buried in the front lawn of the magnificent home.
Nettleton survived for a while after the Fitches' deaths. The post office came in 1877 to what was then named Fitchburg, the Tiller and Toiler reported. However, locals didn't like the name as a result of prejudice against Fitch, who was "regarded as high-toned." They petitioned the government and the name changed back to Nettleton.
The post office officially changed to Nettleton in February 1878. Nettleton, however, continued to struggle.
While the town had a hotel, a livery, general store and, eventually, in the early part of the 20th century, a school, the post office closed in 1882, according to the Kansas State Historical Society. It reopened in 1903, only to close again in 1904.
The town seemed to be on the verge of bouncing back in the early teens. The post office opened again in 1912, although it closed by 1917 and never reopened again. Locals built a two-story brick school in 1915, but it closed in 1943 and was razed, the bricks used to build a church in Larned, according to The Hutchinson News.
Kinsley businessman and local historian John Ploger said his mother taught at the school in the late 1920s. She lived at a home at Nettleton during the week and then drove back to Kinsley on weekends.
Taylor said the population probably never peaked above 50, noting that the railroad was responsible for the town's population.
Not much is left of this former aristocrat's dream. The graves are probably there, Taylor said, although many have searched for the exact location over the years and never found it.
There are old foundations of where the school once sat, as well as a cement slab for the ranch's bunkhouse. An old rickety bridge that once crossed the river was torn out some time during mid-century. And, of course, there is the mansion.
Or, as owner Leroy Gier says, he presumes it is the three-story mansion. A long-distance cousin of Fitch once stopped by in the late 1980s, he said. He had blueprints of the house.
"It came right out to the exact footage," Gier said.
He also farms around a few of the old foundations of the elevator, noting that Fitch would grind the flour, put it in railroad cars and ship it to the east.
Even the old railroad is gone, Gier said. He has heard many stories of the town and the Fitches, including the claim that relatives exhumed the bodies. But they are just stories, he said.
"There are no records," he said. "Just what people have passed down."