Some of their names are familiar, but many of their stories may not be.
They are a few of the brave souls who, in the harsh winter of 1871, planted roots on the banks of the “Big Bend” of the Arkansas River in eager anticipation of the railroad’s arrival to the windswept Kansas prairies. And, 150 years later, the hopes that founded a community live on and look forward.
Downtown Great Bend, where this weekend throngs gathered to ring in the holiday season on a crisp November evening, was nothing but sod and prairie grass a century and a half ago when early settlers eyed the site for a community.
In the archives at the Barton County Historical Society, the 1880 book “The New Heart of Kansas” offers first-hand accounts of many of those early founders awaiting the arrival of the “iron horse.”
One of those founders, Edward Dewey recalled living in a sod dugout on the banks of the Walnut Creek that winter, as plans for the new community were being laid. It would be one of the coldest winters he would experience in the area.
“... my family came about the 16th of November, the next day it began to rain and sleet, finally turning to snow,” he wrote. “Our things had not yet arrived, and we were compelled to sleep on some old hay in one corner of the dugout (as) the rain and snow beat in at the door.”
That fall 150 years ago, as settlers prepared for the harsh winter, surveyors arrived and surveyed what would become the “Great Bend Town Site.” In October 1871, founders laid the foundation for the town’s first stone building, the Southern Hotel, otherwise known as the “Drover’s Cottage,” at the southwest corner of what is now Main Street and Broadway.
“The corner-stone (at the northeast corner of the building) was laid with ‘imposing ceremonies,’ conducted by E.L. Morphy, and participated in by the entire population, consisting of eight men and two women,” observed W.H. Odell at a celebration of the United States Centennial in the fledgling town in 1876.
In the winter of 1871, almost no permanent homes had yet been constructed in the community, and Dewey described an extremely bitter winter with scant provisions and frequent encounters with wildlife, particularly coyotes.
The Walnut Creek and Arkansas River were “frozen nearly solid,” he recalled, and livestock attacks by wild predators were frequent that winter.
“The settlers lived on corn bread, molasses and meat, and sometimes a little flour,” Dewey wrote. “Everything had to be hauled from the (Kansas Pacific Railroad – which had not yet reached the townsite), and that made prices very high.”
However, throughout the fall and winter, rumors of the impending early arrival of the railroad to the townsite created buzz and optimism among the small but hearty populace.
Then, as now, agriculture was at the center of this optimism. The hopes were that upon the railroad’s arrival, Great Bend would become a central shipping point for Texas cattle.
“During the spring of 1872, the town made a very rapid growth,” wrote early settler David N. Heizer. “Businesses sprang up around the square as if by magic.”
And so did the first courthouse, school, and a host of the first set of permanent residences throughout the winter and early spring of 1871 and 1872, a few miles from Fort Zarah, which at that point was already waning as hostilities were easing in the area with Native American tribes.
Supplies for many of these early buildings came from “nearby” Ellsworth, which was, at that point, the terminus of the KPRR, nearly 50 miles away. The nearest station for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, which would also later run through Great Bend, was in Newton, some 85 miles away, noted Odell.
Edward Dodge, a settler who had come from Wisconsin merely a few months prior, said he fell in love with the area “at first sight.”
“The broad extent of beautiful prairie it contains – level without being low, flat, or marshy; undulating without being hilly, rough, or stony; and about equally divided by one of the most beautiful streams of water that ever coursed its way over the green prairie ...”
Like many settlements of the time, Dodge described the area’s challenges with outlaws, who at that time inhabited the abandoned Fort Zarah post.
Buffalo hunts were also commonplace for early settlers of the time, but would slow later as the bison became more scarce.
Christmas Eve 1871 brought revelry as hope sprang up along with the early settlement that would become Great Bend, north of the Arkansas River. And that hope would be well founded, as the railroad would arrive in the fledgling town in June of 1872, and the new community would be incorporated officially that summer.
So, as you give thanks this weekend, remember the stories of those who first made this fair city on the banks of the Arkansas home 150 years ago, amidst a harsh Kansas winter, filled with hearts of hope.
Remember the roots that were first planted in Great Bend.