By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
PRESERVING THE PAST: McCaffery joins Barton County Historical Society staff
Edison recordings
Former history teacher and new museum archivist Linda McCaffery displays a 1903 Edison phonograph recording, one of nearly 40 that reside in the Barton County Historical Society’s archives. - photo by Daniel Kiewel

History has been a lifelong passion for retired Barton Community College instructor Linda McCaffery. Now retired from teaching, she’s bringing that passion to the Barton County Historical Society.

After 36 years of teaching history and anthropology, the museum brought McCaffery on recently to help sort through the backlog of museum collections, including many items which have been in storage for years and have never been properly documented or cataloged. Part of her work is to improve inventory procedures and storage conditions of the museum’s collections.

Funding for McCaffery’s current position is a result of the Sustaining the Humanities though the American Rescue Plan (SHARP) Recovery Grant through Humanities Kansas.

A lifelong interest in history

McCaffery’s lifelong interest in history began as a child growing up in western Colorado. Much of her childhood was spent exploring historical sites, many of them well off the beaten path. Her whole family had a deep passion of learning about history. Her father, who she described as a “voracious reader,” would often research road trip destinations ahead of time, so historical destinations were often on the itinerary. 

“We never missed a museum or a roadside historical sign,” she said. “We spent a lot of time visiting old homesteads or old abandoned towns that my dad had read about.”

Her summers were spent in the small southwest Colorado mountain mining community of Westcliffe at the foot of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. It is an area rich in both Native American and early pioneer settlement history.

As a youth, the family traveled a lot, including trips to Mexico. Her father, she said, was gifted with language, and spoke Navajo as a first language, and spoke fluent Spanish. Because of that, they were immersed in many of the regions’ diverse cultures throughout their travels.

In 1981, McCaffery came to Kansas, and with degrees in history and anthropology, was asked to teach classes at what was then Barton County Community College. That became a full-time job of more than three decades.

McCaffery, a natural storyteller, particularly enjoyed that aspect of teaching history.

“It’s just like telling stories, but they just happen to be true stories,” she said. “My philosophy of teaching is what happened isn’t nearly as important as why.”

Anyone can memorize dates, she said, but understanding why things happen and how that impacts the course of future events is at the core of what makes history so fascinating for her.

Hidden treasures

Items others might see as trivial, McCaffery sees as treasures crucial to preserve, like a partially-blurred list of annual budgets for the Golden Belt Community Concert Foundation dating back to the 1930s she was working on archiving last Tuesday afternoon.

“Is this vitally important? Maybe not today, but maybe this will be what somebody might need a year from now,” she said. “So my job is to catalog it, preserve it, and then mark it so that in the future someone can find it.”

Every time she opens a drawer, she is wowed by the wealth of history she finds buried in the museum’s archives.

There is a lot of the area’s history that many people may not know, but is important to both recall and preserve.

She described, for example, a trading post that sprang up east of town in the 1850s, then a fort, which was burned in the massacre of a trading party about 3 miles east of modern day Great Bend in July 1864. Because many of the earliest structures were wood and sod, McCaffery said much of that history was simply dismantled and washed away, and would be lost without people with a passion for preservation.

“There are no monuments, no buildings, so people just look at it and think, ‘this is just flat and uninteresting,’” she said.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, she said there are plenty of fascinating stories in Barton County’s past, many of them still collecting dust in the archives and waiting to be told.

For example, a faded photograph of a flooded Arkansas River more than 100 years ago led her to the story of three men who fell in the river in the wake of that flood, with only one of them surviving.

Also buried within the museum’s archives are about 40 early 1900s Edison phonograph recordings, along with an old phonograph to play them on. A staff member tinkering with the machine was able to get it working, and many of the old recordings still play.

It’s ironic, she said, that people will often travel hundreds of miles to see famous tourist destinations without realizing the wealth of history in their own backyards.

1930's phone directory
Former history teacher and new museum archivist Linda McCaffery displays a 1930s Great Bend phone directory from the Barton County Historical Society’s archives. Of note, the numbers inside consisted of only three digits each. - photo by Daniel Kiewel