Chapter 37 — A Little Fiber in the City Diet

February 2, 2012
The Town Council voted at its January meeting to invite Google to install its fiber system in Walnut Shade. The company had been looking for a small community to expand to and we stepped right up. Once final negotiations are completed and a contract signed, Google says we could be seeing high-speed Internet by the end of the year.

Shirley says she will really be happy to have reliable wifi for her customers and the ability to post her daily menus online. However, that means she’ll have to actually have a menu and not just a “whaddya want today?” ordering system. You have to be flexible to eat at Shirley’s.

The weather the last few days has been… well, balmy. So much so that an impromptu cookout was held in the park on Sunday afternoon. The Lions brought their big cooker and grilled hot dogs for everyone who showed up after church. Sometimes, winter’s like that in Kansas. But Miss Cecelia Davenport still keeps a watchful eye on her weather station.

Anne Porter, Miss Cecelia’s niece from Marysville, visited on Monday, which was also a beautiful day.

After several months of being legume-free, Jason Brady was at it again last week. Dr. Oswald did a bean-ectomy on Jason’s nose. “I don’t know where he gets the idea to put beans in places like that. We never had this problem with his sister,” Sue Brady said.

Stacy Long, Walnut Rest administrator, reports that for some reason, many of the residents have been requesting pumpkin soufflés for dinner lately. She thinks its just a little joke that they are playing on the cook because almost no one there like pumpkin.

The All-Miller County Jazz Band will hold a concert next Thursday at the elementary school. The band tries to make an appearance at most of the schools in the county at least once a year. They are also practicing hard for the regional music competition with the hopes of going to State again this year.

The South County High School Eagles basketball team has had a good season so far, with a record of eleven wins and two losses. Their next big game will be against Jefferson County North, which is undefeated.

Marie Green heard from her friend, Monica Reece, who lives in Santa Barbara. Monica is planning to make a trip to Walnut Shade sometime in April or May.

The Excelsior Book Club had a lengthy discussion about “The Paris Wife” at their meeting on Tuesday. “I learned a lot about my great aunt Hadley from the book,” Flossie Wentworth reported. “She was a saint putting up with Earnest for all those years.” Their current book is Bossypants, by Tina Fey. “We haven’t read a funny book for a long time, unless you count that book by Donald Trump,” Elaine Hunt volunteered. That one was a real mistake, everyone agrees.

Stan Adams reports that he discovered that the twelve new flags the American Legion ordered to replace several that had worn out were made in China. “We sent those right back to the place we bought them. We are looking for a company that promises only American-made flags.”

The Master Gardeners are already at work planning their spring garden tour. This year, they are going to be featuring gardens in the northern part of the county since the fall tour was down this way.

Charles and Jennifer Singleton, from Manhattan, joined Eddie and Glenda Singleton for lunch in the park on Sunday. “We weren’t expecting hot dogs, but they were great,” Glenda said. Luckily, the potato salad she brought from Manhattan was a perfect complement to the meal.

Marshall Green says that the county is looking at a lot of road work this year. “We’ve got several bridges that are in bad shape and are on the priority list.” For the most part, the county does a good job keeping up with repairs, but nothing is maintenance-free these days.

Don Cornett’s brother, Jeff and sister-in-law who live in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, were involved in a minor accident last week. Both are OK, but they were shaken up when heavy snow caused part of their front porch to collapse just as they were heading out to work.

Folks around here who still have landlines couldn’t make phone calls for a couple of days last week. It seems that the switching controls at the phone company shorted out when a leak developed in the roof. The leak was fixed and everybody has phone service again. As far as I know, only a couple of people have gone cell-only, but I’ll bet that changes pretty quickly. We are a pretty tech-savvy community.

Speaking of technology, today is Groundhog Day and we are all waiting to hear if Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow to know if we can put away the coats and boots in a few weeks. Whatever that outcome, shadow or not,

I promise I will remain…
Your Faithful Correspondent

~.~

On Tuesday, I had lunch with Dr. Craig Hollowell, a professor of history at K-State, and the grandson of Helen and Oscar Baker. Craig has been studying changes in communications technology and how that has influenced the development of northeast Kansas. His dissertation was on the role Walnut Shade has played in that development over the years.

We talked about how the introduction of extra high-speed Internet access will continue Walnut Shade’s tradition of being on the cutting edge of communications and Craig said he wasn’t a bit surprised to hear that Google is coming to town. Walnut Shade has always been an early adopter sort of town. And entrepreneurial. You might even say that communications is the reason that Walnut Shade exists.

“When the town was founded in the 1840s, news traveled mainly by horse or wagon train,” Craig said. “The trails that came through here not only brought information about what was going on back in the east, but some folks went the other way and took the news of the frontier to friends and relations in places like Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts, where most Walnut Shade settlers came from.”

The reports of fertile land and abundant water led to a population “explosion” right before the Civil War. From about 124 people counted in 1850 Census to the time Kansas became a state in 1861, Walnut Shade grew to 243 inhabitants.

“The years right before and right after the Civil War saw several innovations in communications. The Pony Express had a brief, but important place in Walnut Shade history. We all know that Henry Dane’s blacksmith shop and stables was one of the first stop on the riders’ route from St. Joseph, but ironically, the Pony Express fell victim to another early technological advance: the telegraph.”

Craig’s research showed that a decade before the Pony Express was established, companies began to string wires for the telegraph in eastern Kansas. The St. Louis & Missouri River Telegraph Company extended lines to Weston and St. Joseph and in January, 1859, the line crossed the river to Atchison. In the spring of that year, a local company, the Miller County Telegraph Exchange, was formed to bring the telegraph to Miller County, and Walnut Shade, being the county seat at that time, was the logical terminus.

“The men that formed the company were already thinking ahead,” Craig said. “At about the same time the telegraph was finally extended to Walnut Shade, the Company began exploring the possibility of developing a rail line from Wathena. Had the war not intervened, Walnut Shade might have become an important rail center, but two of the principles of the Telegraph Exchange were casualties in the battle of Prairie Grove in Arkansas and the company never recovered. After the war, the Central Branch Union Pacific Railroad determined that building the rail line north of Walnut Shade would be more feasible so we missed that opportunity. At the time, it was called the Atchison and Pike’s Peak Railroad.”

The loss of the rail line did not deter the local entrepreneurs, though it took several years for the right opportunity to present itself.

“The next development in communications came with the invention of the telephone by Bell and his associates back in New Jersey and the formation of the Walnut Shade Mutual Telephone Exchange, which resurrected some of the old structure of the Telegraph Exchange,” Craig said. “The Exchange was started by a group of farmers who were familiar with the structure of cooperatives and they used that as a model to develop the telephone service here.”

The system began operating in the summer of 1910 with about fifty customers, most in town and a dozen outside. The exchange building was located on Main Street in the still-functioning telegraph office, relatively close to the power station which supplied electricity to the equipment.

“It’s interesting that one of the major breakthroughs in the development of telephone service came from the invention by a Kansas City undertaker, Almon Strowger, who invented a switch that could connect multiple lines at one time,” Craig explained. “Before that, customers had to have lines running to every other customer they wanted to talk to. That wasn’t very practical, but the switch Strowger invented made telephone service more feasbile and relatively affordable. Who would have thought that an undertaker was as important to the industry as Alexander Graham Bell?”

When you think about, the telephone was the invention that made instant two-way communication over a distance possible. The telegraph was essentially a one-way process requiring time between message. The telephone decreased social distance.

“Making a phone call, sending a text or email these days requires so little effort, or thought, that we’ve forgotten that calling someone in the early days required an intention that we’ve lost, I think. Just consider what it took to place a call on a crank phone in 1910,” Craig said. “To begin with, you had to know the other person’s ‘number’ which might be a short ring, two long rings, and a short ring. Everyone on the party-line, and everyone in the beginning was on a party-line around here, knew that you were making a call, because all the phones rang. The person receiving the call knew his or her own ring, but everyone could listen in on the call if they wanted to, and I’m sure a lot did.”

We laugh about that now, but the party-line was the CNN of the day. The operator on duty at the telephone office often acted as the “voice mail” for the community. If Dr. Short was going to be eating dinner in Fremont, he could let the operator know and she would relay that message to Mrs. Williams who was calling Dr. Short because Ronnie Williams was running a fever. If someone on the line knew that his neighbor was out in the back yard in the garden, he might step out the door and let her know that her phone was ringing if she didn’t hear it.

“For a couple of year, the operator on duty at seven o’clock in the morning would ring everyone on the system and give the weather forecast, scores of the high school sports team, market quotes, and other local news. People could go about the rest of their day feeling like they were up-to-date on the world. At least this little corner of the world.”

Craig related this with something akin to wistfulness in his voice. Perhaps he was feeling nostalgic for what we think of as a simpler time, though I’m sure if you could talk to anyone at the turn of the twentieth century they would think of it as anything but simple.

“I’ve got to get back to Manhattan. I’ve got a class at 3:30. The students hate that time almost as much as they do the 8:30 classes. But, then, so do I,” Craig said as he prepared to leave. We made plans to meet during spring break to talk about recent developments in communications, such as radio, TV and to catch up on the progress of the installation of Google Fiber.

“Walnut Shade is a marvel,” Craig remarked as he headed to the door. “While other little towns are dying, this place just keeps innovating itself alive! See you in a couple of months.”

“Innovating Itself Alive.” That would be a good town motto. I’ll have to tell Sally Cramer about that. The Main Street/Pride Committee has been looking for a new advertising bit. That one has possibilities.

~.~

Visitors to Walnut Shade invariably remark on our beautiful park and the pathways leading to and from it. Besides the terrific care the park gets from the city maintenance staff, there is a good reason why the park was written up in the The WPA Guide to 1930s Kansas.

“WALNUT SHADE, 65 m. (1,189 alt., 395 pop.) Located at the confluence of Vermillion Creek and Walnut Creek. One of the most striking features of this small town just off U.S. 75 in eastern Kansas is the unusual shape of its city park and the “courthouse square” (the town is not the county seat but was at one time; the residents still refer to the place it stood as the courthouse square) both are circular and are connected by a five-block pedestrian walkway, all of which was designed by John Charles Olmsted, son of the designer of New York’s Central Park. An important stop on the Oregon and California trails, Walnut Shade was also a relay station for the Pony Express. Today, it is an agricultural trading center and intellectual hub for Northeast Kansas.”

In the fall of 1900, Charles Olmsted spent a week with his cousin Owen Frederick Bryant, who was staying in Walnut Shade during one of his entomology field trips. Bryant was a naturalist and collector of a variety of insects, and that fall there was an infestation of Sitophilus granarius, or wheat weevils. Olmsted had been working in St. Joseph on plans for a parkway system and before returning to New York, had stopped in Walnut Shade for a short visit with his cousin. While there, he got to know the mayor and park superintendent, who had been talking about renovating the “courthouse square.”

As we all know and the description above points out, Walnut Shade is not the county seat of Miller County; that distinction falls to Fremont. But from 1855 to 1867, we were the seat of government and boasted a two-room courthouse at the intersection of 4th and what is now Park Street. One room of the courthouse was the administrative center and the back room was the sheriff’s office and jail. For a reason that is not entirely known, the courthouse was built in the middle of the intersection and the area around it was re-platted in shape of a circle. One explanation was that one of the county commissioners thought people had a hard time negotiating ninety degree turns with their wagons and suggested a circular street to facilitate visits to the courthouse. Whatever the reason, the courthouse and jail sat on a circular plot of land in Walnut Shade.

When the Atchison and Pike’s Peak Railroad decided to go just north of Fremont, the city leaders there started agitating to move the county seat. Naturally, folks in Walnut Shade resisted the idea of losing the prestige and revenue that being the county seat brought, but the commissioners at the time thought the way to settle the argument was to hold an election. The result was a vote of 78 to 75 in favor of moving the county seat. As you might expect, the northern part of the county voted overwhelmingly for the move (truth be told, people in the southern part voted almost unanimously to keep Walnut Shade the county seat; since then, there seems to have been a north/south split on lots of county issues).

A few days after the election, a group of men in masks entered the courthouse at closing time and at gunpoint, removed the records and a safe that held the county treasury. Some people thought the men were part of the James gang, but a rumor circulated saying that they were residents of Walnut Shade who wanted to thwart the move of the courthouse. An investigation proved that the robbers were thugs hired by the railroad as part of an attempt to turn opinion against Walnut Shade and the records were later discovered in St. Joseph in the home of the brother of the Miller County presiding commissioner, who was at that time from Fremont. When this all came to light, the commissioner resigned and within a week had left for Wyoming. The safe was never recovered, but everyone believed that the money in it mysteriously moved to Wyoming, too.

Well, this is a bit of a digression…

Anyway, with the move of the county seat, the Walnut Shade courthouse lost its original purpose and was sold to local merchant who ran a dry-goods business for several years. A fire in 1898 destroyed the building and the lot was empty at the time of Charles Olmsted’s visit. At a dinner at the mayor’s house, he asked that Olmsted consider drawing up a plan for the “square” and a park that was to be located about five blocks north, on the edge of town. Olmsted was naturally reluctant to take on any additional jobs for his firm, but he had just received word that the work he had been doing in St. Joseph had run into political and financial obstacles and he was open to a small job in eastern Kansas.

Over the next six months, drawings and discussions flew back and forth between New York and Walnut Shade, with the result that a circular park with a tree-lined walk to the courthouse square was agreed upon. The plan also suggested the planting of American Elms along the perpendicular streets radiating from the square and the new park. Fortunately, the town leaders being somewhat protective of the name, decided to plant walnut trees instead, thereby avoiding the disaster that befell many cities in the 1960s and ‘70s when Dutch elm disease wiped out the trees in many cities in the U.S.

Interestingly, you can still find residents and visitors strolling along the streets between the park and the courthouse square on a quiet Sunday afternoon, even in this age of the automobile. Maybe instead of occasionally lamenting the move of the county seat we should be celebrating it. Had those masked robbers not seen fit to ply their suspiciously-financed trade here, we might just be known as the governmental center of Miller County and what kind of a distinction is that, really?
~.~
A news item from 1920:

McDougal — Dr. Wells was called to the farm of Hiram Mason on Tuesday. It seems that Mr. Mason and his wife got into a bit of disagreement that resulted in Mr. Mason receiving a blow to the head that required six stitches. “I just told her that all this voting stuff was nonsense, but if she wanted to go out and dig ditches, drive the mules or even grow a mustache, I wouldn’t stand in her way.” Seems like the mustache remark was just a bit too much for Mrs. Mason, who might be a bit touchy on that subject.

About stclairc

Abstract artist, photographer, writer
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