Topeka: October 17-24, 2010

Another new state! We passed by the pair of Kansas Citys and made our first landing in the capital city. The campground we settled in was pristine, in large part because it was built by a concrete company and designed with the care of a golf course. The sites all had well-trimmed grassy areas. A large pool and hot tub were adjacent to an excellent dog run. It was gated, and it was only a few miles from “town.”

We visited many sites.

Cedar Crest

Cedar Crest is a Normandy-French inspired mansion located on a hilltop above the Kansas River. It was designed by Wight and Wight for Frank P, MacLennan, publisher of the a hilltop on the west side of Topeka overlooking the Kansas River, and was designed by the architectural firm of Wight and Wight for Frank P. MacLennan, publisher of the Topeka State Journal and Emporia News, and his wife. Occupied in 1928, MacLennan’s time was short in his beautiful mansion. He died in 1933, and when his widow Madge died in 1955, she bequeathed the house and its 244 acres to the site to be uses solely as a governor’s mansion and public park. Alas, we never got inside – tours are conducted only on Fridays from 1 to 3, and today was Monday. We do know, however, that the mansion underwent a renovation in the early 90’s at a cost of over $4 million. And one branch of the Oregon Trail passed right through the property.



Brown vs. Board of Education

The former Monroe Elementary School in Topeka is now the Brown vs. Board of Education (BOE) National Historic Site. In a central auditorium, the history behind the case is told in a series of video vignettes in which children ask an elderly man about the roots of African Americans in the US that led to the case. The rooms down the halls in each direction expand in various tableaux on the process and conclusion of the case. We refocused on the entire episode.

In the historic Plessy vs. Ferguson case in the 1890’s, the Supreme Court decided by an 8 to 1 margin that the Fourteenth Amendment “could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to endorse social, as distinguished from political, equality.” But the lone holdout, Justice John Marshal Harlan, created the rallying cry for future dissent: “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”

The infamous class-action Brown vs. BOE case, involving 13 parents of 20 kids, lost in District Court in Kansas in 1952. It was lumped with four similar cases on the docket when appealed to the Supreme Court two years later. Failing to reach agreement on the decision in May, it was carried over. By December, when it was re-heard, Chief Justice Vinson had died and had been replaced by Earl Warren, who forged a unanimous consensus against “separate but equal.” Though the Court released an implementation plan the following year, its realization has been ongoing.

Thurgood Marshall, working with NAACP legal chief Charles Hamilton Houston, had been working on and pursuing a strategy to overturn Jim Crow laws since the mid 1930’s. The Brown case was the culmination of their efforts. In preparing for the case, Marshall and his team solicited the help of eminent scholar and historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, who, it has been said, had “command of the tangled realities behind the phrase ‘separate but equal’. ” Mrs. Franklin grew beautiful orchids; I produced their photo greeting cards featuring them for many years!


The Charles Curtis House

Charles Curtis, 1860-1937, is the only Native American to ever serve in the Executive Branch of the US Government. After a career in the House from 1893-1907 and subsequent career in the Senate from 1907-13 and 1915-29, he served as Vice President in the administration of Herbert Hoover.

Curtis was the son of Civil War Captain Oren Curtis, an ardent free-stater who moved to Topeka in 1856, and his wife, Ellen Pappan, daughter of Kaw princess Julie Gonville Pappan. Ellen’s grandfather was Chief White Plume, leader of the Kansa (Kaw) who were the first inhabitants of Shawnee County.

Charles’ mother died when he was three, and he was sent to the reservation in Topeka to live with her people. When he was ten, the Kaws were being relocated to Oklahoma. Prepared to go with them, he was dissuaded by his Grandmother Pappan, who implored him to live among the white people. His Grandmother Curtis recognized his native intelligence and urged him to procure higher education. He was admitted to the bar in 1881.

He purchased what is now known as The Curtis House in 1907. Built by former mayor Joseph Wilson in 1879, it was sold a year later to an Emma Redden who added Moorish domes and ornamental plaster.

Charles’s wife, Annie Baird Curtis, died in 1924. He continued to lived there in the house until his death, with his sister and her children keeping the home for him. From 1937 until 1949, the house served as an orphanage, a rooming house and a tea room. Then it was purchased by an insurance broker, who demolished the rear section (servants’ quarters) instead of repairing it, and occupied the building until about 1990 with tenants. In 1983 the Kansas State took an interest in getting its entitled recognition, and it went on the National Register soon after. But in the early 90’s, the wrecking ball was poised.

Enter Nova and Don Contrell. They lived on a farm in neighboring Perry. Nova, a premier antiques dealer, passed the house many times and salivated. In 1993, she learned it was for sale. She and Don got a look inside and Nova was heartbroken by the amount of destruction it had suffered. While she grieved on the porch, Don made an offer that wasn’t refused.

Don and Nova have returned both the property and the image of Vice President Curtis to the status they deserve. We had an hour-plus private meeting with them and watched her glow as she told story after story. Incidentally, they have done their restoration without any state or federal funds. We know of no two people who are more entitled to be proud of themselves.

Old Prairie Town – the Ward-Meade Historic Site

In 1854, Mary Jane Ward and her husband, Anthony, purchased 240 acres of prime land on the Kansas River for $100 from a Kaw Indian named Joseph James. The first thing they did was to unite three small cabins on the property to house their family of six children. Then they set about servicing the many families heading along the Oregon Trail. They had to cross the river and the Wards accommodated them, providing them ferry service and repair service along with selling sand from the river and whatever other profitable enterprise they could engage in. They took in boarders; Mary Jane dubbed herself the Mother of Topeka and kept a candle in her window every night.

As their enterprises prospered, they built a two story brick and limestone “mansion.” They moved into it in the mid 1870’s, and the mansion was enhanced by the wonderful gardens that Mary Jane originated. In 1879, their daughter Jennie married John Mackey Meade. Over the years, both families shared the house. In 1897, John and Jennie inherited the property and members of the blended families occupied it until 1961, when the city purchased the property for a park. The mansion made the National Register in 1975 and was renovated thereafter.

Now the grounds feature a collection of original 19th century homes and businesses assembled there from throughout the area. They include a general store, railroad depot, school, church and a two-story apothecary with a working soda fountain and offices of both a doctor and dentist upstairs.

Our tour guide was wonderful – told many stories about Mary Jane that he swore were true. Here’s our favorite: The east-west road passing through Topeka, now part of Interstate I-70, is very straight – except for a distinctive bend in the middle, right around the Ward property!

The Great Overland Station and Museum

The first thing one encounters when visiting the Overland Station is the “All Veterans Park.” It features a huge flame sculpture surrounded by reflecting pools and fifty flagpoles, each flying an American flag above a state flag. At the base of each pole is a plaque detailing information about its state.

Crossing BNSF* Plaza, the UP station itself, designed by renowned architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, is being restored to its 1927 splendor. The building was abandoned in 1988 when freight service was ended there. In 1992, a devastating fire destroyed the west wing and damaged the roof. UP planned to raze it, but Topeka Railroad Days, Inc. (TRRD) asked to lease it long enough to assess the condition and determine a restoration plan. In 1998, UP donated the building to TRRD and the major restoration program began. Today, the building features all new windows and roof, reconstruction of the west wing, exterior and interior renovation, and the start of an adjacent outdoor Railroad Park, which will feature two vintage engines and approximately 8 vintage cars. There is also a major model train setup in the admissions area.

A most interesting feature is the story of the Harvey Girls. Fred Harvey came to the US from England in 1850. At first he worked for restaurants in New York and New Orleans. But he moved to St. Joseph, MO to work for the railroad. In 1875, he opened a lunch counter for Santa Fe railroad employees, and three years later, the ATSF* licensed him to provide all food and lodging services along the entire line west of the Missouri River. Fred advertised in the east for women of good character to work in his establishments; Topeka was the training center for more than 5,000 young ladies he lured westward. His 15 Harvey House hotels, 47 restaurants and 30 dining cars were immortalized by MGM and Judy Garland in the 1945 movie, The Harvey Girls.

*As for the acronyms, BNSF is Burlington Northern Santa Fe, today’s dominant railroad in the west. ATSF was famous as the subject of both the rails and Johnny Mercer’s song: Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe.

The Kansas Museum of History

The entrance to the museum is dominated by a statue of a white buffalo and White Buffalo Woman, introduced to our readers back in our early days in North Dakota. Inside, it’s easy to discover the importance of Kansas – and Topeka – in the manifest destiny of the United States.

The museum contains seven timelines, including the earliest days up to 1820, the Trails, the Civil War, settling the Frontier, Railroads, the early Twentieth Century and recent past up to 1990. We spent three hours in the place and weren’t able to get its full depth.

Native Americans have lived in Kansas for thousands of years. Tribes include the Kansa (Kaw), Osage, Wichita, Iowa, Kickapoo, Pawnee, Potawatomi, and Sac and Fox. They hunted bison at first on foot and later on horseback when the Spanish “equinized” the New World in the 1700’s. They fought with each other for territory. But they couldn’t overcome the European expansion along the trails, and the railroad, and the buffalo slaughter, and the broken promises. Most wound up in Oklahoma.

The Oregon/California Trails and the Santa Fe Trail both passed through Topeka. The former was primarily used by the quarter of a million westward bound seekers of a new life in the 1840s through 1860’s. The latter was more of a commercial trail, carrying valuable cargos back and forth between Independenceto Santa Fe, and thence into Mexico. The new Conestoga Wagon gave them the opportunity to carry large loads. The returning cargos were often gold and silver from Mexico, but even the non-precious cargos were valuable and at the risk of both red and white bandits. Thus, a chain of forts sprung up along the route. Only one still remains in service: Leavenworth!

Considerable space is given, of course, to the agonizing battles between free-staters and pro slavery forces. In the late 1850’s, Kansas actually held four constitutional conventions, more favoring abolition than not. But the issue was not easily resolved and was, in fact, enhanced by the onset of the Civil War. Atrocities were carried out by John Brown, Quantrill’s Raiders, Jennison’s Jayhawkers and others. Bleeding Kansas finally became a free state in 1861, and it sent more soldiers per capita than any other state into the battles – including two African-American regiments.

Some of Kansas’s most prominent citizens are not neglected. Among those featured are Ike, Carrie Nation, Amelia Earhart and Alf Landon.


The Kansas State Capitol

I managed to just make the last tour on our last day in Topeka. Kansas set about to build an imposing structure. It took 37 years and $3.2 million, and when it was opened in 1902, it still lacked one detail. Ten years ago, the statue of Ad Astra, a Kansa warrior, capped the dome and made the building 16 feet higher than the Capitol in Washington!

Its most impressive features inside are the murals. In the rotunda, a series of eight paintings by David Overmyer directly on the plaster walls depict significant events in the state’s history. Murals in the second floor east and west wings were created by Kansan John Steuart Curry, a contemporary of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Additional “Winter Murals” were painted by Lumen Winter, and a series of four larger than life statues by Peter Felton depict Eisenhower, Earhart, William Allen White and Arthur Capper, who served two terms as governor and five terms as U.S. Senator, retiring in 1949 at the age of 84!

The chambers are very tasteful and efficient, as is the governor’s ceremonial office. The most beautiful architectural feature, however, is the central staircases.

Unfortunately, the hike to the dome was unavailable as a result of restoration. Nevertheless, this is one of the most impressive buildings encountered to date on our tour.

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