Lost but not Forgotten
by Corene Brisendine of the Manhattan Mercury
"We started calling it an initiative at first because it was new and uncharted territory," said M. J. Morgan, research director of the Chapman Center for Rural Studies. "Now, it is pretty solid and is a major part of what we do at Chapman; I would call it a goal."
Kansas State University's Chapman Center for Rural Studies has created an online archive of small towns across Kansas, many of which are no longer on the map. The center has dubbed the project the "Lost Town Archive."
The title may be a bit misleading because some of the towns featured in the project — Riley and Leonardville to cite two local examples — have never ceased to exist.
Bonnie-Lynn Sherow, director of the Chapman Center, said the decision to archive the history of a small town is also based on factors such as whether the town’s population has diminished in recent years, whether the town has lost its school or grocery store, the absence of any chronicled history, and the student’s interest in researching particular small towns.
“The key to the Lost Towns project is that each of those entries is the work of an undergraduate student who has done all the research,” she said.
The students are led by Morgan. She teaches an upper-level undergraduate class each semester where students are allowed to choose a small town to research. Once complete, the research is added to the archive.
“They learn things like mapping, photography, basic research, and interviewing skills,” Morgan said.
While the class is intended for history majors, any student may take it, Morgan said. “A large portion is Kansas farm boys,” Morgan said. “Many of these are agricultural or vet med majors from western Kansas.”
The class began by researching nine counties surrounding K-State. Morgan said this was because it was more convenient to take the students out to the local rural communities, rather than driving an entire class across the state. The problem was that many of the non-history majors wanted to research “lost towns” in their hometown communities.
“Many choose small towns because they grew up there or have heard of them because their grandparents lived in them or grew up there,” Morgan said.
The students who live in western Kansas typically conduct their field research while they are on spring break or Thanksgiving break.
Morgan said these students typically bring back the most interesting research because the rural farming communities in western Kansas have a unique culture that those students already know and understand.
Morgan said the biggest challenge when students research a town they are not familiar with is that rural communities are not always welcoming to strangers.
The people in rural communities are typically suspicious and do not generally open their doors to students just because the students claim to be doing research on a local “lost town.”
“Once we had someone come out on his porch with a shotgun,” Morgan said, giggling nervously. “We were parked on the side of the road, trying to figure out where we were. We all got back in the car and did not stick around to see if he would give us directions.”
The students who typically choose to research disappeared towns they grew up hearing about from others helps remove the barriers rural people tend to throw up when a stranger is standing on their porch asking questions about the home owner’s family history.
“An engineering major researched a lost town near his hometown in western Kansas,” Morgan said. “The lost town was called Liebental.”
The student started by researching old logs in the Catholic Church in his hometown. That led him to other families in the area who might remember the old town. In the course of his research, the student found he was related to some of the people who once lived in Liebental.
“He [the student], of course, had a different last name, but it allowed him to make connection with this lost town that he had not known existed,” Morgan said.
This connection with the land is what Lynn-Sherow said is the best outcome for the students.
“We are creating a whole new generation of Kansas who love Kansas,” Lynn-Sherow said. “They [the students] were the ones who took the pictures, read the census logs, talked to the people in the communities. By doing this, we are teaching them not to be consumers of history, but producers of history. That is the difference between a student and a professional.”
Lynn-Sherow said few of the undergraduate programs in the humanities give students this kind of opportunity or experience.
By doing the field research, these students are developing relationships with the communities and creating lasting bonds with communities and Kansas as a whole. Morgan said she is encouraged by the bonds the students are building with the rural communities.
“We rely on Kansas people to help us with the accuracy and completeness of the archive,” Morgan said. “It also establishes a connection with these areas.”
Morgan said that connection helps support K-State by encouraging the communities to send their sons and daughters to the university rather than some other institution of higher education. While most of the research leads to positive experiences by students and community members, Morgan said it sometimes goes awry.
“In a remote western Kansas town, a very old man confessed to one student he was responsible for a very significant crime in the 1950s,” Morgan said. “The student came to me with the information and asked what she should do. We did nothing with this information because the man had no business talking to an 18-year-old about things like this.”
While most of the students with outside majors finish the course and continue with their intended studies, it is not always the case.
Angela Schnee, Chapman Center undergraduate research assistant, started her college career as a biology major. A mom of three and a non-traditional student, Schnee wanted to boost her career and find something she enjoyed doing. That all changed when she took Morgan’s class.
“In her class, I mapped the lost towns in all of Clay County,” Schnee said. “I enjoyed it so much that I changed my major to geography with a minor in history. I really enjoyed the mapping part, and learning where everything was. It has been really great for my family.”
Schnee said that when she was researching the towns near Clay Center, she got to know the local director of the museum on a first-name basis.
“I spent a lot of hours at the museum in Clay county pouring over the plot maps there,” Schnee said. “Cathy, the director of the museum, would tell my 12-year-old stories while I was doing my research.”
Schnee said she would often take her children with her while she was doing research.
“At first,” she said, “the children were reluctant but now they have developed relationships with many of the elderly families in the area, and the children consider them surrogate grandparents.
“It has been a lot of fun listening to the stories that the families told about growing up and everyday life,” Schnee said. “A lot of them that lived in the Clay Center area shared memories of a dime store, visiting different places, or personal stories about everyday life and what was going on at the time.”
Schnee, now a senior with one more semester left before graduation, said she sometimes finds it difficult to start the initial research and then pass the rest of the work on to a student in the class. This year Schnee was hired as Morgan’s research assistant, whereas before she was an intern.
“Sometimes it’s hard,” Schnee said. “I don’t do as much writing anymore. I track down leads and help the students with research. So, sometimes it’s hard turning it over to someone else and not knowing if they are going to do as good a job as I would, but the students have always done a better job than I expect.”
One example was a couple of towns two students worked on during the past spring semester.
“One in Clay County, Cathy, said it never was a town,” Schnee said. “But the students tracked down the maps and were able to do a really nice portrait of these towns.”
Schnee said the two towns had probably been gone for at least 100 years. Therefore, the work the students accomplished in finding proof these towns actually existed helped ease the worry Schnee felt in passing the projects on to less experienced hands.
A link to the The Lost Town Archive can be found at www.themercury.com or www.k-state.edu/history/chapman/. Morgan said if readers want to communicate with the center, or if they would like to contribute memories, stories, old photographs and other materials such as diaries, letters or postcards, they can use the “Contact Us” link on the Chapman Center’s website.