Labette County, Big Well in Greensburg, The Great Pathfinder

(Frank) Join us today on Around Kansas for a look at Labette County and then learn the story behind the Big Well in Greensburg. Next we learn about John C. Fremont, the Great Pathfinder who mapped the Oregon Trail and his wife, Jessie; our weekly From the Land of Kansas business and then we’ll end today with a poem “Code of the West” by Ron Wilson.

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(Deb) Welcome back to Around Kansas, I’m Deb Bisel. I was attending a Tourism Alliance meeting the other day when I picked up this brochure on Labette County. And you know it’s pretty interesting. Jim Zaleski who is the head of the Department of Tourism down in Labette County, really put together a nice package when he put this together And reminds people that if you’re traveling through Labette County that they actually have a 24 hour visitor information kiosk that’s located at the offices at 506 E. Main Street there in Parsons. How cool is that? You know, Labette County was formed in 1867 after a treaty with the Osages for 20-30 years there, most of the residents in Labette County were the Osage Indians or the European Americans who had married into the Osage Tribe. So, there were a few trappers there too and it may have been one of those trappers that actually gave Labette County its name. You know one of the stories is that there was a beast, la bette, a big, black beast that the folks saw. And that’s where the name Labette came from. And that’s where the name of the creek came from. Of course, then there’s another story that says there was just a trapper named Labette and that’s where they picked up the name. It’s got a great history. You know the Bloody Benders, we’ve talked about their story I believe before on Bleeding Kansas. And the Bender family operated their inn on a lonely road between Parsons and Cherryvale and between 1871 and 1873, the family consisting of Pa, Ma and son and a daughter Kate, beautiful Katie, murdered and robbed some 21 lone travelers who stopped for the inn’s hospitality, burying them in their apple orchard behind their home. Although the bodies were discovered and a posse pursued them, the Benders of course, were never found. They just faded on into Western history. Now, during World War II and continuing through the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, the Kansas Army Ammunition Plant provided tons of mortars, missiles, grenades and other munitions on a 13,951 acre site southeast of Parsons. At its peak the plant employed more than 7,000 people. When it was closed for good in 2008 more than 6,000 acres were transferred to the Great Plains Development Authority for development as an industrial park. The final property transfer took place in 2012. Wow, what a great place for an industrial park. So, lots going on in Labette. You know you’ve got all kinds of recreation. I bet if you called down there and visit with the folks, they’d send you one of these in the mail. Beautiful, right down next to the Oklahoma border. Lots of history, lots of nice folks. Tell ’em we sent ya. We’ll be right back.

(Frank) Good morning, I’m Frank Chaffin and this is Around Kansas, and today I am fascinated by a big hole in the ground so I did a little homework, I even wrote it out. Anyway, the big hole in ground is called the Big Well. And it is big. And it’s in Greensburg, Kansas, so let me tell you a little bit about the history of this big well. It was an amazing feat of engineering in the 19th century. It was started in 1887 and it was finished in 1888. And it ended up 109 feet deep and 32 feet wide. Now get that in our mind if you will. Think about this. If you’ve ever been to the State Capitol in Topeka, go look up in the dome and you’ll get kind of an idea of what this thing might look like looking down. Anyway, there is a spiral staircase today that you can walk down and down and down into the cavern of this big well in Greensburg, Kansas. It was opened again to tourists in 2012. If you recall in 2007 the town of Greensburg was 95 percent leveled by a tornado. OK, let’s begin the story in 1887. The city granted a franchise for a water works. It was to cost approximately $45,000 dollars. Now, in 1887 that was a big sum of money. It was a good investment since this produced water up until 1932. Remember this was a hand dug well. OK, this is the interesting part because workers began working at sun up and they got paid at sun down. So, they worked all day and the pay- 50 cents to a dollar a day. Again, in 1887 those were pretty good wages. Crews of 12-15. There were farmers, cowboys, transients, worked all day using picks, shovels, half barrels, pulleys and ropes to dig this huge well. OK. Now stones used for the walls in the well were brought in by wagons from the Medicine River which is about 12 miles south of Greensburg. The dirt from the well excavation was again hauled away by those same wagons. Now what did they do with that dirt? Well, the wagon beds were slatted and they could open the slats and slowly let the dirt out and guess what? They built streets and roads to the well. Waste not, want not, back in 1887. OK. A wide shaft was cribbed and braced every 12 feet with planks. And… in other words it looked like a big wagon wheel, there were braces around the side and with spokes. And the workers shoveled dirt into barrels and those were hoisted to the surface. As stone was put in place in the walls then, the braces were removed. Perforated pipes then were driven into the bottom of the well in gravel and this helped the water flow and of course, also the purity of the water. This was done to increase the flow of the water in the well basin. Now again, it was completed in 1888 and it ended up 109 feet deep and 32 feet in circumference. The well was covered but then reopened as an historic attraction in 1937. In 1972 it was designated a national museum. Over 3 million people have descended the metal stairway into the depths of the cavern in this well. The world’s largest hand dug well. In 2008 it was also designated one of the eight wonders of Kansas. Now again in 2007 an F-5 tornado destroyed 95 percent of Greensburg. The town was just gone. And of course it took the visitor center too. But the people of Greensburg said, “We’re not going away, we’re gonna rebuild.” And in 2012 the visitor center was opened again and today you can go visit the well and you can also visit Greensburg, which we will do in other programs here on Around Kansas. It’s a remarkable recovery that this town had. So, anyway for now this is Frank Chaffin saying, see you somewhere Around Kansas.

(Deb) Welcome back to Around Kansas. I’ve started teaching a new class for Osher. I teach Osher classes out of their KU office. And the newest class I have is called, “The Soldier State.” So, it’s just biographies of interesting soldiers with a Kansas connection, either those who were born here or served here or have some considerable impact on the state. So, one of the soldiers that you may not be really familiar with is John C. Fremont. If you’d been living in the 19th Century I guarantee you, you would have known exactly who Fremont was. Fremont was called the Great Pathfinder. And he mapped the Oregon Trail. He led at least four significant expeditions to explore the west. And while he didn’t “discover those” he is the one who paved the path for those to follow in many ways. Now, Fremont happened to be the son-in-law of Thomas Hart Benton. Thomas Hart Benton was the really powerful and influential senator from Missouri. And one of Fremont’s expeditions to the west had a lot to do with his father-in-law. Thomas Hart Benton was really intent on manifest destiny- that idea that America should and would conquer the entire continent. And fortunately for him, it was his son-in-law who’d actually claimed California, which was of course owned by the Spanish, during the Mexican War. It was Fremont who went out in 1846 and raised the flag in a really interesting conquering, instead of… there were a few skirmishes or battles. But you know when he raised the flag there was one big party. So it was a not real hostile takeover of California. But what he had done, by grabbing California, was give America a hold on both coasts. So, in 1848 one of Benton’s expeditions is to find a railroad route through the middle of the country and to the west. And the railroads were huge. The middle of the 19th Century, the railroads ruled everything. Ironically, the very night that Topeka was founded, December 5, 1854, Thomas Hart Benton, that influential Missouri senator was making a speech in Maryland bragging about the lands of Kansas and how there was going to be a railroad through the territory of Kansas and urging people to go out to Kansas and settle. He got first hand accounts from Kansas from his son-in-law who was in and out of the state almost constantly. And in 1853, Fremont was actually camped in Topeka or what would become Topeka. Topeka didn’t even exist then. But he’s camped near Burnett’s Mound, which is a local landmark here. And Julia Stenson, one of the locals, she was actually Shawnee Indian who was able to live here before the territory opened. He actually went riding up Burnett’s Mound with Julia Stenson and she left a wonderful account of their picking wildflowers. He picked wild roses and threw those in to her lap. That’s in one of the Shawnee County Historical Society Bulletins. If you go to the Shawnee County Historical Society you can find that. I believe it is the “Before Kansas Bled.” So it’s the territory before it actually became a territory. We’ll be right back.

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(Deb) Getting back to John C. Fremont, Fremont was the first Republican candidate for President in 1856. At that time the Republican Party was brand new and it was the Abolitionist, kind of the radicals and the liberals of their day, if you will. So, John C. Fremont was picked as the first Republican candidate and he was soundly beat by President Buchanan, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania who was a Democrat and comes from that long established, conservative party. So Fremont had tremendous impact politically. Now his father-in-law, while very prominent, the Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton. That was one perk of marrying Jessie Benton, beautiful, beautiful girl. The other perk was that Jessie was brilliant. These guys were the original power couple, long before Bill and Hillary or any of the power couples we think of today. It was John C. Fremont and his gorgeous wife Jessie. In fact Fremont’s journals that he kept while he was exploring the west were turned into reports. He had to file official reports of his expeditions. When John C. Fremont got back to Washington after his travels and he has to file those official reports of what he had seen and done in the American West, the words just wouldn’t come. He had a really bad case of writers block. So, his gorgeous wife Jessie said, “You know what? Just dictate to me and I’ll write it.” And that’s what he did. So, Jessie Fremont took these facts and figures that he had reported and she turned them into beautiful prose, so far beyond his exploration, his reports of those explorations had a profound impact on westward movement and of course that westward movement came through Kansas. At one time or another with the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the movements west and then ultimately of course, the settling of Kansas itself. His reports had a profound impact on people picking up from the East and heading toward the West. So, give a few minutes of your day to look up John C. Fremont. There’s some great documentary footage on him. Or you can visit Fort Leavenworth and the Frontier Army Museum has a great exhibit on him with some of the surveyor’s equipment that he would have used, just a really nice exhibit. And you can go on post and just tell them… and you gotta have your ID, tell them that you’re headed to the Frontier Army Museum and check out Fremont and all the other interesting people there. We’ll be right back.

(Ron) Howdy folks, I’m Ron Wilson, Poet Lariat. In the days of the old west, the cowboys lived by a code, an unspoken set of rules that we called the “Code of the West.” Cowboys lived by what we call the code of the west, which is drawn from America’s westward quest. This code isn’t written down in a book of laws, but is taken from the daily life he draws. These are values which the cowboy strives to live by and the many ways that they might apply. For example, it means taking pride in our work, and finishing a job we will not shirk. It means being tough, but fair. To always keep our word. And to be a good steward of the land and the herd. It means having the courage to take a stand and being loyal when we ride for the brand. So, take good care of our tack and our steads. To put our animal’s care first, above our own needs. To be independent and not run from a fight. In short, to always stand up for what’s right. Our nation would be better I will attest, if we all would follow the code of the west. Happy Trails.

Closed Captioning Brought to you by the Kansas Soybean Commission. The Soybean Checkoff Progress Powered by Kansas Farmers.

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