You could make a good argument that the town with the richest history in Kansas is Council Grove. In the Santa Fe Trail days, Council Grove was the last town where pioneers could enjoy dinner at a restaurant, a comfortable bed, or shop for supplies, before facing hundreds of miles of wilderness. Council Grove is also home to the famous “Council Oak”, the site where a treaty was reached with Osage Indians, that allowed passage on the Santa Fe Trail.
Nowadays, Council Grove is a great little town, nestled in the Flint Hills. Its history is easy to explore, thanks to an effort to place signs around town, guiding visitors from one historic site to another. I stumbled onto the tour without any intention of following it through, but soon found myself moving from one historic site to the next, and thoroughly enjoying the whole experience. Without any map or guidebook, I managed to find almost all the historic sites, and here they are:
1. Kaw Mission
This is where you should begin your tour of Council Grove, Kansas. The Kaw Mission is a few blocks north of downtown on Mission Street.
The Kaw Mission was built by Methodist Episcopal missionaries in 1851, as a school for Kaw, a.k.a. Kansa, Indians. Native Americans never liked the school, so the mission’s focus turned to the education of white students.
2. Old Bell
Follow the signs up the hill to the Old Bell on Belfry Street. The picture tells the story: settlers rang the bell to warn of impending Indian attack.
3. Hermit’s Cave
Stop #3 is just a short walk up the street from the Old Bell. Hermit’s Cave served as a home for Giovanni Maria Augustini, who later left town with a wagon train, and walked to Santa Fe.
You can walk down a set of stairs to the front of the cave, and climb inside.
4. Last Chance Store
Back on Main Street, check out the “Last Store”. If you’ve ever felt nervous passing by a filling station that offered the “last gas for 100 miles”, think of how pioneers felt as they drove away from this store. This was their last chance to buy anything until they arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The limestone building was constructed in 1857, and is the oldest commercial building in Council Grove.
Historic Stop 5 is a spot where you can see wagon ruts, a few miles west of town. I didn’t drive out there. Instead, I jumped ahead to..
6. Cottage House Hotel
The Cottage House Hotel/Motel/Bed & Breakfast started out as a three-room cottage and blacksmith shop, back in 1867. Several expansions in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s grew it into the business it is today. Rooms are available for a reasonable rate, starting around $50.
7. Farmers and Drovers Bank
The next 3 historic buildings are all at the same intersection, at Main and Neosho Streets, just down from the Cottage House. Farmers and Drovers Bank is an ornate brick building, constructed in 1892.
8. Conn Stone Store
The Conn Stone Store was built in 1858, and served as an important trading post during the trail days. It was on the same corner as the other buildings, how on earth did I not take a picture of it?
9. Council Grove National Bank
Another beautiful old brick bank building is Council Grove National Bank, built in 1887. The bank moved out 91 years later, and now there are various offices in the building.
10. Hays House & 11. Seth Hays Home
You can’t miss Hays House on Main Street in downtown Council Grove. In operation since 1857, Hays House is the oldest continuously-operated restaurant west of the Mississippi. George Custer and Jesse James have enjoyed a meal there. While we’re at it, let’s through in another familiar name: Daniel Boone (founder Seth Hays was one of Boone’s grandsons).
You can also arrange for a private tour of Seth Hays’ home, on Wood Street, 2 blocks south of Main.
I had planned to return to Hays House for dinner, after I explored all the stops on the historic tour. But, it was getting late, and I had already made reservations outside Kansas City.
12. Custer Elm
If you’re following the exact course of my trip, the Custer Elm will likely be your first historic stop, since it is located alongside K-177 on the southern side of town. If you’re coming from the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, you’ll drive by here.
Local legend has it, that General George Custer camped under this elm tree while patrolling the Santa Fe Trail with the 7th Cavalry around 1867. Two years later, Custer purchased property just south of here.
13. Neosho River Crossing
Head back into town, and meet up with Main Street once again, to see the next stop on the historic tour. An old covered wagon stands at the bridge over the Neosho River, at the point where 150 years ago, pioneers also crossed.
14. Madonna of the Trail
In a nearby park stands Kansas’ copy of the Madonna of the Trail statue. I had already seen an identical monument earlier in the day, in Lamar, Colorado, so I didn’t make the u-turns necessary to see this one.
15. Post Office Oak
The second famous tree stub on the tour of Council Grove is the Post Office Oak. From 1825 to 1847, mail would be dropped off and picked up here by wagon trains.
16. Council Oak
Perhaps the most historic old tree in Council Grove, and certainly one of the most famous trees in the history of the West, is the Council Oak. It was under this tree in 1825 that the U.S. Government reached an accord with the Osage tribe, allowing passage along the Santa Fe Trail. In exchange, the Osage tribe received $800. At the same time, Council Grove was given its name (for the grove of trees that grew along the Neosho River–this was the last such forest along the trail for hundreds of miles).
Very little remains of the famous Council Oak today. The tree lived until 1958, when a windstorm brought it down. Now, underneath a shelter, you can still see the old tree’s bark shell, and a slice cut from the trunk, after the tree fell.
17. Durland Park: City Calaboose (Jail)
Durland Park is the next stop on the historic tour, a few blocks east on Main Street from the Council Oak. While other stops on the tour display the real thing, this one offers a recreation of the Council Grove calaboose (a fancy word for jail). The sign out front explains that a similar jailhouse was used to hold “desperadoes, ruffians, robbers, and horse thieves”. In the early days, it was the only jail on the Santa Fe Trail.
18. Old Stone Barn
The final stop on the historic tour requires a drive out of town, then a detour down a dirt road (that’s passable in a low-clearance 2-wheel-drive car, so long as you’re careful and the dirt is dry). The 76-foot-long limestone structure was built on land owned by Seth Hays in 1871.
The barn found its way onto the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, and restoration began in 1992. Now the barn has repaired walls, along with a new roof and windows.
I saw this office (at the turnoff from the main road to the barn) and thought the sign was funny. After a little research, I learned that many agricultural areas have a noxious weed department. Noxious simply means harmful, it turns out.
After seeing the barn and laughing at the Noxious Weed Department, I drove back into town to see if I had missed anything during my historic tour.
Council Grove does have some nice ghost signs…
… and two lakes (a city reservoir, and a federally-administered lake) just north of town.
Council Grove and the Flint Hills provided a great end to a boring day of driving across Kansas. I still had miles to go, since I had made reservations near Kansas City.
I didn’t know it then, but the gloomy weather that had plagued my trip across Kansas was about to get much worse.
Note: This trip was first published in 2008.