I met Mary Hooper Nelson many moons ago when I went to Cleveland for my first co-op job as a student at Antioch College. Along with a dozen or so other young adults, we were copyboys at the late, lamented Cleveland Press (yes, the girls were called copyboys–when an editor bellowed “Boy!” we had to jump!) Mary, a Cleveland-born journalist, now lives in Kinsley, Kansas, not far from Garfield, where folks consider themselves lucky to have a grocery store.
Garfield, Kansas, is a sleepy, drive-by hamlet in Pawnee County on the U.S. 56 highway, built on part of the legendary Santa Fe Trail. Passing through, a few tourists may stop and rest for a bit in the city park and perhaps peek into the Wayside Chapel, but there is not much in the town to detain a visitor.
Garfield was never a metropolis, but in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th, it was a robust agricultural community with a thriving small-town economy. It was typical of the many towns that sprang up throughout the Great Plains as settlers poured in to break up the hard prairie sod and plant wheat.
Supplying the railroad builders
Garfield started out in 1872 as Camp Criley, a supply station for workers building the Santa Fe Railroad.
In 1873 the “first” settlers arrived (the actual first inhabitants were, of course, the Pawnee and Kiowa peoples) and turned the rough sutler’s post into a recognizable town. They were from Lake County in Northeast Ohio and must have thought a great deal of their congressman, for they named the town after him. He was James A. Garfield, later elected U.S. president.
In appreciation, Garfield pledged a bell to the first church to be built in his namesake town. That was the Congregational church, built in 1875. Soon to follow were a Methodist church in 1878, and, as the town’s population swelled with Swedish immigrants, a Lutheran church in 1879.
My husband, Bryce Nelson, grew up in Garfield in the 1950s. He had numerous aunts, uncles and cousins in and around Garfield; his Nelson grandparents had eight children.
There were plenty of kids to play with and lots of old-timers to spin yarns. They’d tell of seeing covered wagons – also called prairie schooners – lumbering along the Santa Fe Trail, and recall examples of frontier justice. One townsman told of seeing a horse thief hanged in the now-vanished settlement of Nettleton in the early 20th century.
Still thriving in the ’50s
In the 1950s Garfield was still a pretty lively place. Although the population was only 300, it provided goods and services not just to the townspeople but also to ranchers and farmers throughout the county. It had two grocery stores, a bank, a lumberyard, two grain cooperatives, a large brick school for grades 1 through 12, a hotel and a restaurant.
Bryce’s great-uncle on his mother’s side, Sherman “Pete” Rains and his wife, Velma, operated one of the grocery stores. It was an old-fashioned place, Bryce recalls, where you could buy groceries on credit.
The old Swedish farmers would sit around in the morning in their bib overalls and feed caps and quaff cup after cup of strong black coffee. Velma would have slices of her raw apple cake on hand. “Coffee and apple cake draws Swedes,” says Bryce – and other folks too!
Bryce’s mother, Dorothy Nelson, collected family recipes, including Velma’s recipe for raw apple cake. It’s delicious, kind of crunchy on top and moist and dense inside.
Nearly a ghost town
Today, Garfield’s population is about 190. The businesses are gone, all of them. The last place in town to buy anything was a convenience store at the co-op, but that closed years ago. The Congregational church was torn down in the late ‘50s, although the Lutheran and Methodist churches remain and hold regular services.
James Garfield’s bell today hangs in the Wayside Chapel in the town park. The school was torn down a few years ago. School children now are bused to Larned, 10 miles away.
It was the automobile that did in Garfield’s business district, and those of innumerable towns throughout America. Once people in those villages could afford cars, they started driving to the cities where there were more stores and a greater variety of goods.
At least Garfield still has a post office.