Western Kansas Odyssey, Part V: The Nicodemus Loop

Hays Travel Blog

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Saturday’s day trip was solo, beginning in the small Volga German community of Catharine, about 10 miles northeast of Hays. The centerpiece of the town is Saint Catherine’s, its trumpet-brandishing angel statues conveying this fact even in silence. The church was locked, but I was fortunate to find the local post office open, and chatted with a fourth generation postmaster who took me to the back of the building and showed me the original postboxes that had been removed to comply with new US Postal Service regulations. The town’s welcome sign proudly announced its Volga German heritage with a spelling of Katharinenstadt. Considering that the church and town name spellings are different—a fact that confuses even the most popular online mapping applications as well as most other reference sources—it would have been simpler just to stick with the German name.


Detouring slightly northwestward through the former settlement of Severin provided some close-up views of the ubiquitous “Kansas woodpecker.” Other than these oil wells and the cemetery, Severin was completely nonexistent. Squiggly lines on my non-topographic map did not prepare me for the awe-inspiring drive through the Hadley Range. In addition to the magnificently beautiful weather, the wide hilly valley offered some of the most stunning scenery I’d seen thus far (besides Castle Rock of course). With nary a farmhouse in sight, I slowly careened along until I approached a group of cows lazing in the middle of the dusty road. Completely perplexed by the four-wheeled vehicle interrupting their day, they reluctantly moved out of the way as I snapped pictures of the distant buttes and fields shimmering in the spring morning air.


At the county line just past Turkville, I looked back for a wide view of the entire range and the light gray line of road that I had just traversed. Finally I was in Codell, a community known best for its inclusion in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! for having a tornado on the same day for three consecutive years. Whether tornadoes or economic changes were to blame, it was clear that Codell’s days were numbered. However, there were still several houses, a church, park and a few local businesses.


Having completed the most out-of-the-way detour of the trip, I ventured west en route to Nicodemus. After a brief stop in Plainville, where I’d dodged tornadoes myself about 15 years ago, I entered the “urban boundary” of sleepy of Zurich. Next was Palco, where a brilliantly resorted 1930s gas station had been turned into a 1950s malt shop and antique store. Pastel colors and posters of poodle-skirted girls and white t-shirt-clad greasers decorated the walls. According to the proprietor, who had been across the street at the café, they attract a decent crowd in the evenings for a town of only 300.


A little bit of French Canada awaited me in the tidy little town of Damar. Along the avenue into town, community pride flared on the newly renovated facades of buildings, which had been elegantly painted to resemble boutiques, cafes, or city offices—all complemented with French names like “Le Salon” or “La Confiserie de Bella.”  In keeping with the Francophilia, I had French toast for an early lunch at the local cafĂ©. Prominently towering above the rest of the town at the end of the wide boulevard running through town, the twin spires of St. Joseph’s Catholic church announced the town’s dominant religious affiliation.

A town formerly known for its cheese production facility, Bogue is now better known as the hometown of America’s Best Steaks, which dry-ages their beef. It is also the postal address for one of Kansas’s most notable settlements, Nicodemus. In 1877 a group of former slaves settled here after escaping the South, and according to the National Park Service, it is the only “all-Black” community of its kind to remain inhabited. Current and former citizens celebrate the Annual Homecoming Celebration. Five historic buildings were marked for the drive-through tourist: a school, two churches, a hotel and the township hall, which doubled as the official museum. Crushingly, the building was closed for a long lunch and disappointed, I continued eastward on my roundabout return to Hays.


The town of Webster had been mostly inundated with the construction of Webster Reservoir, but a handful of houses and an abandoned school nestled among back roads east of the lake did remain. Stockton presented itself neatly and, as the Rooks County seat, displayed its relative prosperity. Locally born talent Lorenzo Fuller, Jr. put Stockton on the map, attending Juilliard, starring in Broadway shows, and in 1947 hosted a 15-minute show many acknowledge as the first to be officially hosted by an African American.


Woodston showed few signs of life but on select weekend mornings, the community hosts a “coffee shop” in the former grain company office. Tiny Alton can at least claim its own famous citizen, legendary chocolatier Russell Stover. Originally named Bull City, Alton did not become the metropolis colorful founder General Hiram Bull had predicted; however, it is home to the Bohemian Cultural Center slash Homestead Restaurant. Just past the speck of Bloomington, I noticed along the side of the road a stone marker indicating Osborne County’s last Indian raid. I next entered the pleasant county seat town of Osborne. Victorian homes dotted the perimeter of the park-like courthouse square, which itself portrayed a stately scene. The busy main street eventually gave way once again to lonely ribbons of highway as I turned and headed south.


Having had such an early and light lunch, I was famished by the time I pulled into Luray. The sandwich I ordered at the deli counter of the Luray Grocery had slabs of ham almost too big to fit in my mouth, and certainly too cumbersome to attempt eating while behind the wheel. Six miles west in Waldo, I parked my car—the only one in sight—between the post office and fire department, and stuffed myself while lazy birds chirped in the late afternoon sun.


Finally I reached Paradise. No pearly gates here, but there was an historic water tower constructed of limestone. South of town I discovered the hidden village of Fairport, along the banks of the Saline River. It was all but deserted, save for the Fairport Market, which was bedecked with banners for the “Oswald Reunion” that weekend. Clean-cut Gorham could have been a stopover for dinner, but I was still full from the “snack” I got in Luray and the renowned German restaurant appeared closed anyway. A few miles west I passed through what was left of Walker. Saint Ann’s church still dominates the crossroads town, and with the post office gone and several paint-stripped buildings scattered around the few streets, the only other saving grace could be the interstate exchange within a mile of town. It is hard to imagine that during World War II, this place used to have an air base that stationed over 6,000 people.


Most Kansans are familiar with the legendary Saint Fidelis church in Victoria, better known by the moniker William Jennings Bryan had given it, the “Cathedral of the Plains.” When it was built in 1911, it had seating for over 1,000 people, making it the largest church west of the Mississippi. Of course it’s not a cathedral at all, but its sheer size commanded a name loftier than the simplistic “church” could do justice to. I had been here several years ago, but wanted to pass by this impressive mammoth once again. A group of fluorescent-haired youths congregated on the front steps as I turned the corner and headed west out of town and into the sunset. It would be my last night in Hays, so Jeff and I returned to the quiet downtown bar scene in search of a few celebratory pints.

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photo by: sayohat