Custer Lives!

Council Grove, Kansas

 

In July 2009 I visited historic Council Grove, Kansas. I visited on a Sunday during the 4th of July weekend and unfortunately the tourism office wasn't open. I was hoping to get a map and some other printed materials to aid me on my historic site seeing tour. Fortunately I had my laptop with me and had downloaded some materials in advance in case the office was closed. Most of the sites are so well marked and easy to find I didn't need the downloaded content except on a couple of occasions. You can visit everything, and grab a meal or two, easily in less than a day and still have time to shop.

Council Grove is nestled in the Flint Hills portion of Kansas. Council Grove is easy to get to, US Highway 56 runs right through it and is Main Street. The speed limit downtown is 20 MPH and you won't want to exceed it as you drive through and absorb the small town charm. There were several businesses I wanted to shop at or go inside but they were closed for the holiday. I'll get to them on my next visit, as I intend to return some day. Council Grove's residents were all quite friendly and eager to help. Most of the twenty or so historic sites are within walking distance if you have a good pair of shoes and are in moderate health. If not, there's adequate parking available near most of the sites. A few of the sites are on the edge of town, and some outside of town, and require a vehicle. One site on private property, the Santa Fe Trial ruts, is reached on a gravel road. Another site outside the town is the Old Stone Barn which made the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. You get to it by a dirt road with ruts so only go if it's dry if you are in a car. A pickup or SUV with a higher ground clearance would easily get through in the rain.

Council Grove was, for many westward bound pioneers, the last spot of civilization before facing hundreds of miles of wilderness and danger along the Santa Fe Trial. The trail literally ran right through town and one of the historic sites is the crossing point on the Neosho River. A covered wagon is stationed on Main Street at the crossing point. Across the street is a Madonna of the Trail statue honoring women pioneers. The 1866 arrival of the Union Pacific Railroad began the end of Council Grove's importance as a stopping point on the way to Santa Fe.

The Kaw, or Kansa Indian, Reservation was established here in 1846. There is a memorial statue to the Kaw in a park setting. In 1872 another treaty moved the Kaw to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The Kaw Indian Mission site contains a museum, bookstore, and a reservation hut. There's also a nice walking trail to the Mission and back. The museum has a very modest $2 entry fee for adults and $1 for kids. Also at the Kaw Mission site is a marker where 500 Mormon Volunteers camped in August 1846 while enroute to San Diego to fight in the war with Mexico. The Mormon Volunteers had traveled from Council Bluffs, Iowa. On April 20, 2002 the Kaw Nation dedicated 168 acres of their native homeland near Council Grove. Future plans include a visitor center and reconstruction of a traditional bark lodge Kansa dwelling. Efforts will be made to stabilize the remaining buildings and construct trails with audio posts and wayside exhibits.

On one the highest hills in the town is the Old Bell used to warn townsfolk of Indian raids. Don't confuse the one in front of a church downtown with the warning bell. The true warning bell is on Belfrey Street. About one block away from the Old Bell is The Hermit's Cave. You can go down some stairs and climb inside Giovanni Maria Augustini's cave home. Watch for spiders!

Downtown I strongly suggest you eat at the historic Hays House. The food and service are outstanding. General Custer and the 7th Cavalry Officers ate at the Hays House when passing through. There are several other historic buildings downtown including the Farmers and Drovers Bank, the Conn Stone Store, Seth Hays Home, and the Council Grove National Bank. The Last Chance Store was literally that. It was the last store before you reached Santa Fe. The City Calaboose or City Jail is a recreation of the only jail on the Santa Fe Trail. Looking for a play to stay? Try the Cottage House Hotel which also serves as a bed and breakfast. Room rates are very reasonable.

There are three interesting tree sites to visit. Under The Council Oak is where the US Government signed a treaty with the Osage Nation in 1825 allowing for safe passage of Whites along the Santa Fe Trail. The Osage Nation was given $800. A windstorm in 1958 felled the tree. The stump remains under a roof. The Post Office Oak was where mail would be dropped off and picked up by wagon train between 1825 to 1847. The tree died in 1990 and was about 270 years old. The Morris County Historical Society operates a museum in a building behind the tree's location but it was closed because of the holiday. At the edge of town is the Custer Elm. General George Armstrong Custer and the 7th US Cavalry supposedly camped there in 1867. General Custer returned two years later and bought about 120 acres where the tree stood. The Custer Elm is now a very large stump inside a park.

For a low key and relaxing day in a historic town, this one would be very difficult to beat.

 The Neosho River crossing and covered wagon.

The Hays House.

The Neosho River and bridge crossing over to the Kaw Indian Mission.

The Morris County Historical Society building. The Post Office Oak stood in the light gray area in front of the porch.

A monument to the 137th Infantry Company C Santa Fe Trail Division.

The Council Oak where the Osage Nation signed away their land rights for $800.

The Old Warning Bell.

The Last Chance Store.

Downtown Council Grove.

Santa Fe Trail ruts outside of town.

The Kaw Indian Mission.

The Custer Elm.

The marker at the Mormon Volunteer site.

The Madonna Of The Trail.

A Kaw Indian Memorial.

A Santa Fe Trial marker dedicated in 1906.

 

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