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Manhattan’s history: memories and thoughts

By A Contributor

It is always good to come home to Manhattan, where 80 years ago next August I came into this world at Parkview Hospital. The building, built in 1907, still stands across the street from the northeast corner of City Park, but as you know, it is no longer a hospital.

I am pleased to see several members of my Manhattan High School Class of 1952 and other familiar faces. Those in the class of ’52 have witnessed a great deal of history. Of course, no one is alive who witnessed the founding of Manhattan. We must rely on written accounts of early settlers and travelers.

The New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley visited Manhattan in 1859 soon after the town was settled. Greeley traveled by train from New York to Chicago, where he found chocolate and morning newspapers at his breakfast table. When he got to Leavenworth, room-bells and bath tubs made their last appearance. He continued by stage coach to Topeka, where beefsteak, barbers and porcelain washbowls made their last appearance. When Greeley arrived in Manhattan on May 26, 1859 — 155 years ago — he was served his last potatoes and eggs, and saw chairs for the last time. The next day when Greeley reached Junction City, he saw his last boot-black and his last bed. The rest of his journey to Denver was downhill.

If Greeley returned to Manhattan today, he would be impressed with the countless bath tubs, chairs, a fine selection of foods and tree-lined streets. He probably would stay awhile.

History provides fascinating accounts of early life here   and across Kansas. The old-timers who left those accounts were not trained historians, but history does not require formal instruction to be handed down from generation to generation. All of us have listened as parents or grandparents told stories of the past. Growing up in Manhattan, I was surrounded by many grand-aunts and uncles who told stories about early Manhattan. Their stories caught my imagination and taught me at an early age that everything happening today becomes history tomorrow. In time that led me into journalism, a field sometimes described as “history in a hurry.”

A little more than half a century ago, I remember watching this city building being built. As a student at K-State, I drove by the construction site about every day and attended the building’s dedication. I knew many of the persons involved. The architect, Floyd Wolfenbarger, was a neighbor on North Eighth Street. And I knew several members of the city commission ,including another neighbor, Dick Rogers, who later became a federal judge in Topeka. I knew other commission members — Nate Harwood, Z.R. Hook and Lillian Bascom. Manhattan was then small enough that most folks knew most everyone in town.

I moved away in 1956 to pursue a career, but my roots remain in this river valley surrounded by the majestic “bluestems” or Flint Hills. When I see them I feel I am home. I have tried several times to capture in words the feeling that “the hills” convey, but it is difficult. It is easy to describe the terrain — the grasses, the outcroppings of rock, beauty of wild flowers and the wildlife, but it is difficult to put into words the feeling one gets in the Flint Hills. The feeling is almost spiritual and makes one feel closer to his maker.

The only writer I know of who came close in capturing in a few words the magic of “the hills” is the late Manhattan resident, Dan Casement, a Princeton graduate whose father, Capt. Jack Casement, supervised the construction of the Trans Contin-ental Railroad west from Omaha in the 19th century.

Later Capt. Jack and Dan were involved with building the Panama Canal. Dan raised prize-winning livestock at his Juniata Farm north of Manhattan. His home was a large two-story frame house in the 600 block of Humboldt Street. It no longer stands, but it was there he trained his parrot to cuss. During the warm months the parrot was kept in a cage on Casement’s screened porch and often attracted the attention of people walking by his home.

Dan Casement loved the Flint Hills. About 1944 he wrote the few words I mentioned. He noted that “the hills” were like “Mother Nature’s round undulating breasts, soft and warm in the sunshine, restfully inviting and rich in the promise of nurture.”

The Flint Hills are nothing more than a series of closely spaced, relatively high ridges formed by ancient ocean currents and glacial movements. The name is misleading. They do not contain ledges of flint. Only nodes of flint can be found in the softer limestone. Although it is scarce, early Indians found enough flint of sufficient size to make arrow points. Because the topsoil is thin, the roots of grass easily tap the lime and absorb it. In turn the predominant grasses — big bluestem, little bluestem, and the side oats grama — are more productive. One can find identical grasses growing elsewhere in Kansas and on the ranges of New Mexico, Colorado and other western states. But aside from the black earth regions of central Texas, only here in the Flint Hills do the coarse grasses feed on the lime which makes them so palatable and so nutritious for cattle.

Manhattan and its location attracted one of my great grandfathers, Carl Engel, who settled here in 1865. He and his family are buried in Sunset Cemetery. Engel was an early merchant and later a pharmacist. One of his daughters married my grandfather, Archie Long, a miller and native of West Virginia who came here in 1892. In time he owned the Manhattan Milling Co. Long was mayor in 1909 and initiated the city’s system of paved streets and its sanitary sewer system. He is also buried in Sunset next to my grandmother and my parents. I was honored to be at the dedication of Long’s Park, named for my grandfather. The many improvements are impressive. I know he would be pleased.

It was 97 years ago, in 1917, that my grandfather built a filling station on the northwest corner of the park. The station was one of more than 70 that he built, owned and operated between Kansas City and central Kansas. But he made the one on 17th Street special. In 1926, the year the nation’s numbered highway system was established, he realized many travelers would be crossing the nation in their motorcars and that many would travel U.S. 40, a new coast-to-coast route that passed his station on South 17th. From the city my grandfather leased the vacant and neglected swampy land behind his filing station and transformed the space into a park of beauty and peace to serve travelers. Records indicate that several thousand tourists visited the park annually during its early years.

Many memories return when I drive the streets of Manhat-tan. I remember where the neighborhood grocery stores once existed. I see houses where people I knew once lived, and at 409 N. 17th St., I see the house where for a time during World War II the young New York socialite, Gloria Vanderbilt, lived. Her first husband was a soldier at Fort Riley. When he was transferred, Gloria went with him. Later, in her fourth marriage, she gave birth to CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

Just after World War II when gas rationing ended, many motorists followed U.S. 40 from coast to coast. During the late 1940s, my father came home one hot summer evening and told us that radio star Jack Benny and his wife, Mary Livingston, had stopped in Manhattan that day. They were driving east to New York and seeing the country. They stopped for Cokes at the Rexall Drug Store at Fourth and Poyntz. They sat on the soda fountain stools and enjoyed their cool drinks until somebody recognized them and they left, apparently fearing they would be mobbed by fans.

I would be remiss not to mention the writer and Manhattan native who made his mark in that other Manhattan. Damon Runyon was born here, and his home still stands at Fourth and Osage. The artist and long-time friend, Tal Streeter, a classmate at Manhattan High, had a hand in saving the house. He mentioned the Runyon home when I last saw him in Santa Fe last fall before he died.

My Manhattan memories are like a personal diary. All of us carry such a diary in our minds. For many, the memories in those diaries become stronger over time. In mine, I have vivid recollections of the 1951 flood, my years at Woodrow Wilson, junior high and high school, and at K-State, and of first meeting Sue, the young woman I have been married to for nearly 58 years. And I remember cold winters and hot summers but delightful springs and falls. I also remember eating greasy hamburgers at the In-Between, that small cafe that once stood across the street from the old high school on Poyntz. My mind remembers band concerts in the park, Matt Betton’ s dance band and music store, Scheus’s Cafe, and radio stations KMAN and KSAC before the arrival of television.

I remember as a boy seeing two U.S. presidents and one future president in Manhattan. Late in World War II, my mother learned from a friend that President Roosevelt was aboard a special train traveling down the Blue Valley line toward Manhattan. We hurried to just east of the Perry Packing Company, where the tracks then crossed Poyntz.

We saw armed soldiers stationed every so many yards along the tracks. Soon the president’s train slowly approached. Sitting on the open observation platform of the last car was FDR. When we waved, he waved back. For a boy of 10, that was a thrill. His train was heading for Fort Riley. Such war-time travels of the president were supposed to be kept secret, but word had leaked out.

Not secret was a brief visit of President Truman, whose campaign train stopped one fall evening at the depot so he could make a brief speech. It was 1949 and a large crowd turned out to see him with his wife and daughter. He spoke, the crowd cheered and the train continued west.

Earlier, and just after the war in Europe ended, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower came to Manhattan. He was in a parade on Poyntz and then spent time visiting his brother, Milton, who was then president of K-State.

Such memories of growing up in Manhattan remain strong, including many visits to the pleasant rock gardens with goldfish ponds that once were in the southeast corner of City Park. Johnny Kaw stands just north of the area today, but the gardens and rocks and goldfish are gone.

About 1945 my parents purchased the red brick house at Eighth and Humboldt. Today it is known as the Ulrick house because it was built in the late 1860s by Robert Ulrick, a well-known builder. In September 1978, the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as an example of one of the city’s early brick homes.

Before I moved with my parents into the Ulrick house, my home was at 206 Houston in a house built by my grandfather,  Archie Long. Next door west was a large two-story stone house built by my great-grandfather, Carl Engel, who owned and operated a general store on the south side of Poyntz in the 200 block. He built a large stone barn behind the house. There he kept a milk cow and chickens. Near the back door was a well that pumped cool water into a large stock tank where live catfish that had been caught in the Kansas or Blue rivers were kept for the dinner table. There also was a large garden behind the home.

On the northwest corner of Second and Houston was a white two-story frame house. A sister of Buffalo Bill Cody lived there during the early 1890s. My grandmother told how Buffalo Bill would often come to Manhattan to visit his sister before she later moved to Colorado. When I learned this, the house next door became something of a shrine because Buffalo Bill, a real western legend, had stayed there.

When I got older, I learned more about his visits. It seems Buffalo Bill liked to drink. When his sister learned Bill was coming for a visit during what was then a prohibition Kansas, she would send a note to one of my grand uncles telling him “Bill is coming and he will need a bottle.” That grand uncle was Charlie Engel, a gunsmith, inventor and poet, who owned a hardware store in the 200 block of Poyntz. Uncle Charlie knew where the bootleggers lived. He would buy a bottle and take it to Cody’s sister or to Cody himself if he had already arrived. The mall now covers the land where the Engle stores and those houses once stood. But memories and photographs remain.

Most of the town’s pioneers died long before I was born, but I have often wished they were still alive to be interviewed. One such pioneer was Theodore Weichselbaum. He came from Germany and landed in New York City in 1856, but he did not like the East and soon came West, settling in what is now Ogden. He opened a general store and became Ogden’s first postmaster. During the 1860s he traveled extensively through central and western Kansas and had interesting experiences with Indians, buffalo hunters and the U.S. cavalry. Weichsel-baum knew George Armstrong Custer and once entertained Custer and his wife in his Ogden home. Weichselbaum also had financial interests in several sutler stores at military forts, including Fort Dodge and Fort Larned. But he sold those interests after the Civil War to focus on his growing business interests at Ogden.

Those interests included one of the first breweries in Kansas, which he began building in 1859. Weichselbaum hired four or five men who had been brewers in Germany. By 1871, they were producing much beer that was sold over a wide area. But Weichsel-baum had to close his brewery on May 1, 1881, when prohibition arrived in Kansas.

He turned his attention to his store. In 1904 he claimed he had been a merchant longer than any one else in Kansas. A decade later, he died peacefully in his home at the age of 80. The last time I passed through Ogden, the stone remnants of his brewery could still be seen on the north side of Riley’s main street.

Collecting and writing stories about people like Weichsel-baum has been a major interest of mine for decades.

After all, it is the people of the past and their stories that make history. As the writer David McCullough says, “History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”

History often suggests what might have been. If it had not been for the railroads, Manhattan today might be a river port for low draft steamboats on the Kansas River. Many of you know the story of the Hartford, the steamboat that brought many early settlers to Manhattan. As the town was being born, several light draft steamboats plied the Kansas River from Kansas City to west of here. In fact, between 1854 and 1864, at least 33 named steamboats traversed the Kansas River. But the railroads wanted bridges for their trains to cross the river and steamboats were competition. But tall bridges that enabled steamboats to pass underneath cost more to build than low bridges. Powerful railroad interests got the Kansas Legislature to rule that the Kansas River and other streams were not navigable and permitted the railroads to build low bridges. Steamboat travel on the Kansas River ceased to exist.

If one could travel by steamboat today between Manhattan and points east, it would be a nice outing and certainly a tourist attraction. U.S. Army engineers studied the matter in 1879 and reported that the river could be improved for navigation at a cost of $450,000. Today, it would cost far more, but it probably could be done.

We should cherish what we learn from history, but I don’t think we should worship the past. Yet it can provide order, a pattern and purpose for our future. And we should protect and preserve sites, structures and neighborhoods that reflect elements of our cultural, social, and economic history. They serve many purposes and can provide many rewards. Those rewards include strengthening local economies, helping to stabilize property values and fostering civic beauty and pride. Preserving history helps give residents a greater appreciation of the past and can create a more pleasant environment in which to live.

One Manhattan building I remember well is the old city hall, built in 1903 on Third Street just north of Poyntz. The two-story stone building had character. It housed the police and fire departments on the first floor and city offices above. When a fire alarm came in, the fire department turned on a siren that could be heard throughout much of Manhattan and alerted volunteer firemen to report for duty. When it was built, the building was large enough to hold the various city departments, but by the end of World War lI, the quarters were, becoming cramped. By the middle 1950s, the present City Hall was constructed.

The old city building on Third Street was sturdy looking, something like the Kimble Castle and many other old stone structures still standing around Manhattan. If it were still here, it would be something of a landmark and might be renovated to serve other purposes. Today it exists only in photographs, perhaps a painting or two, and in the memories of old-timers. It could be said that the building was a victim of its time when people mistakenly thought new was better than old.

Today when someone proposes that a building or a house be torn down, others may call for it to be preserved. Controversy often follows and countless opinions are expressed on both sides. Some opinions are self-serving and designed to help someone make a buck. Other opinions are often nothing more than knee-jerk reactions based more on emotion than rational thinking. I learned long ago that opinion is the lowest form of human knowledge. As such,  every opinion should be examined with care. Facts should support an opinion, and the final decision should be what is best for the community, not just today but in the future. Hasty decisions should be avoided.

More than a century ago, the English artist and art critic of the Victorian era, John Ruskin, wrote: “It is again no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us.”

Since Ruskin’s declaration, the late Jane Jacobs, a writer who pioneered deep thinking about city planning in America, wrote, “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” The histories of many cities have shown that citizens should never believe a bureaucrat who says there is no money for preservation. Saving and remodeling an old building may cost less than tearing it down and building something new. And there are organizations — local, state and national — that may help fund historic preservation.

In numerous cities and towns across our nation where historic preservation has occurred, residents have learned that saving old homes, buildings and neighborhoods is an effective way to provide continuity for residents and visitors. Historic preservation creates character and uniqueness. It makes a community more attractive as a place to live, and it also attracts new residents and tourist dollars.

Manhattan’s history is rich. Much has been done to preserve it. Preserving the past reminds us of timeless human truths and allows us to understand the past and preserve important cultural traditions, including the mistakes that have been made. History is the foundation for self-understanding and helps us realize that no human is perfect. At the same time history has also shown that many generations are judged not by the monuments they build but by those that have been destroyed.

Plato supposedly said that anyone who does not appreciate history is still a child. In more recent times, the journalist and writer P. J. O’Rourke put it this way: “Those of you who do not know history are probably also not doing well in English or Math.”

Thank you for the invitation to share some of my Manhattan memories and thoughts. I wish my hometown well in preserving its colorful past.

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