MANHATTAN (KSNT) – Kansas history has never been more alive than it is now in the hands of students and historians devoted to putting the pieces of the past together through hours of painstaking research.
A group of students and staff at Kansas State University, along with historians at the Kansas State Historical Society (KSHS), have made it their mission to ensure the history of Kansas towns and communities isn’t lost to time. Their efforts are wide-ranging, comprehensive and aimed at showcasing the history of places in danger of being forgotten or that aren’t well-documented.
KSNT 27 News spoke with members of the Chapman Center for Rural Studies at K-State to learn more about what’s being done to catalog and record the history of Kansas’ relatively unknown towns and communities.
The Chapman Center
Executive Director of the Chapman Center, Mary Kohn, said the group was formed in 2008 by Mark Chapman after he made a generous donation to the university’s history department. The center picked up steam in 2015 as it expanded its focus and has steadily grown from there.
Chapman, a native of Broughton, Kansas, was concerned that the history of his hometown was in danger of being lost after it was condemned in 1966 for flood control, according to the Chapman Center’s website. This led to a research project on the town of Broughton that eventually culminated in a book dedicated to preserving its history.
From that point on, students enrolled in the Kansas Communities class at K-State have worked to piece together the history of little-known towns and communities that face being forgotten as the years go by, according to the center’s website. Kohn said more than 290 projects have been completed over the years with more than 190 communities being covered by the students and staff.
“The nature of our communities is always changing and there’s always a story to be told there,” Kohn said. “We want all of our small towns to thrive. Certainly, we’ll always be telling stories of communities that were once vibrant or communities that have found new ways to become vibrant.”
Kohn said other projects the center focuses on include Kansas archaeology, immigration to the state and language documentary projects. Plans are currently in place to release a documentary on the Kaw language alongside more Kansas town projects in the future.
“We focus on all aspects of Kansas life,” Kohn said.
Finding Something New
Students working with the Chapman Center conduct their research by looking at resources offered by the KSHS. Kohn said some students make trips to the places they’re studying to get a better feel for what they’re dealing with. Some take the next step towards creating an authentic report on the place they’re studying by interviewing residents or relatives of residents who hail from the community they’re researching.
“Students conduct research projects online,” Kohn said. “Many of these projects provide information on Kansas towns that may not even have a Wikipedia page.”
Resources at the KSHS like the Kansas Dead Town List put together by Mary Montgomery during the 1940s offer a good starting point for students to begin their research. With more than 5,000 entries on extinct or declining towns, students have a wealth of information at their fingertips.
“We have a number of approaches,” Kohn said. “We work very closely with various historical societies, especially the Kansas State Historical Society. Students will start with archival research, census records, historical newspapers. We’re very lucky the Kansas State Historical Society has a huge digital selection.”
Not every project in the works at the Chapman Center is on a town that is considered extinct or nearly so; some researchers are working to reveal more about little-known communities that have a special place in Kansas history. Holly Hill, an employee at the Chapman Center, is currently working on a project related to a community that she has a personal connection to.
Hill’s project focuses on revealing more about Asian refugees who came to the Sunflower State following the Vietnam War. She said she is, “trying to put my own community on the map.”
“Starting in about 1975 after Vietnam War ended, hundreds of thousands of refugees were coming to the U.S. from southeast Asia and Laos,” Hill said. “Many ended up in southeast Kansas. In the last 50 years, a significant community has been established there.”
Hill said she plans to release her findings later this year. She looks forward to presenting her project to her peers in the future and continuing the work being done at the Chapman Center.
Lost Kansas Communities
The Chapman Center allows guests to its website to scroll through dozens of history projects on Kansas communities that are not well known or unoccupied. A total of 159 communities, counties and regions occupy the Lost Kansas Communities list, each with their own unique stories to tell. The list of communities on the Chapman Center’s website can be found below: