CARNEIRO - The bells of the steeple chime in parishioners every Sunday morning at the little white church in this rural Kansas town.
And it seems it doesn't matter that the school closed years ago or that fewer than a half-dozen residents live here. Pastor Steve Holmes continues to bring a message to his 20-some-member Carneiro United Methodist Church congregation each Sunday - just as other ministers did for 125 years.
"Kansas, like the commercials say, gives you a sense of wide-open spaces," he said, noting that this ghost town of sorts "doesn't have the hustle and bustle of the city.
"I just think it's closer to God that way," he said.
Take a drive through the Smoky Hills past Kanopolis Reservoir and the Ellsworth County town of Carneiro suddenly appears amid the sloping terrain along K-140. These days, all that's left of the once-prosperous sheep shipping point are a few homes, the boarded-up school, a dilapidated general store and the well-manicured church.
Yet, the little town still has a pulse thanks, in part, to the weekly church services, as well as a monthly community potluck in the church's small addition. The town is also a tourist stop for those visiting Kanopolis Reservoir, and recent local lore suggests the area might have buried treasure connected to the notorious outlaw Jesse James.
Residents built the school in 1916 - the same year that Wellington decided to get out of the sheep business. Wellington, who also had interests in Ellsworth, including the development of an entire city block, reported to an Ellsworth newspaper that he was selling his herd due to low tariff on wool. The article said he was contemplating turning the 19,000-acre ranch into an immense sugar plantation.
The old school, however, remains, perched atop a small knoll - cracked and weedy concrete steps leading up to brick structure. The high school closed in the early 1940s, with the building staying open as a grade school for at least another 20 years.
Early founders had lofty dreams for this little waypoint along this westward path.
Before its official naming, Carneiro started as a site where the Smoky Hill Trail crossed Alum Creek, according to the U.S. Corps of Engineers. It was called the Alum Creek Station. In 1866, the Kansas City and Santa Fe Stage and Mail Line began to travel the military trail from Kansas City to Denver.
Local historian and Kansas Cowboy newspaper founder Jim Gray of Geneseo tells the story of how five soldiers were escorting a stage from Salina to Ellsworth. Though told to save their ammo, the men took "pot shots" at buffalo along the way.
"They were attacked by Indians," Gray said. "The soldiers stopped by the (Alum) Creek bank to hold off the Indians and they started running out of ammunition. Only one made it to Ellsworth alive."
The stage stop, however, didn't really prosper until E.W. Wellington came to Kansas in the 1870s. Massachusetts-born Wellington, a Harvard graduate, brought his new wife, Clara, as well as his Harvard friends and associates from Boston to Kansas, where he eventually began an extensive sheep operation in Ellsworth County.
He called his ranch Monte Carneiro, Carneiro meaning sheepfold in Portuguese. He built many houses and ranches to accommodate himself, friends and workers, Gray said.
With the large amount of sheep, Wellington, whose ranch was a few miles north of present-day Carneiro, and his group decided to develop a shipping point for the livestock in 1882, which is how the town sprang up. Businesses included a hotel, stockyards, a school and three general stores, Sneath said. According to the Kansas State Historical Society, the post office was started in June 1882.
Carneiro Cemetery is about a mile west of town
This is one of E.W. Wellington's homes, a prom. Ellsworth County rancher, biz man
Holmes said his little church began in 1885 in a school building, which was eventually razed to make way for the "new" school, built in 1916. The Methodists used the basement for services, while the Christian Church used the upstairs.In the mid-1890s, producer Henry McManes said he'd help build the new church, providing two lots and the services of his hired hands. The white church's first service was in March 1895.
One of the general stores still stands, complete with old display cases, collections and junk filling the inside, but Sneath wasn't sure if it was the one his ancestor ran.