Marion Wilcox stopped by last summer, wanting me to research his hometown.
It's Densmore, Kansas, several hours from Hutchinson. I haven't been to Norton County in a while - not since a fishing trip three or four years ago.
But Wilcox was persistent, which gets me every time. I began making calls to see if I could find out a little more about this ghost town.
There is not much left. The red brick Methodist Church has long been overtaken by trees.Other dilapidated buildings line the dirt streets here, including a wooden elevator near where the railroad tracks once lay. The roof is caving in on the bank turned post office, which closed in the 1980s – the zip code still etched on the window. The old Farmers Supply Store is but an empty shell and the high school isn’t much more then rubble.
In fact, for those still counting, only a handful of people withstand in a town once vibrant with activity. But over the years, one by one, people have sought greener pastures in bigger cities – abandoning the rural Norton County town of Densmore.
“There was a hardware and the elevator, a lumber yard and grocery stores,” Wilcox told me, who now lives in Partridge but spent many of his childhood years in Densmore. “We had a post office and a garage. We’d haul cream to the depot – we’d send five or 10 gallons of cream by train a week.”
Yet Wilcox was among the many who left – taking Highway 9 out of town to join the Air Force, then found work in a Hutchinson manufacturing plant.
Here is a little bit of the tale. All photos are courtesy of Doyle and Lois Archer. Doyle grew up at Densmore.
A pioneer named DensmorePioneers were still just settling the western Kansas prairie in 1878 when Cyrus Archer came to Norton County.
Much of the landscape was still rolling waves of grass. But as Archer trekked across it, he saw smoke coming up from the horizon where a dugout eventually emerged, said Doyle Archer of his distant relative.
There, he met Thomas J. Densmore, a man who had come to the area four years earlier.
At the time, there were a few homesteaders in the area. One, a man named Sorghum Smith, had died not long before Archer’s arrival. Smith had been in a disagreement with neighbors. Four weeks before his death, a note was pinned to his door, signed by 15 citizens who told him to leave the county or he would be mobbed, according to the “The History of the Early Settlement of Norton County, Kansas.”
In mid-April he vanished. Three weeks later, one of Smith’s sons went down into the tunnel which had been dug on his farm where Smith had considered building a mill. He saw his father’s body floating. A coroner and jury were summoned, and they called it a suicide.
Densmore lay claim to Smith’s property and eventually laid out the town of Densmore on the Solomon River. The town began to boom when the railroad came through in 1881, according to an article in the Norton County News that was transcribed by historian Ardie Grimes.
Businesses began to pop up across the little town. There was a hotel, hardware, general store, newspaper and creamer. Densmore himself was the first postmaster in town. Cyrus Archer helped constructed the Free Methodist Church and was the first pastor, according to information compiled by Grimes.
The town would eventually have a bank, school and elevator, and, in 1910, it had a population of 100, according “Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History,” published in 1912. Yet Thomas Densmore didn’t get to see the town’s future growth. A train struck his horse and buggy in 1890 and he died a few months later.
Densmore sued the Missouri Pacific before he died, then his widow took up the suit, according to Grimes’ research. A jury found in favor of the railroad.
Doyle Archer said Densmore had a couple of famous sons, including Glenn Archer, who was born in Norton Count in 1929. He was a senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, a position he was nominated for by President Ronald Reagan.