BELVIDERE - The last rays of the day's sun flicker off the little church with the peeling white paint - giving enough light to show off a dusty upright piano that rests inside against a window.
Down the dirt road is a weather-beaten hotel where cowboys once frequented for daily meals. Most all the other storefronts also have been long shuttered, except for one little store that sells antiques and things, although it was already closed for the day.
Hardly a soul is out. A small herd of horses grazes around a trailer house. A family passes by as they travel the paved county roadway in their off-road vehicle, heading back to their ranch on this warm autumn day.
This is Belvidere, Kansas - a not-quite-extinct cowboy town situated in the Gyp Hills along the Medicine River. There once were as many as 300 people living here, but over the years population has declined to about 15.
Still, amid the late-day shadows, there is a glimpse of what the rustic old town once was - a little junction in Kiowa County that serviced a group of people who made their living from the Gyp Hills prairie, which rises and falls here across the horizon.
Belvidere once was known for its high percentage of Yale graduates, along with bootlegging. Indians once frequented the region - and there is even a known battle site and burial ground not too far away.
The little town, however, also has mysteries. In 1971, rancher Goldie Millar's home was burned and her body never found, although her grandson was convicted of her murder.
Most, however, have forgotten that story as the town, along with the residents who knew her, continues slowly to disappear. But a few cowboys still call Belvidere home, including 71-year-old Dick Robbins, whose ranch is situated not far from town.
"Oh yeah," he says matter-of-factly. "I'm living proof that the only ex-cowman is a dead man."
He has "250 damn cows now" after being down to zero twice. Nevertheless, it was hard to get out of ranching when, here, in the Gyp Hills region of Kiowa County, there really isn't another way of life.
While much of Kiowa County is flat terrain of farmland, the region in the county's southeast corner is an expanse where the sky expands across rolling waves of grass. When the wives of wealthy ranchers Iowa Watson and C.P. Fullington first saw the area, they thought it couldn't be more stunning.
Thus, the two dubbed the town site Belvidere - or "beautiful view" in Italian.
The land had once been part of the Osage Indian Trust, which totaled 8 million acres in a strip extending more than 250 miles across the southern border of Kansas, according to a Jan. 9, 1955, story in The Hutchinson News.
In 1870, Congress assigned the Osage to a reservation in Oklahoma and opened the land to settlement, according to "History of Kiowa County, 1880-1980." A post office named Glick was first established in nearby Comanche County in 1883. It eventually moved near to future town site of Belvidere.
With the railroad coming through, Watson and Fullington, both highly involved in the Greensburg State Bank, along with other interests, began to promote the little town their wives had named.
"Caught in the Boom! Property of the new town Belvidere. $100,000 worth sold in ten days," stated an advertisement in the Greensburg Rustler on May 12, 1887. The ad also said the town was on the railroad and surrounded by fine "bottom farmland."
A year later, the newspaper reported 25 new homes were under construction in the town situated in a clump of elms and cottonwoods along the Medicine River, according to the history book.
Despite its beauty, there was little potable water, Robbins said.
"You could drill a hole in downtown Belvidere and you'll probably find fluid that even a rabbit couldn't drink," he said. "The good water came a little higher."
The railroad began shipping water in tank cars, transferring it to a cistern near the depot, according the Kiowa history book. Crews drilled a well two miles east and eventually water was piped into town.
Robbins comes to town
Robbins likes to tell of a story that supposedly ran in the Yale University alumni bulletin at one time.
About 10 percent of the population of Belvidere was Yale graduates. The rest, bootleggers, the publication stated.
"There never was a legal source of alcohol," Robbins said with a chuckle, but noted his father, a couple uncles and a cousin all graduated from Yale.
His grandfather, Will Robbins, helped start the town of Norwich and was president of the Norwich State Bank. Robbins speculates he received some land through his time at the bank.
By the turn of the 20th century, Robbins Ranch was one of the bigger operations in Kiowa County. While wells in town contained alkali, Robbins said that along the Soldier Creek, Spring Creek and Thompson Creek and other waterways, there was good water for livestock, and, of course, plenty of land for grazing.
Robbins' father, Richard, graduated form Yale in 1913 and attended Carnegie Tech. He then worked on the New York Stock Exchange. He eventually was president of Trans World Airlines.
By then, Will Robbins had accumulated 20,000 acres of land. When he died, his other son, Edward, took over the ranching operation. In the mid-1930s, Richard Robbins headed back to Kansas and went into partnership with his brother, purchasing property once operated by John D. Rockefeller's brother.
In the early 1970s, Dick Robbins took over the operation.
Hank Halley, who still runs the Halley's Junction store in Belvidere, said his grandparents had the hotel and would feed the Robbins' cowboys lunch at noon.
"They had a big long table in there and everyone would start a bowl on one side and pass it around."
Golda "Goldie" Millar was a well-to-do woman rancher who lived in Kiowa County between Haviland and Belvidere.
"Goldie, she was real nice," Halley said. "She was an old-style country woman. She worked hard, and she was tough."
But sometimes Halley, 73, still wonders what happened to Goldie, who disappeared in 1971.
The 78-year-old had considered selling her 3,100-acre ranch, worth about $340,000 at the time. She was even entertaining an offer just a few days before she died. She once had left much of her ranch to her grandson, Mike Pyle, but took her abusive grandson out of her will in July 1969, according to Kansas Supreme Court documents.
On early April 8, 1971, her ranch home was burned to the ground. No one has seen or heard from her since and no trace of her body has ever been found - only the remains of Goldie's dog, a German shepherd named Brandie.
About a month later, after his alibi began to deteriorate, Pyle confessed to burning down the home, according to the Supreme Court document. While in the hospital after overdosing on pills in an effort to kill himself, Pyle told two Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents his grandmother drank a lot and would verbally abuse his wife, Linda. When Pyle refused to divorce her, Goldie supposedly threatened to "get rid of Linda one way or another."
When his grandmother passed out on the floor, he said he went to the garage, got three one-gallon jugs of transmission fluid and poured it on the floor of the living room, according to the document.
However, the ashes of the house produced nothing in the way of human remains. At one point, while still in the Kiowa County Jail, Pyle told a KBI agent that he would tell where he left his grandmother's body.
"It's so gruesome and horrible I only want to tell it once," he said.
However, his wife Linda intervened. When the agent and Sheriff Bill Hogan again approached Pyle and asked where the body was, Pyle replied, "I've changed my mind. She died in the fire."
In another confession, he told an agent that Goldie had been drinking but this time said the conversation related to her selling part of the ranch to pay debts and that she wasn't going to leave him anything in her will. He then became angry and burned the home while she was passed out on the floor, the document states.
Pyle's case is significant because, although his grandmother's body was never found, local and state prosecutors and law enforcement were able to gather enough circumstantial evidence, including six confessions, to convince a jury Pyle murdered Goldie and burned down her home, Halley said.
The Kansas Supreme Court later upheld the conviction. A majority of Pyle's sentence has been serving time in Larned State Hospital.
"He's come up for parole," Halley said. "But he won't get out."
But even those stories are fading, Halley says around lunchtime one weekday as he operated his Halley's Junction store. Rarely anymore does anyone bring up Goldie or the whereabouts of her body.
Halley has watched the town dwindle, the restaurants close, as well as the hotel. He recalls trail rides that started at scenic Ty-Della Park on the outskirts of town, noting that the park attracted people from all over to picnic.
These days, he says sadly, it is overgrown in grass and weeds.
Halley said he went to school in Belvidere until sixth grade, moved with his family out of state for a time before returning and taking a job with Dick Robbins' father.
Today, however, he and his wife's little shop, with its mixture of antiques and other items, is one of the only businesses still operating.
"There were over 300 people here at one time," Halley said. "We had two gas stations, two feed mills, grocery stores, the school, the church, although we never did have a bank. There were quite a few people here until the early 1950s."
"People moved away. Kids didn't want to live here. Things just closed."
The post office closed in 1996 after more than 110 years of operation. Robbins said he recalls when there were six trains a day going into Belvidere. He also recalls the day the 2002 when the last train rolled into town.
It still brings hard feelings to the surface for Robbins, who said he wouldn't elaborate much on the topic.
However, he said matter-of-factly, "that railroad didn't die a natural death. It was murdered."