SAUNDERS — The little border stop greets you as you enter Kansas — along with a windshield of dust.
And on this late summer day, it seems, the dust is especially bad at Saunders, which sits right next to the Colorado border along a stretch of Highway 160 that, for miles, is nearly empty of people.
But for Minnie Watson, the whirling earth she experienced here during the 1930s was much worse than today. She and her family moved to Saunders in 1937. She was in second grade.
Her family had left Plains, Kansas — an area still plagued by dust storms, although it wasn’t quite in the heart of it like Stanton County. In a time when jobs were hard to come by, her father had secured the position of elevator manager for the Collingwood Co.
They moved into Saunders’ single residence, which also was the elevator scale house and office.
Here, their power was from the wind, she said. While they had enough for lights and radio, it wasn’t enough, though, to power a refrigerator or washer, which they had left behind at Plains.
It took a little while for the family to adjust to the stark landscape. Upon seeing their new home, “my mother cried and cried.”
“It wasn’t quite as dusty at Plains,” Watson, 86, of Manter, recalls. “But at Saunders, it was just dirt.”
A stop in the road
There is little information on the formation of Saunders, except that it probably formed in the 1920s when the railroad went through the county, said Katie Herrick, director of the Stanton County Historical Museum.
Even Watson, who, at 86, still works answering phones and selling advertising at the Johnson Pioneer, the county newspaper, never heard the story of Saunders’ beginnings.
Herrick said the first railroad came through Stanton County in 1923. Saunders most likely came later.
A 1923 article in The Hutchinson News tells of a man named Walter Saunders — the oldest engineer of the Santa Fe Railroad’s western division. He lived in Hutchinson’s Farmington addition. While towns were often named after rail employees, there is no indication the town of Saunders was named after him.
A Collingwood elevator was built at Saunders in 1928, according to a June 1, 1928, article in The News.
The article said, “Hundreds of land buyers and people looking for new locations are coming to Stanton County at this time. Never in the history of Stanton County have conditions been more favorable as they are today. Thousands of acres of new sod have been broken this year, many new farm buildings erected and the whole county has an air of prosperity. New elevators at Big Bow, Johnson and Saunders are being erected by Collingwood Grain Company. The wheat in Stanton County this year is the best in the history of the county.”
Meanwhile, it said that farm implement dealers were reporting a big sale of combines through the county. One farmer, Mr. Cessna of Big Bow, expected wheat yields to total 35 to 40 bushels an acre.
“The last of the Great Southwest is fast being developed, turning the cowman back to the west and breaking out the virgin soil for vast wheat farms,” The News reported.
Dusty days ahead
As population settled Stanton County, farmers began slicing through the prairie in the teens and 1920s. But as more plows took to the treeless plains, the dust began blowing.
Historians say 100 million acres of the southern plains turned into a wasteland during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. Drought, coupled by poor farming practices, choked an area of five states: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.
In Kansas, Stanton County and nearby Morton County, were amid the epicenter.
Bob Sipes, a 78-year-old farmer whose father came to the county by wagon in 1902, said he was born at the family farm near Saunders during a dust storm on May 13, 1936. “The doctor stayed two days because he couldn’t see to get home.”
There never was a post office, Sipes said. At one time, though, the elevator sold tires and fuel.
He recalls hauling wheat to the elevator at Saunders when he was a boy. At that time, it was a Gano elevator at the site and a man named Brown operated it, living in the scale house.
His said his father was on the cooperative board when the cooperative decided to build a concrete facility at Saunders. It took some effort to convince patrons, he said. Sipes, too, was on the board when they decided to build new bins.
Saunders still active
Today, however, Saunders hasn’t changed much. It still is by the railroad. And farmers still haul grain to the site, which is now a location of Skyland Grain.
And, it is still just a stone’s throw from Colorado.
“The first thing we did, we walked to Colorado,” 86-year-old Watson said of daily activity. “We were just kids. We’d jump on the railroad tracks. We get to ride the train a couple times to Walsh (Colorado) or Johnson. We’d ride in the caboose.”
She said her father eventually built a washing machine. And they found a kerosene refrigerator.
Her mother died in 1940. After that, she began to help her father at the elevator, weighing trucks and operating the gas pumps.
The family moved to California for a short time, then ventured back to Stanton County, where her father took a job as a farmhand for Fred Collingwood.
But Watson has fond memories of her time at Saunders.
“It was a fun living out there,” she said.
Stanton County had several towns that have long disappeared. This list, compiled from the July 24, 1938, edition of The News, lists several of Stanton County’s ghost towns. At most sites, nothing is left.
Veteran — This was the country’s’ first town, named so, presumably, because of the first settlers there were Civil War veterans. Veteran was founded 1885 four miles north and two miles east of the present-day Johnson. Veteran residents eventually moved to the location of Johnson, a town named after Col. A.S. Johnson, once president of the Santa Fe Railroad.
Edwin — Located six miles due north of Johnson, on north bank of Bear Creek, it was founded by the Edwin Town Co. in February 1886. Edwin’s buildings moved to Johnson in spring of 1887. The St. Elma hotel in Edwin became the old Norlin hotel building at Johnson.
Mitchellville — The town was located nine miles north of Johnson. Established in November 1886, the town had a newspaper.
Roanoke — Roanoke, located 12 miles south of Johnson near the Morton County line, had nine city blocks platted in 1886.
Eli — Six miles east of Johnson, Eli was founded in 1887 and operated a newspaper for one month. It was up for the county seat. Using the slogan “Get There, Eli” it was runner-up wtih 323 votes.
Liverpool — Liverpool, 18 miles southeast of Johnson, started in May 1887. In the 1930s, all that remained of the town was a depression where the town’s only industry, a cheese factory, once stood.
Borders — Located 22 miles northwest of Johnson, Borders was established by Borders Town Co. in May 1887. Plat included 64 blocks and town site lines were run with a team of oxen pulled a plow. Borders had a two story 16-room hotel. The newspaper was called the Border Roar and operated about two years.
Platte City — The town was about eight miles south of Johnson in May 1887.
West Haven — Located six miles northwest of Johnson in February 1887, West Haven had a hotel, albeit abandoned before a meal ever was served in it. A well 200 feet deep was sunk for waterworks. Also a county seat contender, West Haven received 57 votes.
Gognac — Gognac, founded August 1887, was 12 miles east of Johnson — almost on the Grant County line.
Fisher, on the west end of county, was founded by John Fisher.
Shockeyville — The town was on the northeast corner of the county.