By Steve Quakenbush

Celebrating support, upcoming events and 160 years of Kansas history

As we begin a new year this month, most Southwest Kansans probably want to look more toward the future than the past, with hopes of better times to come after recent and continuing adversity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention current social and political strife.

However, January also brings a chance to reflect on history for all of us in Kansas, since 2021 marks the 160th anniversary of the birth of our state. It was on Jan. 29, 1861 that the 34th star first took its place on the blue field of the American flag, converting us from a contested territory to an ambitious young state whose constitution forbade slavery – a controversial national issue at the time that touched off the Civil War.

The Latin motto chosen by our free soil founders was “Ad Astra Per Aspera,” meaning “To the stars through difficulties.” Parallels to the present are obvious.


In overcoming some of the difficulties of 2020 at the Finney County Historical Society, we owe a debt of gratitude to the many contributors who participated in our Year-End Giving Campaign during November and December. Some of the individuals, families, organizations and businesses who helped in sustaining our work at the Finney County Museum donated through Match Day at the Western Kansas Community Foundation, while others offered gifts directly to the FCHS. With all, including a few who contributed anonymously, we want to share sincere thanks on behalf of our staff, board and volunteers.

Our purpose is to preserve the past for enlightenment of the future, and every donation we received in the campaign will help in that ongoing endeavor. We carry that out not only through long-term and changing museum exhibits, but also by providing extensive historical research services, a year-round education program that serves adults and children, and preservation of more than 21,000 cataloged artifacts, documents and photographs.


We also stage numerous events for the community, and several of those are coming up in our next series of free evening and noon-hour history programs. The 2021 winter-spring sessions will take place with socially-distanced seating and additional COVID-19 precautions, including required face masks. Each is scheduled in the Mary Regan Conference Room of the museum at 403 S. Fourth Street in Finnup Park, with access via our north entrance.

These programs are sponsored by the Southern Council of the AT&T Pioneers, and include: “1921: The Year That Was,” at noon Jan. 13 and again at 7 p.m. Jan. 19; “Calkins Hall and Sabine Hall” at noon Feb. 10 and also 7 p.m. Feb. 16; “Influenza 1918,” a PBS documentary, set for noon March 10 and 7 p.m. March 16; and “The 200th Anniversary of the Santa Fe Trail,” at noon April 14 and also 7 p.m. April 20.


Meanwhile, progress is under way in our effort to preserve one of the most unusual grave memorials in the U.S., which stands above the resting place of Mitchal Runnels in Garden City’s Valley View Cemetery.

Young Mr. Runnels, born in 1909, died in February of 1927 after his beloved 1924 Chevrolet was struck on the local railroad tracks by an oncoming train. After the fatal collision, the victim’s father lovingly built a concrete monument to honor his son’s life. Atop the 40-inch pedestal, he placed the four-cylinder engine of the mangled car.

Over the past 94 years, the memorial has appeared in numerous articles and books, and in local stories handed down through the generations. However, the monument has decayed to the point that it’s in danger of collapsing, so we began a project last September to preserve the distinctive grave marker. Plans include replacing the crumbling concrete with a similar-size engraved granite stone to support the engine, and to stabilize and add a clear and long-term protective coating to the rusting motor itself.

An anonymous local shop volunteered to handle the engine preservation, and Price and Sons Funeral Home is providing the replacement stone at cost. The engine was recently removed and delivered for preservation by the cemetery staff, and it will be re-installed when the stone arrives in spring.

Nearly two dozen donors provided funds toward the cost, capped by more than 20 additional contributions honoring the life of Ashley Alexander, a museum volunteer who was killed last Oct. 25 in a traffic accident near Garden City. The 33-year-old local resident held an avid interest in the project and her family designated memorial gifts in her name.

With all of this under way, you can also watch for an upcoming announcement about a new exhibit pending in our Front Door Gallery, featuring Kansas images by children involved with Garden City Arts, as well as historical items noting the link between the outbreak of the Civil War and the birth of Kansas 160 years ago.

We hope you can join us in looking both to the past and the future. Ad Astra Per Aspera.

Steve Quakenbush is the executive director of the Finney County Historical Society. He can be contacted at HYPERLINK "mailto:squakenbush@finneycounty.org" or at squakenbush@finneycounty.org .

Steve Quakenbush