FUTURE, PRESENT and PAST Finney County pioneer families to be honored

By Steve Quakenbush

Finney County’s earliest pioneers included William and Lettie Fulton, whose garden inspired the community’s name; John and Ciddie Stevens, daughter of William and Lettie; James and Millie Fulton; plus C.J. “Buffalo” and Martha Jones. Their four homesteads formed the nucleus of Garden City, and their cooperative and competitive efforts spurred the growth of town, officially established in 1879 and incorporated in 1883.

However, they weren’t the only pioneers whose lives shaped the place we call home. Over the past 142 years, many men and women have played roles in building, adapting and improving Finney County. Those include pioneers in farming, ranching, business, education, public service and additional endeavors, along with those arriving from other places, states and nations to add to the community’s rich and varied makeup.

At the Finney County Historical Society, we’ve been honoring local homesteaders, trail blazers and pathfinders annually since 1974 with the Finney County Pioneer Award, and we’ll do so again soon. More than 126 families, couples and individuals have been recognized, based on long-term presence and significant contributions to local history.

Selections are made by the Pioneer Committee of the FCHS Board of Directors, and the latest honorees are the Ensign D. and Harriet R. Downer family, as well as the Hendrik and Jan Rijfkogel family. 

The public is welcome to join FCHS members at our 2021 annual banquet, when the awards will be bestowed.

The dinner is set for 7 p.m. Nov. 6 in the fellowship hall of the Turning Point Church of the Nazarene, 2720 N. Campus Drive. The cost is $18 per person and reservations are due by Oct. 27 at the Finney County Historical Museum, 403 S. Fourth Street, where exhibit hours are 1-5 p.m. seven days weekly and office hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Reservations may also be phoned in at 620-272-3664.

Each family will be featured in a video presentation during the evening. The banquet, postponed from April due to pandemic precautions, will also include a report on accomplishments of the FCHS and museum during 2020.

DOWNER FAMILY

The family of Ensign “D.L.” Downer and Harriet Rebecca Cotton Downer can trace their Finney County roots to the early 20th Century. Married July 4, 1883, they arrived two years later in Kansas and relocated to Garden City after first passing through in 1901.

He was an Iowa native who farmed and raised cattle, while she came from Illinois and served as a nurse with Dr. Sanford Bailey, as well as involving herself in church and charity work.

The couple’s eight children included Harold Burl Downer who, with his wife Alta M. Linfoot Downer, had four children of their own. The youngest of those children is Keith L. Downer, who lives in Garden City today with his wife, Candy.

Keith Downer, a retired veteran feedlot cowboy, is a well-known and published southwest Kansas cowboy poet, and was inducted during 2020 into the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame, in part for the way he has maintained his family’s traditional association with cattle, horses and Western cowboy culture. He is also a long-time board member and frequent volunteer for the FCHS.

RIJFKOGEL FAMILY

As immigrants and naturalized citizens, the Rijfkogel Family embodies the spirit of the American Dream.

Uprooted by the Nazi invasion of Holland during World War II, the late Hendrik Rijfkogel fled with his mother and sister during the 1940s to what was then the Dutch East Indies, after the German abduction and killing of his father.

He served 15 years in the Dutch Army and met his future wife, Jan Nio, but the family was uprooted a second time when Indonesia gained independence from Holland. In 1961 they emigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands, with church assistance, arriving in Garden City.

The Rijfkogel family proudly earned their American citizenship in 1967, with a swearing in ceremony in Finney County District Court. By that time, the father was operating a janitorial service, but tragically lost his life in a 1972 highway crash. 

The oldest son, Hendrik “Henk” Jr., was sent home from U.S. military service in Vietnam and took over the business, which he still operates today as Henk’s Carpet and Upholstery Cleaning. In addition to Mrs. Rijfkogel, the family include brothers Alphons and Samuel, as well as sisters Johanna, Mirjam, Emmanuel and Esther.

Both families were originally scheduled for recognition in 2020, but the COVID-19 conditions forced two postponements of the ceremony.

The event is sponsored by Fry Eye Associates and Homestead Assisted Living of Garden City, and the agenda also includes a fund-raising silent auction, with cash or checks welcome, over the course of the evening. Proceeds will help support the society’s mission of preserving the past to enlighten the future – an objective that includes our Finney County Pioneer Awards Program.

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 .

Quakenbush