Photographed and Written By Ingrid Keizer
It had been over a decade since I’d visited the sleepy town of Atchison, Kansas and my memory of that visit was vague. When a friend insisted that I’d be enamored with its bricked streets, historical homes, small town charm and overall history I grabbed my camera and made the beautifully scenic drive.
From downtown Kansas City, Atchison is an easy drive north through Platte, City and Weston where the scenery takes hold of ones attention and captivates. The lazy rolling hills dotted with tobacco barns through the agriculturally lush region make it nearly impossible not to imagine the area during the early 1800’s when tobacco provided a cash crop to its residents. In Weston, a turn north on 49 highway led me through lowland pastures, with swampy fields aside dramatic, tall, tree covered hills. The straight highway runs alongside railroad tracks and tiny towns like Iatin, Missouri with a population of 45. The village of Iatin was named for an Otoe Tribal Chief who was acclaimed for his battles with the Comanche. The town of Iatin was once a major trading post but lost its traffic after Weston, Missouri became established. Today Iatin is best known for the location of KCPL’s coal-fired power plant.
A turn onto 59 highway led to Atchison where I was greeted by the Amelia Earhart Memorial Bridge that crosses the Missouri River. Each time that I’ve returned the river seems to welcome me with its outstretched arms. It seems to whisper, “Breath deeply, slow down, relax. Enjoy a slower pace of life”. These are welcome words to a stressed, single mom.
This western section of the Missouri River was once inhabited by the Kanza Indians and served as a stopping point for the Lewis and Clark expedition. The River represented a passageway to escaped slaves seeking freedom in Kansas. Later Atchison became a major trade center and the river served as as avenue to boats headed to the west. It seems that the river has taken on a life of its own, having adopted little pieces of the lives that it has supported.
North Terrace Street in Atchison runs along the ridge of the river bluff and offer stunning views of the Missouri River. Though the timing of my visits to Atchison have not yet allowed me to visit with historians, I would guess that some of the homes overlooking the river served as “lookout” points for riverboat traffic as well as for confederate soldiers during the civil war.
Atchison’s numerous bricked streets are attributed to the labors of “Deafy” Boular who at age four survived spinal meningitis only to be left deaf and mute. As an adolecent, unable to hear the oncoming train while paying on the railroad tracks, Deafy again succumbed to tragedy, losing the lower part of both legs. In spite of what many might consider “physical limitations” Deafy laid many of the brick streets found in the historical areas of Atchison. Deafy is featured in a 1933 edition of Ripley’s Believe it or Not for laying 46,000 bricks in less than eight hours. Deafy’s achievements won’t soon be forgotten as his image has been memorialized in the form of a bronze statue as well as the highly prided remaining streets.
While many nationwide may never have visited Atchison, few have never heard of the Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe Railroad. As the development of movement towards the west increased, the demand for goods also grew. It was that demand that gave birth to the need to develop a railway system that would transport those goods and connect emerging cities with larger more established cities across the nation. A railroad company was incorporated through an act of legislation under the name Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe Company because Kansas was still a territory and had no incorporation laws in place. It is no stretch to attribute the Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe Railroad for major contributions to the expansion west.
Along with painstakingly maintained historical homes, are many meticulously groomed gardens and yards. Hydrangeas seem to thrive in Atchison soil and can be found everywhere. Hydrangeas do best in nutrient rich, loose soil and require a lot of moisture. The loamy soil found in Atchison is highly desired agriculturally. It is coveted for its ability to retain water and nutrients while allowing excess water to drain away.
Atchison gardens have the sweet quality of complimenting the vintage architecture with older variety plantings like Rose of Sharon and Hollyhocks along with plant varieties and methods used to create sustainability and that make environmental sense.
Atchison’s community is deeply entrenched in its Catholic beginnings. The mid 1800s brought a very large influx of German speaking people to Kansas. Interestingly, these immigrants were actually Russians who in the 18th century were recruited from Germany to immigrate and live in the fertile land in the Volga River Valley in Russia. They were allowed to maintain their language and culture. During the mid 19th and early 20th century these German Russians journeyed to Kansas in search of new opportunities.
St. Benedict was a born in about 460 AD in Norcia, Italy. He is known as the founder of western monasticism. It is only fitting that St Benidict’s Abbey founded in 1857 in Atchison is so named. The Abbey was founded to educate the sons of settlers. The St. Benedictine Monks of Atchison live in observance of a vow of Stability, Conversastio Morum (Conversion of Life) and of Obedience. Though the abbey is founded in the early traditions of St. Benedict’s teachings their use of technology has evolved nicely in creating a beautiful website and developing a good following on social networking.
Atchison is also home to Mount Saint Scholastica the home of the Benedictine Sisters. Scholastica is actually the name of the female twin of Saint Benedict. Mount Saint Scholastica was founded in 1877 in order to open a school for girls. The extensive complex which includes sprawling grounds, gorgeous landscaping and tidy well kept vegetable gardens.
Today’s coed Benedictine College in Atchison is the result of the melding of the schools founded by the Benedictine Monks and the Benedictine Sisters. Benedictine College of Atchison is endorsed by the Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College.
As with many small rural towns throughout the nation, Atchison has struggled to support the small independently owned businesses that have defined Main Street USA. Mom and Pop shops have given way to large corporate retailers who offer pricing that can’t be beat by small business owners. It is a plague that has robbed small towns of their unique culture and frankly left them sterile and lacking character. While larger cities have began embracing the importance of supporting local business whose money goes back into the community, smaller rural towns are left with barely any small local businesses to support. This however, is all the more reason to support those remaining businesses avidly.
For those who live in Atchison’s historic neighborhood, Van Dyke’s Grocery is just a sweet little walk away. The tiny grocer has all the basic staples, a selection of produce, a fabulous meat market and deli and a friendly staff that will most likely remember your face the next time you come in. Van Dyke’s has been owned by the same family for over 113 years.
The Gateway to Kansas Old Fashioned Soda Fountain and Grill offers a step back in time. Along with it’s signature counter and bar stools and the price of a burger and a milk shake won’t break the bank. After working up an appetite shopping the numerous booths of used books, kitschy goods and local memorabilia, relaxing over some comfort food is certainly in order. I hear the burgers are delicious.
Daisy House Atlantic is a darling cafe serving made from scratch baked goods, coffee and lunch specialties. Housed in a renovated industrial building built in 1912 Daisy bakes and serves customers while daughter “Junebug” draws on the chalkboard below the counter and offers tours to her Grandmother’s neighboring business, Backroad Atlas where she sells re-purposed furniture, resale home goods and custom decor made by area artists. Daisy’s House Atlantic features a “Jam Night” every Wednesday at 7:00 pm.
In all I’ve spent several days strolling through the historic district of Atchsion and have taken hundreds of photographs. I feel certain that I’ve not even begun to discover everything I want to see and learn. I’ve not visited the Amelia Earhart home, not met with local historians or delved into the history of the homes that I’ve admired so intently. I hope to return to visit the yoga class that takes place in the beautiful historic Muchnic Art Gallery, tour the Cray Historical Museum, write about Atchison’s B&Bs and locally owned restaurants. In time I hope that I will.
Fortunately for me my generous host welcomes me back to Atchison frequently. Together we prepare an evening meal in the renovated 1920’s era home and dine outdoors with wine, laughter and conversation. The evening progresses and darkness gives way to dancing fireflies, quiet smiles and genuine sweetness. It is the perfect way to end the perfect day of walking and photo taking. Mornings offer quiet cups of coffee on a sprawling porch, a concert of birdsong and a little more time to relax, breath deep and simply enjoy a slower pace of life before I cross back over the Missouri River.
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