Nicodemus, Kansas: A New Life for Black Settlers after the Civil War
For most people, Kansas is a "joke;" the flat place between Colorado and Missouri that you have to drive through to get somewhere else. Corn and Dorothy. Tornados and Intelligent Design.
We usually drive through Kansas on our way to Iowa - to visit my uncle - and frankly, I think everyone is being a little hard on Kansas. Generally, we follow HWY 36 parallel to the northern border, which is a beautiful drive through the Hill Country. This is far from the cliched flat, boring Kansas road surrounded by cornfields for miles and miles in all directions.
A couple of times now, we have followed the signs to Nicodemus, on HWY 24. The first time, we gave into our curiosity; we returned because of the quality of the site.
Nicodemus, Kansas, was founded in 1877, by about 300 black settlers from Kentucky. This was hard living, as evidenced by the existing terrain of Nicodemus. But those first settlers worked hard, and by the mid-1880s, they had turned Nicodemus into a prosperous town. Their decline began soon after when the railroad bypassed Nicodemus; the Great Depression and Dust Bowl were the final nails in the coffin of an already-failing town in the middle of nowhere.
Lemme just say this: The temperature in Nicodemus can be extreme. Wait ... no. Let me rephrase that. IT GETS HOT IN NICODEMUS. IT GETS COLD IN NICODEMUS. We only drive that way in the middle of summer and the middle of winter. In the summer, it's so hot that our car overheats; in the winter, you practically get frostbite just standing outside the car. It was certainly uncomfortable for us, but I think that, more importantly, it gave us a taste of what those early settlers had to endure.
We could go into the air-conditioned visitor's center and watch a movie and have a drink from the water fountain. But the settlers arriving to Nicodemus - who often arrived by train to a nearby town and then had to walk about 40 miles to their new town - had no such reprieve from the blistering hot or the brutal cold. And still, they found ways to forge a life for themselves.
Many stepped off the train, after a very long journey, only to discover they still had to walk many, many miles to arrive at their destination. They did not have the luxury of covered wagons or horses. So they carried their few belongings and perhaps even their children over the rough, dry, dusty ground to Nicodemus.
We often hear about the strength of many early settlers - white or black - but I find the honesty of some early Nicodemus settlers quite refreshing: Many of them cried when they saw it. Not from joy, but from frustration and disappointment.
People lived in dugouts. It was dry and dusty. You could probably count all the trees in town on your right hand. These are people who came from the lush and fertile south, and I can't imagine the fear they must have felt, looking upon this barren landscape that was to be their new home. They would be tired from walking for several days. They had probably just spent all their meager savings on ... this. Frankly, I would have cried, too.
Nicodemus National Historic Site is a great example of why we need to be sure the National Parks Service continues to be well-funded, not only for the sake of those existing sites, but also for the sake of historic sites that can be added in the future.
Nicodemus is located on HWY 24. It is, however, a small town and you might miss it if you're not paying attention. Most of the residents are descendants of the early settlers. The visitor center - located about a block off of HWY 24 - has a lot of good information, including a short video with interviews of many early residents of Nicodemus.
You don't have to go into the Visitor Center to explore Nicodemus, but know that if it's a hot summer day, it is indeed a welcome reprieve from the oppressive heat. For older visitors, the site is best explored by car; be careful if you take your RV or travel trailer over to the school, however, as it is difficult to turn around (learned that from experience). There is nowhere to eat in town, but you can use the restrooms in the visitor center. However, if you're just looking for a picnic, there is a nice city park on the north side of town, and it is easy to park there.
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© 2015 Carrie Peterson