Searching for the future of Kansas’ Council Grove in three trees, three places and three people

October 20, 2022 3:33 am
Council Grove downtown streetscape

The Council Grove National Bank Building on Main Street includes both a bookstore and housing units. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Roving with Clay Wirestone

Opinion editor travels Kansas and beyond for stories off the beaten path. Read them all here.

Downtown Council Grove practically floats off the pavement.

The 19th century buildings levitate, careful gingerbread constructions of brick and mortar and stone, bringing the past to life while nudging the community into the future. I visited the city, about an hour south of Manhattan, last month. Council Grove isn’t a former industrial town tucked in a faraway corner or a surging suburb. Instead, the community of roughly 2,100 stands as a tourist destination and thriving community of its own.

Like most small towns, Council Grove tells multiple stories through its buildings and landmarks, its people and ambitions. No single narrative fits. So rather than impose my will on the place, I’ll let it tell its own story — through three tree stumps, three places and three people.


Remains of the Council Oak rest underneath a pavilion in Council Grove, Kansas. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Tree stump 1: Council Oak

Council Grove loves its tree stumps.

The most important, perhaps, gave the town its name. The Council Oak marks the spot where an important council between white people and American Indians was supposedly held on Aug. 10, 1825.

“This council, which was attended by three U.S. commissioners and the chiefs of the Great and Little Osage Indians, resulted in a treaty that — in return for an $800 payment — gave Americans and Hispanics free passage along the Santa Fe Trail through Osage territory,” the National Park Service says. “This meeting was also the namesake of Council Grove, a trailside community that was founded in the late 1840s, because of the mile-wide grove of hardwood timber in the area.”

The once-mighty elm blew down in 1958. An overly protected stump remains.


Inside Flint Hills Books, you can see the hand of an experienced book lover at work. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Place 1: Flint Hills Books

If a town has a bookstore, chances are I’ll find it.

Council Grove’s was easy to locate, nestled in the restored National Bank Building on Main Street. When I entered Flint Hills Books, I noticed two things. First, it filled a compact, single-floor space. Second, it was curated with care by owner Jennifer Kassebaum. She opened the shop in 2021 as a newcomer to retail and bookselling.

As I browsed the shelves, I listened to the reassuring patter of a working word shop. Books were asked after and located. Others were ordered. Discounts were applied.

Mindful of my ongoing travels across rural Kansas, I picked up Marci Penner and WenDee Rowe’s “Kansas Guidebook 2 for Explorers,” an exhaustive listing of destinations across the state, and the latest issue of the Kansas Leadership Center’s journal.


Downtown Council Grove features an eclectic array of 19th century buildings and charming shops. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Person 1: Jennifer Kassebaum

Kassebaum was interested in opening a bookstore after retiring early, but she was told that shops in small towns like Council Grove wouldn’t work. After looking at Manhattan locations, she decided to “take a chance” on the community.

“I am happy to be contributing to a community that I consider my home,” she wrote me in an email a few days after my visit.

“The community response to the bookstore has been wonderful,” Kassabaum said. “To make the bookstore succeed, it really needs to be a destination bookstore that attracts visitors to the Flint Hills and historic Council Grove, but it has been gratifying to receive the support of so many local readers. I did not anticipate the benefit of making wonderful new friends who are local readers and who come into the bookstore not only to shop but to visit and discuss books — and life!”

Her post-pandemic plans involve bringing in authors to talk about their work, along with collaborating on a book club with nearby Riverbank Brewing.


The Post Office Oak was actually used as a focal point for Santa Fe Trail communication in the 1800s. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Tree stump 2: Post Office Oak

I ran across the Post Office Oak first, not realizing how many trees were memorialized in Council Grove. I had to consult the Council Grove Area Trade and Tourism’s 25 Historic Sites brochure to realize this stump had a different story than the Council Oak.

The tree earned its name because it served as a de facto post office.

“From 1825-1847, Santa Fe Trail travelers left messages in a cache at the foot of this tree,” the National Park Service says. It adds: “Trail travelers left notes to inform others of the trail conditions, giving it its name.”

The Post Office Oak lived until 1990. Its stump survives, shadowed by a pentagonal canopy.


The Neosho Riverwalk offers the chance for lengthy strolls along the water, right next to downtown Council Grove. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Place 2: Neosho Riverwalk

As we move forward in this column, the chronology of my day in Council Grove moves backward.

I visited the Neosho Riverwalk first thing, strolling along the banks of a placid river. That Friday morning, the only sounds I heard were those of softly flowing water, buzzing insects and the occasional barking dog.

The path “connects the Flint Hills Trail State Park with the Madonna of the Trail statue, Guardian of the Grove statue, the Neosho River Crossing and the Kaw Mission State Historic Site,” according to the town. “Enjoy the stroll while visiting the crossing of the Old Santa Fe Road. Meander across the pedestrian bridge that spans the Neosho River and the walkway continues on up among thousand of wild flowers, plants, and native grasses.”

The walk reminded me of the elusive goal so many of us seek in our work and lives: peace. Small-town spaces offer the space to wander and quietly reflect.


Christy Davis answers questions for podcast
Christy Davis participates in a podcast recording at the Kansas Reflector office in Topeka late last month. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Person 2: Christy Davis

While at Flint Hills Books, I met Christy Davis. She’s the landlord for the restored bank building. She’s also the Kansas rural development director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

We spoke at length for the Kansas Reflector podcast about her work across the state. But I also wanted to know about her contribution on the ground to Council Grove. What motivated her to take the extra step of restoring a historic building? What were her goals?

“We rehabbed a building in Cottonwood Falls, and shortly after finishing that project, the bank building in Council Grove came up for sale,” she told me.

Although she wasn’t looking for a new project, she had a vision: combining retail space with housing units.

She admitted: “It can be overwhelming if it’s not something that you’ve done and know you can do and have a lot of really good help with. So we finished that project in spring of 2019. And it’s really met met the needs of the community that were there.”

She cautioned, however, about approaching rural development with a one-size-fits-all approach.

“You have to know exactly who you are and what’s important to you,” Davis said. “And in the case of downtown development, in my opinion, it’s identifying what’s real and sticking to it. I mean, it’s a it’s a matter of authenticity. And I think that that’s the case when it comes to individual buildings as far as architecture, but just the overall tone.”


The remains of the Custer Elm stand on land once owned by the general. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Tree stump 3: Custer Elm

After visiting two tree stumps, I had to complete my set with a visit to the Custer Elm.

Yes, it’s named after Gen. George Armstrong Custer. The state tourism office says he camped at the location with the 7th Cavalry Regiment while guarding the Santa Fe Trail. He apparently took a liking to the spot and “bought a 120-acre farm ground (there) with another officer Amos Kimball in 1869 as an investment.” Now bearing the general’s name, the tree survived until the early 1970s.

Custer was known for his role in the American Indian Wars, which highlights an occasionally uncomfortable truth about Council Grove. Much of the town’s Santa Fe Trail-era history intersects with vigorous efforts by the U.S. government to remove the native population.

Remember the Kaw Mission State Historic Site mentioned earlier? That was a school for American Indian boys.

The Kaw Nation, which once lived across the area, was eventually forced to Oklahoma. The tribe endures today, but I couldn’t escape the uncomfortable feeling that the modern-day town rests atop an older, darker history.


The Hays House 1857 restaurant bills itself as the oldest restaurant west of the Mississippi. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Place 3: Hays House 1857 restaurant

I knew where I wanted to eat lunch before arriving in Council Grove. Hays House 1857, billed as the  oldest restaurant west of the Mississippi, offers a menu full of hearty staples. The town and eatery also happen to share a founder: Seth Hays.

He even started a newspaper, The Council Grove Democrat, in 1870. (The newspaper masthead has since switched parties.) The Morris County Historical Society converted his house into a museum.

This Friday afternoon in September, the restaurant served a couple of dozen customers. The hometown crowd kibitzed with waitresses while chowing down. I ordered the Kanza Burger, billed on the menu as a half-pound of Kansas bison meat ground with bacon. Garlic mashed potatoes accompanied.

It was delicious.


Customers order drinks at Watts Coffee Co. in downtown Council Grove, Kansas. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Person 3: Zoey Bond

My day in Council Grove included far more. I dropped by Watts Coffee Co. for a latte. I scouted for more Sante Fe Trail spots. I read one historical marker plaque after another. They seemed to multiply as the day lengthened.

But what was coming up next for the town? Zoey Bond, executive director of the trade and tourism group, had the answers.

She’s most excited about an east expansion to the Flint Hills Trail.

“This is an exciting asset to our community and will be a great draw for visitors that enjoy hiking, cycling, horseback riding, and more!” she told me via email. “Additionally, we have four new businesses coming to downtown Council Grove in the coming months. These businesses are rehabbing existing buildings and bringing more to do, see, and eat.”

I told Bond that what impressed me most about the town was its upbeat attitude. Residents and business owners looked and sounded happy to be there.

“Council Grove has a healthy, positive culture,” she said. “Our workforce and citizens genuinely give their best every day while keeping an eye on the future. The enthusiasm for our little slice of rural life is exciting and contagious.”

I couldn’t help but smile along.

Downtown Council Grove includes the landmark Farmers and Drovers Bank, to the left. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.