By Amy Bickel
The Hutchinson News
DENSMORE - The red brick Methodist Church has long been overtaken by trees.
Other dilapidated buildings line the dirt streets here, including a wooden elevator near where the railroad tracks once lay. The roof is caving in on the bank-turned-post office, which closed in the 1980s - the zip code still etched on the window. The old Farmers Supply Store is but an empty shell and the high school isn't much more than rubble.
In fact, for those still counting, only a handful of people withstand in a town once vibrant with activity. But over the years, one by one, people have sought greener pastures in bigger cities - abandoning the rural Norton County town of Densmore.
"There was a hardware and the elevator, a lumber yard and grocery stores," reminisced Marion Wilcox, who lives in Partridge but spent many of his childhood years in Densmore. "We had a post office and a garage. We'd haul cream to the depot - we'd send five or 10 gallons of cream by train a week."
Yet Wilcox was among the many who left - taking Highway 9 out of town to join the Air Force, then found work in a Hutchinson manufacturing plant.
A pioneer named Densmore
Pioneers were just settling the western Kansas prairie in 1878 when Cyrus Archer came to Norton County.
Much of the landscape was still rolling waves of grass. But as Archer trekked across it, he saw smoke coming up from the horizon where a dugout eventually emerged, said Doyle Archer of his distant relative.
There, he met Thomas J. Densmore, a man who had come to the area four years earlier.
At the time, there were a few homesteaders in the area. One, a man named Sorghum Smith, had died not long before Archer's arrival. Smith had been in a disagreement with neighbors. Four weeks before his death, a note was pinned to his door, signed by 15 citizens who told him to leave the county or he would be mobbed, according to the "The History of the Early Settlement of Norton County, Kansas."
In mid-April he vanished, according to information transcribed by Densmore historian Ardie Grimes. Three weeks later, one of Smith's sons went down into the tunnel which had been dug on his farm where Smith had considered building a mill. He saw his father's body floating. A coroner and jury were summoned, and they called it a suicide.
Densmore claimed Smith's property and eventually plotted the town of Densmore on the Solomon River. The town began to boom when the railroad came through in 1881, according to an article in the Norton County News that was transcribed by Grimes.
Businesses began to pop up across the little town. There was a hotel, hardware, general store, newspaper and creamer. Densmore himself was the first postmaster in town. Cyrus Archer helped construct the Free Methodist Church and was the first pastor, according to information compiled by Grimes.
The town would eventually have a bank, school and elevator, and, in 1910, it had a population of 100, according to "Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History," published in 1912. Yet Thomas Densmore didn't get to see the town's future growth. A train struck his horse and buggy in 1890 and he died a few months later.
Densmore sued the Missouri Pacific before he died, then his widow took up the suit, according to Grimes' research. A jury found in favor of the railroad.
Doyle Archer said Densmore had a couple of famous sons, including Glenn Archer, who was born in Norton Count in 1929. He was a senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, a position he was nominated for by President Ronald Reagan.
"Death knell" of a town
Ardie Grimes moved from Densmore after she graduated from Logan High School in 1970, but has always been fascinated with the history of her community.
Though she lives more than five hours away in Baldwin City, she traveled back and forth to Densmore while her mother was still living. She began researching the history of her hometown when her children were little, poring through old photos and documents.
Today, she has much of the information on her website.
Her grandfather, Ed Bernard, came to Norton County around 1919, raising crops like watermelons, pumpkins and other produce on 80 acres. Her father, Homer, stayed in the area, eventually buying a filling station and carrying mail. The station burned in 1955.
But that was about the beginning of the end of Densmore, she noted. The bank had already closed, in 1936. The last class graduated from the high school in 1965 and the grade school closed not long after that.
Area farmer Rod Sansom said he was one of the last classes to go through the grade school, which closed about a year after he left in 1970, he estimates. He graduated from Logan High School, with which Densmore had consolidated after the high school closed. At that time, Densmore still had a hardware, post office and grocery.
"But that's all been gone for a good 30 years," the 58-year-old said. "When I was a kid there was a Free Methodist Church there. The Catholic Church was there until it closed in the 1990s."
In fact, there is no business left in Densmore, unless you count a house used for a hunting lodge.
It's sad to see things go downhill, Sansom said, recalling the vacant farms that dotted the prairie the first dozen or so years he was out of school. Farms are bigger now and there are fewer farmers needed to farm the land.
But now Densmore is a ghost town.
"When the high school closed, that was the death knell for the town," Grimes said. "It really was."
Reporter Amy Bickel is chronicling the "Dead Towns" of Kansas. If you have a suggestion for a town Amy should research, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Densmore, visit her blog at click here.For Ardie Grimes' historical page on Densmore, click here.
All photos are courtesy of Doyle and Lois Archer. This photo shows a circus going through town - note the tiger or lion in the cage. Above is Homer Bernard at his filling station in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Bernard is Densmore historian Ardie Grimes' father. Top photo is the Free Methodist Church at Densmore. It still stands - one of the many empty structures in this dead town.