Downtown Council Grove practically floats on the sidewalk.
Levitating 19th-century buildings, neat gingerbread constructions of brick, mortar, and stone, bringing the past to life while pushing the community into the future. I visited the town, about an hour south of Manhattan, last month. Council Grove was not some old industrial town tucked away in a far corner or a booming suburb. Instead, the community of around 2,100 people promotes itself as a tourist destination and a thriving community in its own right.
Like most small towns, Council Grove tells many stories through its buildings and landmarks, its people and its ambitions. No story matches the place. So rather than imposing my will on the place, I’ll let it tell its own story — through three tree stumps, three places, and three people.
Tree stump 1: Communal oak
Council Grove loves its tree stumps.
Most importantly, perhaps, gave the city its name. The Council Oak marks the spot where an important council between whites is said to have taken place on August 10, 1825.
“This council, attended by three U.S. commissioners and the chiefs of the Great and Little Osage Indians, resulted in a treaty which – in return for a payment of $800 – gave Americans and Hispanics free passage along the Santa Fe Trail through Osage territory,” says the National Park Service. “This meeting was also the namesake of Council Grove, a trailside community that was founded in the late 1840s, due to the mile-wide hardwood grove in the area.”
The once mighty elm tree was felled in 1958. It remains an overprotected strain.
Location 1: Flint Hills Books
If a town has a bookstore, chances are I’ll find it.
Council Grove’s was easy to locate, tucked away in the restored National Bank building on Main Street. When I walked into Flint Hills Books, I noticed two things. First, it filled a compact single-story space. Second, it was carefully curated by owner Jennifer Kassebaum. She opened the store in 2021 as a newcomer to retail and bookstore.
As I scanned the shelves, I listened to the reassuring crackle of a working word store. The books were later requested and located. Others have been ordered. Discounts have been applied.
Mindful of my ongoing travels through rural Kansas, I picked up Marci Penner and WenDee Rowe’s “Kansas Guidebook 2 for Explorers”, an extensive list of destinations across the state, and the latest issue of the Kansas Journal Leadership Center.
Person 1: Jennifer Kassebaum
Kassebaum was interested in opening a bookstore after her early retirement, but was told that a store in a small town like Council Grove would not work. After touring the Manhattan locations, she decided to “take a chance” on the community.
“I am happy to contribute to a community that I call home,” she wrote to me in an email a few days after my visit.
“The community response to the bookstore has been wonderful,” Kassabaum said. “For the bookstore to be successful, it really needs to be a destination bookstore that draws visitors to the Flint Hills and historic Council Grove, but it has been gratifying to receive support from so many local readers. I hadn’t anticipated the benefit of making wonderful new friends who are local readers and who come to the bookstore not only to shop, but also to visit and discuss books – and life!”
His post-pandemic plans now involve bringing in authors to talk about their work, as well as collaborating on a book club with nearby Riverbank Brewing.
Tree stump 2: Post oak
First I walked through the Post Office Oak, not realizing how many trees are commemorated in Council Grove. I had to consult the Council Grove Area Trade and Tourism 25 Historic Sites brochure to realize that this strain had a different history than Council Oak.
This site takes its name from the fact that the tree itself served as a de facto post office.
“From 1825 to 1847, travelers on the Santa Fe Trail left messages in a cache at the base of this tree,” according to the National Park Service. He adds, “Trail travelers have left notes to let others know of trail conditions, giving it its name.”
The Chêne des Postes survived until 1990. Its stump remains, shaded by a pentagonal awning.
Location 2: Neosho River Walk
As we move forward, the timeline of my day in Council Grove recedes.
I first visited the Neosho Riverwalk, taking a walk along the banks of a calm river. This Friday morning, the only sounds I heard were gently running water, buzzing insects, and the occasional barking of the dog.
The path “connects Flint Hills Trail State Park with the Madonna of the Trail Statue, Grove Guardian Statue, Neosho River Crossing, and Kaw Mission State Historic Site,” according to the city. . “Enjoy the ride by visiting the Old Santa Fe Road junction. Stroll over the pedestrian bridge that spans the Neosho River and the walkway continues among thousands of native wildflowers, plants, and grasses.
The walk reminded me of the elusive goal that so many of us seek in our work and life: peace. Small town spaces offer the space to wander and think quietly.
Person 2: Christy Davis
At Flint Hills Books, I met Christy Davis. She is the owner of the restored bank building. She is also Kansas Rural Development Director for the US Department of Agriculture.
We spoke at length last week for the Kansas Reflector podcast about his work across the state. But I also wanted to hear about his contribution on the ground at Council Grove. What motivated her to take the extra step of restoring a historic building?
“We rehabilitated a building in Cottonwood Falls, and shortly after completing that project, the bank building in Council Grove was put up for sale,” she told me.
Although she was not looking for a new project, she had a vision: to combine commercial spaces with housing.
She added: ‘It can be overwhelming if it’s not something you’ve done and you know you can do and have lots of help. So we finished this project in the spring of 2019. And it really met the needs of the community that was there.
However, she cautioned against 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 is about identifying what is real and sticking to it. I mean, it’s a question of authenticity. And I think that’s the case when it comes to individual buildings, in terms of the architecture, but just the overall tone.
Tree Stump 3: Custer Elm
After visiting two tree stumps, I had to complete the stage with a visit to Custer Elm.
Yes, it is named after General George Armstrong Custer. The state tourist board says he camped there with the 7th Cavalry Regiment while guarding the Santa Fe Trail. He apparently took a liking to the place and “purchased 120 acres (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 Native American Wars, which highlights a sometimes uncomfortable truth about Council Grove. Much of the city’s Santa Fe Trail-era history intersects with the vigorous efforts of the U.S. government to eradicate the native population.
Remember the Kaw Mission State Historic Site mentioned earlier? It was a school for Native American boys.
The Kaw Nation, which once lived throughout the region, was eventually forced to settle in Oklahoma. The tribe thrives today, but I couldn’t escape the uncomfortable feeling that the modern city is floating above an older, darker history.
Venue 3: Hays House 1857 Restaurant
I knew where I wanted to have lunch before I got to Council Grove. Hays House 1857, billed as the oldest restaurant west of the Mississippi, offers a menu full of hearty staples. The city and the restaurant also share a founder: Seth Hays.
He also started a newspaper, The Council Grove Democrat, in 1870. (The newspaper’s masthead has since changed sides.) The Morris County Historical Society has even turned his house into a museum.
This Friday afternoon in September, the restaurant already had about fifteen customers. The hometown crowd chatted with the waitresses while gulping. I ordered the Kanza Burger, a half pound of ground Kansas bison meat with bacon. Mashed potatoes with garlic accompanied.
That was delicious.
Person 3: Zoey Bond
My day at Council Grove included much more. Popped by Watts Coffee Co. for a delicious latte. I researched more spots on the Sante Fe trail. I read historical marker plaques – so many historical marker plaques.
But what happened next for the city? Zoey Bond, executive director of the trade and tourism group, had the answers.
She is very excited about the eastward expansion of the Flint Hills Trail.
“It’s an exciting asset to our community and will be a big draw for visitors who enjoy hiking, biking, horseback riding, and more!” she told me via email. “In addition, we have four new businesses coming to Council Grove town center in the coming months. These businesses rehabilitate existing buildings and bring more to do, see and eat.
I told Bond that what impressed me most about the city was his upbeat attitude. Residents and business owners looked and sounded happy to be there.
“Council Grove has a healthy and positive culture,” she said. “Our workforce and our citizens truly 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.