Ghosts from our past
by Mary Hooper
Of the oldest town in Edwards County, few vestiges remain except the base of a grain elevator along Highway 56.
And three unmarked graves.
Edwards County is full of ghost towns. There’s Ardell, the remnants of which are two picturesque tin-clad grain elevators on Highway 50. Wendell, once a fierce contender for county seat, has disappeared, as have Bethel, Crescent, Kirkfield and Charlet.
Then there was stillborn Ohio City, also known as Omar, which a wheeler-dealer named Jay Latimer fobbed off on laborers in Cleveland as a bustling metropolis with streets named Grand Avenue and Madison Avenue. It existed only on paper, and was, according to Myrtle Richardson, who wrote four books on the history of Edwards County, “a huge real estate hoax.”
Saddest of all, perhaps, is Nettleton, which seemed to have had promise as a thriving farm community in the late 19th century. A temporary reversal in the town’s decline was the building of a handsome brick school which was dedicated in 1916 amid some hoopla.
Only 25 years later it was torn down.
One of the town’s last markers, the Nettleton station sign along the railroad right-of-way, disappeared some time in the ‘60s.
And attempts to locate the graves of the unfortunate Fitch family have failed.
The story of Nettleton begins in 1872 when the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe sent a grading crew out to what was to become Edwards County. The crew set up camp, dug a well and named the new station after an official of the railway. The railroad reached Nettleton that year, according to a story, headlined “The Town That Came Back,” in The Kinsley Graphic in 1917. (That story and other documents, newspaper stories, photos and books relating to the history of Edwards County are on file at the Kinsley Public Library.)
The decline of Nettleton is often associated with the misfortunes of John and Mary Fitch, who came out to Kansas from Chicago.
“Disaster pursued him,” grimly declared the Republican, another pioneer newspaper.
But in 1874, it seemed to the Fitches like a good idea to kick over the traces in Chicago and head west. Myrtle Richardson believes they may have been spurred by the Homesteading Act of 1872. Whatever it was, Fitch, a businessman and author of an 800-page Civil War history, “Annals of the Army of the Cumberland,” was confident he could make a go of it.
“Mr. Fitch … visited Nettleton and being a man of ambition and filled with the desire to build a town and grow up with it, decided to locate here,” said the Graphic.
“He brought from Chicago the material for a fine two-story residence and erected his mansion a short distance east of where the Farmers’ Elevator now stands. It was fitted with a gasoline-lighting plant, which must have been one of the first ever patented, and the house and its contents and the style in which the Fitch family lived was one of the wonders to the early settlers living in their tiny frame shacks.”
Fitch also built a flour mill, which ran on wind power when it was breezy enough, or by a steam engine when the wind didn’t blow.
Fitch wrote this advertisement in 1877: “The mill is in constant operation both by wind and steam power. Bolts and elevators are now being added to grind fine flour. Wheat and all kinds of grain taken in exchange for flour at liberal rates. Also grinding done for toll at one-fifth for wheat and at one-fourth for cheaper grades of grain.”
But bad luck in the form of crop-devouring grasshoppers and drought plagued him. The mill enjoyed only “scanty patronage,” according to the Graphic.
Much worse was to come. In November of that year, the first of the tragedies that were to destroy the Fitches struck when their baby daughter, their fifth child, died.
In March, 1878, Mary Fitch died of cancer. In July, John died as the result of a bizarre accident. He went out to rake hay with a horse-drawn rake. The horse, a half-broken colt, shied. Fitch got off the rake and went to quiet the horse. The horse bolted, knocking him down. He was caught in the teeth of the rake and dragged a considerable distance. He died a few days later and was buried alongside his wife and daughter near their home, according to reports. The four Fitch orphans went back to Chicago to live with relatives.
“The Fitches were intelligent, cultured people,” said the Graphic. “They came west to build a home for themselves and their children and found a grave.”
But they also excited envy.
“There was some prejudice against Mr. Fitch, largely on account of the fact that he and his family were ‘high-toned’ and had more money than the rest of the settlers,” according to the Graphic report.
The townsfolk were also miffed because the name of the town was changed to Fitchburg. This apparently was done by postal authorities when they opened a post office in town and renamed the town in honor of its most illustrious citizen. Residents launched a successful petition drive to restore the original name after John Fitch’s death.
The triple tragedy of the Fitches seemed to presage the town’s doom. After John’s death, stated the Republican, “Nettleton (Fitchburg) fell into obscurity.”
Nettleton’s demise, however, seemed to have had more to do with the weather, changing times and the downright Darwinian struggle among early towns to survive. It was common for towns to fight over post offices, county seats and bridges. The winners survived and thrived. The losers didn’t.
Nettleton was a loser.
The winter of 1878-79 saw good crop yields. Nettleton had a general store, a post office, a hotel and a livery stable, a rude country school, a blacksmithy, a carpenter’s shop and Sunday preaching services by ministers from Kinsley and Garfield. The population was reckoned at between 40 and 50.
But when townspeople began agitating for a bridge over the Arkansas River, the county commissioners, who lived in Kinsley, refused to consider it.
The post office closed in 1882 when the AT&SF stopped delivering mail to Nettleton and other small towns. This may have been illegal, the Graphic noted, but the railroad did it anyway. The railroad moved its section crew to Kinsley in 1888.
Nettletonians hung on, however. As the century wound to a close, the post office reopened, only to close. A general store opened, and went out of business. A creamery went bust.
But the town’s fortunes, like the stock market, again went up with the construction of Nettleton School, “a splendid and striking example of the community spirit at its best,” in the opinion of the Kinsley Mercury. Built in 1916 by the joint Edwards-Pawnee School District, the school drew nearly 600 people to its dedication. There were invocations, speeches, musical performances and a flag drill. There was a banquet, which really wowed the reporter.
“It was such a dinner as no rhetorical pen could describe and one calculated to satisfy the cravings of the inner man to the fullest degree. Folks who were there know it as the dinner of a lifetime.”
The school had a steam-heating plant, a gym and the latest in classroom design. On the second floor was a community room, seating capacity 250, and a stage.
“Here will be the scene of many social center activities during the coming years,” predicted the Mercury.
So it seemed, because the town was doing all right. It had two grain elevators. Another general store had opened. The post office was back again. And a steel bridge had been built across the river. Hence, the Graphic’s cheerful headline: “The Town That Came Back.”
It was a temporary comeback. Nettleton and other little prairie outposts were drying up. Now farmers drove trucks and cars. They could travel greater distances to grain elevators and bigger towns, such as Kinsley, where there was a better selection of clothing, supplies and groceries. The businesses in Nettleton shut down. People moved away. The school closed and was torn down in 1941. Finally, the bridge was taken down in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.
So Nettleton is gone, but one wonders about the white farmhouse on a road off of 56 Highway. Could it be John Fitch’s “mansion?”
Current resident Leroy Gier can’t say for sure. But in the early ‘80s, a man from Chicago stopped by. He introduced himself as a distant relative of John Fitch. He carried with him a blueprint of the house John had built at Nettleton, and asked if he could measure the foundations of Gier’s house to see if they matched the dimensions on the blueprint. They did.
And there the matter rests.
Along with the Fitches themselves.