Off the Beaten Track
by Lynne Hewes
With Interstate 70 to the north and U.S. Highway 50/400 to the south, most travelers in Western Kansas rush through, perhaps stopping briefly at Old Fort Hays or Dodge City’s Boot Hill, often assuming that those are the only options for a “history fix” in this desolate section of the country.
If you’re one of those travelers, then you’re missing out on some fascinating facts about the formation of this state. It’s true: while Wichita and points east normally get the big press when history books discuss important events in Kansas, there are country roads in Northern Finney County that have their own interesting stories to tell. All it takes to learn those stories is a detour off the beaten track.
Let’s take a side trip.
From Cimarron on Highway 50, turn north, drive 18 miles north on Highway 23. Take the jog to the west on Kansas 156 about six miles, then north on Highway 23 again for seven miles. Take that dirt road, marked Lake Road, and drive east. Don’t be afraid. The roads are pretty good when it isn’t raining, and it doesn’t rain often. Bring along a compass or your GPS if you’re uneasy about this. You may drive around for awhile, but, sooner or later, you’ll discover a paved road leading back to civilization, and you can find a motel before the sun goes down.
In the meantime, you’ll get to drive through parts of the country that will take you back 100 years.
It’s isolated, yes. Manmade landmarks are few and far between, but you’ll find them. You are nearing the Finney State Lake and Wildlife Area, home of ruins of ghost towns, a WPA-era dam, the remains of an old country store, an abandoned one-room schoolhouse, and a variety of native wildlife. Part of the area is open range, so watch out for cattle on the roads. If you’re lucky, you’ll see buffalo or deer, maybe even an antelope. What you normally won’t find much of is water. Or people.
About four miles in, look for limestone foundations littering fields to the north and the south of Lake Road. By now you should be at the intersection of Lake Road and Ravanna Road. Don’t cross over into the fields. It’s private property, and you’re also in rattlesnake country. Take pictures from the road.
You’ve discovered Ravanna, once a thriving trading center for area ranchers. The year was 1887. Briefly, Ravanna, with a population of over 700, was the county seat town of Garfield County. That was before citizens of another now-defunct town just to the west, Eminence, forced their way into Ravanna’s brand-new courthouse and grabbed the county records.
According to Leola Howard Blanchard, in her 1931 book, Conquest of Southwest Kansas, “While there was much bitter feeling between the two contending sides and each called the other ugly names, there were no killings” (pg. 113). Unless you count the horse shot when a gun accidentally discharged (Blanchard pg. 106).
Which town held the county seat didn’t matter for long, however, because just a few years later, in 1893, the state legislature dissolved Garfield County and that area was added to present-day Finney County. About the same time, the Kansas Pacific Railroad, which had promised to run a line through Ravanna to Dodge City, changed its mind. According to Daniel Fitzgerald’s Ghost Towns of Kansas, that loss marked the end of Ravanna. Most of its citizens left town, and “in 1922 Ravanna lost the post office, the last business in town” (Fitzgerald pg. 274).
So today, as you step out of your car to take a picture of those stone foundations in that field, think about those 700 people, full of hopes and dreams for their town. What you’re taking a picture of is all that’s left of the “…Bank of Ravanna, the Buffalo Town Company, the Grand Central Hotel, Crow’s Department Store, John Bull’s store, the Eagle House and Hotel, the Ravanna Record [the newspaper office], Hoffman’s Bakery, a livery barn, a blacksmith shop, and a [physician’s office]” (Fitzgerald pg. 272). Not to mention the courthouse erected at a cost of $12,000 (pg. 272).
Keep driving east on Lake Road. After about three miles, you’ll see a sign for Tom Reed Road. Turn north on that road. Keep driving about one mile until you get to the Finney State Fishing Lake. You’ll notice the dam right away because it looks like a typical W.P.A. project. You can drive over it. There’s just no water in the lake. According to the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, this dam was built between November 1933 and April 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Construction took so long because it meant digging out a lake area in the days before power machinery. One local man remembers that, “They paid $1.00 a day for a man to work out there. A man who brought his own mule to help could get $1.75.”
It’s good to take note that labor such as this man talks about was dangerous too. If you look just a bit north and east of the dam, you’ll see a small monument and plaque commemorating the four men who died during the construction of this recreation area.
While you’re looking around the dry lake, remember that it once had water in it, Remember that people would come from miles around to boat on this lake. Imagine scores of people out here, fishing, boating, camping, picnicking. They’d buy meat and bread for sandwiches at a store and bait shop just to the east of the dam. See it? It’s that weathered building with all those buzzards roosting on the roof. It used to be larger, of course. What you see now is all that’s left. Take a picture before the buzzards fly off.
When you’ve looked around enough, backtrack a bit, going back south on Tom Reed Road. At the intersection of Tom Reed and Lake, turn east again. This time go about a mile and one-half to the intersection of Lake Road and Byler Road.
Do you see that old one-room limestone schoolhouse on the corner? Picture children laughing and talking on its playground.
Turn south on Byler Road. You’re on your way to Highway 156 near Kalvesta now. You’ll be close to a business called Kalvesta Implement in about seven more miles. Once you hit the highway, you can turn west toward Garden City, where you’ll find restaurants, motels, and shopping—all the modern amenities.
Your back-roads trip didn’t take long in actual time, but you’ve learned a few things about over 100 years of Western Kansas history, and you’ve met the ghosts of hundreds of people who once lived, worked, and played in this area.
Wasn’t that a lot more fun than taking the Interstate?
Blanchard, Leola Howard. Conquest of Southwest Kansas. Wichita: The Wichita Eagle Press, 1931.
“Finney State Fishing Lake.” Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. 14 Feb. 2009. http://kdwp.state.ks.us.
Fitzgerald, Daniel: Ghost Towns of Kansas: A Traveler’s Guide. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988.