For those of you following along with my journey to find the history of grandmother Madge’s career as a milliner, you might remember a previous post that included a letter from Mrs. Margaret Steely in Chanute, Kansas. That letter was one of the first clues I had about Grandmother Madge’s hat shop. Recently I had the chance to go back to my hometown, Wichita Kansas and while there, my friend Mary and I took a day trip over to Chanute to see what we could find.
The town is about an hour and a half drive from Wichita so we set out late morning and had a very pretty drive through the middle of Kansas. Now I am sure I’ve driven through Chanute many times in my younger days, that’s what you did with most small Kansas towns but really knew nothing about the place. Thanks to a cell phone and Google we decided to look up the town on the way there.
I always assumed that town was named after some Indian tribe like many other midwestern towns. In fact it was named after railroad engineer and aviation pioneer Octave Chanute who, according to Wikipedia, aided the Wright Brothers in the design of their plane. Born in Paris, Chanute came to the United States as a child. He designed and oversaw the construction of several important railroads in this country, as well as the first railroad bridge over the Missouri River and the Union stockyards in Kansas City and Chicago.
While working for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, Chanute built a route through this part of Kansas. Four small towns; all bitter rivals, New Chicago, Chicago Junction, Alliance, and Tioga each wanted the local station. At his suggestion, they incorporated as one larger town thus securing the station. Of course, none of the towns wanted to use the name of one of their rivals so they chose to honor Octave Chanute.
Armed with my grandmother’s postcard of the splendid railroad station, I was really hoping that the building would still be there. And sure enough, as we pulled into the downtown area it was the first building we spotted.
In 1902 the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad started construction. One side was the station, the other side was a Harvey House Hotel. If this is starting to sound familiar then you’ve seen “The Harvey Girls” a wonderful Judy Garland musical from 1946 with the Oscar-winning Harry Warren/Johnny Mercer song . . .
Still majestic, the station is now a library and museum. The library is amazing, the stacks were really beautiful. The staff was very helpful and they proudly display the history of the train station.
One fantastic find near the checkout were plaques honoring two women: Osa Leighty Johnson, one of the first American women to explore African jungles and the South Seas; and Esther Clark Hill, writer, and poet who wrote “Call of Kansas” which is a really splendid poem. Counting these women, my grandmother’s benefactor Mrs. Steely, and all of those Harvey Girls who braved the Wild West to give travelers a decent meal, I was starting to believe that there might be something in the water here that bred strong women. The two plaques were placed in 1933 by the Woman’s Kansas Day Club. In my research, the club gave Esther $400, toward the end of her life, to save her house from foreclosure. (There are those women again.) After all this, who knew what surprises lay in store upstairs?
Mary and I climbed up the old, creaky stairs and found a small local history room chock-full of old city directories, postcard books, newspapers, and other ephemera plus some great framed photos of past illustrious residents of Chanute including this fantastic 1900s photo of the Chanute Ladies Cornet Band.
In the history room, we met Arlene, an expert in all things Chanute. Arlene had married a Chanute man after growing up in Bushton, 270 miles northwest. In a world of no small coincidences, my traveling companion Mary grew up in the next town over from Bushton and her mom and aunt were both Arlene’s teachers. I could feel Grandma Madge with me, smiling.
With Arlene’s help we found a city directory showing addresses for Mrs. Steely’s millinery business and the home address of Madge and her parents. We also found the obituary for Mrs. Steely from 1939. Born in 1868, She died in 1939 at age 70 after being widowed since 1910. When she staked my grandmother to millinery supplies she was 49 and had already been a widow for 7 years. I estimate that $50 would be worth around a thousand dollars today. Now we had an address for the shop! Arlene helped us figure out where to go on Main Street. She also found a wonderful postcard of the block for us.
Launched with this information we excitedly toward the other end of downtown to find the building in the postcard. I have to say Chanute has a marvelously intact downtown, fairly substantial in size. During our visit, a road crew was finishing up brick pavers around a mural of the world in the main intersection of Lincoln and Main entitled “Center of Google Earth, Chanute, KS.”
It wasn’t until after our trip that I found the inspiration for the mural. If you open the program Google Earth on a Mac computer, wait until the globe stops spinning then zoom in all the way in, it goes directly to Chanute thanks to a bit of programming wizardry by a Google software engineer and Chanute native Dan Webb. The mural made its debut in 2012. Another fun fact — a Microsoft engineer did the same exercise for Windows computers with the center of the earth in Lawrence, Kansas!
As we walked through the historic Chanute Mary and I grew increasingly excited. We never expected downtown to be in such good shape and I was on a high after the poor shape of affairs I had seen in Scooba. Then the block. It looked almost the same as in the postcard except for one thing. The corner building, the one corner that I had traveled all the way from Atlanta to find was gone. In its place – a parking lot. What a disappointment.
Well, we still had Madge’s family home to find. Maybe we would have better luck. Back in the car we drove by the original Carnegie library that was also one of my grandmother’s postcards. Today it’s the Judicial Center. The building is mostly there, missing the tower in the left corner and the stair step roofline on the right.
A few minutes later we were on Madge’s street. It’s a charming area that looks to be on the rebound; very exciting to see in a small town. The street was lined with lovely smaller homes with lots of Victorian detail. As we grew closer to the address we could see that Madge’s old home was not one of the lovely ones. We parked in front of the sad-looking house once owned by Charles & Arminta Beals, my great-grandparents. It could certainly use some TLC, but at least it was still standing.
Remember I mentioned there was a museum in the old train station? Well, it’s the topper of this marvelous trip to Chanute. Smack dab in the middle of small-town Kansas is The Safari Museum, in memory of Martin and Osa Johnson, one of the gals from the library plaques. Well, it seems local beauty Osa, married a handsome adventurer and filmmaker and together they explored and filmed then exotic lands such as Borneo and Kenya. Their early photographs and documentaries from the 20s and the 30s are still considered very significant. Then, after risking life and limb on the other side of the world, they were involved in an airplane crash in California in 1937. Martin was killed and Osa was severely injured. She wrote a book about their exploits, passing away 1953. They are buried together a a local cemetery. The museum is a tribute to their many adventures. Unfortunately we must save this one for the next trip back to this wonderful town.
If that wasn’t enough, on the way back to Wichita we drove through nearby Humboldt Kansas where Madge also lived for a short time. Her house was long gone, absorbed into the local water works, but we were able to take in a historical marker at the birthplace of Walter “Train” Johnson, one of the most famous pitchers in baseball history nestled in a tranquil stretch of Kansas prairie.
All in all, I’d say it was a pretty full day!
As we headed the car westward back to Wichita, we reflected on Madge, Margaret Steely, Osa, and all the other amazing women we discovered in Chanute. The history of Kansas is full of strong, successful women and my dear friend Mary is one of them. We left Chanute, population 9,085, in awe of the place and the people who live here.