Map shows the North half of present-day Lyon County, KS. The double line is the Kansas Turnpike; n-s thru Admire is Hwy 99. The dotted line angling across the top is the route of the Santa Fe Trail, ca 1821-1870.
Situated near the Neosho River, the site of Americus was one of the earliest pioneer settlements in Breckenridge (later Lyon) County after Kansas Territory was opened in 1854. The Americus Town Company was organized and the town was laid out in 1857. At the time the 16 members of the town company tried to assure their own future success when most blocks of the new town were platted with 16 lots, and one lot in each block was assigned to each member of the Americus Town Company (in 1923 the original members and heirs were sued over ownership of several lots, and that ended their claims on the lots). The first post office established there in August 1857 was called Orleans, and the name was changed to Americus in Dec. 1859, but changed again to Sheridan in Dec. 1864, and the final permanent change back to Americus was in Nov. 1866.
Americus was an early contender to be county seat. With voting settlers just beginning to populate the area in the first years after Kansas was opened, the territorial legislature in 1855 attached Breckinridge Co. for legal and military needs to Madison Co. on the south. Its county seat that served both counties until 1857 was Columbia, just southeast of Emporia. A. I. Baker, head of the Americus Town Company, was a trader and lawyer who maintained his home at the Rock Creek crossing of the Santa Fe Trail. The two counties were separated and in the Feb. 17, 1857 election Baker became the first probate judge who lived in Breckinridge Co., his residence became the first court house physically in the county, and his small settlement of Agnes City was the county seat. Buildings and small businesses were being established in Americus and with its physical position near the center of the county, Americus was a front-runner to be county seat, a designation much desired because it greatly enhanced any community’s business and chances of survival. Candidates for office from Americus won the general election on Oct. 6, 1857, and it became county seat of Breckenridge County.
A year later on Oct. 20, 1858, in a hotly contested ballot, Americus won over Emporia by 14 votes (202 – 188), and the county seat remained at Americus. A term of the United States District Court was held in there in December, lasting only two days. The grand jury returned 29 indictments, mostly for trespass on school lands. A reminder of the conditions faced by the settlers that year is in the words of J. S. Gibson of Americus, who wrote in 1919 of early days in Americus, “My mother died October 28, 1858. …This was the first death in Americus, and there was but one team of horses in the funeral procession, the rest of the conveyances being drawn by oxen.”
Emporians worked to make the county’s first boundary change through the Territorial legislature, which expanded the county line three miles to the south, to include the Cottonwood River settlements; this placed Emporia closer to the center of the county area, and gave them more votes in the county seat issue. Once again the two towns faced off in the general election of November 6, 1860 with balloting on a county seat, and Americus lost decisively to Emporia. It was the final election in the “county seat war.”
Bond money from counties in the Neosho River valley encouraged building of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, or MKT, to serve the area; it was popularly known as the Katy Line. In 1868 young D.C. Grinell, age 14 (and future newspaper editor), rode his horse through the night from Americus to Burlington to deliver a message to organizers there, ensuring that the Katy Railroad would go through Americus. The first rail cars reached Americus on Nov. 29, 1869. From its inception the Katy did a thriving business, and the depot was built immediately (pictured, late 1800s). In 1909 the aging depot burned along with the freight stored inside, probably struck by lightning; another depot was soon built. As business declined, in 1933 the job of railroad agent at Americus was eliminated. Later, because of loss of business from highway truck shipping, the track through this area was abandoned in November 1957, and the Katy was gone after 88 years of service.
In 1870 the last steamboat to attempt to run down the Kansas River had run onto a sandbar near Lecompton. This was during a drought, and the river became very low soon after the boat was stranded on the sandbar, leaving the vessel high and dry for nine months. Citizens from Americus dismantled the engines and boilers and carted them to Americus to use for a mill. Americus’ first grist mill was built in 1871, powered by engines from the crippled steamboat that were housed in sheds on each side of the mill.
(pictured above, Goddard House and the D. A. Stahl store, ca. 1873)
At various times, seven cheese factories or creameries existed in Americus. The Lesh Brothers had begun manufacturing cheese on scientific principles in 1876, winning contest awards and increasing the popularity and market of local dairy products. By the time the town was incorporated there were about 400 dairy cows kept and milked by Americus residents within the city limits. These with other cattle, about 1000 animals, were daily turned loose to roam at will through the town and many residents found that trees, grass, flowers and vegetable gardens could not compete with the herds of cattle. In 1872 the Kansas State legislature had passed the Herd Law prohibiting animals from running free. When Americus was incorporated in 1884, it gave the city legal rights to do things necessary to the town’s survival, such as local laws and taxes. In 1890 Americus finally passed a city ordinance prohibiting any owner from turning his cattle loose within the city. Americus Township was stricken in 1915 with a butter famine, in an area well known for its creameries and cheese factories. Butter was being shipped to other markets, not leaving enough for local consumption.
By 1885 businesses in the town included general merchandise, groceries, hardware and agricultural implements, dry goods, drug store, meat market, grain and coal, harness and saddlery, boot and shoe shop, black smith, wood work, a gristmill, hotels, livery and feed stables, real estate and loans, carpenters, lumber yards, carriage and house painting. In 1886 a large windmill was built to power grinding grain (pictured).
Newspaper publishing started in 1880-1882 with The Herald, edited and owned by D. J. Roberts and Ezra Trask. This newspaper gave young D. C. Grinell his training in newspaper reporting. The Americus Ledger was a weekly newspaper published from 1885-1889 by Wm. Moore and his son Phillip. In 1890 The Americus Greeting began publication, owned by brother and sister C. V. and Eva Aldrich. It was moved to Dunlap in 1892 for a few months and then suspended publication, which resumed the next year in Americus. In 1898 D. C. Grinell and his son Clarence began publishing The Americus Greeting as a weekly paper. The elder Grinell passed away at age 83 in 1937; he had moved to Americus in 1860 at the age of 6 and had been responsible for chronicling the town’s activities for 70 years. The Americus Greeting ceased publication in 1950. In terms of numbers, the paper had enjoyed a bigger circulation than the number of residents in the town.
A jail was built in 1899. There is no record that the jail was ever used for a law breaker, but during the Great Depression years of the 1930’s, the city marshal allowed tramps to sleep overnight in the building. By the turn of the century the neglected Americus cemetery was being improved by resident George Fry, a Union Civil War veteran who volunteered his services; each year in advance of Decoration (Memorial) Day, Fry would hire local kids to mow the cemetery and help straighten gravestones.
In 1902 The Americus State Bank opened its doors. Now named KansasLand Bank, it is the oldest business in continuous service in Americus. The Farmers National Bank opened in 1916. In 1903 The Americus Oil Company drilled two wells, but no oil was found. In the same year the Comiskey Telephone Company built, maintained and operated a telephone exchange at Americus; the Farmers Mutual Telephone Company was organized shortly after, and the two companies merged.
The idea to build a city hall (pictured) had been brought up many times in the past, but never had enough backing to make it happen. In 1912 women were finally given the right to vote in Kansas. Women who voted in Americus were able to influence the ballot to raise funds for a city hall, with a vote of 60 for and 55 against. The building was constructed in 1913 and used by the city until 1957. It is notable that among the small towns in the county, in 1920 Americus became the only one to have a tax-supported library.
Presbyterians built the first church in town in 1861; it is still active. In 1872 an Evangelical church was organized with twelve members; that church disbanded about the time of WWI in the late 1910s. The Methodist Episcopal Church was constructed in 1871, and in 1909 that structure was razed to prepare for a new one on that site. The present Methodist church was built in 1910, and the first labor strike in Americus history happened when carpenters walked off the job of building that church, demanding a pay increase from 25 cents per hour to 30 cents. It was quickly settled, the men returned to work with their pay raise, and construction was completed. Other churches included the German Church (a German-language Evangelical Protestant church) in 1880; their building was later used as the Free Methodist Church, and since 1983 has been home to the nondenominational Grace Bible Church. The Americus Southern Baptist Church was built and ready for services in 1981.
Schools were necessary to a growing town, and Americus started its first school in a log building in 1858, and organized its School District #2 (second in the county) the next year. The town built its first grade school in 1869, a two-story limestone building with one classroom on the ground floor and another classroom upstairs. In 1886 the grade school burned and school was held in a former cheese factory. By 1887 another stone school house was built with two classrooms on the ground floor and two upstairs (pictured).
Educator C.A. Kent arrived in 1895 to serve as grade school principal (grades 1–8) and teacher. He soon offered 2 years of high school instruction and in 1895 student Lizzie Seegar studied high school courses. A four-year course was not offered until 1910. In 1916, the school house was torn down and a new school was built. In 1940 a high school building was constructed and it was opened for classes in 1941; that brick structure is still in use as the grade school.
The first Americus football game was played at Hartford in 1908, with Americus losing 11-0. The first game played at Americus was held on “the old Katy field” against the team from Council Grove. In 1929 the team had a disastrous season and Americus parents refused to sign forms indicating that the school district was not responsible for injuries to team members. In 1930 the football program was disbanded, and all equipment was given to the Dunlap team. Americus won the first Lyon County High School Basketball Tournament in 1922 by defeating Reading 33-13.
The town survived occasional bouts of extreme weather, flooding, drought, and prairie fires. Considerable damage was done in 1881 when both churches were badly damaged by a tornado, also the Ruggles School south of town and many other buildings in Americus. An unusually violent hailstorm hit Americus in 1895; most fruit was destroyed, early gardens were riddled, and drifts of hail reached four feet deep. Livestock was injured and killed by the large hailstones, and many buildings had windows broken and other damage. Two months later for the town’s 4th of July celebration, hail was dug from the remaining drifts and hauled to the park to ice down cold drinks and provide ice cream.
South end of Main Street, 1800s
Americus Sesquicentennial Book 1857-2007, Jan Huston, editor, publ. 2007 (text and photos of depot, windmill)
History of Lyon County, Kansas, by Jacob Stotler, in An Illustrated Historical Atlas of Lyon County, Kansas, publ. by Edwards Brothers of Missouri, 1878.
History of Emporia and Lyon County Kansas, by Laura M. French, Emporia Gazette print, 1929. (http://history.rays-place.com)
Research by Donald Schiesser, county seat wars.
Our Land: A History of Lyon County, Kansas, 1976, publ. Emporia State Press.
(text and photos of Goddard House, school, city hall, Main St.)
Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Vol. I, 1912, edited by Frank W. Blackmar,
Standard Pub. Co. Chicago (available online, see below).
ON THE INTERNET, as of 2016:
KS State Hist. Society, county plat maps
http://www.ksgenweb.com/archives/1912/ Cyclopedia of Kansas, 1912
http://www.kancoll.org/books/cutler/ 1883 History of Kansas by Andreas/Cutler
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