This is not collectible.
While I have lived in Texas for nearly 50 years, I was born and grew to an adult in Kansas. When I tell someone of my origins, they almost always respond in one of two ways: “I have been there but I don’t remember much about it” or “that 400 mile drive across the state on Interstate 70 is really boring.” There is more to the state than that. The wheat grown there feeds the world, and the people are nice, but I will focus on the sometimes lawless history of the state.
Kansas achieved statehood in 1861, but it was far from civilized. From 1850 until 1900 the region was a frontier, and at the center of important events in US history: there was the westward movement of pioneers from Europe and the eastern US and the subsequent conflicts with Native Americans; the Santa Fe Trail crossed the state and the Pony Express and the Oregon Trail passed through a corner; there was a border war because Kansas was a free state and a center of the abolitionist movement, whereas neighboring Missouri was a slave state; and finally the several new railroads were extending westward into hostile territory and furthermore some of the railheads were the destinations of cattle drives from Texas. Each trackable in this series of metal travel bugs is named for towns with interesting histories (at least to me), some of which have connections to my youth.
Nicodemus is an unincorporated community in Graham County. The community was founded in 1877 and is named for the Biblical figure Nicodemus. It is the only remaining western town established by African Americans during the Reconstruction Period following the American Civil War.
In the minds of many of these recently freed slaves, Kansas represented a land of freedom and opportunity because of John Brown and other abolitionists. Promoter Benjamin “Pap” Singleton encouraged African Americans to move to Kansas. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided settlement opportunities for people of modest means. A person could claim a 160-acre plot provided they lived on and develop the land for a 5-year period, after which it could be purchased.
On April 18, 1877, a group of seven Kansans, six of whom were black, established the Nicodemus Town Company. African American W.H. Smith and W.R. Hill, an experienced white land speculator, served as the town’s president and treasurer, respectively. Most of the group consisted of former slaves from Kentucky in search of a new livelihood. The goal was to establish the first all-black settlement on the Great Plains. Two theories explain the choice of the name Nicodemus. One claiming the town was named after the biblical figure Nicodemus. The other holds the town was inspired by the legendary account of an African prince taken into slavery who later purchased his freedom. The location of the town, chosen by Hill, was along the northern bank of the Solomon River, an area suitable for developing farming.
Smith and Hill made efforts to promote the town and attract new settlers. Publications describing the resources and benefits of moving to the area were mailed to prospective migrants across the South. Early promotional efforts were directed towards attracting people with enough money to develop the town. Residential lots cost $5 while commercial lots were $75. The promoters charged additional fees for establishing the settlers on the land. Efforts succeeded in bringing groups of colonists from Eastern Kansas and Kentucky, at one point the population reached about 600 people in 1878.
The early Settlers found life in Nicodemus to be challenging. Some people turned around after seeing the scarcity of resources. Most were very poor farmers who came without money and other provisions. Without proper tools and equipment, such as plows, wagons, and horses, farmers could not efficiently develop the rough land; some resorted to using hand tools to make improvised fields. A lack of timber forced settlers to build homes out of prairie sod. To earn money some people collected and sold Buffalo bones found on the plains; others ventured miles away to work for the railroads. In response to the hardships, townsfolk reached out to other communities, private charities, and even the Osage Native American Tribe.
New groups of settlers arrived in Nicodemus in 1878–79 from Kentucky and Mississippi. Unlike the early migrants, they had the resources necessary to develop and cultivate the farmland; they came with the horse teams, plows, other farm equipment, and money that the early settlers did not have. John W. Niles, a leader in the charity movement, replaced Smith as the president of the town company. Under Niles' leadership, a decision was made to stop seeking charity in order to encourage the ideas of industry and self-sufficiency. Additionally, the town did not want to become a destination of the Exodusters, a migration of thousands of poor black farmers into Kansas. They feared that a mass influx of poor farmers would be harmful for to the community.
Soon the town began to grow and businesses became profitable; a hotel and two stores were established and a school and three churches were built. Social organizations such as the Grand Independent Benevolent Society of Kansans and Missouri put on dances and other celebrations for the benefit of the town. One such event was the annual celebration of England’s emancipation of slavery in the West Indies. In 1880, the election to determine the Graham County seat was held in Nicodemus, in which the town was defeated in favor of Millbrook.
After the growth of 1879–80, Nicodemus experienced a period of decline after 1880. Most people who settled in the town did not intend to remain there permanently and subsequently moved on. Not enough of the $75 commercial lots were sold to keep the town growing. Years of poor harvests also contributed to declining population. In 1884, less than 50 people remained in the town. Another challenge was a legal battle over the ownership of its land. Henry Miller, a local land speculator, discovered that errors in the filing record meant that the town had not received final ownership of the land. Miller’s suit threatened the claims of the residents, but ultimately the case was dropped and the town received its official title on June 6, 1886.
Beginning in 1886 the town began another campaign of promotion. The town’s two newspapers: the Western Cyclone and the Nicodemus Enterprise were central to the new campaign. The papers sought to broaden the appeal of Nicodemus by reaching out to other populations, both black and white. Descriptions of the towns numerous social clubs, activities, celebrations, and business opportunities were spread in the hope of attracting new migrants. The town undertook a major effort to bring a railroad route through Nicodemus, passing a vote to sell bonds to finance the projects. Ultimately, none of the three prospective railroad companies:the Missouri Pacific, Union Pacific, and Santa Fe, brought their tracks to the town.
The failed attempt to attract the railroad marked the end of growth for Nicodemus and most of the businesses in town relocated elsewhere. Despite the loss of business, the town remained a social center for the local community. Organizations such as the Masons, the American legion, and the Priscilla Art Club continued to host dances, celebrations, and other events. The annual emancipation celebration continued to be a focal point of town life. In the 1920s, thousands attended the event which consisted of horse races, boxing matches, parades, and baseball games.
The Great Depression and the Dustbowl each had a serious impact on Nicodemus; the population of the town fell to as low as 40 people. The town did receive aid from the Federal Land Bank and Graham County Farm Bureau. Because of the Depression, many families lost their land and subsequently became tenant farmers. Additionally, the rough conditions of the Depression forced many farmers to change their farming methods, leading many to select more hardy and drought-resistant crops. The declining population led to the closure of the post office in 1953 and the school around 1960. Because of a lack of attendance, the social organizations also closed down.
Starting in the 1970s Nicodemus underwent a process of revitalization and restoration. Donations from former residents led to efforts to repair damage to the deteriorating town buildings. In 1976, Nicodemus was named a National Historic Landmark. New improvements were made to the town including low-income housing units, construction of a 100-foot tall water tower, and the pavement of the major town streets. These efforts succeeded in preserving Nicodemus and rebuilding its popularity. The town developed a new identity as a retirement destination for former residents. The Emancipation celebration, renamed Homecoming, changed to become a gathering of old residents to celebrate their roots and common history and continues to be celebrated annually.