Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:
Christian Church – Wonsevu, Kansas. Photo by Dave Leiker.
Ever since Dave took a photograph in Wonsevu several years ago, I’ve wanted to visit this ghost town in southwestern Chase County. Dave’s photo captured a powerful moment: a white wooden church, a dirt-street intersection, and gray storm clouds billowing above. Plus, with a name like Wonsevu, who wouldn’t want to see the place?
When my mom visited us recently, we took a daytrips – to Manhattan and to Chase County. Because when my family gets together, that’s what we do – we drive. Other families share different forms of entertainment – some may watch football, play board games, go shopping or cook meals. My family gets in the car.
When I was a kid, Dad often took us on Sunday drives. Those afternoon trips usually meant checking the water level of the Arkansas River. We’d cross the Arkansas at the Pawnee Rock Bridge, drive around the central Kansas landscape for awhile, then cross the river again at the O’Rourke Bridge near Larned.
When we visited my maternal grandparents in Northwest Arkansas, we piled into the car. A shovel was kept in the trunk for digging up scraggly wildflowers that would later be transplanted into Mom’s or Grandma’s flower gardens.
During the ‘80s and ‘90s, my mother lived in Georgia. With her, Dave and I took trips into Savannah to explore Revolutionary War history or to see the city’s voodoo-ish neighborhoods. We drove down the coast into Florida, visiting beaches at Daytona and St. Augustine. We followed the coast north to Hilton Head and Charleston, South Carolina.
Now that Mom lives in Arkansas, when Dave and I stay with her, we may find ourselves headed to the quartz-filled area of Mount Ida, to the Buffalo River, or to the gorgeous Petit Jean State Park.
When my brother comes to Kansas, our hours are spent in the car, touring old stomping grounds in Barton, Pawnee and Stafford Counties.
So it’s not a question of what to do when our family gets together – being on the road is who we are.
This recent Sunday drive took us to Chase County. We enjoyed a tasty lunch at Ad Astra in Strong City and stopped by the Gallery at Pioneer Bluffs. Mom had wanted to spend time in the Flint Hills, so I drove under the railroad overpass in Matfield Green. Soon, we crossed a cattle guard and were on the open range.
I asked Dave where this particular road headed and he said, “Wonsevu.” I was excited that I would finally see this town.
We stopped at one of Dave’s favorite spots along the way, a rocky valley which extended toward the northeast. Limestone cut through the grassy draw; wildflowers added color.
“Oh, this is a beautiful rock garden,” Mom said. “All of this – and the yellow broomweed behind it.”
Mom and Dave commented on the purple aster and the blue sage. “There’s some Leavenworth eryngo,” Dave said, pointing to a stand of purple wildflowers.
I drove slowly on the country roads and we made several stops along the way before turning a curve into Wonsevu. The church was there, although with no sign in front, it appeared to be closed.
Wonsevu had a post office only for a short while, from 1875 to 1907. According to the book “1001 Kansas Place Names,” Wonsevu is an Indian word meaning “running deer.”
The 1912 “Kansas: a Cyclopedia of State History” describes Wonsevu as “an inland hamlet.” At that time, the hamlet had two general stores. The 1910 census counted 57 residents.
On the corner of the one and only intersection in downtown Wonsevu stands the 1885 District 13 schoolhouse. White paint has worn off of the wooden building, but the structure is in pretty good shape. And it still receives care – the lawn had been cut recently. On the grounds was a tornado shelter, a dark and creepy hole covered by a huge slab of concrete.
This was a fun trip. Mom and Dave and I had a good time on the curved and hilly roads of Chase County. And now – I can cross Wonsevu off of my bucket list.
Copyright 2012 ~ Cheryl Unruh
Leaning pump – in front of the 1885 District 13 schoolhouse, Wonsevu.