By CRISTINA JANNEY
A historical marker unveiled in Ellis County last week tells the story of a black community and white homesteaders and how their journeys have intersected in the past and again today.
A marker was dedicated Sept. 17 at the site of the Walz Homestead on the Ellis Trail. The marker is located 10 miles north of Ellis on Saline River Road off of 110th Avenue.
The Ellis Trail ran 35 miles from the Ellis to Nicodemus. Nicodemus is the only remaining community west of the Mississippi established by African Americans after the Civil War.
About 380 black settlers, most of whom were recently freed slaves, arrived from Kentucky at Ellis by rail in fall 1877.
They walked the rest of the way to their new settlement via what would become the Ellis Trail. It took two days. They arrived on Sept. 17, 1877, 143 years ago to the day of the dedication, at the site of Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was the first settlement in Graham County, and the settlers there helped organize the county.
At the time the trail was in use, Ellis was the terminus of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Angela Bates, a descendant of the Nicodemus settlers, said the Ellis Trail remained an important route for Nicodemus residents to travel to Ellis for supplies. Before other post offices were established, Nicodemus residents also traveled to Ellis for the mail.
"This is really a part of our history here in Kansas. I know we live in 2020 and everyone is concerned about COVID and the election. But our forefathers, white, black, green, red, it doesn't matter, they were part of building this nation, and they were the ones who dared to endure things we dare not to endure."
When some of the black settlers from Kentucky first arrived at the settlement site, it was so stark they returned to Kentucky. Early settler Rev. Hickman's wife was said upon arriving at Nicodemus she sat down and cried.
Bates said it took some research to determine where the trail ran. A letter from one of the descendants helped pinpoint landmarks like Happy Hollow. A county road now bears that name. Wagon ruts are still visible amongst the sunflowers and bluestem in the pasture where the Ellis Trail traversed the Walz homestead.
"The whole valley has come to life for me," Angle Bates said. "The whole trail has, and meeting people along the way has been a wonderful thing."
Bates grew up in Pasadena, Calif., but said she has many happy memories of coming back for family reunions in Nicodemus during the summers. She was let to run loose in a town where everyone was considered a relative. She hid at the end of the summer break, because she didn't want to go home.
"I always had a desire in my heart to see what I could do to preserve the history of Nicodemus because it was a wonderful place for me as a child to come back to every summer," she said.
The Nicodemus National Historic Site was established in 1996, and Bates was instrumental in the push to establish the site as part of the National Parks System.
"There is no history without the people, so I am just a steward of it," she said. "I am hoping we just don't forget, because if you don't turn around and look to where you've come from, you'll have no idea what's in front of you."
The Rev. Victor Williams, who portrays Rev. Roundtree — one of the founders of Nicodemus — for the Nicodemus Historical Society, spoke to the group Thursday.
"I want to thank God. This means so much, all of you," he said. "The Walz family are my friends. I have learned to love them. Through Angela, we were able to come down that Ellis Trail."
Williams' great-great-grandmother, Emma Williams, was among the original group to walk the trail to Nicodemus. She was carrying the first baby to be born in Nicodemus.
The remains of the Mandota Post Office, which was on the site of the original Walz family homestead, is still visible to the west of the marker. Allen Walz lives in a house built by his grandfather in 1911 across the road from the marker and the former post office.
Many members of the Walz family were on hand at the dedication of the marker.
The marker depicts historical Walz family photos as well as a photo of a post card sent to one of the members of the Walz family to the Mandota Post Office. Henry Walz, a 105-year-old patriarch of the family, died last year. Money from his memorial was donated to the Nicodemus Historical Society and ultimately helped paid for the Ellis Trail marker.
"When I heard what Angela chose to do with the money, first of all I cried," said Linda Walz Thompson, Henry's daughter, "and then I thought dad would just be smiling so much. This would just have thrilled him. Angela, I love you dearly, and that goes for all of you in Nicodemus."
Leroy Walz, 77, said his great-grandfather W.A.R. Walz, a German immigrant, likely used the trail to make his way from Ellis to the homestead and stopped at that spot because it was the first free land he came to. It was also close to the Saline River, which could be used as a water source for livestock.
The family started in a dugout. The homesteaders shared water from their hand-dug well with those who passed by on the trail.
Roma McConkey of Olathe, daughter of Henry Walz, said, "This trail did not become real to me, even though we've talked about the house and we've got family pictures over here by this house, until the day Angela (Bates) said to me, 'I bet our grandmothers waived to each other on this because that is where she lived.'"
The marker at the Walz Homestead is only one of five large signs the descendants of the Nicodemus settlers hope to install in the area. More directional signs with a silhouette of a wagon will also mark the trail. The directional signs will also be located at the post offices along the trail. These included Crescent, which was the original site of Palco, Amboy and Keybar. Logan will be also included in the trail as Nicodemus was part of the mail route coming back toward Ellis.
If you wish to donate to the trail project, you can donate to Nicodemus Historical Society.
Next year, Bates said she hopes to take a group on a walking tour of the trail.