It occurs to me, as I look at a photo of the first house in Abilene, Kansas, that it more resembles a tornado shelter than a home. It belongs to Timothy Hersey, who built it in 1856, on what was then called Mud Creek. He constructed his home by digging down because of the lack of lumber on the Kansas plains, and because subterranean living protected against harsh winds, snow storms, heat and those tornados.
Mud Creek eventually grew into Abilene, a named chosen by Hersey’s wife, Eliza, who found the name in a Bible passage. It translates as “city on the plains.”
Today, Abilene is still a small town — population 6,800 — but thousands of visitors arrive annually (186,000 in 2013) to see the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home, and to learn about Abilene’s glory days.
It was the arrival of the railroad 1866 that made Abilene a wild and wooly boom town. It brought farmers and their supplies, but it also brought millions of cattle from Texas. Cowboys would drive the herds up the Chisholm Trail to Abilene where they’d be loaded onto boxcars for northern and western destinations.
The town’s history is on display at the Heritage Center Museum, which includes an amazingly restored C. W. Parker carousel, made in Abilene more than 100 years ago. Volunteers repaired and re-assembled the 24 hand-carved horses and four chariots, and restored the original steam engine. Kids of all ages are encouraged to climb aboard.
Also located in the Heritage Center building is the Museum of Independent Telephony, where the history of small telephone companies (anything that wasn’t Bell) is explained in exhibits and artifacts. In this age of cell phones and instantaneous communication, the museum helps transport us to a time when switchboard operators ruled.
Abilene is home to the museum because a local named Cleyson Brown founded independent United Telephone, which, after many incarnations and mergers, became Sprint.
Visitors can take another journey into the past by hopping aboard the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad, which takes passengers for an 11-mile round trip to Enterprise, Kansas.
Catch the train at the well-preserved Rock Island Depot at the south end of town. Dinner trains run once a month.
During the spring, summer and fall, the Abilene Trolley takes visitors on a tour during which it’s easy to see why Abilene claims the title “Little Town of Mansions.” The trolley motors past many of the town’s 100 historic homes, 16 of which appear on the National Register of Historic Places.
One of the old homes belonged to my Great Aunt Nan Lucier Miller. She and her husband, who owned a flower shop, resided for years at 615 N.W. 3rd Street. The Gothic-style home was built in 1879 by the then-mayor A. W. Rice. Today the nearly 2,800-square-foot home is for sale for $199,000.
Another well maintained mansion is the Victorian Inn, 820 N.W. 3rd Street, built in 1887 by the town’s doctor. Today it’s a bed-and-breakfast and has been remodeled and restored to its 1920s-era grandeur.
The grandest of Abilene’s domiciles is the Seelye Mansion, a 25-room, Georgian-style home built in 1905 for $55,000. A. B. Seelye financed it with the fortune he made selling patented medicines purported to cure everything.
The home’s amenities include a ballroom and a bowling alley purchased at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair “without regard to cost.”
The two Seelye daughters never married and lived in the home until the 1990s. The mansion is still furnished with original pieces, including Edison light fixtures. Tours are available every day.
Abilene is a two-and-a-half hour drive west of Kansas City. Visit abilenekansas.org or call (800) 569-5915.
E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at [email protected]