Wakarusa, the Town
Nestled in the beautiful Wakarusa Valley lies the little town of the same name. It is situated on the brink of a meander of the Wakarusa River which enfolds the south edge of the town, then curves north cradling the town on two sides.
Wakarusa is now a sleepy little bedroom community, but it wasn’t always so. Like dozens of other once thriving Kansas communities, it has lost its business base and all that remains is a cluster of houses lining the main street through the town with a few one block side streets and a post office.
Stone sign erected by Raleigh & Liz Trembly about 2000.
Paralleling the main street is the main line of the Burlington Northern Santa Se Railroad tracks. It was the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad that put Wakarusa on the map. Founded in 1858, Wakarusa was originally named Kingston in honor of one of the parties interested in developing the town, but the post office had already been established under the name Wakarusa and so that name prevailed. It was referred to by locals as Wakarusa Station for many years when it was a large shipping hub of the railroad.
Because so many passenger trains were running, folks in and around Wakarusa could board a train for Topeka or Carbondale in the morning and return in the evening. The automobile sounded the death knell for passenger rail service and a fine mass transit system faded away.
Where did the name Wakarusa come from and what does it mean? There is no clear answer. Wakarusa appears to be an Indian word. One tale says that a young Indian maiden was fording the river on horseback during high water and exclaimed, “Wakarusa” which translates to “hip deep.”
The only known written history of the town was compiled by Mary (Dyche) Garrett Haller from research collected mostly from old newspapers.* A copy is available at the Kansas History Center in Topeka. Her interest came from the fact that her great grandfather, Alexander Dyche, owned several lots and a store in Wakarusa.
Alexander Dyche was the father of Lewis Lindsay Dyche for whom the Dyche Museum of Natural History on the Kansas University campus is named. In fact, the Museum was built especially to house the specimens he collected. He became a taxidermist and a hunter and explorer of Arctic regions completing more than 27 expeditions. He was shipwrecked off the coast of Greenland on his quest to discover the North Pole. Lewis Dyche was the first professor of zoology at KU. He was also the first Fish and Game Warden for the state of Kansas as well as an author and lecturer.
In 1912, Wakarusa “has a grain elevator, a cider mill, a number of stores, telegraph and express offices, and a money order post office with two rural routes. It is a popular summer camping place for Topeka people, and a large camp is maintained throughout the season by the Young Women’s Christian Association. This is a receiving and shipping point for a large and prosperous farming district. The population in 1910 was 150.”**
Snyder’s Grove, a park sandwiched between the river and the Presbyterian Church on the south edge of town, was a popular picnic area. From a Topeka newspaper article published August 31, 1894: All day Republican Rally and Picnic for Shawnee and Osage Counties to be held at Synders Grove in Wakarusa on August 31. John J. Ingalls is to speak and all the State Officials are to be there.
A follow up article appeared on September 7: A Great Rally was held. Five railroad coaches from the south and twelve coaches from the north came into Wakarusa Station. By noon there were 7,000 to 8,000 people there. Ingalls was the main speaker. The “Larned Coyotes” sang, two bands played, a drum corps played and there was a parade. A total crowd of 10,000 was very orderly. It is hard to imagine so many people in this small town.
Still standing is the old hotel built in 1871. It is currently occupied as a home. Some years ago a local man repaired it and reconfigured it as a house. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Presbyterian Church was built in the late 1870s, is well maintained, and still has an active congregation.
About a half mile west of Wakarusa is the Shawnee Center Cemetery, established in the mid-1870s. It is the final resting place of many of the early settlers. A half mile southwest of the cemetery is the site of the first schoolhouse built in Shawnee County. It was called Shawnee Center School and was so named because it was within a quarter of a mile of the geographical center of Old Shawnee County.
A remnant of the school still exists in the form of an outbuilding made of limestone. The site is covered with native prairie plants that have survived much trampling and activity over the years. Now this fragment of prairie lies mostly undisturbed except for an annual clipping with the resulting hay baled and removed. It’s a revealing reminder of what this entire valley must have looked like in pre-settlement days with the exception of wooded streams and ravines.
The name Wakarusa is sprinkled up and down the valley. The river rises in eastern Wabaunsee County, flows through Clinton Reservoir, and empties into the Kansas River near Eudora. Lawrence lays claim to the name for a school, a street, a shopping area, and perhaps other things unknown to this writer. Wakarusa is even coupled with war. Occurring near Lawrence during pre-Civil War years the Wakarusa War wouldn’t even quality as a skirmish much less a war. It was a powder keg conflict that never ignited but was magnified by the press both locally and in the East.
While the community of Wakarusa is only a ghost of its former thriving self, those who now call it home find it to be a peaceful, quiet, charming, and friendly little town still hugging the banks of the Wakarusa River in the heart of the Wakarusa valley.
*History of Wakarusa Kansas by Mary (Dyche) Garrett Haller, 1995, unpublished.
**Page 854 from Volume II of Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Embracing Events, Institutions, Industries, Counties, Cities, Towns, Prominent Persons, Etc.,…/with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Stand Pub. Co., Chicago, 1912.
Update – This article appeared in 2005 in a publication produced by the Kaw Valley Heritage Alliance which focused on the people, land, water, and history of the Wakarusa River Valley. Of course, there have been changes since that time. The town has more vacant buildings, some in major disrepair. It does not exude the pride of a well maintained town that it did 14 years ago. It has been inundated with floods numerous times over its history, the last time in 2007.
The dilapidated old grain elevator and the former filling station/garage are nearly hidden behind tree and brush overgrowth. The Wakarusa Grade School building and grounds are an unsightly mess of overgrown trees. The schoolyard is littered with old vehicles stored behind a broken-down fence. It is disappointing to see the area literally dissolve into decay but Wakarusa is not unique as many small towns across rural areas are sharing the same fate.