-by Greg Hoots-
A casual look at the history of Wabaunsee County and the Kansas Flint Hills might lead one to think that most of the County’s earliest homes and other buildings were constructed of native limestone. Certainly, the oldest buildings standing in the county today are, indeed, built of stone. As an author and researcher specializing in Flint Hills history, I discovered that most of the historic photos from the area seem to be dominated by stone buildings, as well.
More careful examination of Wabaunsee County’s early history tells a different story. During the Kansas Territorial period (1854-1860) and the first five years of Statehood, the most common type of home built in Wabaunsee County was the log cabin. Consider if you will that the vast majority of home builders in that decade were homesteaders, families and individuals who were given an allotment of land that would become theirs, dependent on the construction of permanent buildings and residency. The easiest and quickest type of home that one could build to qualify for ownership was a log cabin. The valleys along the streams in Wabaunsee County were filled with timber, a ready supply of building material for the new settlers. Many of the earliest one-room schoolhouses were constructed of logs, as well, and many of the sheds and small barns on early Flint Hills homesteads were log buildings. It was a matter of economics and convenience.
A 1975 biography of Joseph Thoes reveals that Thoes, his brother Peter Thoes, and their brother-in-law Ed Krapp came to Wabaunsee County in 1854, and that the three men constructed three log cabins in three weeks on their claims along the south branch of Mill Creek. The abundant supply of lumber along the creeks of Wabaunsee County made cabin-building a popular endeavor.
Wabaunsee County resident, Joseph Little of Mission Creek Township, wrote in a 1901 article published in The Alma Enterprise, “I came here thirty-five years ago and found twenty-three log houses on Mission Creek with twenty-five families living in them. Also, three log schoolhouses and school going in each and preaching in one every Sabbath. All this was within a distance of nine miles. I helped to build four log houses after I came here in 1866 and 1867.”
The most common evolution of the log home in Wabaunsee County found it constructed in the 1850s and 1860s by settlers and used for a decade or more as a residence until the homesteaders could afford to build a new, larger home. As stone quarries began operating in the county by the 1880s, often the settler’s second home would be made of limestone. In many cases, the old log cabin would be converted to an outbuilding for storage of grain, feed or other items. Frequently, the old log cabin became incorporated into the new home, and in some cases the cabin was covered in clapboard siding to make it indistinguishable from the new home.
Over the years, log homes were susceptible to fire, rot, termites and a wide variety of maladies which resulted in their disappearance from the landscape. By the dawn of the 21st century, only a handful of cabins remained intact in the county.
The era in which the log cabin was the most common form of home in Wabaunsee County was also a time when photography was rare in the county. So, very few log cabins and virtually no log schools were ever photographed while they were being occupied. The few cabins that were the subject of photos were photographed in the early 20th century, after they was no longer being used as a residence.
The Flint Hills Special has been collecting photographs of Wabaunsee County log cabins, and to that collection I’ve added some etchings of log buildings drawn by Wabaunsee County publisher Matt Thomson in the late 19th century. In some cases, the history of a particular cabin’s construction and demise is sketchy; I will offer what I’ve been able to find.
In Section 33 of Mill Creek Township, Hungarian immigrants Anton and Matilda Kraus homesteaded a tract of land, arriving in 1855. Anton constructed a cabin from native logs, located near Mill Creek, and he and Matilda had eight children who were born at the family homestead. By 1895, the Kraus family had constructed a large two-story farm house, but the log cabin, located twenty yards to the southeast, was still used as a residence and then an outbuilding.
The Kraus cabin had once been covered in clapboards, as many of the early cabins were, however, as time ravaged the cabin, the clapboards fell from the logs, revealing the original structure. In 2011 the cabin was disassembled and removed from the site.
In 1866, Joseph and Barbara Hensel homesteaded property on Loire Creek in Alma Township, raising eleven children on their farm west of the town of Alma. That year, Joseph constructed a log cabin in which the family lived. It was two years before he could put a wooden floor in the cabin, but it served the large family well.
By the 1890s, the Hensel cabin had been enlarged with an addition, and the entire structure was sided with clapboards, giving it the appearance of a “modern” frame house. Joseph Hensel died in 1879, leaving his widow, Barbara, with eight children at home. In January of 1882, Barbara Hensel died, and her son, William became the head of the household. A few years later, after the youngest of the children had reached adulthood, the Joseph Hensel farm was sold to a Mr. Bandel. William Hensel and the remainder of the Hensel family still living on Loire Creek moved to a farm three miles north where Hensel opened a nursery, specializing in fruit trees.
Another very early Wabaunsee County settler was James L. Thomson, who lived with his wife, Susan Davis, and four sons in the Dragoon Creek Settlement. Arriving in the settlement in 1856, Thomson moved into an abandoned cabin built by a Mr. Gilbert from Pennsylvania who had constructed the log home in 1855.
Thomson’s wife, Susan, joined the family on Dragoon Creek early in 1857. On August 6, 1857, Susan Davis Thomson passed away in the family cabin, stricken with malaria, becoming the first settler to die on Dragoon Creek. J. L. Thomson remarried in July of 1859, marrying Miss Jane Washburn, and the couple lived on the Harveyville homestead until James Thomson’s death in February of 1882.
James Thomson’s third son, Matt Thomson, became one of the most significant writers and newspaper publishers in the history of Wabaunsee County. Thomson founded The Alma Signal newspaper on September 7, 1889, which he operated until 1901. Thomson was the Wabaunsee County Superintendent of Schools for a number of years, and in 1901 he published his most significant work, a book titled, Early History of Wabaunsee County, Kansas, with Stories of Pioneer Days and Glimpses of our Western Border.
In addition to providing a unique first-hand look at the pioneer days of Wabaunsee County, Thomson was a gifted artist, and his etchings and sketches were well-displayed both in his book and in his weekly newspaper. In 1882 and 1887 while County Superintendent of Schools, Thomson produced detailed maps showing the location of every one-room school in Wabaunsee County, accompanied with a small etching of every school building. In 1887, Thomson produced an etching titled, Auld Lang Syne which featured a number of the log school houses in the county.
Homesteaders came to Wabaunsee County during the last half of the 1850s, most commonly settling along the numerous fresh-water streams that traversed the county. Numerous settlers took claims and built cabins along the south branch of Mill Creek, including the earliest settlers near the location of Alma, Kansas today.
On June 9, 1858, a terrible flood swept down the Mill Creek Valley with the stream’s waters breaching the banks at many points, destroying a number of settler’s cabins which were built too close to the stream. In his autobiography, Alma photographer and businessman, Louis Palenske recalls the log cabin in which his family lived when the 1958 flood struck. “They (his parents) built a log house east of where the old ice-house stands, in which August and I were born. In June 1858, when I was six months old, a big flood came and flooded our house 4-feet deep. Then they moved to higher ground, where the later stone house now stands, into another log house, (which is still standing, but covered up with boards.)” Gottlieb Zwanziger’s early flour mill, located on Mill Creek on the south edge of Alma, was swept away by the same flood waters.
Included in the early settlers on South Branch were Frederick Steinmeyer, Sr. and his wife Frederika who were a newlywed couple who immigrated to the United States in December of 1856 before settling in Farmer Township of Wabaunsee County in March of 1857. The Steinmeyers constructed a modest cabin, not far from the banks of Mill Creek, and the couple raised nine children on the family farm, located five miles south of Alma, today.
In June of 1858, Fred Steinmeyer had just successfully planted the year’s crops when the flood occurred. More than fifty years later, in her obituary published January 28, 1910, The Alma Enterprise described Frederika Steinmeyer’s close call with that flood. “Hardly had they (the Steinmeyers) got the virgin soil turned and planted when the terrible flood swept down Mill Creek valley June 9, 1858, destroying nearly everything they had. She (Frederika Steinmeyer) escaped from drowning only by clinging to the roof of the cabin.”
A fine example of a log cabin which was saved and restored is what is commonly called the Gnadt cabin, named for the family which gifted the log building to the Alma Area Foundation in 1995 and which was moved to the Railroad Park in Alma in 1999.
Originally, that cabin was located on the east side of Kansas Avenue in Alma, directly in the middle of the 100 block. Arguably, this building may well be the oldest surviving structure in Alma.
The earliest recorded owner was Ed Krapp who settled the Mill Creek Valley in 1854 with his brothers-in-law, Peter and Joseph Thoes. Krapp owned lots 4, 5, and 6 in the early years of Alma. Lot 4 in this block was owned by Henry Schmitz, the first President of the Alma Town Association, who acquired it directly from the Alma Town Company. The detailed Sanborn map from 1885, seen below, shows the log building to be the only structure in that block of Kansas Avenue.
When Gerald and Maxine Haller purchased half of the 100 block of Kansas Avenue from Gerald’s father in 1948 on which to construct a new home, the cabin which sat near the street was sold to Ken Gnadt who had the home moved to the Gnadt’s farm, located in Park Valley. Concerning the Railroad Park cabin, the City of Alma’s website reveals, “The log cabin was originally located at 102 Kansas Avenue. The cabin had no running water or electricity. In 1948 the cabin was moved to the Clarence Gnadt farm for Gnadt’s father to live in. The Gnadt property is now being developed into a new 56-lot housing development.”
The cabin suffered significant deterioration during the 1980s and 1990s which can be attributed to a leaking roof. When the Gnadt family gifted the Park Valley land to the City of Alma for a new housing development, they gave the cabin to the Alma Area Foundation in hope that the historic building could somehow be moved and restored. By the mid-1990s, the condition of the cabin was critical, and it was only short of miraculous that the home could be restored.
No single structure dominated the Wabaunsee County landscape as did the log cabin. A few cabins survived the years. Two cabins in Wabaunsee County have been restored, one in the Railroad Park on the south edge of Alma, and a second, the Fred Fink cabin is located in the Ag Heritage Park in Alta Vista, Kansas. Other cabins, including the Droege cabin and the Mitchell cabin, have been successfully incorporated into more modern homes and are unrecognizable as a cabin, today. It is unfortunate that more of these historic structures, the log schools in particular, have not been saved.
To view any of the cabin photos in a gallery format or as a full-screen image, click on any of the images below: