Adventures in Northwest Kansas – Nicodemus, “the oldest and only remaining” (barely) Black town west of the Mississippi and Taylor Swift

Nicodemus has been on my to-visit list for about 35 years, since soon after I moved to Wichita in the mid-1980s but it is far far off the beaten path. Today, we finally stopped there on our drive home from Albuquerque and it was only a half hour out of our way. It looks like any other wind-battered, barely-hanging-on rural Kansas town except it has a fascinating history and is now a National Historic Site, with explanatory plaques in front of a few of the handful of buildings left.

In 1877, 300 recently freed slaves from Kentucky moved way out to this remote place, building the first Black settlement west of the Mississippi. In its heyday, Nicodemus had 500 residents. Today, there are about 16 residents and we saw four (25 percent of the population) because we happened to arrive when the Sunday service was starting at the Baptist church. The only other signs of life were a slightly menacing barking white dog who followed us for awhile, as our lab Millie picked up the pace, and a helpful park ranger in the visitor’s center, where we looked at some exhibits and watched a 13 minute video about the town then and now.

Nicodemus AME church. (Services were held nearby at the Baptist church.)
Nicodemus National Historic Site

The night before, we drove through wide open, barely populated western Kansas ranch land to oakley, KS, where we’d booked a room at the serviceable Sleep Inn. Who knew we’d get an excellent cheeseburger (even medium rare, as requested) from Buffalo Bill’s bar and grill, the name a nod to Annie Get Your Gun?

After Nicodemus, we drove east, passing a few small towns and interesting sights including The M Motel in Stockton, whose dayglo yellow sign shouts in blue “Taylor Swift stayed here.” So she did, after playing the Rook County Free Fair in 2007. (Early days for the now superstar.) A town later, Alton boasted of being Russel Stover’s birthplace. The chocolate candy maker, we presumed.

Technically east-central Colorado but northwest Kansas looks much the same

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