Journalist from Peabody captures hometown history
For more than two decades, Don Skinner has been collecting stories.
The longtime journalist has written about everything from water policy to crime during a 20-year career for newspapers including the Topeka Capitol Journal and the Orange County Register.
His latest project is closer to his hometown and heart.
In honor of Peabody’s 150th anniversary, Skinner has published “Light Up the Sky,” chronicling the town’s history.
“In a sense I have been writing this book for 60 years,” Skinner said. “When I was a kid, I loved to hang around and listen to the stories that the older relatives told at family gatherings.”
In many ways, Skinner’s family history and that of Peabody are intertwined.
His roots in the community run deep.
Frosts, the family of Skinner’s grandmother Carrie Skinner’s were among Peabody’s original residents. The Skinners on his father’s side settled in the 1880s.
Skinner’s parents, Merle and Frances Skinner, raised three children in a home built in 1872 by founder Col. Duncan McKercher. Merle farmed and Frances taught school in Peabody for 20 years.
“They were real examples of how people help create a community,” Skinner said.
His father’s death in 1994 sparked a desire to research his roots that sent Skinner pawing through the pages of the Peabody Gazette-Bulletin. Skinner worked for the Marion County Record, which now owns the Gazette-Bulletin, the summer before he graduated from Kansas State University in 1969.
Skinner began ordering years of the Gazette on microfilm through interlibrary loan. He printed paper copies of articles that interested him at 5 cents a page.
The stacks of paper grew as he got hooked.
“Oh, I had to see what happened next,” he said. “I looked at the microfilm and found a story where someone had done something interesting and I had to go back the next week to see how that came out.”
Skinner decided the stories he was finding were too good not to share.
COVID-19 shutdowns gave him a perfect opportunity to write.
“I had all this time and I couldn’t go anywhere, so I just did the book,” he said.
A few strange stories from Peabody’s history stand out.
A drought in the 1890s led the town to hire rainmakers.
Crews showed up in box cars equipped with Wizard of Oz machinery that blew smoke into the atmosphere.
“If it rained after that, they would get paid,” Skinner said. “If it didn’t, they wouldn’t.”
A desire for better roads led the city to sponsor an auto polo match as a fundraiser at Peabody City Park.
Auto polo was like equestrian polo, only with cars and basketballs.
Each vehicle had a driver and a mallet man, who hung onto its side and tried to strike a ball into an oversize goal.
“The cars would turn over, and people would get injured,” Skinner said. “They only did it once, and I assume that’s because it was so dangerous.”
Peabody’s early years are his favorites because they were growth years.
Local industries produced everything from stock tanks to windmills and manufactured silk. It was a time when anything seemed possible for the town.
In 1885, Peabody even put on the Kansas State Fair.
“If I could go back to one period in Peabody’s history, I’d like to experience that state fair,” he said. “I’d like to see all the horse racing and agricultural exhibits, and just listen to how people talked to each other.”
Peabody’s history is tied up with its annual Fourth of July celebration, so “Light Up the Sky” seemed like a great title.
“That’s what they’re known for,” he said. “People have always come by the thousands.”
The tradition was revived this year as nearly 5,000 people packed Peabody City Park.
Like most events in Peabody, the annual fireworks show was pulled off with the aid of a battalion of volunteers, another reason Skinner felt the need to write the town’s story.
A book might give new residents an understanding of what has happened in Peabody and instill a sense of pride in longtime residents.
“In Peabody, there have always been people who have jumped in and done things when they needed to be done,” he said.
Writing the book has led him to wonder what it would be like to live without piped-in water, heat, or electricity, with a horse to pull a plow and provide transportation – just like the city’s earliest residents did.
“I wouldn’t want to live like that permanently, but I’d like to experience it,” he said.
Tragic stories have offered Skinner glimpse of the resilience of people who faced natural disasters and the early deaths of loved ones.
Skinner also has learned that life is unpredictable and therefore precious.
“One day, you’re walking down the streets and then you come down with the flu or get hit by a train,” he said. “Or maybe you stick a pitchfork in your foot and you get tetanus and you die. I guess what I have learned is that life can change in an instant.”
Copies of “Light up the Sky are being sold for $27 at: Light Up the Sky, Box 50, Peabody, KS 66866."