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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: Putting the word 'trail' on trial years ago

MARION HISTORICAL MUSEUM PHOTO

Pioneer Edson Baxter, who worked with his deputy, daughter Lorena Baxter, as clerk of the District Court in Marion County from 1913 until his death in 1922, urged townsfolk not to refer to the old Santa Fe Road as a trail.

One of the region’s earliest settlers and most celebrated citizens, Edson Baxter (1842-1922), had a thing about calling the historic Santa Fe Trail a trail.

To Baxter, who frequently traveled the route as a settler, as a businessman, and as a Civil War soldier, it wasn’t a trail. It was a full-fledged road.

One of 11 sons and two daughters of an Illinois blacksmith and farmer, Baxter moved to Morris County in 1858 at age 15. His family homesteaded along a creek two miles north of the road in a largely lawless wilderness.

The family relied on free-range buffalo for meat while Edson helped with farming and spent his winters teaching at a makeshift school outside Council Grove and attending classes at more organized schools in Council Grove and Junction City.

He worked in the offices of the Junction City Union newspaper while studying and served as a salesman for stores in Council Grove, the nearest retail center for residents of the fledgling town of Marion Centre, before enlisting in the 17th Kansas Infantry during the Civil War.

His unit’s assignment was to patrol the Santa Fe Road and guard mail coaches and property owners against hostile Indians and outlaws.

Shortly before he mustered out as a sergeant, he was in Marion for construction of the county’s first school.

The dirt-floored, thatched-roofed, one-room log cabin was built just east of the present Marion water works on what now is known as Dogfish Island.

The school was just east of what now is a dry riverbed that, until the 1920s, had been the meandering path of Luta Creek, straightened further east to form the “island.”

The school was built from logs borrowed from a homesteader who had intended them to expand his house. Its furnishings consisted of rough-hewn log benches without backs and no desks, save for a dry goods crate upended to served as a desk for the teacher.

Once School District No. 1 was created to provide taxpayer support for the school, boundaries of the county — and, with it, the school district — were extended in 1865 west to the crest of the Rockies and south to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).

The county and school district consisted of 29,088 square miles, measuring 286 miles east-to-west and 112 miles north-to-south at its widest.

Still, it was home to only 125 non-native inhabitants — all of whom were taxed at collection stations set up along the Santa Fe Road, including at Fort Dodge, until the county was reduced in 1867 to approximately its current boundaries.

Although Edson left the Army after the war and became a salesman for a general store in Salina, where he soon afterward served for three years as register of deeds, his heart remained in Marion, where he had met the school’s first teacher, Rebecca Shreve (1843-1921).

A member of one of the original families to settle in Marion, Rebecca had been forced to cut school short and flee to Elmdale and eventually Council Grove after an Indian raid that very likely was defended against by Baxter’s Army unit.

The two remained in contact and in 1865 were wed.

“In those days, the Santa Fe Road was known by everybody in the central part of Kansas and was called by all Santa Fe Road,” Baxter wrote in 1912. “Since it went out of existence, writers in speaking of it call it the Old Santa Fe Trail, probably for the reason that they think to call it trail sounds more romantic.”

All the way through Kansas, Baxter wrote, the route was much more than just a trail — at least 100 feet wide and in some places 300 feet wide.

The path, he wrote, was “free from grass and weeds, worn so by the constant passing over it of heavy freight wagons, hauled by three span of mules or six yoke of oxen, and numerous other vehicles.”

The road was, in Baxter’s view, “this country’s only highway.” Settlers traveled in trains of 26 wagons each, and the entirety of supplies for three military forts and all settlers in southern Colorado and New Mexico were transported over it until rail lines were built in 1866, 1867, and 1868.

As the old route began to be replaced in 1869, Baxter was appointed by the state’s governor to serve as a commissioner auditing Indian claims.

The next year, he moved to Marion, homesteading a claim four miles northwest of town — which he eventually spent more than a decade successfully defending in court against a claim that the land had been granted instead to the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad.

A leading figure in Republican politics in the county, he occasionally worked as an attorney and served from 1885 to 1891 as a justice of the peace, deputy sheriff, and deputy court clerk.

In 1901, he was appointed doorkeeper for the State Senate — a crucial post at a time when rival factions were known to challenge exactly who had rights to be admitted as senators.

In 1903 became the Senate’s bookkeeper, and in 1909 he was named a colonel and inspector general of the Kansas National Guard.

He resigned that post to become captain and quartermaster of the Guard, taking charge of the state arsenal at Topeka, until resigning that post to accept appointment as clerk of the District Court in Marion County.

Affectionately referred to as “colonel,” “captain” and even “governor” by townsfolk, he was repeatedly re-elected to court clerk — serving with one of his eight children, daughter Lorena, as his deputy — until his death in 1922 at age 79.

Both he and his wife, who died a year earlier, at buried at Marion Cemetery along with four of their children.

Last modified Dec. 12, 2019

 

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