Council Grove Downtown Historic District

Council Grove is situated an hour southwest of Topeka, Kansas on the Neosho River. Beginning as a trading post in 1847, it played an important role along the Santa Fe Trail as the last stop for westward travelers until Santa Fe.1 It served traders, merchants, and ranchers throughout the nineteenth century. When the Santa Fe Trail opened up in 1821, Council Grove was just an area with plenty of grazing land, water, trees, and safe crossing.2 By 1854, with the opening of Kansas to white settlers, Council Grove changed from a simple trading post to the true jumping-off point for the Santa Fe Trail.3 As time went on, Council Grove continued to expand and adapt to developments like the adoption of railroads and the subsequent cattle trade.4

The Early Years

The Last Chance Store was the last place along the Santa Fe Trail to buy goods heading west. [source](
The Last Chance Store was the last place along the Santa Fe Trail to buy goods heading west. source

When the Santa Fe Trail opened in 1821, Council Grove was little more than a rest stop.5 The area boasted plenty of water, grazing land, trees, and safety.6 While still organized as an Indian territory, Seth Hays–a business man and the first white settler in Council Grove–opened the first trading post under government contract in 1847.7 By 1854 Seth Hays had competition from the Withington brothers, the Chouteau brothers, and others.8 Seth Hays built the first house in Council Grove in 1857.9 With more people realizing the potential for business as the last stop heading west on the Santa Fe Trail, Tom Hill constructed the Last Chance Store the same year.10 The store provided the last supplies along the Santa Fe Trail for hundreds of miles. The organization of Kansas Territory in 1854 meant towns could begin incorporating; Seth Hays and other businesspeople formed Council Grove’s town company in 1857, and the town incorporated in 1858.11

Railroad or Bust

With the advent of railroads in the United States, Council Grove’s citizens looked to cash in on the extra potential for transportation and trade. In 1865 the town passed a $100,000 bond measure that ultimately failed to attract railroads.12 The town had to wait four more years for a railroad, and in 1869 the M. K. & T. Railroad first passed through the town.13 In 1881 more bonds passed to bring the Topeka, Salina and Southwestern Railroad, which eventually became part of the Missouri Pacific Railroad line.14 These railroad lines helped the town maintain its importance as a stop along the Santa Fe Trail.

Twentieth Century to Postwar Era

Looking to connect more farmers, ranchers, and businesses to more people, Council Grove began to develop a road system for automobiles in the early twentieth century.15 By 1913 there were over 200 automobiles in Council Grove and by 1921 there were 47 miles of hard surface roads to be built in the town.16 While Kansas began implementing plans on a unified road network, Council Grove was able to bring three highways through the town by 1932. 17

The 1920s and ’30s proved to be a difficult time for Council Grove. In the early part of the 1920s, many farmers went into debt due to inflated crop prices.18 However, with large federal investment during the New Deal of the 1930s, Council Grove was able to overcome difficulties and create a safer and modern town. The Works Progress Administration approved $40 million in 1934 to help prevent flooding; the project was completed in 1942.19 The town received other New Deal-era help from the federal government including a new jail, a post office, a water plant, and the Flint Hills Rural Electrification Administration.20

The Kaw Indian Mission, which was originally a school for Kaw Indians. [source](
The Kaw Indian Mission, which was originally a school for Kaw Indians. source

After World War II, the Kansas State Legislature approved money to buy the Kaw Indian Mission to create a museum as part of an effort to increase tourism.21 Nature, however, had other plans. While Council Grove had experienced many floods before, the deluge of 1951 was unlike any other. The Neosho Rover flowed at 121,000 cubic feet/second, damaging many buildings downtown.22 The Kaw Indian Mission was damanged badly enough to delay its opening for another year.23 This new museum, in addition to a new reservoir, began bringing several thousand people a year to Council Grove.24

Visiting Council Grove

One block of the Council Grove Downtown Historic District today. [source](
One block of the Council Grove Downtown Historic District today. source

The Council Grove Downtown Historic District has many sites of interest still standing today. During summer months, the Seth Hays Home is open to viewing on Sunday afternoons or by appointment with the Morris County Historical Society. The Kaw Indian Mission is also open to the public. More information can be found at the Kansas Histoical Society. The Last Chance Store can be seen at 502 W. Main St, although the inside can’t be viewed at this time.


Andreas, A. T. History of the State of Kansas. Chicago, Ill.: A. T. Andreas, 1883.

Brigham, Lalla Maloy. The Story of Council Grove on the Santa Fe Trail. [Council Grove, Kans.]: 1921.

Davis, Christy and Brenda Spencer. “Council Grove Downtown Historic District.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination Form. Wamego, Kans.: Spencer Preservation, 2009.

Juracek, K.E., C.A. Perry, and J.E. Putnam. “The 1951 Floods in Kansas Revisited.” USGS Numbered Series. Fact Sheet, 2001.

Kansas Department of Transportation. “KDOT: Historic State Maps.” 1932.

Maloy, John. History of Morris County, 1820 to 1890. Council Grove, Kans.: Morris County Historical Society, 1981.

  1. Andreas, 55. 

  2. Davis and Spencer, 8.44, Brigham, 11. 

  3. Brigham, 11. Andreas, 55. 

  4. Maloy, 64. 

  5. Davis and Spencer, 8.44. 

  6. Davis and Spencer, 8.44. 

  7. Maloy, 4. 

  8. Brigham, 11. Maloy, 6. 

  9. Brigham, 12. 

  10. Brigham, 15. 

  11. Brigham, 11, 16. 

  12. Maloy, 50. 

  13. Brigham, 40. 

  14. Brigham, 62. 

  15. Davis and Spencer, 8.50. 

  16. Davis and Spencer, 8.50. Brigham, 98. 

  17. KDOT map. 

  18. Davis and Spencer, 8.52. 

  19. Davis and Spencer, 8.52. 

  20. Davis and Spencer, 8.52. 

  21. Davis and Spencer, 8.53. 

  22. Juracek, 4. 

  23. Davis and Spencer, 8.53. 

  24. Davis and Spencer, 8.53. 

1032 words.