Preserving the past to build the future

Allen County Historical Society held its spring meeting Tuesday evening. The program centered on use of local abandoned places to help revitalize communities.

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April 17, 2024 - 2:24 PM

Emily Cowan, president of Abandoned Atlas Foundation, a non-profit historic research organization based in Tulsa, Okla., speaks about St. John’s Hospital in Gas at a presentation for the Allen County Historical Society’s spring meeting Tuesday at the Iola Public Library. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Community development doesn’t always mean “new,” Emily Cowan, president of the Abandoned Atlas Foundation, told a group at the Allen County Historical Society’s spring meeting Tuesday evening at the Iola Public Library.

“That’s a mindset I fight a lot. If you demolish your historical, amazing architectural buildings and build new, you’re going to look like every other cookie-cutter city,” Cowan said.

“But if you pour into the community and restore what you have, people will come. Instead of looking at an old building as an ugly eyesore that needs to be demolished, change your mindset. Let’s start looking for someone who can do something with it.”

Cowan has experience doing just that. She grew up in Meriden, not far from Topeka, and became fascinated with the Menninger Clinic. When she learned in 2021 that the historic Menninger Clock Tower building had received a demolition permit, Cowan and the Atlas team got to work to find a real estate developer interested in saving it. Their efforts paid off, when the Sunflower Development Group of Kansas City, Mo., announced in May 2023 it had received a $637,000 grant from the Kansas Housing Resources Corp. to turn the building into 65 units of affordable senior housing.

Little remains of the Lumberman Portland Cement Company in Carlyle. Register file photo

Cowan has written three books, including two about abandoned places in Kansas.

“In high school, I hated history.”

That changed when she discovered abandoned school buildings and wondered what happened. Who attended classes there? Why are they still standing? Why isn’t this place a museum?

She wanted to learn more. Her research led her to the Abandoned Atlas Foundation, which she joined in 2019. She has since written hundreds of articles about abandoned places across Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri.

“The best thing I’ve gotten out of my experiences is the opportunity to connect with people, like we’re doing here tonight,” she said.

Cowan spoke to the Allen County group about her work, resources available to save historic buildings, and a recap of some of Allen County’s most iconic abandoned places.

“I don’t think I can come to Allen County and not talk about the cement plants, so we will talk about those as well as some schools and jails,” she said, noting that old, “single-cell” jails are her specialty when it comes to discovery and research.

Cowan asked the crowd why there were so many cement plants in Allen County around the turn of the century. 

The simple answers are because of deposits of limestone and shale, which are ideal for cement manufacturing, as well as abundant natural gas and access to railroad transportation. But the local market quickly became oversaturated and the “infinite” supply of natural gas ran out.

Here’s a brief rundown of the places she featured:

Lehigh Portland Cement Company, Iola

The cement plant south of Iola was constructed between 1899 and 1900 on 600 acres.

“It had offices, warehouses and employee dormitories. It was pretty often that employees would stay on the grounds, especially in an up-and-coming town like Iola.

“The company was also praised in its early years because it donated cement to build the convention hall in town, so they formed a really great relationship with the community.”

By 1915, the plant was the area’s largest employer. But the company struggled financially and was sold in 1917, when it officially changed its name to the Lehigh Portland Cement Company.

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