Searching for the ghost of ‘big tree’

Brought to full existence by the coming of the railroads, Lone Elm was once a thriving community and hay center. Remnants from its earliest settler yet remain.

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June 7, 2021 - 9:31 AM

Westin Holloway stands by the remnants of a wall on what was originally the farm of Isaac Reeve, founder of Lone Elm. (REGISTER/TREVOR HOAG)

A single tree was standing.

Tall grass was swaying in the wind as Isaac Reeve led his rented horse across the expanse of southern Anderson County.

He’d set out from Colony around 1873, searching for a place to settle, and would go on to buy much of the land where Lone Elm sits today.

The price was only about $2 per acre.

Having established himself, around 1879 Reeve then fetched his new wife Hannah Winters from Pennsylvania, and soon after established a post office in a cabin on their farm just southwest of the future townsite.

Westin Holloway wanders through the remnants of the Reeve farm. (REGISTER/TREVOR HOAG)

IN 1885-86, when the St. Louis and Emporia railroad was slated to cross their land, the Reeves made a plot for a town that they, naturally enough, named “Reeve.”

Reeve also absorbed folks and their houses from a small settlement nearby called Equity, to the northeast, which spurred additional growth.

The name of “Reeve” was not to last, however, for when the post office was moved in town from the cabin on the Reeve farm in ‘86, the town’s name was changed to Lone Elm.

According to resident Gary Holloway, “how it got that name, I really can’t verify any of it. But I was always under the impression that south of Lone Elm, [where] there was a big bridge and some timber there on the east side … I was under the impression there was an elm tree off by itself in there.”

As for the name itself, according to resident Gary Holloway, “how it got that name, I really can’t verify any of it. But I was always under the impression that south of Lone Elm, [where] there was a big bridge and some timber there on the east side … I was under the impression there was an elm tree off by itself in there.”

“Supposedly the tree was never in town.”

“Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know,” he added, but I must admit that the story of this legendary ghost tree still strangely fascinates.

Perhaps that’s because the only evidence for its existence is a name, and memory, and imagination.

Where even today, one can dream the sight of a majestic arboreal being stretching out its wooden capillaries beneath an expansive Kansas sky.

An ATV carrying Westin Holloway and a Register reporter plows through multiple feet of water on the way to the historic Reeve farm. (REGISTER/TREVOR HOAG)

Even after Lone Elm became established, Reeve continued staying busy.

He had a number of buildings in town, and became one of the original stockholders of the bank there (and in Kincaid as well).

He also had to deal with hired hands drinking copiously on the job, with clever workers hiding alcohol in farm wells to keep it cool.

Of note as well was the difficulty in hauling lumber, as prior to the rail line, building materials had to be hauled overland from Colony.

Eventually a hardware and furniture store sprung up, though, as did a merchandise dealer, livery barn, grocery store, lumber yard, drug store, physicians/veterinary offices and more.

The freight train was coming through town every day from both directions, east and west, and soon Lone Elm earned repute as a shipping station for grain, hay and livestock.

By 1933, however, like many local communities (e.g., Elsmore), the Depression would deal Lone Elm and its bank/rail economy a blow from which it never recovered.

Before the bottom fell out, however, as Holloway explained, “Lone Elm was a thriving community for 30 or 40 years.”

Townsfolk worked exceptionally hard year-round, but still found time for leisure on weekends.

The grave of Isaac Reeve sits in the far southwestern corner of Lone Elm Cemetery. (REGISTER/TREVOR HOAG)

In his book “Lone Elm Days,” by Olin Church, he notes how “one of the early sports was to borrow a railroad handcar and take the girls for a ride on Sunday afternoon. They had good sport in pumping the handcar up the grade west of town and coasting back like a roller coaster.”

People also loved throwing horseshoes, racing nags, sledding, buggy rides and attending shows at the local hall where the Odd Fellows, Masons and Eastern Star met.

Church recalled in particular how, “one of my earliest memories was of attending a Memorial Day service at the hall. The Civil War veterans were seated on the stage, some in uniform.”

Church recalled in particular how, “one of my earliest memories was of attending a Memorial Day service at the hall. The Civil War veterans were seated on the stage, some in uniform.”

Afterwards, everyone would form a line and march to the cemetery behind them to pay homage, a wide-spread “Decoration Day” practice.

It was said that one Civil War vet in particular, by the last name of McDowell, had escaped a Confederate prison by rolling up in a blanket and playing dead, making his way out with a wagonload full of corpses.

Life may have been simpler in those days, even if much harder physically, but Lone Elm also saw its share of excitement.

In the 1920’s, when outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde were making their rounds, the Lone Elm State Bank also got a visit.

After studying the habits of the townspeople, two men who were railroad vagrants broke into the bank on a Sunday night after stealing tools from the local hardware.

They shattered the lock on the vault door, grabbed what they could and made a giant mess in the process.

Olin Church even recalled seeing a wheel of cheese at Ellington’s Store that one of the thieves took a bite out of, leaving teeth marks behind in their quest to also steal food before leaving town.

Though the two bandits were eventually caught and given severe sentences at Lansing prison, they managed to escape the jail at Garnett before being incarcerated and were never heard from again.

Some other wild stories shared by Church from the early days of Lone Elm include recollection of the 1930’s Dust Bowl and rabbit round-ups.

Due to an absence of irrigation, along with little rain or snow, “when the March winds came, the soil began to blow due to the dry conditions.”

The sandy local farm ground soon took to the air, as did red Oklahoma soil and dust from Nebraska to the Dakotas.

As Church recalled, “this was a terrible experience and one I shall never soon forget. … The dust drifted across the roads like drifts of snow. … Many days, the sky was filled with dust so that visibility was limited to a quarter of a mile or less.”

“One storm rolled in and it was pitch dark at three o’clock in the afternoon.”

And along with said darkness, around the same time came the strange and bloody ritual of rabbit roundups.

According to Church, “hundreds of Jackrabbits would eat wheat fields like a herd of sheep.”

And although his memories of the rabbit hunts specifically took place around the ghost town of Manter, Kansas, Church intimates that the conditions were more widespread, occurring around Lone Elm as well.

He recalled driving around fields and shooting more than 50 rabbits in an hour, and likewise remembered a New Years day hunt in 1934, where more than 3,500 rabbits were killed after being herded into a giant trap.

Their furry brown bodies were then sold for a penny as hog feed, a perhaps more merciful end than starving to death due to their food being eliminated by dust storms.

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