WILLOWDALE - The few outsiders traveling down this two-lane Kingman Country road will happen upon a ghost town that has met the same fate as many that dot Kansas.
The little community of 30-some residents - if that - no longer has a business district. The grocery store is a weedy pile of rubble. The blacksmith shop is a slab of concrete in the middle of a lot. A bell and cornerstone are all that remain of the school, which closed in the 1970s. The post office mailed its last letter in 1938.
Yet the heartbeat hasn’t left Willowdale. Along with the few occupied homes, the ruins of the grocery and a well-kept cemetery, a beautiful structure remains. St. Peter Catholic Church - with its white clapboard siding and a tall steeple, still leaves a towering presence across the prairie.
Faith is what started Willowdale 135 years ago. And faith is what still keeps it going.
Richard “Doc” Molitor, an 87-year-old rancher who traces his Willowdale roots back at least two generations, can’t imagine another place to live. He was born in a farmhouse about 2 miles from town. He recalls riding a horse to the church as a youth to help serve communion at Mass.
The community is not the same as it once was, he admitted as he stood outside the country church on a sultry July afternoon. These little Kansas towns like Willowdale - settled around religion and farming - have nearly disappeared. There are still a few - when everything else is nearly disappeared - that still have a faithful presence, such as Dubuque in Barton County and Windthorst in Ford County - both still marking their town sites with a stately Catholic church.
Doc has seen the changes over the years. Willowdale, he said, dried up for much of the same reasons as most rural towns. Families had fewer children. Farms got bigger. Youths moved to the bigger cities in search of employment.
At one time, Willowdale’s Catholic school had 144 youths who traipsed through the doors, Doc said of when he was attending school there in the late 1930s and 1940s. He recalls the priest paying him a nickel to help serve Mass.
“We’d go to the Willowdale store and buy a nickel candy bar,” Doc said.
Now it’s difficult to find a few kids to serve.
But even as population declines and buildings get razed, folks here still travel the narrow roadway to Willowdale’s church where Mass is held twice a week.
“The faith is still here,” said Doc. “It’s a beautiful church.”
Built on faith
Willowdale was born in 1882 when 26 German Catholic families settled on the prairie. Many were farmers. They held Mass in their homes until they built their first church in 1884, said Mary Gillen, who chronicled Willowdale’s past in a history book.
Population waned in the 1890s, when times were tough on the farm. But as the economy improved, the area began to flourish again, she said.
Much of Willowdale’s growth occurred around 1901 - when the town grew to about 50 families - enough to lure in a resident priest, said Gillen. Among those sinking roots around that time were Albert and Katie Henning, whose family had migrated to the United States from Prussia and eventually had settled near Tipton until they learned of the new German Catholic community of Willowdale, according to the family’s history.
Living by a church was a dream, so they sold their farm and traveled by covered wagon about 150 miles to the settlement.
Most stories from residents are similar. Doc said his grandparents were German Catholics who came to the United States from Luxembourg, a country near Germany, settling first in Indiana before discovering Willowdale around the turn of the 20th century.
“They were looking for a German Catholic community,” he said, adding it is why most of the families settled here - pioneers searching for a settlement where they could worship and fellowship together.
A post office was established in 1901 in the general store, Doc said.
Willowdale was thriving on the prairie. A school was built, along with a priest house and a sister's house, said Gillen. As families grew, there was a need for a bigger church.
Construction of the current church began in 1903 and was completed in 1904.
A few years later, in 1924, lightning burned down the school, but residents rebuilt it in 1925, said Gillen. At that time, it had about 119 students attending grades first through eighth.
Gillen said a community high point was when its first native son became a priest in 1927.
While centered on the church, Willowdale also had a blacksmith, pool hall, general store and livery stable, among a few other establishments, Gillen said.
There also was a saloon just outside of town, called the Chicken House, said Mike Molitor, a local rancher, parishioner and Doc’s son. Back in the 1930s, there was a Civilian Conservation Corps camp near town, one of the New Deal programs that put people to work during the Depression. After working on area farms all day, the men would walk about a mile to the Chicken House.
“They’d walk to the Chicken House for a cold beer,” he said.
Doc said Willowdale has always been a close-knit community. He remembers if a church member wasn’t in the pews for a morning Mass, that person was located to see if he or she needed help.
After church, folks gathered at the little general store for conversation while their kids played on the playground.
“They’d sell beer on Sundays,” he said with a laugh of the German community. “They would all gather until noon, drink a few beers and go home. They didn't have TV or cellphones; they spent more time visiting.”
“Visiting is something we are missing now of days,” he said.
“Piece of Heaven”
Doc didn’t graduate from high school, going to work on the family farm.
“I went two years and Dad said ‘It ain’t worth it,' ” Doc said. “A lot of kids didn’t go to high school at all.”
Instead, he learned everything about farming and ranching from his father.
When many of the Willowdale girls left town to go to nursing school after high school, Willowdale farm boys like himself began to attend Saturday night dances in the Sedgwick County town of Colwich. That’s where he and several other friends met their wives. He married Angela in 1952.
Gillen was one of the Colwich gals, marrying her husband, Bernard, in 1953. Together they farmed and raised their own family near Willowdale.
But as the years went by, farms began to get bigger. Doc said families went from having a dozen or more children to just two or three.
That makes a difference in the population, he said. Willowdale began to decline.
While a new convent was built in 1963, by 1970, the town had its last graduating class of eighth-graders at the school. In 1976, the school closed completely - with only 22 students, said Gillen.
In 1917, more than 85 families attended St. Peter Church. Today there are less than 40, according to the Catholic Dioceses.
“At one time, our town had a store, a church, a priest house, a convent, school, blacksmith, pool hall, ice house, saloon and a livery stable.” said Gillen. “The only building standing now is the church, the convent and our community building.”
A baseball field used to draw dozens for games after it was built in the mid-1950s, enough to play at least three games a week, she said. About 20 years ago, the lights were removed and the area was put back into farm ground.
There is still the Chicken House, said Doc. The woman who used to run it died, but her daughter still lives there.
“She might open up if someone drives in and serve them a beer,” he said, adding there are better chances after 4 p.m.
His family, along with others, have worked to keep small communities like Willowdale alive, said Mike Molitor. He purchased nearby Zenda’s 1902 iconic Lumber Yard Steakhouse in 2010 - keeping it open.
“It’s one of the oldest buildings in Kingman County,” said Mike Molitor. “As far as the Lumber Yard at Zenda goes, it keeps communities like this together. It is one of the glues that keeps small places like this going.”
Mike Molitor continues to operate Molitor Angus near Willowdale. Doc began breeding Angus cattle in 1952. An annual production sale began in 1980.
At 87, Doc still feeds cattle with Mike Molitor every morning.
It’s been a good life, he said, but added it is sad to see the landscape change.
“I don’t know what the future is, I really don’t,” Doc said. “But there is not a lot we can do in the country but hang in there.”
For Gillen, who now lives at a Kingman nursing home, Willowdale is home. It was her home for 60 years of her life.
“Willowdale is a community that prays together and plays together,” she said. “To me, Willowdale is a small piece of heaven here on Earth.”