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'Promised land' arrival

10/9/2012

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

ELLIS -- As if on cue, a Union Pacific train roared through Ellis, its horn blaring as descendants of freed slaves prepared to re-enact the 135th anniversary of settlers arriving in Ellis.

"The same thing happened to us in Kentucky," said Regina Thomas, hailing from Nashville, Tenn.

The train's arrival just as the re-enactment started was a virtual repeat of the Sept. 8 celebration in Sadieville, Ky., when black settlers boarded a train "headed for the promised land of Kansas."

Many at Saturday's event said it was the hand of God, a celebration of a turn of events that brought black settlers to Kansas to Nicodemus, today remaining as the oldest and only all-black community west of the Mississippi River.

Saturday's celebration was hampered by cold, rainy conditions that forced re-enactors to change plans slightly.

Rather than start at the Ellis depot and walk to the park across the street, the group of 30 stayed close together, seeking what refuge they could from the closeness of the depot.

The cold simply was too much for several of the observers, who instead sought refuge in their cars during the event.

Still, a crowd of approximately 50 -- hailing from Ellis, Hays, Nicodemus and nearby Bogue -- huddled together to watch the 30-minute event, many joining the re-enactors as they sought refuge inside the depot after the celebration for a brief respite.

While most were dressed in period costumes, many were forced to resort to modern-day jackets to ward off the chill.

During the course of the re-enactment, participants read from a script written by Nicodemus historian Angela Bates.

It was as if the settlers just had arrived in Kansas, many meeting townsite developer W.R. Hill for the first time.

Hill, played by Ellis resident Phil Martin, greeted the settlers, including the Rev. Simon Roundtree, played by Victor Williams, a resident of Nicodemus and a descendant of the settlers.

Martin and Williams detailed the conversation between the two men 135 years ago, even talking about the travels the settlers were about to make north to Nicodemus.

Descendants traveled backroads, as best they could, to follow the route from Ellis to Nicodemus.

A recent study commissioned by the National Park Service has suggested making that route either a historic or scenic byway traveled by the freed slaves.