MODOC - There's not much left of this three-horse town - which on this day are grazing alongside the drive-up window of the dilapidated Modoc State Bank.

Matt Novak, however, wants to stop the tiny Scott County community from from crumbling away.

The young farmer stood in the city's township hall on a December afternoon, a warm fire burning in the wood stove as he and his mother set up tables for a holiday open house. Ten years ago, the building was an eyesore - a closed-up structure that was home to a flock of birds and had significant water damage, thanks to a leaky roof.  

Most would see it as another ghost town building too far gone to repair. But not Matt.

Matt came back to Modoc after college a decade ago and began farming with his parents, Dave and Sherry. He built up a greenhouse business he calls Modoc Miracles. That fall, aspiring to make his hometown better, he purchased the old township hall.

It took him six years, but today the building is again a community center. And someday, he wants to restore other worn-out buildings in town.

Matt doesn't want to see his community fade like other towns along Kansas Highway 96. So, slowly, he is working to bring some life back to Modoc.

"I've always liked history, and it is really sad to me to let things fall down," said Matt, 33. "You can build a hundred new buildings, but you can't replace the one that is already here. This is something I can give back to the community. Not only do you have a functional building, but you don't have an eyesore to look at every day."

The growth and decline of Modoc

Modoc, population 25, is a speck on the map in the western edge of Scott County that most haven't heard of - a tiny town situated amid a treeless landscape of crop fields about an hour north of Garden City.

It sprang up with the railroad. In 1886, a post office was established here, called Plummer, but a year later it was changed to Modoc, according to the Kansas State Historical Society.

Joy Cole, a lifelong resident, has watched Modoc go from a vibrant community in her grade school days to one struggling to survive. At one time, Modoc had a bank, garage, hotel, restaurant, dance hall, depot and school.

There was even a hand-dug well that was nearly as large as Greensburg's famous structure, said Cole, 76. 

Matt's great-great-grandfather Kittel was among the early settlers. He had a number of jobs, from working with cattle to digging wells. He also walked the 10 miles to Scott City to repair shoes. His great-grandfather Novak operated the implement dealership.

The town weathered blows over the years. The first was a prairie fire that swept through the area in 1916, according to an article in The News. But residents rebuilt the damaged buildings. 

Cole grew up on a farm just northeast of the town. Her father, Roger Heim, came to the area in 1927. He worked for area farmers, including herding sheep for one man. Because of his hard work, the farmers helped give him a start in farming. Heim began purchasing his own land.

"He was on the bank board, the school board, the state agriculture board - all because he was a hard worker and two old gentlemen took a liking to him," Cole said.

Cole attended elementary school in the brick, two-room schoolhouse, which still stands. So did her children.

"We walked to school quite a bit," she said. "And I liked riding horses, and I got to ride my horse sometimes. I'd tie him up and he'd stay there all day."

Cole eventually married a local farmer. She began working at the post office in the late 1960s and soon took over as postmaster. She and her husband just built a new house in Modoc, and they moved the post office into a small addition.

But by then, the town was on a downhill slope. The bank closed in the late 1960s. The school closed in the 1970s. And Cole, the town's last postmaster, closed the post office in 1992. 

She is impressed with what Matt has done for Modoc.

"I have nothing but admiration for Matt and his family - to be as young as he is and take on a project of keeping the heritage of Modoc alive," Cole said.

A township hall

In rural Kansas, it's a trend that youth leave for the bright lights of the big city, not to return.

Even Matt admits he didn't know at first if he wanted to move back to Modoc after getting his horticulture degree from Kansas State. Then he interned at a Topeka greenhouse.

Instead of luring him to the big city, it did just the opposite. In 2006, Matt moved back to help his father farm and grow his greenhouse business - Modoc Miracles.

Gardening has always been his passion, said Sherry.

"His kindergarten bus driver said they would always talk gardening on the way home," laughed Sherry. 

Matt started a greenhouse on the farm in high school, she said.

Upon returning to Scott County, Matt expanded his greenhouse space to 3,000 square feet. He also moved the 130-year-old Modoc depot - which was sitting unused at a nearby farmstead - to the Novak farm and turned it into his store.

The greenhouse business, which features vegetable plants and bedding plants, is open from April to right before wheat harvest in June. After that, he sells produce at the Leoti Farmers Market.

If that didn't keep him busy enough on top of farming, Matt began eyeing the old buildings in Modoc. In fall 2006, he bought the township hall.

Built in 1918, it had been the center of the community for years. On Sundays until around 1980, it was used as a church. It served as a polling location and was the site of dances, Sherry Novak said.

"A guy we farm for said he can remember coming to dances as a kid, and when the kids got tired, they would crawl up on the stage and sleep on everybody's coats," Sherry said.

Cole said school programs were held in the hall, which has a stage. They also met there for 4-H.

"I thought it was a good idea, then we walked in the door," said Sherry of her son's purchase.

They found water damage and the bird infestation, among other needed repairs. Slowly, over six years, he began making repairs as he could, replacing the roof, repainting the peach-colored walls and scrapping off the linoleum on the stage. He found a ceiling that nearly matched the original one and repaired the rain-damaged area. He fixed the electrical system. He washed the bird poop off the stage curtain and repaired the nine windows. He built a refreshment area with counters.

He also put new stucco on the outside. Antique street lamps accent the front of the hall.   

The hall is just his first project. In recent years, he purchased a home across the street, which he lives in. Meanwhile, two months ago, he bought the home beside the hall. He plans to turn it into a commercial kitchen with bathrooms, as the hall doesn't have running water.

Matt and Cole talk about the other buildings still standing and dream of fixing them up. Perhaps, Matt said, he could someday turn the bank into his office or restore the former hotel.

But that all takes time, money and a willing seller, he said. Still, he doesn't want to see history fade away.

"If you don't fix them, they are just going to fall down and be lost," he said. "But in reality, you have to find something to use them for, too."