AETNA - Bleached white from the sun, the buffalo skulls rests on the fence of the old cemetery here that is marked with just a few dozen gravestones.
A trail leads to the nearly forgotten cemetery, hidden in a valley not far from the abandoned town site. Not far in the distance, hundreds, if not thousands of media tycoon Ted Turner's bison graze on windswept pastures amid the Gyp Hills - the only living inhabitants of this former cowboy town.
Not that Aetna was ever really big. But for residents around it, the Barber County hamlet was the closest community within 30 miles back in the days of horses. It had a school, a post office and a few businesses.
This was rustic sort of town, a rough sort of town, recalls 87-year-old Vergie Reed, who lived in the area with her husband, Dewey, for 50 years, a former hired man and manager of the Z-Bar Ranch, the land Turner now owns.
She said there was a store where a wisp of a woman with the toughest backbone around ran the counter and cut meat.
"She was mean - she had a long meat cutter and she'd get to talking and chop that down on the block," she recalled with a chuckle. "She was pretty rough old woman."
There also was a barn where dances were held - parties that sometimes got a little on the rowdy side, Reed said.
"We hadn't been married long when we went to watch the barn dance," Reed said, noting she and Dewey have been married 70 years. "A fight got started out front and I told Dewey 'let's go home' and we never went back."
But these days, nothing is left but the cemetery, a few dilapidated structures and the buffalo. Aetna sits on Aetna Road in a sparsely populated part of Barber County - where typically the only people traveling it are cowboys in farm trucks. Sometimes Eva Yearout, who helps her husband, Keith, manage Turner's ranch, will see a few visitors searching out the cemetery where their relatives are buried.
There was a time when Aetna had considerable pretensions. Like many a Kansas ghost town, founders wanted the city to be a commercial center.
Nevertheless, according to one historical article March 2, 1900 article in the Medicine Lodge Cresset, "where it was proposed to have a public park is now a horse pasture and on the site reserved for manufacturers the gentle cow chews her cud in contentment."
Or buffalo, as is the case today.
Aetna formed around 1885. According to the Aetna Clarion's Sept. 3, 1885, edition, the town was located in the best area of the state.
Aetna! The Queen of the West! Grow rich with the Country. Invest while you can! Aetna is situated upon a beautiful eminence in Southwestern Barber County, two miles east of the Comanche County line and six miles north of the Indian Territory line.
Surrounding the town are the large and fertile valleys of Salt Fork river, Big Mule creek, Ash creek, Dry creek, Cottage creek, Sand creek, Yellowstone creek, and others too numerous to mention, all of which have large groves of timber along their courses. Aetna is 30 miles west of New Kiowa - the nearest town of any consequence - also 35 miles southwest of Medicine Lodge, the county seat of Barber county. Aetna is also on the surveys of the Southern Kansas and the Fort Scott & Wichita Railways, and at their proposed crossing.
A stage line from New Kiowa to Englewood, Clark County, via Aetna, has been located and will soon be in operation. Yet, while the town didn't fulfill its prophesies, it was a community gathering point for residents, said 91-year-old Mike Platt.
His grandparents are buried in the Aetna cemetery. He recalls riding a horse to the Aetna school - a one-room structure that for years held students from first through eighth grade.
"Us kids always rode our horses to school and, when school was out, we went to Aetna and made ourselves a sandwich and then would go home," Platt said.
"It had a half-dozen homes," he said of the time he was growing up. "But it was a way bigger town before I was even born. There was a hotel that my dad remembers and stayed in. There was a cafe."
It also is in the hearts of Dewey and Vergie Reed.
For 50 years, Dewey Reed, 90, helped tend to the Z-Bar Ranch. For 50 years, he and Vergie lived near Aetna, where they raised three children who attended the Aetna school.
Vergie said money was tight, but they went shopping at the Aetna store every Saturday, which, despite the higher prices, was cheaper than driving 35 miles to Medicine Lodge or 30 miles to Hartner. There, they would visit with their neighbors who were frequenting the store.
"That's how we'd spend our Saturday evenings," she said.
Dewey Reed said he retired in the late 1980s. The couple have lived in Kiowa ever since.
Vergie Reed said she and her husband still take drives to Aetna occasionally, although it's a bittersweet trip.
"I'll never be a town woman," she said. "That out there is home to me and there will never that will be home except right out there on the ranch where I lived."