By Amy Bickel - The Hutchinson News - email@example.com
RENO CENTER - Folks in this little settlement had high hopes it would be the Reno County seat.
Its location was prime - the center of Reno County. It already was on a freight trail, and there seemed to be plans by the railroad for a line to run through the hamlet.
"I expect to live to see the day that Reno Center will not only be a larger town than Hutchinson, but also the county seat," local resident and proponent Tom Crotts told a newspaperman in the 1870s.
Fast-forward 140 years and it's evident Crotts was wrong. Hutchinson is, by far, the biggest city in the county and it has the courthouse, to boot.
Meanwhile, Reno Center isn't even a dot on a map, the location just a no-till field south of the tiny town of Partridge, said area resident Jim French.
This, however, is more than a story of a Kansas ghost town. It's about Hutchinson's beginnings, of wheeling and dealing, of how the Santa Fe Railroad steamed into Partridge in 1886 and Reno Center was history.
Starting a town
Long before there was a town, there was a freight trail.
Dubbed the Sun City Trail by many, it was used by freighters who hauled supplies to Barber County's Sun City, where the U.S. Army had built a stockade to hold unruly Indians caught outside their assigned area, according to the book "Legend and Legacy, Partridge Kansas 1886-1986," by Naomi Stiggins.
Chris Terrill, a local historian and teacher, said most who settled the area were Civil War veterans restless to get out of their hometowns.
Others were the Rev. Samuel Dilley and his family, including son Zenas and daughter and son-in-law Durilla and H.C. O'Hara, who staked claims in the area about a mile south of Partridge in 1872, Terrill said.
According to Stiggins' book, Reno Center got a post office in December 1873. A few weeks before, the First Church of Christ was organized, meeting in the home of Zenas Dilley.
At the time, it was just the county's second church, Terrill said. The Rev. Dilley donated the land for the church, school and cemetery.
Dreams were that Reno Center would grow bigger, becoming the county's commercial center, Terrill said. A man with an agenda, however, fouled the plan. His name was C.C. Hutchinson.
First attempt and a notch
Hutchinson, founder of the town that bears his name, realized his town could lose the contest for the county seat. Thus, he got himself appointed as a representative in the state Legislature and went to Topeka with one goal in mind - to ensure Hutchinson received the title.
To become a county seat, a town needed, in general, to be located near the center of its county and to have a somewhat substantial population. County seats were places of commerce, after all, and needed to be central enough so residents could travel to town, do their business and make it home in one day.
When the Legislature first formed Reno and Rice counties, the northern tier of townships in Reno County were designated as a part of Rice and McPherson counties. This put Hutchinson, though the biggest town in the county by far, just a few miles from the northern border - and ineligible to be a county seat.
Hutchinson, however, decided it was time to redraw the map, gaining help from Rice County Rep. F.J. Griffith, according to a story in The News.
In Rice County, the largest town was Peace - which later changed its name to Sterling. However, a substantial number of people lived in the northern part of the county, near present-day Lyons, and they hoped to secure the seat for themselves.
With Griffith's help, Hutchinson convinced the Legislature to pass a bill that took five townships away from Rice County and two away from McPherson County to extend Reno County's northern border to its present-day location.
As part of the deal, legislators cut off the northern end of Harper County and a row of townships from the south of Reno, which helped form Kingman County.
"This made Hutchinson more nearly in the center of the county and Reno Center's hopes of becoming the county seat were dashed," wrote Stiggins.
The swap paid off for Griffith, as well. In 1876, the people of Rice County voted against making Peace the county seat and decided to build a new town that would receive the designation - Lyons.
Still, residents of southern Rice County, feeling shortchanged, wanted a bridge over the Arkansas River to promote traffic traveling from the south.
Reno County, not wanting to pay the expense of building and maintaining a bridge so far from a town, decided to come up with a compromise: Four square-mile sections of land would be given back to Rice County if the county agreed to build and maintain a bridge, The News reported.
Both counties agreed, and the current "notched" border exists to this day.
A second death
While little Reno Center missed its first chance at taking the title, it wasn't giving up, despite the death of early founder Zenas Dilley, who was struck by lightning while bringing his stud from Hutchinson back to Reno Center. While his family attempted an old Indian remedy, bathing him in mud up to his neck, Zenas died a few days later, Terrill said.
Then, in 1885, a tornado damaged part of the first settlement of Reno Center, Stiggins reported. With the land one mile north already marked off by the Santa Fe Railroad, some people chose to relocate closer to this main line.
Still, townspeople had another glimpse of possibly securing the county seat.
Some Wichitans had a plan to bring a railroad through Reno Center, the new Wichita-to-Colorado line that would go from Sedgwick County to Kinsley. Backers received a charter on July 27, 1885.
However, a railroad strike and the ingenuity of a Hutchinson politician, an editor and a half-dozen promoters brought the Missouri Pacific to Hutchinson and kept Wichita "from being the exclusive capital of south-central Kansas as Sedgwick County boosters had schemed."
"The story of how the Missouri Pacific came to town is one of our more fascinating chapters," a News editor reported in a December 1973 column.
Realizing their town's potential fate, four Hutchinson men went to New York to persuade Missouri Pacific Railroad magnate Jay Gould to build a railroad through Hutchinson.
At the time, Gould was amid a brutal railroad strike. His stations at Atchison and Parsons had been burned, and he was looking at bypassing the state of Kansas altogether. However, he told the delegates, if they could assure him they would protect his property, they would likely get whatever they wanted, Stiggins wrote.
The delegates enlisted the help of News Editor Ralph Easley, who alarmed politicians in western Kansas to meet in Topeka to help Gov. Martin stop the strike so the rail could be built, according to The News. The politicians came. Martin got the message. Easley wrote a proclamation, threatening to call the militia if the strikers persisted.
The governor signed it and the strike stopped.
And Reno Center's dream of being the county-seat town died a second death.
The people of Reno Center had been so sure the Santa Fe Railroad would come through that they had optimistically built a depot for it, according to Hutchinson resident Bert Newton's book "Early Ghost Towns, Post Offices and Hamlets in Reno County, Kansas," published in 2004.
With the railroad moving to the north, the few who lived in Reno Center began to move the town to the tracks, Newton wrote. The depot moved in 1887 and the post office on May 24, 1886.
Locals also moved the church that year. Using logs, residents pulled it to the new site, Terrill said.
"If the Santa Fe was responsible for the death of Reno Center, it played mid-wife at the birth of Partridge." Stiggins wrote.
Railroad officials named each station on the line. The station closest to Reno Center was dubbed Partridge, after one of the railroad officials, although the name "Reno Center" was written on the bottom of a cash drawer.
Stiggins wrote that legend has it the postmaster wrote postal officials asking them to send the mail by train to Partridge station instead of sending it by stage to Reno Center. Thus, officials changed their books to read Partridge and would not change the name back to Reno Center, even though many residents were outraged.
The name controversy continued for another 12 years, Stiggins reported, but the name Partridge obviously stuck. Even the Reno Center Cemetery donated by the Rev. Dilley was changed to Partridge Cemetery.