By Amy Bickel - The Hutchinson News - firstname.lastname@example.org
CASH CITY - He has found a few sardine containers and some square nails around the site where a few of his ancestors once lived, noting passers-by would never know the spot amid the Clark County prairie once was home to 500 people.
There were hotels and a blacksmith, shoe and wagon shops, a lumberyard and livery. Cash City even had a doctor, a drugstore and a mercantile, along with a newspaper, the Cash City Cashier, which talked of the town's bright future.
It might even rival a metropolis like Chicago, the paper reported.
"Her merchants are kept constantly on the move, barely having time to go to their meals," the editor wrote. "Vehicles crowd the streets and the farmers' wagons come and go away loaded."
Yet, traces of the once bustling town are a rarity - except for the books full of history his father passed to him, said Ford County Commissioner Kim Goodnight.
Old Cash City, these days, is just a windmill in a pasture.
"The prairie has reclaimed everything," Goodnight said.
'An opportunistic bunch'
In 1886, a man named Cash Henderson, with ties to Wichita, had a dream of a city at the intersection of the Tuttle, Ashland and Meade Center trails.
Henderson got a post office in his town by June 1886, and the town sprang up.
Besides businesses, there was a school, church services and a literary club. The newspaper published its first edition that October, spouting good things about the town's prospects for many issues, telling of a place where corn planted into the sod made 30 to 40 bushels, with the second-year yields topping 60 bushels an acre.
The paper reported the town would soon get a railroad, with the possibility of two more lines going through the city.
"What an opportunistic bunch these people were," Goodnight said. "They were doing this all on the premise that the railroad was coming through."
Western Kansas wasn't the easiest environment to homestead, either, he said. It was an area of few trees and few settlements. The land had never seen a plow.
"It was a very harsh environment to spring a town up on the middle of the prairie, on the hope that the railroad would come through," he said. "And obviously, people were expecting it to profit."
Nevertheless, within six to eight months, the tone of the paper began to turn dismal. The town was no longer booming like its counterparts to the west, reporting that Cash City town lots were for sale at a discount. With news that the railroad would not come through the city, Henderson and the group moved the town and most of the buildings a few miles northward in August 1887, in hopes of catching the tracks there.
The planned extension never came. The railroad built a track to Englewood, 12 miles to the south, which was the end of the line. By 1888, the newspaper had dissolved, the businesses closed and most of the residents moved to nearby Ashland, the county seat.
By 1893, the town site was abandoned, most of the buildings torn down or moved. And by 1895, the Kansas Legislature official vacated Cash City.
Goodnight said his great-grandmothers, on both his father's and mother's sides, grew up around Cash City. He recalls family outings to sites around the area, including Old Cash and New Cash cities.
His father, Charles "Don" Goodnight, spent years recording the town's history. He died in 2000.
"I became the official family caretaker of all this information," Goodnight said.
The tradition continues, he said. Not long ago, he took his sons-in-law to the site.
"There's a spirit at the place - something that seems right," he said. "My father passed down that spirit."
When Rep. Pat George, R-Dodge City, became good friends with Goodnight, it didn't take him long to realize he had something in common with the Ford County commissioner.
In the 1980s, before becoming a legislator and still single, George stayed in a home at Proffitt Lake on the property where Old Cash City once sat. He watched the area for a landowner and used the pond to fish. He began learning about the area's history and began doing his own research, even taking a metal detector over the area. He came across an old plat of the town, which he still has.
"It is such a beautiful part of the state - the rolling hills, the mesas," George said, noting he used to camp at St. Jacob's Well, a basin not far from the Cash City town sites.
It amazes him a town once blossomed, then completely disappeared from existence - a town few even know existed.
"It's pretty sandy soil and, over 100 years, it's not hard to imagine" what remains being covered with sand, he said. "I often thought I should dig down four feet and see if I can find anything."
Thousands of towns across Kansas have met the same fate as Cash City. Moreover, these days, there are others that are just trying to survive. Named Gov.-elect Sam Brownback's new secretary of commerce, George said one project he plans to tackle is to help revitalize the rural landscape and turn the tide for Kansas' struggling small towns.
IF YOU GO To visit the site of Old Cash City, take U.S. 160 west from Ashland to the junction of U.S. 283. Go south on 283 about one mile to a four-way intersection. Turn west and go about 3 1/2 miles. This places you in the area of the town site. New Cash City is less than a quarter-mile northwest of Proffitt Lake.