NICODEMUS — They broke ground in April, but then it rained for days, and then weeks. Then it flooded, then a bridge went out, and then it became impossible to find licensed and bonded building contractors willing to take on the work of building four tiny homes in Nicodemus.

“We’ve had one setback after another,” said JohnElla Holmes, leader of the Nicodemus Tiny Homes Project in Graham County. “But now we’re back on track.”

With dirt leveled, footings dug, and some concrete poured, it looks now like four people longing to move back home to the tiny town on U.S. Highway 24 will be able to do so by March 2019 to new 500-square-foot homes.

As Holmes explains it, the Tiny Homes Project helps people come home to the historic town that is beloved by its residents and their families. Now the Nicodemus National Historic Site, the town was established after the Civil War by freed African American slaves in 1877 and is now part of the National Park System. A National Historic Landmark, it’s the only predominantly black town west of the Mississippi that remains a living community.

“It just blows my mind how many people want to come home but were discouraged by the cost and the difficulty,” said Holmes, who moved back recently after a career as a college professor at Kansas State University, Manhattan.

Stumbling blocks include dead-end roads, badly platted lots, costly regulatory issues related to septic systems, and outdated and insufficient waterline designed and installed in 1979. Holmes and her helpers have had to work around the problems, like trading around lots to build in the most accessible spots.

“I do this so that Nicodemus will live on forever,” Holmes said, noting a population trend unusual for rural Kansas: The number of people in Nicodemus has increased from 15 in 2015 to 47 today.

A grant from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation, Logan, provided the Tiny Home funding, $120,000.

But Holmes says the enthusiasm of Jeremiah Stahl, Hays, the owner of Solid Rock Concrete Services, has been key.

“He is really what got things rolling for us,” she said. “He was so excited about it.”

So much so, it was important for Holmes that Stahl and her daughter, Luecresea Horne, community interpreter for the Nicodemus Historical Society, be side-by-side in The Hays Daily News photo.

“That shows that black and white can work together, we can get along,” Holmes said. “That’s the moral of this story.”

Stahl heard about the project from his cousin, Hill City resident Jason Post.

“It felt right to help them. It helps them rebuild their community,” Stahl said. “I’m a man of faith and I really believe this is something God has in store for them, and I believe he opened the path for this to happen.”

Steven Jones, Hill City, a childhood friend who’s known Holmes for 40 years, also hopped in, and is basically Holmes’ general contractor, she said.

“When JohnElla Holmes got the grant for these projects, she really couldn’t find anybody who would help her,” Jones said.

And while he isn’t a home builder, woodworking is a passion of his, including creating African style artwork.

“We looked for architects, and nobody was interested. It’s been tough,” Jones said. “She was in a crunch. People want the big jobs, they don’t want these small jobs.”

Stahl noticed it too.

“I don’t think they had a lot of people coming out to do this for them, people who could see their vision to rebuild a community that is important to preserving the heritage of our area,” he said.

A lot of it was communication problems, Stahl said.

“I’m a concrete guy, so I know what’s needed,” he said. “Then I just connected all the dots, and found people who are humble enough to work with people who don’t have a lot of experience at this.”

Stahl thought of Darrell Dreher, a co-owner at M&D Excavating, Hays, who also agreed to help. M&D did the dirt work and is digging the footings.

“We’re putting in footings and giving them a slab on grade so they can set their houses on good foundations,” Stahl said.

He and his crew, Jimmy McGuire and Trevor Shuler, both of Hays, poured the first slab last week.

Holmes hired the family owned and operated Sturdi-Bilt Storage Barns Inc., Hutchinson, to deliver cut-to-size materials, and build the exterior shells on site.

Jones will finish out the homes, doing the insulation, sheetrock, painting and interior walls. The floors will remain concrete.

“Jeremiah said he’ll polish them up for us,” Jones said. “He said he can make it look beautiful.”

Jones will design the interiors for the next three tiny homes.

“When they say tiny homes, that’s exactly what they mean, they are really tiny,” he said. “So I have to really get creative about using the space. But I’m up for the challenge.”

Long-term, there are plans to cultivate small businesses, introduce a Farmer’s Market and encourage cottage industries, including the towns own production of Nicodemus Pancake Mix. Currently the members of the Black Farmers Association ship their grain to Lehi, Utah, for processing. The hope is to bring that back to Kansas, with packaging in Nicodemus, and ultimately for sale through the state’s marketing program, From the Land of Kansas.

Plans are to build a total of seven tiny homes. There are 11 people on the waiting list.

Another phase of the Tiny Homes Project calls for planning and building one-bedroom homes and working with community developers to rebuild infrastructure.

Of course, many hurdles remain.

“We have a lagoon — how can we convert that to a city sewer system?” Holmes says. And there’s more land to level, roads to extend, waterline to rebuild, and planning and platting to be done, what with houses sitting in alleyways.

“If we hope to grow, we have to do it the right way,” she said. “So there’s a lot of work.”