An Ellis County road believed to be named in relation to the 1869 lynching of three Black men is in the crosshairs.
Some Hays residents are calling to rename Noose Road, a two-lane blacktop that extends west of town where West 12th Street leaves the city limits.
Ellis County Public Works director Bill Ring said that on Tuesday evening he saw heated Facebook debate over the road name. So he asked interim county administrator Darin Myers on Wednesday to put the request on the agenda for the next meeting of the Ellis County Commission.
"It’s going to be up to them," Ring told The Hays Daily News on Friday. "They will decide."
The three Ellis County Commissioners meet at 5 p.m. Monday in the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main.
In the meantime, Ring said he directed one of his crew to go out Wednesday and remove all the green street signs that bear the name Noose Road.
"I proceeded with caution, so that there wouldn’t be any problems. I made the decision and then talked to the County Counselor," Ring said. "People vandalize signs for the fun of it. Signs out in the county have more bullet holes in them than you can shake a stick at. Some of those signs were attached to stop signs, and if someone runs one down, then that could leave an intersection open. Someone could get killed."
The five signs along the 5-mile stretch are now under lock and key in the public works yard, Ring said Friday.
"I’m watching the national news now, they’re burning cities to the ground. We don’t need any problems," Ring said. "My job is to keep those roads maintained and safe. I made the decision to take the temptation away."
It was a Hays attorney’s Facebook post that Ring noticed.
"It started with Greg Schwartz," Ring said, explaining that Schwartz posted to his personal page the idea the county road be renamed.
"In light of all that is going on in our country that has come to the forefront after George Floyd was murdered, I am reminded of something right here in our own backyard of Hays, Kansas that has always bothered me," posted Schwartz, a Hays native and long-time member of the USD 489 school board.
In response, comments on Schwartz’s post ranged from many who strongly favor renaming to some who are strongly against.
"Right now there’s 131 comments, and his post has been shared 33 times," Ring said. "And who knows how many people have commented and shared on each of those."
Ring said he became aware of the viral possibilities in March when one of his own posts with a photo of a farmer’s round hay bale wearing a giant mask was shared 135,000 times.
The strong opinions surrounding the road signs made him fear the worst, since under normal circumstances, when there isn’t any controversy, many of the thousands of county road signs are routinely shot up, stolen and run over.
"We have a full-time sign guy, that’s all he does, go around and put up signs," Ring said. "Drunk drivers mow them down, people run them over, livestock push them over. I didn’t want people vandalizing them."
County Commissioner Dustin Roths was one of those commenting Wednesday on Schwartz’s post.
"We will verify this with the historical society and if it has any merit whatsoever we WILL change the name of this road," Roths wrote, with uppercase emphasis.
Historical plaque gone missing
A lot of Schwartz’s commenters were curious how Noose Road got its name.
Some noted that the road runs parallel to what used to be a wooden railroad trestle bridge called Hangman’s Bridge over Big Creek. A couple commenters mentioned a now-missing historical plaque that was erected there in recent times to tell the story.
The plaque, they said, explained that three Buffalo soldiers of the 38th U.S. Infantry at Fort Hays were hanged in 1869 by an angry mob of Hays citizens. Another commenter mentioned a 1997 academic paper on Black soldiers at the fort, published in the Great Plains Quarterly of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The soldiers had been jailed in the killing of a white Union Pacific watchman, according to the author, James N. Leiker, with the University of Kansas at the time.
The wooden bridge was later replaced with the steel railroad bridge there now.
Ring said he emailed with Melissa Dixon from the Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau about the sign.
"They’re looking for it," Ring said. The plaque was part of a Hays historical walking tour sponsored by the Ellis County Historical Society.
A Hays resident strolling the area in early November 2018 saw the downed marker, with the plaque missing, and reported it to Hays Public Works director Jesse Rohr.
Official name in 1989
From Ring’s research of county commission minutes, he learned that Noose Road officially got its name in 1989. Then-Sheriff Bruce Hertel asked the county to name all the county roads to help ambulances and law enforcement.
"There were maps of roads with no names, so being able to identify where people lived was very difficult," Ring said.
On March 27, 1989, the commission approved numbering for the north-south roads, and local family names for the east-west roads. Saline River Road, for example, became Younker Road, Ring said.
People quickly expressed dislike for the family naming. The County Commissioners at the time, Tom Wasinger, Guy Windholz and Don Kippes, asked for new names reflecting county history, Ring said. Those were adopted in 1990.
Noose Road is on both the 1989 and 1990 lists, Ring said.
Hays attorney John T. Bird remembers the naming process. In an open letter to the Ellis County Commission on Wednesday, Bird also asks the commissioners to change the name of Noose Road.
"My family has owned and lived on land on this road for more than 100 years, and I have regretted that I did not protest more loudly when the naming of it took place," Bird wrote.
"Many years ago," he continued, "when Ellis County was called upon to assign names to all of the roads and streets in the County, one of your predecessors thought it would be clever to name the road that begins at the 12th Street bridge and runs west to Yocemento, formerly known as old Highway 40, Noose Road. The name selected was racist then and it is racist now."
There are an estimated 29 homes, one business, one cemetery and one commercial building on the road, according to the county commission agenda. Cost of replacement to the county would be about $200.
"The commission could also approve a nominal reimbursement fee to landowners who need to replace stationary (check blanks) to residents who live on the road," the agenda says.