A 34-mile trail traveled in the late 1870s by people walking from the Ellis train depot to the Black settlement of Nicodemus is now designated with an official marker.
The first of what is hoped will be many signs marking the trail is eight miles northwest of Ellis, on the historic Walz family farm.
Angela Bates, a Nicodemus resident who led the effort to place the sign, is a descendant of some of those who walked the trail. She told the Ellis County Commission at their Sept. 14 meeting about the process to get the trail officially marked.
"I can’t imagine," Bates said. "My great-grandmother at the time was eight months pregnant and for her to walk that distance and have her first baby."
Bates recalled the first time she and a cousin saw the wagon ruts of the Ellis Trail, upon a visit to the Walz property. LeRoy Walz, a descendant of the original Walz family, was there.
"He took us over so we could see the wagon ruts. I couldn’t see them at first," Bates said. "I kept looking. The sun finally changed a little bit, and I could see the ruts. That was so exciting."
Bates has researched the history of the trail in depth. And since seeing the ruts, she has promoted tours of the trail. That’s including an annual visit by 4th graders from the four counties the trail crosses, Ellis, Trego, Rooks and Graham counties, a program funded by the National Park Service.
The first sign, at the Walz farm, was officially installed by Ellis County Public Works employees at an unveiling ceremony Sept. 17.
One of the signature stops on the trail, the Walz family farm, is memorable for its place in the history of the trail.
LeRoy Walz, a rural Ellis resident, told the commissioners Sept. 14 that his great aunt was a school teacher at the site and left recollections in the family history about the school being 75 feet from the wagon trail, which winds its way through the Saline and Solomon valleys.
"I’ve known this all my life, that what’s written down here, this comes out of the Walz book," Walz said. "That the Blacks would come through the homestead, they would ask for water, because we had a windmill there, and they always granted them, of course, the opportunity to drink. And they said that they would carry a burlap bag and oftentimes were barefoot. So that was in our story."
Bates said money for the new sign came from Henry Walz memorial funds donated at his death. Henry Walz, LeRoy Walz grandfather, was born in the early 1900s at a dugout on the farm. Henry Walz became familiar with Bates and her research to interpret the history of the trail and was often present when tours came through. He died at age 105 in September 2019.
"What best way to use that money than to build the sign," Bates said. "This was the poster, the banner that they would have up when the tours would come, and the kids would come. It depicts the family, the farm, the Mendota Post Office, and so this is a great way to actually start putting out on the landscape the history."
With Nicodemus a U.S. National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service, Bates said she and others are working now to get the trail designated an historic trail, as well.
"It’s not just the history of Nicodemus and those people," Bates said, "but it’s the history of all the people along the way."
More signs along the trail are planned, tapping additional donations so far of $800. The hope is for one in Ellis at the train depot, Bates said, as well as at the Saline River, where the travelers crossed.
Another is planned at the crest of the southern border of the Saline Valley, one at Happy Hollow, where travelers spent the night, and another in Graham County at a place called Gainey Hill. Lastly, there will be one south of Damar, where migrants got their first glimpse of Nicodemus from puffs of smoke out of dugouts in the distance.
Bates said there’s been interest from hikers, horse riders and bicyclists to tour the trail.
"As a Kansan, I think our history is our biggest asset, in terms of tourism," Bates said. "It’s our connection not only to the past, but the potential for our economic development in the future."
"You’re telling me stuff I didn’t know," commented County Commissioner Dean Haselhorst.
"A lot of people think they can just pass us by on I-70," Bates said, "but we’ve got a lot to stop here for."