Noose Road changed to Rome Avenue

Margaret Allen
A stone monument built by Hays sculptor Pete Felten marks the general spot on West 12th Street of the historic Rome town site.

The 5.5-mile stretch of two-lane black top from the city limits past west 12th Street has been Noose Road for 31 years.

Now it will be called Rome Avenue, pronounced like the city in Italy.

The Ellis County Commission on Monday evening unanimously voted for the name change.

“Give me a month to get it done,” said Bill Ring, public works director. “I’ll start the process to have our sign shop put together signs.”

Ring estimated the cost to the county will be about $200, since new signs will use existing poles and hardware.

Only five residents showed up Monday evening at the commission’s regular meeting to hear the road discussion in the commission chambers of the Ellis County Administrative Center.

But there was way more interest than that after Noose Road became a hot topic among Ellis County residents on Facebook.

“I received a ton of emails,” said Commission Chairman Butch Schlyer, “and overwhelmingly they were supportive of changing the name of this road. Social media is with us whether I like it or not. … And our culture is just becoming increasingly sensitive to a lot of issues. Given all of that, I’m in favor of changing this name. I don’t think it does anyone any good to have this name as it is. It just doesn’t.”

Named in 1989, the lore is that Noose Road relates to the 1869 lynching of three Black men from what used to be the wooden railroad trestle called Hangman’s Bridge over Big Creek.

Last week, two Hays attorneys, both Hays natives, Greg Schwartz and John T. Bird, separately lobbied for the name change, discussions that went viral on Facebook.

On Monday, Commissioner Dustin Roths said he got 19 to 20 emails.

Commissioner Dean Haselhorst agreed.

“I know I got a lot of text messages, phone calls,” Haselhorst said. “I got a lot of phone calls, some for, some against.”

One Noose Road resident, Gail Palmberg, spoke at the meeting against the change.

“To me a noose is a rope with a knot in it. What you do with it, that’s your choice,” Palmberg said. “To me, just changing the name of a road won’t change history.”

Changing addresses is complicated, he said, citing insurance, banks, passports, credit cards, business documents and courthouse records.

“It’s a lot of extra work we don’t think we need to do,” Palmberg said.

Ring estimates there are about 29 homes, a business, a cemetery and a commercial building on the road.

Paul Brull, whose family dates back generations in Ellis County, spoke for himself and his grandfather Randy Brull, who lives on the road.

“It’s incredibly important that the name be changed,” Brull said. “The historical context behind it can’t be removed.”

“Who would want to be reminded of such a thing, every time you write your address?” Roths commented.

Noose Road runs from the U.S. 183 highway bypass to just west of Yocemento Road. Bird, whose family’s farm has been there for generations, recalled when the blacktop was known as Old Old Highway 40, because it runs parallel to the north of newer Old Highway 40.

Noose Road history

Bird said he’s wanted the name changed for a long time.

“It’s not a slippery slope. It’s not going to result in Schwaller Avenue being changed to something else,” Bird said. “It’s not good for a society to, in effect, glorify what was an act of murder, whether white or black. That’s what lynching is, and I don’t think it belongs on our roads in Ellis County.”

Roths learned the name’s history in a Facebook discussion initiated by Schwartz on his personal page.

“My initial reaction was how did I not know this?” Roths said Monday. “I had no idea that it was being named Noose Road for a noose. I figured it was probably a Civil War era general or infantryman … My initial thought was it’s insensitive.”

The three Black men were hanged by an angry mob after their arrest in connection with a murder in town.

“The people who were killed on that bridge were not given due process,” Roths said. “These people weren’t afforded this and they should have been.”

A now-missing historical marker was erected years ago by the modern railroad bridge, with a plaque telling the story of the three Buffalo soldiers of the 38th U.S. Infantry at Fort Hays. The marker, anchored in a concrete base, was run down in November 2018 and the plaque stolen.

Strong local reaction

Bird advocated for changing the sign in an open letter to the commissioners that was posted last week on The Hays Daily News’ Facebook page. It has reached more than 120,000 people, and gotten 165 comments and 79 shares.

“I wonder why it didn’t come up 30 years ago,” Haselhorst said of changing the name. “But 30 years ago you didn’t have Facebook and all these other pages that you can share your thoughts, words, and actions on.”

“Everything that used to be local, stayed local,” Schlyer commented. “It’s not that way anymore.”

As Facebook discussion heated up, Ring told the commission Monday night that last week he had a crew remove the main Noose Road signs, some attached to stop signs, fearing they’d be taken down.

“We have people maliciously run down stop signs all the time, or shoot at them,,” Ring said. “Noose Road is traveled extremely fast ... I didn’t want to get into where we could possibly have an accident where somebody could get T-boned out there, pulling out, not knowing there should be a stop sign.”

Bird mentioned that someone named Derek Raynesford had suggested on Facebook that the name be changed to Rome Road, to honor the first town in the area, which once flourished alongside Hays City, then gradually faded from existence.

Rome it is

“We should not forget history, because we don’t want that kind of history to ever repeat itself, but I never want anybody to feel unwelcome in Ellis County, Kansas,” Roths said of Noose Road. “I also don’t want anybody to ever think that we have a racist bone in our bodies.”

“What do you think Dean, should we change it?” Schlyer asked.

“Go ahead,” Haselhorst said.

”Let’s change it Bill,” Schlyer replied.

“I do like the suggestion of Rome Road,” Schlyer said. “Or, as I heard it put better today, Rome Avenue.”

Haselhorst and Roths agreed.

“The shorter the better,” Ring said, “because St. John’s and St. Andrew’s is a propeller out there. We lose a lot of those.”

Palmberg asked if the Noose signs would go back up until the others are ready.

“I’d say we’re just risking something we don’t want to risk,” Roths said.

Palmberg wondered how first responders will find addresses in an emergency.

“I’m fairly confident there’s not going to be any issues with public safety on that,” said interim county administrator Darin Myers. “We all can blast interdepartmental emails addressing our crews of the change to Rome Avenue.”

Help with change

Residents on the road can get help with costs.

“If you get too much flak about the cost of changing the name, just let me know, I’d be happy to donate part of my salary to the cost,” Roths said. “I felt strongly enough about this that it needed to be done. So if it were on my dime, that’s not a problem either.”

Bird said he would set up a Gofundme account to help residents.

“I know that people are on limited and fixed budgets. If there’s a cost to it, we shouldn’t put that all on them,” he said. “You guys can use it in whatever way you think is best to defray costs … I didn’t intend anybody to be out anything on this.”

“Make me the first $200 for the signs,” Roths said.