Through W.M. Durkee we are enabled to give an accurate, as well as an interesting history, of Aurora and Aurora township. The first settler of the township was F.A. Thompson, who homesteaded the first quarter of land, section four, in the spring of 1869. He was then a single man and began housekeeping in a little dugout located on the banks of Elm creek, near where his pleasant, comfortable home now stands. After having lived this lonely life for about one year, in the meantime keeping a sharp lookout for the wily savage, Mr. Thompson took unto himself a wife and helpmate, in the person of Miss Mary Thomas. With this event life became worth living and he rejoiced in the fact that he possessed the same stick-to-itiveness so characteristic of Kansas pioneers. He had many times prior to this change in his bachelor life contemplated pulling up stakes and seeking a more congenial clime. Mr. and Mrs. Thompson have long since passed their pioneer days and are enjoying a substantial fortune which admits of all the comforts of life.
In the year 1870, when the great tide of emigration rolled over Kansas, about a dozen or fifteen families settled in Aurora township. Among them were Jeremiah Burns, who later moved to Concordia, where he died in the latter part of the 'severities. The Richards, Sam and William were sons-in-law of "Uncle Jerry." The former removed from the township several years later, while the latter remained a citizen a brief time only. The first white child in the township was born to Mr. and Mrs. Sam Richards in the autumn of 1870 and is now a resident of Concordia, where he owns and operates a dray.
In that same year William Wilkerson came, a man of somewhat peculiar characteristics. Ed. and George Grilley, and Theodore Healey, the latter filing on the southeast quarter of section two, the Grilleys taking the east half of section eleven. With Wilkerson came a man by the name of John Gibson; each were men of families. An amusing incident transpired over the securing of a claim. Gibson owned a team of horses, Wilkerson an ox team. After camping and resting over night on the claim of O.C. Currier, they sallied out the next morning, which was Sunday, to reconnoitre for land. A few minutes later each conceded to himself section twelve was a desirable quarter; neither expressed himself, but set about to secure a claim. Consequently, the next morning Mr. Gibson saddled his horse and started for Junction City. However, prior to starting a look in Wilkerson's tent revealed the absence of that individual, and suspecting he was enroute to file on the coveted quarter, Gibson started in hot pursuit. Gibson was a man of slow movements, but in this instance got a hustle on himself; but although Wilkerson was on foot he made the best time, arrived in Junction City and received his papers just as Gibson rode in. The incident is similar to the tortoise and the hare. Gibson then secured the northeast quarter of section fourteen. Neither of these men are now citizens of the township, having removed many years ago.
In the autumn of 1870 Henry Demars, Elzeor (deceased), Charles and Frank Letourneau came into the township. Demars and the surviving Letourneau brothers are now residents of Aurora. Demars and Elzeor were married men and left their families near Waterville, the terminus of the railroad. While preparing a place of habitation to shelter their families, their stock of provisions was reduced to turnips. The high water made dangerous fording of the Republican river at Clyde, and they were beginning to conjecture as to their probable fate, when Wilkerson came along with a wild turkey. They bought the trophy, cooked the turnips and the wild fowl together and had a feast fit for a king; but were compelled to draw their rations out and make them last for several days in order to sustain life. The house they were building was of stone and still stands. It has been remodeled, added on to and is the dwelling place of H.F. Rodgers.
Those who settled in 1871 are too numerous to mention in detail. Early in this year were E.L. Prince, of Concordia, Sam Moyer (deceased in 1878), I.J. Smith (deceased in 1876) , D.F. Cox, who is still a resident and lives on his old homestead; J.D. Springsted and A.B. Pennock also came into the locality; others came later and by the time the year closed there were nearly or quite fifty families in the township.
Early in 1871 the Princeville postoffice was established with E.L. Prince as postmaster. The mail was carried to and from Shirley alternately by the neighbors. J.H. Springsted, W.M. Durkee and M.C. Pearson came in November, 1871. The two former are citizens of the town of Aurora, while the latter emigrated to Oregon. At this time there were but five houses in the township that could boast of shingled roofs and they were very inferior in point of material and architecture. Mr. Durkee says the first piece of lumber he bought in Kansas was a board to be used in the manufacture of a table. He bought it of "Uncle" Jim Hagaman, who was then a lumber dealer in Concordia, and paid seven cents per foot. The old table of thirty-two years still stands on its rudely, but substantially, built legs, and sometimes even now does duty as a table.
In August, 1871, the prairie in this locality was swept by a fire and burned nearly all the hay In the township, leaving the homestead settler in a sorry condition. And as if to add to their misfortune a very severe winter followed. The last Sunday in November and the first Sunday in December of 1871 are remembered by Mr. Durkee as the worst in the history of Kansas during his residence of thirty-two years. However, no one froze to death, but were even happy and contented. They spent most of their time that winter visiting and getting acquainted with their neighbors.
In the springtime of 1872 the people began to rustle in earnest, as what money the settlers had brought with them to the country was fast disappearing and about the only means they had of bread winning was to haul freight for the Concordia and Clyde merchants from Waterville. This was the salvation of the poor settler, but everything was exceedingly high and no one acquired a fortune, it was the sustenance of life rather than riches that the homesteader sought.
In September, 1871, a child was born in the home of Elzeor Letourneau, which died sixteen days later. This was the first death of any white person that occurred in the township.
In 1872 there was but one voting precinct for Nelson and Aurora townships and that was located in the former. E.L. Prince was the first justice of the peace. The two townships were assessed by William Brisbine. Early in the springtime of this year school district No. 20 was formed. The first school board consisted of E.L. Prince, G.M. Grilley and David Evens. After several meetings and considerable discussion they voted a six hundred dollar school bond and erected a school building that year 16X22 feet in dimensions. The contract was given to Jake Short, of Concordia. Miss Minnie Burleigh taught the first school in this first school house in the township at a salary of eighteen dollars per month. Miss Burleigh married later and removed to the southern part of the state. The people of this locality began to feel as if they were coming out of the wilderness and were becoming a civilized community, for they had a place to hold Sunday school, occasional divine services, lyceums and social gatherings. Upon each of these various occasions the house would be full to overflowing with settlers full of good feelings and fellowship for each other.
In the autumn of 1872 the township was organized, and at the suggestion of E.L. Prince the name of Aurora was adopted. The citizens of that locality now knew where they were located and began to assume importance. They did not gain in population this year as rapidly as in 1871, but there were several newcomers. What little small grain there was sown yielded well; corn was a light crop.
The first marriage ceremony performed in the township was in 1872 by E.L. Prince. The contracting parties, Charley Beebe and Jennette Names, were both of Nelson township. The first resident couple of Aurora township to be joined in wedlock were Ed. Law and Miss Grilley (a sister of G.M. Grilley), in the spring of 1873. The second couple to be married were A.B. Pennock and Lizzie Prince, a daughter of E.L. Prince. For some of the disgruntled citizens of the present time Mr. Durkee mentioned some of the prices they had to pay in the early 'seventies. The first flour he bought was three dollars and fifty cents per hundred and that a second grade article; pork, fifteen cents per pound; one dollar for seven pounds of brown sugar; one dollar and twenty-five cents per pound for tea; cornmeal two dollars per hundred pounds; twenty-five to thirty cents per pound for rope, all article much in demand in that day, when in the absence of hedges and fences the stock must either be herded or lariated. J.H. Springsted, who now lives in Aurora relates how he went down near the Republican river and paid one dollar per bushel for corn the first winter he was in the county and helped shuck it to get feed for his horses, but in all probability fed them sparingly. Ed. Grilley, now a resident of Michigan, traded his farm and returned to that state in 1873, where he could be nearer his wife's people. He built the sixth house in the township and also the best one at that time. The first blacksmith shop was that of M.M. Rockwell, who filed on section twenty-four in 1873 and established a shop there.
In the spring of 1873 the first election was held in the township in the Princeville school house and something over fifty votes were cast. W.M. Durkee was elected trustee, F.A. Thompson clerk, and D.F. Cox treasurer. By this time there were one thousand one hundred and twenty-eight acres of land to assess, seven and one-fourth sections having been proved upon. The total value of which was one thousand four hundred and sixteen dollars. The total value of the personal property was eight thousand eight hundred and seventy-seven dollars: total, thirteen thousand two hundred and ninety-three dollars. Most of the assessable land was in district No. 20. So the reader can readily see that taxes were somewhat higher than now, but the small grain was good, and corn fair, and some of the settlers had both. There were frequent showers up to July 23. At this date the locality was visited by one of the biggest pourdowns the author's informant ever remembers having seen in Kansas. It drove many out of their dugouts, washed away horses, cattle and farm tools that lay in low places. Many draws that were ordinarily dry were converted into streams of water fifteen to twenty feet deep.
The season of 1873 will long be remembered by Mr. Durkee and his wife. They were awakened about midnight, arose from their peaceful couch and found themselves wading in water too deep for comfort and more coming. While enroute for quarters more safe they were trying to cross the stream and got into deep water, when wagon and all were carried down with the current until they struck shallow water several rods below. Mr. Durkee reached over the dash board and by holding on to the running gears held the vehicle together until they could reach the shore, which they did without a scratch, but were somewhat excited. A young man who was visiting them from Michigan had expressed himself as not liking Kansas because it never rained. When they were disturbed from their slumbers their guest gathered a quilt and wrapped around himself as a protection from the flood that was pouring in over his head. In this forlorn condition Mr. Durkee could not refrain from asking him if it ever rained in Kansas? Whereupon the young man who was very pious and not given to profanity, sullenly retorted: "You go to the devil!" This was the last rain for some time, but in the autumn of that year a prairie fire did much damage, so by the time winter set in the settlers found by fire and water they had suffered much loss. Mr. Durkee's loss footed up something over two hundred dollars; more than one-half as much again as the season's profit on the crop, but our informant says they have lived through all those trying scenes and have grown fat.
J.B. Springsted was "baching" in his dugout when the freshet came, and upon feeling some water pour down upon his face, arose from his homemade couch and as he stepped out upon the floor, found himself in several feet of water. He made an exit by mounting the roof from the front of his dugout and climbed the hill from the rear. When the flood had subsided he found a horse hanging head downward in an elm tree, lodged in a crotch about fifteen feet above the ground. By 1874 a goodly number of the first settlers had enough land broken to begin farming on quite a large scale, and although the grasshoppers came, had enough wheat for their own bread and to fatten their pork. Consequently, with a little aid for the more unfortunate everybody got along quite well.
In the summer of 1874 the second school house in the township was built in district No. 56 on section five. It was built of stone, costing the district one hundred and fifty dollars, much of the labor being volunteer. This is a joint district, part of it lying in Aurora township and a portion in Nelson. The district school board was composed of Henry Williams, J.E. Wood and F.A. Thompson. The latter was elected clerk and as a matter of history, it must be recorded Mr. Thompson has held the office of clerk continuously ever since. Jennie Catlin was the first teacher receiving twenty-five dollars per month.
The first resident minster was Robert Wilson, who came into the community in 1873. He was a conscientious man but very poor and having a large family to support endured many hardships. In the spring of 1875 every man went to work with a will, and not only the men, but Mr. Durkee is chivalrous enough to concede that the women are equally as deserving of praise. They performed their duties with but little murmuring. A larger crop was put in than ever before, the season was a good one and everybody prospered.
In the spring of 1875 Stephen Travis, of Iowa, located on section twenty-eight the homestead lie had secured two years before. His advent in the neighborhood proved a Godsend, for he was financially well-to-do and the settlers were not slow in grasping the opportunity of securing some of the old gentleman's shekels by assisting the building of a new stone house and the numerous other structures he erected; digging wells, breaking ground, planting sod corn, etc., the proceeds of which helped them pull through the summer in fair shape.
In 1875 H.H. Frazer, came into the settlement and bought the M.M. Turner claim on section thirty-five for fifty dollars. There was a stone hut and ten acres of breaking on the homestead. The next spring there was a postoffice established and H.H. Turner was appointed postmaster. He gave it the name of Sulphur Springs because of the two springs that are highly impregnated with sulphur and thought by many to contain valuable medical qualities.
May 29, 1876, school district No. 24 was organized with Stephen Travis as director, J.A. Travis and G.D. Wood treasurer. Miss Alice Peifer was the first teacher employed, the consideration being ten dollars per month. The first term was held in the residence of Stephen Travis. It was also in 1876 that the first church was erected in the township. It was built by the Catholics on section three. A few years later a little burgh was started at this point and called St. Peter. The supposition was that the railroad coming into this part of the county would intersect this point. In 1876 the blacksmith and his family left Kansas for Michigan, where they had numerous relatives. Others of the old settlers dropped out and were replaced by new ones until in 1877 the township was quite well settled.
In the spring of this year Joe Osborne purchased one-half section of H.H. Frazer's farm of one hundred and sixty acres, for which he paid one thousand dollars, built a store and opened a small stock of general merchandise. This was the first store in the township. The same season Doctor Melvin settled at Sulphur Springs and this was the first physician, but there was no cemetery and his practice was limited; therefore Doctor Melvin did not tarry but a brief time. Things had been moving rather slowly in this locality, but the time had now arrived when the citizens realized the need of something more than sorghum, corn bread, buffalo meat, jack rabbits, prairie chickens, etc. Wheat bread, ham, eggs, and other delicacies began to substitute that common-place bill of fare. Then a desire came for new wagons, buggies, organs, better clothes and the enjoyments known to people of an older settled country and the longing for these luxuries occasioned many settlers to place mortgages on their farms to enable them to obtain the where withal to indulge in them. Mr. Woodin, of Minneapolis, Kansas, a very accommodating individual, was in the habit of visiting this locality and loaned from three hundred to five hundred dollars, charging twenty-five dollars for each one hundred dollars, as a premium for his own trouble; and in addition to this the borrower paid ten per cent. on the amount specified. Many of his victims took the loan and skipped out, others hung on for a while and finally lost their farms: while some invested their money in young stock and came out all right, even at this exorbitant price for a loan. But it was bad management, as many learned to their sorrow later on.
Sulphur Springs School District No. 48 was organized in 1876. The first school was taught in a shanty owned by A.B. Pennock and the first teacher of the district was Miss Rosa Bean. The first board was composed of Thomas Clegg, A.J. Ming and E.C. Pearson. In 1878 a strip was taken off from the north side of No. 48 and a portion from No. 20, from which a new district was formed and given the number of 18. They voted one hundred and forty-five dollars bonds out of which to buy the lumber, and by contributing volunteer labor, a school house was built 16x22 feet in dimensions. The first school board was composed of W.M. Durkee, J.B. Hoyt and S. Moyer. The first school was taught by L.E. Townsend for the sum of fifteen dollars per month and board. District No. 48 voted seventy-four dollars bonds and built a small house the same year. About the same time E.H. Townsend came from Michigan and located on the Rockwell farm, where he started a store and sold about a year later to J.B. Dunn.
The township gained in population and wealth until they had in 1878, 7,983 acres ripe for assessing, valued at $18,707. Personal property valuation, $10,708; total, $29,415. The statement may seem strange to some that the personal valuation should not exceed that of 1873 more than two thousand dollars. Some had doubled the amount of property and the same assessor did duty both years. But in 1873 he tried to give the actual figures at their cash value, while in 1878 he was more given to pleasing the people than obeying the letter of the law; had it been otherwise, the valuation would have doubled that of 1873.
In 1879 District No. 89 erected a school building. The first board was composed of Antoine Betters, Joe Whitehead and E.R. Jones. The record shows that one Budreau, after teaching two months, gave up the school, which was finished by L.E. Townsend. In 1880 District No. 84 erected a stone school house. They voted eighty-five dollars bonds and accomplished the rest by taxation and volunteer labor. This made six school buildings erected in the township since the advent of the first settler.
The year 1880 found the township populated with a happy and prosperous people and about one hundred and forty voters. Elections were held in the school house of District No. 20 until 1880, when the voters convened at the house of Joseph Chaput, near where the town of Aurora now stands. The community began taking oil something of a metropolitan air and the hospitality so noticeable in the earlier days began to wane in the early 'eighties. It was not all uncommon occurrence for fifteen or twenty persons to occupy the same diminutive dugout or shanty over night or for several days, and not seem crowded. Mr. Durkee says he well remembers the event of November 24, 1871, the first night he, with his family, spent in what is now Aurora township. It was one of those bitter cold nights when to be at home by a warm fireside is a luxury, that a household composed of seventeen persons spent the night in A.B. Pennock's bachelor quarters 24x14 feet in dimensions. Henry Demars relates how he entertained for three days and nights twenty-two people in his dugout, which was but 14x18 feet. Can the modern Kansan conceive of accommodating so many people in a one-room house of those dimensions?
In 1885 another physician settled in the township and hung out his shingle at Aurora Center, which was located on about the same site as school house No. 18. About a year, later he removed to St. Peter and when Aurora sprang into existence he pinned his fate to that town and settled there. His name is F.A. McDonald. He still holds forth in Aurora, where he is prosperous and happy. From an early date much anxiety was evinced over the location of a town that must spring up somewhere in their midst. The people in the vicinity of Sulphur Springs naturally enough contended that they had the best point for a town and on the strength of their convictions established a store, blacksmith shop and a school house. The citizens of Aurora Center also wanted the site and made about the same start. Shortly afterward the folks in the vicinity of St. Peter, who already had a church, conceived of building up a town in their midst and gained about the same footing. But, alas! all their efforts in this direction were bound to come to naught, for in 1887 a railroad was built through the township and the town of Aurora sprung into existence in 1888. I. Gennette moved his hardware store from St. Peter, Z. Cyrier came with his dry goods and grocery store. The latter was the first postmaster of Aurora, bringing the postoffice with him from St. Peter. But his career was short in the new town, for in less than six months he sold out and moved onto his farm. Mr. Gennette operated a hardware store and a feed barn for nearly two years, retired from business and moved away.
Beginning with 1880, "Uncle" Philip Miller conducted a grocery store and boarding house for several years, when he retired from business and is still living in Aurora enjoying a life of ease. Henry Parvin moved his store of goods from Rice to Aurora in the spring of 1880. He erected his own buildings, which were quite an addition to the new village. He also bought and shipped hogs. After three or four years he sold and moved away.
In 1888 H.S. Breed moved his mercantile business from Rice to Aurora, went to the wall a few months later and left the town. During this year two banks were established. One remained but a short time, the other several years. At present there is none, although a factor much needed. Eli Grandpre built and operated the first blacksmith shop in the town, but like some of the other inhabitants, tarried but a brief time. There were also two hotels, one conducted by Gravelin, the other by Mrs. Letourneau. The former withdrew several years ago, the latter is still there and cares for the traveling public in a very commendable way. Martin Brothers closed out after conducting a mercantile business for a short time. Within the space of one year Aurora made a wonderful growth; under the music of the hammer and the saw, business houses and residences sprang up until a fairsized burg was the outgrowth.
In 1891 School District No. 104 was organized. Fifteen hundred dollars bonds were voted and an excellent school building erected. In 1893 the Catholic church, a large and substantial structure, 45X122 feet on the ground, was built, at a cost of something over seven thousand dollars. L.A. Bartlett erected a large implement house and filled it with farm machinery, but closed out a year later. Gus Beauchamp started the first drug store, which he sold three or four years later to F. Longtin, who sold the store twelve months subsequently to its present proprietor, C.M. Troup.
Early in the 'nineties, C.H. Steenburg and son filled the Parvin store building with a stock of goods and did business there about four years; they also had the postoffice. From 1893 to 1898 Aurora experienced what might be termed a standstill, or perhaps retrograded, as real estate depreciated in value. Times were hard there, as elsewhere, but with the dawning of 1898 things assumed a brightier or more rosy line. New business men came in, property changed hands and since that period has been increasing in value. New buildings have sprung up and some of the old timers who have acquired a competency on the farm have located there, and judging from their homes and the comforts of life surrounding them, their intentions are to take life easy the remainder of their lives. Mr. Durkee says he finds by counting noses the population of Aurora early in the year 1892 were even two hundred inhabitants, a large majority of whom are a healthy, hearty and happy people. Of the first fifty homestead settlers of Aurora township only about one dozen remain, namely: F.A. Thompson, J.B. Springsted, who was said to be one of the best prairie fire fighters, of the day; Lewis Letourneau, the land Croesus of the township, owning twelve hundred acres; Joe Dugas, once a noted politician; Andy Ming, the second largest land owner; Thomas Clegg, one of the staunchest Democrats in the county; J.H. Springsted, W.S. Frazer, W.M. Durkee, Charlie and Frank Letourneau and Henry Demars.
In 1901 Aurora township contained one hundred and forty families and seven hundred inhabitants. The total valuation of the real estate and personal property, according to the assessors' returns, was close to $146,000; the actual value would undoubtedly reach $500,000. There is now in 1903 two general stores, one flour and feed store, one drug store, a branch of the Continental creamery, a livery and feed barn, two blacksmith shops, one hotel, a lumber yard, a meat market, barber shop and two joints. The business of the town at this date is carried on by an entirely different set of people than at the beginning of the town, with the exception of the landlady of the Aurora Hotel, Mrs. Letourneau.
William Martin Durkee
Transcribed from E.F. Hollibaugh's Biographical history of Cloud County, Kansas biographies of representative citizens. Illustrated with portraits of prominent people, cuts of homes, stock, etc. [n.p., 1903] 919p. illus., ports. 28 cm.
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