by Leo E. Oliva
[This is the final article in a series
featuring the 24 communities in the Alliance. Oliva was instrumental in
encouraging the formation of the SV24 Alliance and serves as editor and
publisher of the SVA. He is author of a dozen books, including Woodston: The
Story of a Kansas Country Town.]
WOODSTON, unlike many
towns in the Solomon River Valley, had little direct association with the
South Solomon River, other than being located in the valley. Woodston was
founded as a railroad town, and its orientation remained primarily with the
railroad and, later, highway that came through the town.
Woodston was founded in
October 1885 because of a single creating force–the railroad. The fertile
valley of the South Solomon River and the uplands both north and south had
already been settled by pioneer farmers during the 1870s and early 1880s.
The railroad was slow in coming, and there were several towns around to
serve the needs of the settlers. The railroad needed another town, however,
and Woodston was established.
The Central Branch, Union
Pacific, under lease to the Missouri Pacific Railway, completed a line from
Downs to Bull City on December 22, 1879. The town of Stockton, established
in 1872 and the county seat of Rooks County, located some 18 miles west of
Alton, needed a railroad to prosper. Efforts to bring the Central Branch
from Bull City to Stockton resulted in the town of Woodston because the
railroad would not build to Stockton without another town on the line.
The man most responsible
for the construction of the railroad to Stockton and the founding of
Woodston was a Stockton businessman and banker after whom the town was
named, Charles C. Woods. Woods organized a railroad company and sold bonds,
and the Missouri Pacific built the line and later absorbed the company Woods
had formed. The railroad to Stockton was completed in November 1885.
Land for the new town of
Woodston was offered to the railroad, with one-half interest in the lots and
the right of way and siding going to the railroad, and Woodston was located
on the SW/4, Section 10, Township 7 south, Range 16 west, nearly a mile
north of the South Solomon River. It is interesting that some of the people
of Bull City, whose town name was changed to Alton in the spring of 1885,
offered to move their businesses and residences to the new town if they
would name it Bull City. But the town was named to honor Woods who offered
to donate $500 to build a school if the town were named Woodston.
The new town was laid out
and settlers came to establish businesses. It began and remained for many
years a service center for farmers in the area, providing supplies and
services they needed and offering a market for what they produced. The town
grew and prospered until the 1960s, when a continuing decline in rural
population and other factors caused many businesses to close until only a
grain elevator and a post office remain open today.
Because there were
water-powered flour mills available at Alton, Stockton, and Kirwin by the
time Woodston was established, no effort was made to build a dam or mill at
Woodston for more than two decades.
Woodston never had a
water-powered grist mill, but a local resident built a dam on the river in
1907 and briefly operated a water-powered saw mill at the site. A flour mill
was never added. Water in the mill pond was a source of ice cut in the
winter months and a place for recreation during summer months. The dam was
damaged by a flood and not restored. It was completely gone by 1917.
A grain elevator, the
Solomon Valley Milling Co., was built in 1904 and had facilities for
grinding coarse grains for livestock feed. In 1920 a gasoline-powered grist
mill was built near the railroad tracks, named the Woodston Milling Co., and
it was destroyed by fire in 1921 and not replaced.
The Solomon River was an
obstacle to trade with farmers living to the south until a wooden bridge was
erected soon after the town was founded. That bridge washed away in a flood
in 1908, and another bridge was constructed the following year. During the
months there was no bridge, merchants in Woodston filled orders from farmers
living south of the river and delivered commodities across the river by
boat. A flood in 1915 damaged the second bridge, and temporary repairs kept
it in operation until a new iron-frame bridge was built in 1921. It was
replaced in 1950 by a concrete bridge, the year before the great flood of
1951 which washed out the approaches to the new bridge but did not damage to
The river was used for
fishing and other recreation over the years, and it assumed a new importance
after the construction of Webster Dam on the South Solomon and the
construction of the Diversion Dam west of Woodston in the early 1960s to
take water from the river channel and feed it into the irrigation canal
which runs some 40 miles to the east along the river valley.
Within a year after
Woodston was founded, there were more than 200 residents and 40 businesses
in operation, providing almost all the commodities and services the town
residents and the surrounding rural trade area required. The community, as
did the state and region, fell on hard times during the drought and
depression of the late 1880s and early 1890s, and the population dropped to
approximately 120 in 1895. Prosperity returned to the region in the late
1890s and early 1900s, and the population was up to 200 in 1900 and 250 by
1905 when the town was incorporated as a city of the third class. A city
government and public services were established. The town continued to grow
until the early 1920s, when another farm depression created hard times and
another drop in population.
During the 1930s, however,
the town grew again as people who had left to find jobs in larger cities
became unemployed and returned to their hometown to survive the Great
Depression. The population and businesses were fairly stable from the 1940s
(when the population was 313) to the 1960s (when the population was 320),
but since then there has been a steady decline in both population and
The growth and decline of
Woodston was closely connected to the farm economy until the 1960s.
Improvements in agricultural technology, which reduced the rural population
dramatically after the 1950s, reduced the number of people needing services
and markets offered by Woodston. After that time it was difficult for small
businesses to compete with businesses in larger communities within easy
driving distance. As business owners retired, no one took their place. No
major effort was made to revive the town, find other sources of economic
activity (such as manufacturing), or to maintain a community spirit.
Woodston became a prime example of a dying town in the Solomon Valley.
It did enjoy social as
well as economic prosperity over the years. When established, Woodston
quickly developed the social institutions of education, churches, fraternal
organizations, and entertainment. These flourished as population grew, then
stabilized, and declined when population declined.
A grade school was opened
in 1886 in a new, two-story, frame building, and a new brick grade school
was constructed in 1907. High school classes were added and the high school
was accredited in 1914. A rural high school district was created in 1918 and
classes were held in rented facilities until a new high school was built in
1921. A new auditorium and grade school were built south of the high school
in 1959. The high school closed in 1968, and the grade school operated until
1974. No school buildings remain today.
A number of churches were
established in Woodston, and five denominations were active at various
times: Free Methodist, Baptist, Methodist Episcopal, United Brethren, and
Assembly of God. Several of these closed after a few years of service, and
in 1973 the Methodist Episcopal and United Brethren joined together in the
United Methodist Church, the only active church in Woodston today. In
addition to the churches, there were Sunday schools, temperance societies,
and youth organizations. An Assembly of God church camp was established east
of Woodston in the 1920s and continues with an annual gathering today.
Social activities included
sports (community and school), skating rink, bowling alley, dances,
community band, school music programs, parades, and various organizations.
Chautauquas were held during the late 1910s and early 1920s. A public
library operated until the 1960s. Some organizations were devoted to town
improvement, philanthropic activities, and promotion of the town. Fraternal
societies included Modern Woodmen of America, International Order of Odd
Fellows, Royal Neighbors of America, and Rebekah Lodge. Veteran
organizations included the Grand Army of the Republic and American Legion.
There were several women’s clubs over the years.
The town, as others in the
valley, depended on transportation for development and survival. The
railroad was the major means of shipping supplies in and farm products out
of Woodston during the early years, but the automobile changed the
orientation of the town as highways were constructed. For a time the
prosperity of the town depended on the highway as well as the railroad.
Later highway developments led to the bypassing of Woodston and its
merchants, and railroad service was reduced, contributing to the decline of
Soon after automobiles
became common, highways developed. Every town hoped to have a highway
connection. In 1913 the Beloit to Colby Cut Off, connecting the Sunflower
and Golden Belt trails, was laid out and passed through Woodston. It
followed Main Street through town. This was known as the White Way because
the route was marked with white bands around telephone poles. In 1917 the
White Way was designated a state route, and state funds were appropriated
for improvements. In 1918 the name was changed to the Midland Trail, and in
1921 it was named the Roosevelt Midland Trail. The markings were changed
from white bands to black and white bands in 1922. In 1925 the Midland Trail
became part of the federal highway system, and in 1926 it was designated
part of U.S. Highway 40 North. A bus line, operating between Kansas City and
Denver, began service through Woodston the same year.
As improvements were made
on U.S. 40 North, the route was changed from the Main Street of Woodston to
a route along the north edge of town. Some businesses relocated there, and
new ones were established, including service stations and a motel. In 1930
additional improvements were made and paving was completed in 1931. In 1936
the name of this highway was changed to U.S. Highway 24, and it remains so
today. Following the construction of the Interstate highway system in the
1960s, traffic on Highway 24 through Woodston declined, resulting in the
closing of the motel and some of the service stations. The rail line from
Osborne to Stockton recently closed, and the rails, ties, and related
hardware are presently being removed. Highway 24 remains the lifeline of
Woodston today, but the town is going the way of the railroad which created
it 125 years ago. There is no reason for Woodston to survive, but it will
always remain an important part of the history of the Solomon Valley.