By Amy Bickel, The Hutchinson News, Kan.
There's no easy way to the site of Evansville.
Take a dusty dirt road miles across the open range of Comanche County's Gyp Hills, across several cattle guards and dry creek beds -- past herds of cattle resting along the unfenced roadways.
Not that you'd ever find this ghost town -- even if you made it this far into the remote, rolling landscape.
Nor do Larry "Dee" and Phyllis Scherich expect uninvited tourists.
These ranchers, along with hired hands, are the last residents of Evansville -- albeit Evansville was long gone by the time Dee moved here as a child with his parents in the 1940s to manage the Merrill Ranch.
Yet, the prairie landscape sprinkled with cow herds that stretches for miles hasn't changed. This wide-open grassland is still a cowboy tradition, just like it was during settlement more than 130 years ago.
On this afternoon, as Dee and his hired men prepared to move a herd, Phyllis led a tour down the hill from their house -- pointing out the last remains of Evansville -- a ranch house and a commissary from the town's early days.
The long log structure once housed, most likely, a post office, a store and, maybe a hotel. Broken-off posts stick up from the earth in front of the commissary, which once held up a boardwalk.
There is also a springs, which she hikes up to. It was what originally attracted the first ranchers to the site.
"With no trees to speak of, trees by a springs would have been real respite," she said.
Yet, she adds of Evansville, "By 1910, there was not much left."
It was easy for the first settlers to see the Red Hills weren't suited for farming.
Back in the 1870s and early 1880s, as settlement moved west, ranchers came to the largely treeless Gyp Hills with the aim to graze cattle. A group of those ranchers formed what was the Comanche Pool -- the largest cattle ranch in Kansas history.
According to the book " Kansas: The Priceless Prairie" by Mary Einsel, the ranch was started by four men: Jess Evans, Wylie Payne, Richard Phillips and Major Andrew Drumm, after an Army order, issued from the Indian Territory, stated that no more Texas cattle drives were to cross the Oklahoma Strip.
The pool eventually started with 26,000 head of cattle in an area that spanned all of Comanche County, along with surrounding counties and into Oklahoma.
" The Comanche Pool -- it was a whole group of cattleman who pooled all their cattle together," said David Webb, who lives in Comanche County and is assistant director of the Kansas Heritage Center in Dodge City. "But, officially, no one held title to that land."
The area, part of the Osage Diminished Reserve, was an area that wasn't part of the Homestead Act, Webb said. The ranchers, however, largely fenced the area.
Named After Jess Evans
The beginning of Evansville likely dates to 1878 or 1880 when the Comanche Pool was formed. Evans' ranch became the pool headquarters. Einsel writes that the area was called Evansville and a ranch house and other structures were built 28 miles southwest of Medicine Lodge.
According to the Kansas State Historical Society, Evansville's first post office opened in April 1882. Fred Flats Jr. was the postmaster. It closed for a time in 1883, just a few years before the Comanche Pool began to dissolve.
Webb said much of Comanche County was taken up by settlers in 1884 for $1.25 an acre -- which did cause some problems since the "ranchers had unofficially used this land for the Comanche Pool."
According to Einsel, taxes, settlement and the enactment of the herd law, which meant cattle had to be fenced, along with harsh winters in 1885 and 1886, brought an end to the pool. Evansville, however, continued to hold as residents hoped for a railroad.
In 1885, the post office at the nearby settlement of Rumsey relocated to Evansville, and Evansville began to grow, according to an article written by Webb and Alzina Baker for the book "Comanche County History."
According to the history book, Wesley Grant, in charge of the post office, had purchased the land surrounding Evansville two months earlier when the cattle pool left Kansas. A real estate agent's promotional booklet described the town in late 1885 as being "under the shade of towering trees, and by the running waters of a mighty spring. The location is a most pleasant one; selected years ago as the headquarters of the Comanche Cattle Pool, and recently bought for a town site. The town started with a large hotel, capacious store building and a stable with stall-room for 100 horses. In the storeroom, W.M. Grant put a stock of groceries ..."
The Evansville Herald started publishing in October 1885. It listed several businessmen, including Curran Hackney's general merchandise store, Rumsey's Pioneer Store and the Evansville Hotel, with "easy access to all cattle camps in the Territory."
The Herald told of a prospering town, though Webb said that early-day papers often didn't tell the whole truth in an effort to attract people to a stark area.
"Evansville paper -- you always have to take it with a grain of salt," he said, noting all papers in the day were aimed at town promotion. "The editor might be operating in a corner of a general store. I won't say they lied, but they certainly helped the readers use their imagination."
In June 1886, The Herald editor wrote "three loads of lumber came in for the school house Wednesday. Now the next thing is to get the house erected and school started."
Then, in August, "an impromptu dance occurred in town Wednesday night at the new school house."
By September, the paper reported a sorghum mill had opened, and by November 1886, there was talk of a railroad.
"We all want a railroad and now is the time to get one," the editor wrote. "We may never have a better chance. The surveyors put in an appearance Wednesday running the line through this township and before two years, we will hear the shriek of a locomotive."
The railroad never came. On Jan. 28, 1887, the editor wrote it was the last issue of The Evansville Herald due to no profit.
Phyllis Scherich said she has read that, at its peak, about 40 people lived in and around Evansville. According to the history book, by 1891, there were just 15 people in the town. No population was listed when the post office closed in 1893.
According to the Kansas State Historical Society, a post office re-established at the site from April 1895 to August 1896, although Webb said it probably was located in the postmaster's home.
Still a Headquarters
Evansville ceased to exist as a town, but the area continued to serve a small population as the headquarters for Mortimor Platt's Ranch, followed by the John Arrington Ranch and then the West Ranch of Davis, Nolan and Merrill Grain Co., Dee Scherich said.
Since the early 1950s, it has been the Merrill Ranch headquarters. His parents moved to the property in 1945 and eventually began managing it. Dee, 75, who taught at Inman High School for several years, moved back to the ranch with Phyllis to take over management in 1976, he said.
There still are indentations of dugouts along a fence row at the former town site of Rumsey, Dee said. Then he pointed across the prairie to a spot where a group of cattle were standing -- the site of the Evansville schoolhouse.
"My dad filled it up with baling wire then pushed it over," he said of a hole left from the school.
Most towns this short-lived typically have vanished for good, Webb said. Yet, maybe the oldest structure in the county, the commissary still stands -- its rough sawed logs depicting its age.
Inside, a few sets of harnesses hang from the rafters.
"I'd love to have someone restore it," Phyllis said, adding, "It probably won't happen."
"It would be expensive," she said. "I should have done it 20 years ago."
Amy Bickel is editor of Kansas Agland and has been researching Kansas' dead towns since 2010. To read more on the dead towns she has researched, visit www.kansasagland.com/dead_towns. To visit her ghost town blog, go to kansasghosttowns.blogspot.com.