Community Feature Burden and SKT – Early Histories in Three Parts
Burden – “The Biggest Little Town in Kansas” – was named after a person, not the noun meaning “a heavy load,” nor the verb, “load heavily.” It was named for one of its founders, Robert Fletcher Burden. And at the beginning, this town in Cowley County was actually named “Burdenville.” Burden is also where SKT began, and this year we’re celebrating our 80th year! It’s good to reflect on our beginnings … bringing perspective to where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and the direction we’ll take it from here.
Part 1 Legends and the Land
A. Millington, in Edwards’ Historical Atlas of Cowley County, Kansas, (1882), records two local legends – first, that in 1537, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, searching for precious metals and the “Fountain of Youth,” did some excavating in the Flint Hills (to no avail) – but he did find the “Fountain of Youth” at Geuda Springs. And, secondly, that in 1542, another Spanish explorer, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, crossed the Arkansas and Walnut rivers and camped near Winfield during his quest for the “Seven Cities of Gold.”
Although signs of the excavations remain, and a rusty piece of a Spanish sword (presumably left behind) is a local relic, what we do know for sure is that Cowley County – and thus Burden – is located in what was first known as the “Great American Desert.” Millington describes it: “There was no timber, except narrow strips skirting the principal streams, and kept narrowed down by the annual fires which swept the plains, whose rolling, ridgy surface was only sparsely covered by the mesquite, a small buffalo grass, which fed the millions of buffalo, which traversed the country in their annual migrations. Here the coyote, the wolf, the deer, the antelope, the wild turkey, the beaver, and the otter were at home …” And up to 1869, the area was the hunting grounds of its earliest human inhabitants – the Osage and Cherokee people.
Part 2 A Child of the Railway
Burden’s namesake, Robert Fletcher Burden, was born in Ohio in 1832. He married, moved to Iowa, fought in the Civil War, and in 1871, moved with his wife and six children to Cowley County, settling on the land now known as the “Burden Ranch.” In 1879 he was elected president of the company that founded the town. R.F. Burden is further credited with procuring the right-of-way for the railroad; hence, the Kansas City, Lawrence and Southern Kansas Railroad came through Burdenville, bringing opportunities for economic progress and a market for the livestock and crops of the early settlers. Towns without a railroad were hard pressed to survive. William G. Cutler, editor of History of the State of Kansas, (1883) explains it this way, “Burden is a child of the railway, in a sense. Had there been no K.C. L. & S road, the town site would still be a farm. In this it resembles a large portion of the newer towns of the State, the town coming to the railway instead of the railway to the town.”
Of R. F. Burden’s homestead, the Winfield Courier in 1879 reported, “Six years ago R. F. Burden came to Cowley County and started a home on the broad, rolling prairies of this county. Today his farm is a model one. Forty acres have been given to forest trees, cottonwood, walnut, ash, hackberry, coffee bean, and box-elder. Forty acres are devoted to orchards, peach, apple, cherry, plum, and all fruits that can be desired or thought of. Over six miles of fine hedge fence this farm, which pasture land and feed lots are enclosed in stone and plank. In one season, Mr. Burden sold about three thousand dollars worth of stock, hogs and cattle, all ‘to the manor born.’”
The town of Burden, itself, was a blank canvas. The only building on the 80-acre town site was an abandoned claim shanty. In a December 1879 Winfield Courier newspaper article, “A Few Notes, Past, Present and Future of the New Town,” the writer, ”Squibbs,” penned, “Having heard a great deal of talk in regard to the new town of Burden, we concluded to make a visit to that place and see for ourselves. After 10 miles drive through one of the most beautiful and fertile countries we have ever seen, we arrived there. The first thing that impresses one on coming in view of it is the fine location, the site being an elevated piece of prairie, with gradual slope in all directions.”
Cutler documents, “Immediately after the laying out of the town, settlers flocked to it, and every available shanty within a considerable radius was hauled to town to do temporary duty.” The Burdenville post office was established in 1879. Its newspaper, the Enterprise, was first printed in 1880. By December of 1880, the Winfield Courier proclaimed, “Burden is a year old, and for a yearling has made wonderful growth. It is situated in one of the richest portions of the county, surrounded by high rolling prairie, on which are located some of the finest farms the sun ever shown on. The men who own these farms are the men who helped make Cowley what she is today, and they are possessed of the nerve, grit, and ‘goaheaditiveness’ to build up any county.” A school, originally one mile north, was relocated to the town in the summer of 1881. By 1883, Burden was incorporated, and the first election held for mayor, councilmen, police judge, city clerk, and marshal. That same year, Cutler documents, “The town now has a population of about 400, and the following industries: General stores, 7; drug stores, 1: hardware, 1; hotels, 2; jewelry stores, 1; agricultural implements, 3; land and loan offices, 2; lumber yards, 1; furniture stores, 3; livery stables, 1; meat markets, 1; restaurants, 1; millinery stores, 1; billiard rooms, 1; blacksmiths, 1. The professions are represented by two physicians and one attorney.” And Millington declares, “It has large stone buildings, large stores and heavy stocks of goods, lumber and implements, an enterprising newspaper, a flouring mill, and all the accessories of progress. It promises to be a city of some importance.”
Part 3 Lines and Links
In 1940, Edwin B. and Dorothy E. Mikesell bought the Atlanta, Burden, and Dexter, Kan., telephone exchanges from Midwest States Telephone Company. They structured the business as a co-partnership and named it the Southern Kansas Telephone Company. They established the general office for the enterprise in downtown Burden.
The Mikesells had two sons, Stephen and Gordon. Gordon chronicled his memories from childhood and the town of Burden is featured prominently. Gordon shares, “I had many friends and I think I knew everyone who lived in Burden, all 500 of them.” The Mikesell family lived in a “large old house one block from the center of Main Street and one block from the school building.”
Edwin Mikesell “was a unique young man … always exploring how something worked …,” his son, Gordon, recounts. He spent hours observing the goings-on of a machine shop in his hometown of Fredonia, Kan. A budding machinist, he attached a gasoline engine from a washing machine to a snow sled for mobility – with a bicycle tire as the drive mechanism! Mikesell also developed a passion for electronics, experimenting with all kinds of electrical devices. One time he wired a neighbor’s clothes line, giving her a low-voltage shock when she hung up the laundry! This story is a classic – having been passed down through the generations.
Providentially, Mikesell also spent many hours at the local telephone company, observing the workers. Hired as a janitor at a very young age, he progressed through the ranks, and ended up repairing telephones at the work bench, continuing his employment there throughout high school. Mikesell attended what was then Kansas State College, studying electrical engineering. He helped design and build the original Kansas State radio station, and even went on to help design and build radio station WGN in Chicago!
Mikesell’s fascination with and mastery of all things mechanical and electrical served him well as the co-founder (yes, his wife, Dorothy, worked right alongside him – sometimes as a telephone operator or running the switchboard during the night shift) of the Southern Kansas Telephone Company. He utilized his talents at home and in the community. During those early years in Burden, while raising his family and developing the business, Mikesell could also be found in his machine shop, fixing things that were broken or that didn’t work properly, or building motor scooters, micro–midget racecars, a working model of a steam engine, and even a toy crane operated by a small electric engine, to the delight of his sons. On the second floor of the machine shop was “Edwin’s Amateur Radio (ham) Shack.” Yes, he was also an amateur radio operator! With the call letters WOPPV, he identified himself on the air, “WO popcorn, peanuts, and vinegar,” Gordon recalls.
Mikesell served on the Burden School Board and the Burden Fair Board. When a new clock/scoreboard was needed for basketball games, he built one from salvaged parts and donated it to the school. It not only looked professionally-built, but it worked flawlessly and was used for many years. When the Burden Fair Board needed a public address system, Mikesell volunteered to build it and then operated it long afterward, free of charge. Following the example of its founders, hard work, family, and giving back have always been priorities at SKT.
Burden and SKT
From the beautiful land and wildlife, to the first inhabitants, explorers, founders, settlers, and enterprises, Burden has a wonderful heritage. As the gateway to eastern Cowley County – with a population of 528 (recorded in the 2017 Census) – Burden is a friendly, tight-knit community of people committed to preserving hometown values, helping neighbors, working hard, and enjoying the simple pleasures of life. As we reflect on our past in this 80th year of serving in the communications industry, SKT is proud to still be the one providing the lines and links for Burden – and it will always be our first home.
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