Community Feature Labor Day and Beyond – Celebrating Atlanta, Kan.
In 1940, Edwin B. and Dorothy E. Mikesell bought three telephone exchanges – Atlanta, Burden, and Dexter, Kan. – marking the beginning of SKT. As we celebrate 80 years of telecommunications service this year, we wanted to explore the early history of Atlanta, Kan., because, as one of SKT’s very first telephone exchanges, it’s part of our history too!
Atlanta native, Katherine Grow, remembers the old wooden wall phones, watching a switchboard operator working in the Atlanta phone office behind the grocery store, and when SKT put in dial phones. She recalls, “There were party lines – one ring or two rings – and, of course, you had to share with your neighbor … if you weren’t careful, you could eavesdrop!” She laughs, “Kids don’t even know what a dial phone is.”
Atlanta, Kan. The Third Time’s a Charm
The old expression, “The third time’s a charm …” is true for Atlanta – the only incorporated settlement in Omnia Township, northern Cowley County, Kan. Straddling the line between western cropland and eastern ranchland, Atlanta’s prototype was “Omnia,” located two miles west and two miles south; then, its second version, “Baltimore” (Atlas map pictured), was one and one-half miles south and one mile east; however, when the Kansas City and Southern Railroad tracked its way southwest through the area, this town up and moved a third and final time to its present location.
The Atlanta town site was surveyed in April of 1885. At that point, it was called “Day” because it was founded on land purchased from Kentucky-born William H. Day, who was also the president of the town site company. Day built the first business in Atlanta – on the northwest corner of the public square – and enthusiastically promoted various activities of the town. The first house was wheeled in by George W. Davis from the village of Polo, which has all but disappeared. Even before the first train passed through, William Gillard and Willis Wilson had both erected homes in the southwest part of the town, just north of the railroad. The first post office was established on August 14, 1885, with Joseph F. Kidwell the first postmaster. The first train ran through the new town on August 28, 1885, bringing with it the name, “Atlanta,” because its first depot agent hailed from Atlanta, Ga. So, if you’ve ever wondered, the answer is yes – the town of Atlanta, Kan., really was named after Georgia’s Atlanta!
Atlanta, Kan. Establishments
Early on, area homesteaders trekked to Emporia for staples. But, a roster of Atlanta’s businesses, tallied in 1885, is as follows: Hardware – Willis Wilson; Groceries – E. D. Doty; General Merchandise – Gillard & Darlington and E. M. Dunbar; Drugs – Mr. Kinley; Lumber – Snodgrass & Gross and Dicus; Hotel – George B. Darlington, A. T. Borrough, and Sam Cowley; Real Estate – Day and Strother; Newspaper – P. W. Craig; Livery Stable – Chas. M. Grant and Chas. Work; Blacksmith – George W. Davis and J. C. Curry; Meat – “Arkansaw” Wilson; Barber Shop – Ed Haycraft; Shoe Shop – Bert Clawsey; Station Agent – A. H. Hickson; Painters – W. M. Elden and James Simpson; and Carpenters – George Culbison, Williams & Co., Haycraft Bros., and Zeigler Brothers. Early physicians in Atlanta were Dr. Daniels, Dr. McGinnis, Dr. Archer, and Dr. D. Cunningham.
The town was incorporated in 1900. Willis Wilson was elected as the first mayor, Robert S. Strother the first Justice of the Peace, and Charles E. Grant the first Constable. Two of the three were homesteaders; all three may have been. Recorded in the History of Cowley County (1901) is the following: “ATLANTA … has about two hundred population, excellent stores and is an important trading point.”
Founded as a cattle-shipping station along what would become part of the Frisco Railroad system, agriculture still plays a vital role in Atlanta’s economy. The cattle’s predecessors, the native buffalo, flourished in this area, as evidenced by the buffalo wallows still visible on the prairie. Katherine Grow says of the Atlanta Branch of the Valley Co-Op, “It’s a thriving business here in town, drawing the farmers and ranchers. That is where all the movement is right now … they’re getting ready to cut corn; there’ll be beans and milo later on.”
The first church built in the new town of Atlanta was the Methodist Episcopal-South – with the “South” distinction because many of the early settlers came from southern states, bringing their southern traditions with them. The Christian church was the second church established. Before it was built, baptisms were held in Timber Creek. On December 6, 1881, Selina Crow was baptized and the ice, which was several inches thick, had to be cut. Reportedly, her clothes were frozen before she could get home to change!
The first school in Atlanta opened in 1885, with classes held upstairs above the drug store and the proprietor’s daughter, May Kinley, the teacher. It was supported by subscription. In the winter of 1885, a band was organized by George M. Shelley, director. In 1886, a two-room school house was built, doubling as Atlanta’s community center for social and business gatherings – customary at the time. Katherine Grow has good memories of attending Atlanta High School. She recalls that they had a wonderful music department, adding, “When your school is small, you don’t have to be a superstar – if you wanted to participate, you could. You didn’t have to be really good or really bad. Everyone had the same opportunity. That was the beauty of the small school.” Grow had 15 in her graduating class. She chuckles, “Seven girls and eight boys, and when you had a vote on anything, guess who won?” Years later, to accommodate 1966 school unification mandates, the Atlanta Tigers’ high school was closed. Atlanta’s grade-schoolers attended in Cambridge, middle-schoolers in Atlanta, and the high-schoolers in Burden. Although Atlanta’s old high school was torn down, the grade school building has been turned into a very nice home.
Atlanta, Kan. Fun Facts
- Atlanta’s first newspaper, circulating in 1885, was called the Atlanta Advertiser. Subsequent newspapers were the Atlanta Cricket, Atlanta Record, and the Atlanta Journal.
- Atlanta’s iconic community building was originally a silent movie theatre, with cartoons, westerns, and melodramas; live piano was added for interest.
- Early Atlanta suffered at least two devastating fires. One was the drug store, occurring in the late 1800s and the second, in the early 1900s, leveled the new Methodist Church. A large department store may have also burned, or even a whole row of buildings on the west. Grow muses, “You know, they burned wood and the buildings were wooden construction ….” Currently, with a population of 183 (according to the 2017 Census) Atlanta’s fire department boasts 23 volunteers and an impressive inventory of equipment for helping protect the 180-square-mile district around the community from fires. Each spring, Atlantans host a chicken and noodle fundraiser benefitting the fire department at the community building.
- Glenn Vernice Cunningham, considered the greatest American miler of all time, was born in Atlanta, Kan., on August 4, 1909. Amazingly, after a tragic fire in which Cunningham was so badly burned that doctors thought he might never walk normally again – with great determination, positive attitude, a strong faith, and hours of therapy – he became an Olympic medalist. The mile run at the Kansas Relays is named in Cunningham’s honor.
- Atlanta’s Labor Day Celebration boasts one of the largest parades in Cowley County. Except for a few years during World War II, this annual event has been happening for as long as anyone can remember. Grow says, “You can shoot a cannon down main street most of the time and never hit a soul. On Labor Day, they line the streets for four blocks! It’s a homecoming … bringing people back to the small community to see friends, reconnect, get acquainted. People say, ‘Where do all these people come from?’” Grow explains, “Well, because we’ve always had Labor Day Weekend, people know it’s going to be there without even seeing an ad on it.”
Story continued below.
Atlanta, Kan. A Way of Life
The community of Atlanta may be small, but it is large at heart! Grow explains. “My ancestors bought an acre of land over on Timber Creek so they would have a place to cut trees. Later on, my mother, as chairman of the Pride Committee, decided Atlanta needed to have trees in the park, so she went down to Winfield to the nursery and bought a bunch of trees (I’m not sure who paid for them – whether she did or the organization) but anyway, they planted all these trees in a year that was really dry and Atlanta didn’t have extra water, so my sister and my dad would go to the farm to the well and haul water back to town and water those trees. So now we still have trees in the park!” The park is named after her parents now. Carl and Patricia Couch were very community-minded. Grow sums it up, “We were raised to be community givers. I mean, a lot of people in Atlanta are that way. That is just the way we were raised – if there was something going on, we should be helping with it.”
On living in a small town such as Atlanta, Kan., Grow reflects, “You know, you live out here because you love the small-town life. People care about each other. I think that’s true of most small towns, because if you’re not in the farming or the agricultural end of it, you’re going to have to drive somewhere and it’s not inexpensive to do that. You have to live here because you like living here.”
SKT is proud to be able to provide the phone and internet connections so that people who choose to can experience the small-town life while enjoying connections to the world, along with more and more opportunities – right at their fingertips and accessible from their rural homes and businesses!
*Historical photos provided by the East Central Cowley County Historical Society, Inc.
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