By Laura Penland, Smoke Signal Staff Writer, June 27, 1984
Many people travel through the Flint Hills of Wabaunsee County. In the spring, they drive part of the Mill Creek Scenic Drive for the Redbud Festival. The Drive has also been used in the autumn for Sorghum Molasses Days. Then there is Kansas 99, a fine north and south highway which gives travelers wide views of the Flint Hills pastures.
Yet travel in air-conditioned comfort can leave something to be desired in the hearts of those who love the area without being able to live there. Lost are the calls of the meadowlark and red-winged blackbirds; missed are the subtle shades of lavender, yellow or pink which indicate the prairie wildflowers; forgotten is the rustle of a field of grain, rolling beneath the Kansas wind.
So why not take a hike through the Flint Hills, instead of driving? The General Walt Trail is just the ticket for healthy exercise, beautiful scenery, blisters and sunburn.
The General Walt Trail consists of a series of markers along a set of country roads running from Harveyville in the southeastern corner of Wabaunsee County, to Alma, in the north central portion. The basic distance is 32.4 miles, with an overnight camp at Lake Wabaunsee, outside Eskridge. Hardy souls may take side-excursions, or continue the hike to Alta Vista, bringing the total to 50 miles.
General Lewis W. Walt, a four-star general in the United States Marine Corps, with 41 years of military service to our nation, and 37 years as a Marine Corps officer, was born in 1914 just outside Harveyville. In the 1970’s, Gen. Walt happened to sit next to the son of a Dr. Youngman, also of Harveyville, while traveling by air. The two chatted about their lives, including the fact that they were both from Harveyville. Upon arrival at home, the younger Youngman suggested something special be done top commerate Gen. Walt’s birthplace in the community.
The Wabaunsee Historical Society had been formed in 1966 and incorporated in the next year. Howard Mohler of Harveyville was president of the society, and he appointed George Edgerton, then editor of the Eskridge Independent to make arrangements, contacts and final decisions about the hiking trail. Besides commemorating the general, the Trail notes historical spots across the county and, with help from the County Conservation Service Office, points out specific trees, grasses and shrubs native to the area.
The trail starts about a mile south of Kansas 31 at Harveyville, at the farm house where General Walt was born. There are markers, either of white with blue lettering (the red has faded away by now.), or brand new wooden with white lettered signs all along the route, beginning at the homestead. The Harveyville Lions Club is currently refurbishing a large sign commemorating the birthplace, which will be reinstated at the corner of Highway 31 and the country road to the homestead when finished.
Harveyville is the brome capital of the world, with Mason Flora its king. Northeast Kansas has the perfect climate for raising brome for both hay and seed. Often the fields do not reseed themselves, creating the market for seed. Flora noted his company collects brome seed from as distant as Nebraska and Oklahoma, and ships seed that far, too.
Harveyville became a booming town at the time the Manhattan, Alma and Burlington Railroad went through in 1880. The town was one of the original railheads for cattle. The cattle were driven cross-country from south and west, pastured on the Flint Hills to recuperate, then shipped out at Harveyville for stockyards further east. When the area became more agricultural, these products, too, were shipped on the railroad. That railroad no longer exists, but Harveyville is still a stable town.
Running north from the farmstead, the hiking trail stays west of the downtown area of Harveyville, then turns west just before the road drops over the Dragoon Creek Bluff. Following this bluff along Dragoon Creek, which is the headwaters, through Melvern Reservoir, of the Lake of the Ozarks, the Trail passed “Robber’s Roost.”
In 1843, a batch of robbers had its hideaway up near the present cemetery. The creek bluff, being high, gave them a wide view over the land to the north and east, and an excellent view of the Santa Fe Trail and the military road between Fr Leavenworth and Fort Riley, both of which passed near. One day the robbers set upon a mule train following the Santa Fe Trail, killing the Mexican drivers and relieving the owner of a keg of gold worth about $75,000. They buried the keg somewhere along the bluff and started driving the mules off to Colorado. However, soldiers from Fort Leavenworth caught the robbers at Hays, had a shootout with them, and brought back two or three of the robbers for sentencing.
That was the end of the Robbers’ Roost as the area people knew it, but every once in a while someone would scout the area, looking for that keg of gold. Eventually everyone seemed to forget about. Then one day a minister from England showed up, saying he wanted to fish along Dragoon Creek. People king of got suspicious when the reverend didn’t pay any attention to their good advice on where the fish were biting. Then one day that minister was gone, without his fishing gear, leaving a hole along the Creek where that keg of gold must have been hidden.
The hiking trail follows the creek bluff for quite a ways under cool shade containing many types of trees. In fact, one area along this road had been marked as a tree identification area – look for shiny aluminum tags tied around the trees.
After following Dragoon Creek for about three miles, the trail swings north again, zigzagging through the remains of Bradford. When the M.A.B. Railroad went through the area, small towns spring up every six or seven miles. While little is left of the general store, mill and blacksmith shop, Bradford was once one of these small boom towns.
The trail now is pretty open to the sky. Ladies, put up the sunshades; gents, make sure the hat’s on firm.
From Bradford the trail runs west, crossing K-99 before swinging north to Eskridge. There are creeks along here, off from the road, and a few farmsteads. Most of the way is rolling fields.
At Eskridge the trail follows the western edge of town, passing Col. Sanford’s Store, set back on the left. This stone building contained the general store and hardware of the colonel, who came to the Eskridge area in 1869; his family’s living quarters were on the second floor. A lawyer and promoter, the colonel dreamed of building a town about his stores and drew up a plat for such a town to include a courthouse square. However, the beginnings of another town know as “Corners” was taking shape in the next section east. This was promoted by a man whose general and hardware stores were separated by a stripe on the floor of his building. When the railroad from Harveyville came through, Colonel Sanford’s ideal town was lost by a few votes. The town became Eskridge, filling the area between Sanford’s store and Corners, but it was not the town of which Col. Sanford dreamed. Edgerton, who supplied the historical information for this article, noted the name, “Eskridge”, was at that time the name of the lieutenant governor, residing in Emporia. It was also the name of one of the men on George Washington’s staff.
From Col. Sanford’s Store on to Lake Wabaunsee, the Gen. Walt Trail follows paving, sweeping west and over a hill to join K-99 until reaching the lake. Through the gates of the lake and the trail swings left, still following the road. Down in a hollow on the left, about half a mile in from the gate, a Boy Scout Camp is maintained. Firewood and latrines are available, as is space for tents. All hikers should check in with the lake custodian, and a charge of $.50 per person may be made for use of the camping facilities.
Lake Wabaunsee, owned by the town of Eskridge, was built in the 1930’s, started by workers in a federally operated transient camp to settle some of the hobos roaming the nation at that time. Works Progress Authority labor finished the lake. The lake has been used as a National Youth Authority center to train young men in mechanical skills; to train the Ninth Armored Division in water skills’ and as a camp to barrack German prisoners of war working on farms in the area and doing construction work in Topeka. The lake has always been a popular recreation area, so bring the fishing license and catch supper while cooling off after the day’s hike.
A little farther along K-99 from the Lake Wabaunsee gates, the Gen. Walt Trail swings right off the pavement to follow a gravel road along Mill Creek Valley (or one of that creek’s valleys). This road was the original “highway” between Alma and Eskridge, which many longtime residents may remember traveling by buckboard and horseback.
This is the heart of the northern Flint Hills. Farmsteads are marked by limestone houses and barns; the road crosses Mill Creek several times and winds in and out of shade. Fields of bluegreen rye, raised as a grain or hay crop, may be seen along here, as well as lush pastures to which cattle are trucked from southern states to fatten for the summer before being shipped off to slaughter. On the left, a short way in from K-99, a grass and shrub identification area has been marked along the road.
Farther along, also on the left and just before crossing the creek is another tree identification area, this one through a gate. (Dave Breiner, a partner in the Mill Creek Ranch of this area, used this identification area for pastureage during the winter, but clears the area of beasties in the spring so people may safely wander among the marked trees. Mill Creek runs along the righthand side of this identification area, making a cool spot for resting.
Hessdale, once noted for having the largest tonnage of shipping of any inland point in the nation, when the railroad traveled through here, is still a prime area for unloading cattle from southern states in the spring and shipping them on to slaughter in the fall. Now, though, cattle are brought in trucks.
This is also home of the Maike Pheasant Farm. Here quail, pheasant and chukor are raised, along with hunting and other breeds of dogs. The Maike’s lease a tract of land and have a gun club for the hunting of their produce. Five generations of this family have lived and worked at Hessdale.
Here the Trail forks. The longer, righthand track, travels farther into the Flint Hills, past stone walls and old houses, buildings, cemeteries, into the vastnesses of the Flint Hills pastures. The lefthand track continues along the creek valley past stately homes and grain fields. The two tracks meet again, although the people following the separate routes probably won’t, a couple of miles east of Highway 99, which Gen. Walt’s Trail then meets and follows into Alma.
The Wabaunsee County Historical/Zwanziger Museum is considered to be the end of the General Walt Trail. Here there is a very comprehensive display of the conflicts and publications of this well-known Wabaunsee Countian. Scouts may collect their badges here. Historians can study Indian artifacts, pioneer articles settled community artifacts here.
While General Walt’s Trail was particularly established to provide Boy Scouts with the opportunity of winning the 30 mile hike award, any organization or family is welcome to use the trail. A recommendation of one responsible person over the age of 21 years for every ten youngsters is required along with a small fee and camping charges. Camping facilities are available at Harveyville and at Alma, as well as at Lake Wabaunsee. Interested people must supply their own bird & flower identification book.
What a great way to enjoy a two-week vacation: two days hiking and twelve of recuperation!