Why spend time thinking about a tiny place in the middle of one of America's most infrequently visited (let alone considered) states? This Web site purports to provide ample answers to the question. And most of these answers revolve around the principle that getting to know a particular place in all its intimate detail is a good and useful thing, and a process by which one can can gain a great deal of respect for a landscape and its complex past and present.
In this site, I also aim to examine the relationship between memory and place. What reverberates in individual and collective memories? And what do these memories tell us about landscape, architecture and the intangibles that make up a particular place? In the case of Brainerd, the memories uncovered also help us better understand why this community has survived and not faded back into the prairie, unlike so many other Kansas railroad towns.
To read the rest of this Introduction, scroll down. If you want to bypass the Introduction completely, feel free to navigate using the frame at left, after reading some of the navigation tips listed below.
Kansas and The Prairie Plains
Getting acquainted with the Prairie Plains landscape encountered in southeastern Kansas takes a practiced eye and the time and patience to observe, notice and appreciate subtleties in terrain, waterways, ground cover and architecture. Most American coast-dwellers experience the Prairie Plains (and the larger north-south Great Plains region, in general) from either the window seat of an airplane or from the passenger seat of a car or bus, zooming through the region along a crowded interstate highway.
From this perspective, Kansas is just another state in the Fly-Over, or Drive-By, Zone -- a flat, featureless place to pass through as quickly as possible to get to more "dramatic" mountainous or urban destinations to the West or East of the region. The state does not do much to contradict this image, spending very little in advertising to clue tourists in to the many worthwhile natural, historical, cultural and culinary attractions waiting to be explored throughout the state. So places celebrating Kansas' unique prairie landscape -- the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, in Strong City, or the Konza Prairie, in the Flint Hills south of Manhattan -- generate little national or even regional awareness. And the cars just drive right on by, to Denver, Dallas or Kansas City, stopping only to refuel on gas and burgers at Kansas Turnpike rest stops.
But to its original settlers, lured by often-exaggerated stories of mammoth crop yields and rich, well-watered farmland, the Prairie Plains of Kansas represented an agricultural promised land. A place for immigrants from Prussia, Prague or Peoria to make a new start, with cheap land, thriving towns and excellent railroad links to outside markets.
A Typical Railroad Town, But Not a Ghost Town
Like many Kansas and Great Plains towns founded in the homesteading heyday of the 1880s, Brainerd owed its very existence to the fact that a railroad had decided to lay tracks and build a depot in a particular place in the middle of the prairie. And as the railroad giveth, so does the railroad taketh away -- a lesson abrubtly learned by many Brainerd-like communities, which boomed, busted and then completely disappeared. They often simply disintegrated into the prairie from whence they sprang, as newer, better-connected towns popped up farther down the line where the tracks of one railroad arbitrarily met up with another.
"The rise of one [railroad town] and the fall of another was not a remarkable event in the settlement of the American West," wrote geographer John C. Hudson, in the introduction to Plains Country Towns, his study of town planning and development in the Great Plains. "By changing the characters, time and place, the same scenario could be used to describe a sequence that took place hundreds, perhaps thousands of times in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries."
The early history of Brainerd reads like a script from the screen adaptation of Hudson's introduction. The town was founded along a major East-West rail route. It boomed as a key farm-to-rail marketplace center. Then it quickly shrank in status and population when a new North-South railroad line decided to cross the existing grade three miles to the Northwest at Whitewater, which lured Brainerd's key businesses and influential residents with the promise of greater economic opportunity and readier access to the outside world.
But Brainerd refused to die. Unlike many communities spurned by the railroads which spawned them, Brainerd managed to hang on, somehow making the transition from railroad boom town to stable farm town. In this sense, it is unusual, especially when compared to the more than 6,000 "ghost towns," or "extinct geographical locations" chronicled in the works of Kansas historian Daniel Fitzgerald.
"Ghost towns in Kansas are quite different from those in many other western states," wrote Fitzgerald, in Ghost Towns of Kansas: A Traveler's Guide. "Kansans have always found a use for lumber and brick from deserted buildings; as a result, little remains of many of the communities discussed in this book. The sites of many old towns have been plowed or used as pasture by farmers. More often than not, all that is left of a Kansas ghost town is dust and tumbleweeds; imagination becomes the key."
Why Brainerd: My Personal Connection
My obsession with Brainerd dates back to summer 1994. Escaping my cramped, railroad flat New York City apartment on a muggy, overcast afternoon, I wandered into a used book store on lower Fifth Avenue in search of something different. My exhaustive ambulatory and literary exploration of Manhattan and the outer boroughs had brought me to an intellectual and emotional standstill. I figured that my ambivalent feelings about the city, my increasingly tiresome advertising day job and my nebulous future could use some sort of external spark. So, as I often do in times of transition, I went out in search of something to read that might awaken me from my current stupor.
I picked up two books that fateful July day that did just that: Ian Frazier's Great Plains and Dayton Duncan's Out West: American Journey Along the Lewis and Clark Trail. Neither one of these popular non-fiction tomes purported to be works of groundbreaking historical scholarship. However, both succeeded in filling me with a hunger to see more of the Great Plains by placing the region in its important historical context and eloquently describing the vastness of the skies and prairie that greeted early explorers and settlers.
Something in Frazier's description of the whipping Plains winds jogged my memory, and I got on the phone with my maternal Grandmother. She confirmed the fact that she had spent most of her first five years in a drafty, clapboard house in a little prairie town called Brainerd. She regaled me with stories of her mother bringing the pigs and chickens into the house to protect them from the cold Kansas winter, where the wind blew so hard that sheets hung on the line to dry would get torn asunder by the force of the incessant gales. Intrigued, I got out my trusty Rand McNally atlas and found Brainerd, with some difficulty, on the map of Kansas. It was not too far from McPherson, where my great-grandfather on my father's side had attended college before returning to his father's home town in Illinois to farm.
This Kansas connection continued to play out in my mind, as the hot, wearisome summer wore on, and a variety of incidents came together to convince me to quit my job, sublet my apartment, buy a used 1983 Toyota Corolla and hit the Great American Road. I have told the story of the resultant three-month, 17,000-mile trip far too often elsewhere. But the most enduring memories of the cross-country trek were the two days I spent puttering around the empty spaces of Kansas: stumbling upon a sunlit, seemingly deserted Brainerd for the first time; searching for my great-great-grandfather's grave in McPherson at sundown; racing the moon along the Santa Fe Trail to Dodge City; and driving through endless, treeless stretches of mysterious western Kansas grasslands on a highway (US 83) so empty that I could simultaneously pore over a map, down a cup of coffee and snap the occasional photograph while maintaining a constant speed of at least 55 miles per hour.
I was hooked on Kansas. For the rest of the trip, I kept pulling out the photos I had snapped that Sunday afternoon when I drove quietly along the narrow, empty sand and gravel streets of Brainerd. Weatherbeaten, abandoned shacks and farm houses were juxtaposed against a handful of newer ranch homes and adapted trailers, which hid behind the shaggy trees and tall prairie grasses threatening to overtake the small street network. Were it not for the shiny, hail-scarred grain elevator still standing alongside the rusty railroad tracks parallel to the highway, the whole community seemed on the verge of vanishing into the trees and grasses -- at least on that quiet fall day in 1994.
I came back from the trip only to return to my old job, and the journals and photos I had carefully logged on my trip gathered dust in my closet for the next several years. But two cities and two jobs later, my future wife and I landed in Kansas City, Mo., just a mile from the Kansas/Missouri state line, and close enough for frequent exploratory excursions to Brainerd and beyond. All told, I visited Brainerd five times, and I spent many hours absorbing its documented history through documents and maps I found at the Missouri Valley Room at the Kansas City Public Library, the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka and in the Kansas Collection at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence.
But it was only after I stumbled upon a short history of the community at the State Historical Society and got in touch with its author, lifelong Brainerd area resident Agnes Harder, that I really began to learn and appreciate the stories and memories that are such a crucial part of understanding this place.
The KU Connection: The Assignment
In fall 1998, I returned to graduate school after a 10-year hiatus, with the intention of completing an MA in American Studies, on a part-time basis, at the University of Kansas. This site is the outgrowth of an assignment for "Built Forms and Landscapes of the Great Plains," a joint American Studies/Architecture course team-tought by KU professors Dennis Domer and Mike Swann. The course syllabus focused on a study of built form in the Prairie Plains of Eastern Kansas, in an attempt "to interpret the landscapes of towns cities and rural areas ... so that we can learn more about ourselves and what we value."
My study of Brainerd is an effort to add to this body of knowledge. Professor Swann encouraged me to explore the topic by interviewing several people who had grown up or lived for many years in Brainerd, cataloging their memories of the landscape and townscape over time. By combining these oral histories with other secondary and primary source, he suggested, I could recreate the landscape of Brainerd through the memories of its inhabitants, paying close attention to the common themes, landmarks and events that appeared in the memories of each interviewee.
All told, I interviewed four Brainerdites in person (all between the ages of 65 and 89), and corresponded with several others by e-mail and mail. Three of the interviewees who still live in the area walked and drove the surrounding countryside and town streets with me, pointing out the remains of key buildings, and identifying several newer structures built from the remains of abandoned Brainerd homes and businesses. The memories they shared with me revealed a keen, lot-by-lot awareness of the small townscape's form and history. Clearly, their relationships to the present-day Brainerd were intertwined with their remembrance of Brainerds past, suggesting that collective memories of a very small place like Brainerd may exert a sustaining force more powerful than the economic engines that spawned and then abandoned the town.
To continue this exploration of Brainerd, click here, or use the frame at left to navigate to the beginning of the History and Memories sections. Within each of these sections, navigation follows a rather linear path, with links to the previous and next pages in the narrative provided at the bottom of each page.
The History and Memories sections include many links to current and historic photos and maps and central to Brainerd's story. Clicking on any of these links will launch a smaller, Gallery browser window in front of your main browser. Once launched, this secondary browser window will remain active until you close it or quit your browser. Each time you click on a subsequent link to an image referenced in the text of the History or Memories section, the image and text in this smaller Gallery window will change accordingly. These images and their text descriptions also can be viewed in the order in which they appear in the narrative by clicking on the Previous or Next buttons at the bottom of the Gallery window, or by linking directly to each image from the master image directory, located on the main page of the Gallery section of the site.
The Sources section contains a brief bibliography, links to other related Web sites and some much-needed acknowledgements of gratitude to those who helped me find the information and images that brought this story to life.
Enjoy your visit, and please contact me via e-mail if you have any questions, comments or suggestions. This is a living, breathing history, and I welcome any additions or corrections that you think would make this a more accurate and more useful site for fellow students of Brainerd and the history of Kansas and the Prairie Plains.