The town died as soon as its industry left. They abandoned a Catholic church, half built. All the Catholics left. People who stayed took their heritage seriously, preserving a Victorian-era wreath made of human hair of the dead, clocks brought from the old country, and the yokes their oxen wore.
Today it has a population of 647. However, there are two museums in Lecompton, Kansas. Its industry was being the state capital. For a bit.
I love museums. I love the great-auntie of all museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the great-uncle of all museums, the Natural History Museum of Teddy Roosevelt and Things He Killed Because He Loved Them. I also love all the tiny museums that no one cares about, anywhere people have put things in glass cases with typed labels. It is best if there is someone to mind them, and this person will happily go on forever, so I don’t have to do much reading. (It’s the only time I don’t prefer to read.)
Here’s why Lecompton has two museums:
In the 1850s, the latest place the white people want to kick Indians out of is: Kansas and Nebraska. People back east want to make their influence known out here, but rather than merely posting things on facebook, many of them actually move here to be Kansas voters. Pro-slavery people move here, too. (I would figure it’s easier, as an abolitionist, to move, because you’re probably in a job that makes you mobile. If you’re pro-slavery, and you have enough money to move, you are probably a farmer who owns slaves already, and land. Right? Don’t take my word for it. I just began researching this yesterday.)
To be a state, Kansas needs a constitution. The first constitution is written in Topeka (abolitionist), and prohibits slavery, and sweetly declares that white men, and “every civilized male Indian who has adopted the habits of the white man” can vote.
Congress, pro-slavery at the time, is like, nah.
The pro-slavery people meet in Lecompton and write their own, pro-slavery constitution.
Note: Territorial capitals moved around a lot, based on what the current governor found convenient. The territorial capital of Kansas was, at times, Shawnee Mission (near Kansas City), Fort Leavenworth, and Lecompton. (And a bunch of other places that are so far out in Kansas, and not along I-70, so I have no idea where they are.)
The Lecompton constitution’s unexpectedly redeeming quality is that the lettering is done as if a child of 1992 had suddenly received a big old box of floppy disks of fonts from Santa Claus (Best Buy) and chosen one he thinks looks “rustic.”
President Buchanan likes it. Kansas voters reject it, in spite of its cute lettering.
Congress says no, too, and decides to let Kansans vote. Kansans vote to be a free state, because mostly, they are inherently good people (of course).
After a lot more mess, they ultimately adopt a constitution that does not give women the right to vote, but does give women the right to own property, have access to their children, and vote in school board elections, which was pretty sweet, considering the times.
Then Lincoln is elected, and people have, you know, other things on their minds.
The museums in Lecompton are housed in the building that was going to be the capitol, and the building that was where the constitutional convention met. The almost-capitol has mannequins wearing old clothes, photographs of people looking serious, friendship quilts, gorgeous old furniture and gadgets.
The constitutional hall has its original cottonwood flooring. Cottonwood is the state tree of Kansas (I did learn something in Kansas State History). It isn’t necessarily great for building, but at that point, people used what they had at hand, and Kansas wasn’t exactly teeming with forests. Cottonwood was good enough, anyway, to last until today.
I ask the guy manning constitution hall why there is so much history to see here, so well-preserved.
“The people here think of their history as family history,” the guy tells me.
I have roots in Orleans, Nebraska (population 383), and Lancaster, Kansas (population 288). I guess they are a lot smaller than Lecompton, so I can’t fault them for not having history museums.
Some people stayed in Lecompton, and I guess they were really serious about staying. Their veterans’ memorial, as the man points out, has veterans from the founding of the town through the 21st century.
I feel some sense of pride or comfort, living in an abolitionist town, the sort of pride one feels from people having done things long before one was born. The sense that people believed in something that was progressive, and good, and just.
I feel comfort, also, in being somewhere people hold their history in its awkwardness. Lecompton proclaims it has been voted, “Best Small Town in Kansas.” People were also wrong, in the past. They were unrepentently wrong, and they were confused wrong, and they seemed right at the time, but were wrong.
I’m not the just the inheritor of abolitionists’ thirst for justice, but also of slaveholders’ exploitation and struggle to part with evil ideas and evil acts. There are memories of goodness and virtue, and memories of mistakes and mess. This near Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it’s healing to me to think of both.
Images: my own, from the museums in Lecompton. My research is mostly from them, as well, although this was also helpful.