everal years ago I took a Sunday drive around eastern Kansas to admire the scenic countryside. The country road I was traveling on meandered through the Little Osage River Valley in Bourbon County. The fall season had colored the maples and oak trees bordering the many patches of ripening milo growing on both sides of the road. On a hilltop overlooking the valley I discovered the beautiful old West Liberty country church standing in a grove of magnificent native cedars.
The words "precious memories" from an old hymn came to my mind and I wondered if the church had kept a written history. Later while visiting with members of the congregation, I met Welcome VanSickle, who has been the church historian for over 30 years. Welcome, living up to her name, spread out scrapbooks of the church records containing almost 130 years of precious memories.
The history of the little church dates back to 1866 when a group of 39 Indiana friends and neighbors formed a train of 11 wagons and headed west to find homesteads in the new state of Kansas. They were all related to each other except the J. A. Tiffany family, who were missionaries. Four of the men were veterans just returned home from fighting in the Civil War. One of the veterans, Anderson Carter, served as guide to the new land for the small caravan. It was September of 1866 when the group left Bono, Indiana, now called Toronto. They were the William Jordons, Samuel Smith and his family and the David Mack family. They crossed the Mississippi River by ferry at Alton, Illinois. Each Saturday they camped early and rested until Monday morning. On Sunday Mr. Tiffany conducted services while the young people sang, accompanied by Samuel Smith's violin. After traveling for more than four weeks, the party from Indiana arrived in Kansas and began building their homes along the Little Osage River Valley in northeastern Bourbon County.
They settled twelve miles north and east of Fort Scott. The nearest railroad was at Westport Landing (now Kansas City) and all mail was carried by stage between there and Fort Scott once a week.
Shortly after getting settled, the homesteading neighbors began meeting to worship in the home of Widow Bloom. As the little community grew the small cabin became too crowded and the community gathered in a nearby clearing for worship until winter weather made it impractical. To the south across the road a log schoolhouse was constructed and church services were held there until the present church was completed in March 1880. The church site is on the five-acre tract donated by Anderson Carter when he purchased the Widow Bloom’s farm in 1867.
The church and cemetery with a scattering of farm families are the last reminders of that old community. The church is surrounded by a grove of large cedars and other native trees planted by the fledgling community over a century ago. It was way back in 1876 when Cornelious O’Brian brought a wagon load of cedar and hard maple seedlings from Big Sugar Creek near Garnett.
When the church was completed a tin box containing a Bible listing all the church members was placed in the cornerstone to be opened 100 years later. The little church was named West Liberty in memory of the Liberty Church that had been left behind in Indiana.
The church became the social center of the neighborhood. A wide variety of group activities continue today and help keep the community together. The West Liberty Methodist Women, who meet every Monday to quilt, is one of these groups. The ladies of the church gather to quilt and share fellowship over their needlework. The day I visited with them, they were adding the last tiny stitches to a colorful Bear Paw quilt. A couple weeks later they were putting a bright daisy quilt into the frames. The circle of weekly quilting friends vary from a few to around fifteen. Working the day I visited were Welcome Van Sickle, Alice Flanner, Helen Niemeir, Wilma Cox, Patsy Dosstter and Corine Oskee, who arrived with her husband in tow. Hot coffee and snacks in the morning and sack lunches at noon kept the group sewing throughout the day. Community affairs were discussed and much needed help for local families, experiencing misfortune, was the result.
The church women started meeting as a group around the turn of the century. Their goal was to help each other, as well as care for the poor and needy of their community. Then the West Liberty Ladies Aid Society was organized in 1916. Through the years the women have prepared luncheons for farm auctions and cooked special suppers to earn money.
The women of West Liberty still prepare fabulous home cooked meals for certain occasions. Their most famous yearly feast is the one they serve the week before Thanksgiving to the Fort Scott Kiwanis club. This began as a promotional event during Farm and City Week almost forty years ago to encourage a closer relationship between city and country folks and has continued through the years.
Each year the women set up a food booth at the Harvest Festival in Fort Scott for their largest money-making project. They sell many different kinds of country style sandwiches and drinks. Most popular are their delicious home made pies.
In the spring of 1965 the men of the church held an Appreciation Dinner as a thank-you for their ladies. The menu was unforgettable and unlike any other ever served. The menu read like this: Dead End Chicken, Taters in the Rough, White Wash in a Bucket, Chopped Silage and for drinks you were offered either Brown Cow or Battery Acid. Only farmers with a great sense of humor could have dreamed up this one. Oh yes, for dessert they passed around Gan Green Pie. You figure it out!
Unlike many churches, West Liberty’s bell is on its own pedestal in the south lawn of the church. When the old West Liberty school was closed, the bell was saved and moved across the road to church property. The bell is rung on special occasions. During Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia the bell rang every Tuesday afternoon at four o’clock. Lee and Wilma Cox made the pilgrimage each week from their farm home to ring the bell. They continued until the end of the war in honor of the church’s loved ones serving in the Gulf.
Today other special occasions are still being observed including Mother’s and Father’s Days; Christmas with a special program complete with the arrival of Santa Claus; Easter sunrise services held outside on the church lawn, and the annual Vacation Bible School.
Fun times mingle now and then with the reverence the old church evokes in its congregation. Overall Sunday is held in the autumn time after the crops are laid by. The farming community joins together on a designated Sunday with all the men, women and children wearing overalls. After services and a carry-in luncheon, they have contest of sack racing, women’s nail driving contest and many other fun things their vivid imaginations come up with.
Amongst the membership is a musical group that calls itself The Crazy Eight. Besides entertaining many church functions, they play for free of charge for any organization needing entertainment. In the 1950’s tailgate fish fry picnics were held drawing large crowds. Huge amount of fresh catfish from the nearby Little Osage River and hushpuppies were fried in big black kettles over open fires. The event ended with everyone playing soft-ball or swinging on the rope swing the young men hung from the tall, old trees. As Catherine Betk wrote in her memories of the fish fry, "As with all good things, the fish fry came to an end after 1983, but the memories of good food, good fish, visiting, and renewed friendships linger on."
Three churches -- West Liberty, nearby Hammond and Fort Scott’s St. John’s -- have been sponsoring basketball and baseball tournaments the last few years. West Liberty youths participated and won some very impressive trophies that are proudly displayed in the church vestibule. Exhibited in a glass case nearby are precious mementos from the church’s past. Center front is the centennial plate and the cornerstone’s tin box that was such a disappointment when opened in 1980. The contents were only bits of decayed material.
Through the years new additions have been added to the church building including a new annex in 1955; the vestibule in 1959 and new pulpit and chairs in 1960. When rural water arrived in the community, the members were able to add running water, air conditioning, a modern kitchen and rest rooms. In 1967 an over-all remodeling was undertaken. The dedicated members spent more than five thousand dollars and contributed an impressive 2000 hours of loving labor.
During the 100th celebration a new box was prepared and placed in the cornerstone. Hopefully these items will remain better preserved through the next 100 years. Some of the items included this time were coins dated 1980, a picture of the church, a list of current West Liberty members and a poem, "The Little White Church in the Grove" by Alice Flanner.
Although the 200th anniversary is still a long way off, the West Liberty members are commemorating their church history every five years and the church historian will keep adding to their church scrapbooks of "precious memories."
Photographs used with permission of Gail Martin, Welcome VanSickle,
Wilma Cox, and the West Liberty Church