The current population of Baxter Springs, Kansas, hovers around 4,000, so it’s mind-boggling to imagine that 50,000 people once congregated here.
But they did just that at one of the Civil War soldier’s reunions back in 1911, and that’s just one of many cool things that I learned while exploring the Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum.
First of all, the museum itself is something to behold. For a town of 4,000, I was expecting a fairly small building whose exhibits I could walk through in less than an hour. From outward appearances, that seemed to be the case.
But what I didn’t see from the parking lot is that the building extends quite a bit toward the back, plus there is a basement area, with the entire museum offering 23,000 square feet of historical information on Baxter Springs and the surrounding area. I had grossly underestimated how much time I would need there; this place requires a few hours to get through.
That’s because there are so many decades of history packed into the 3 square miles of Baxter Springs and it requires a large facility to tell the tale of this town. Luckily for me, a friendly volunteer greeted me when I walked into the museum, handing me detailed brochures about area historical sites and attractions, then guiding me where to start exploring the museum.
For the most part, the exhibits are laid out chronologically, beginning with the Civil War era, a time when Baxter Springs was put on the map, but not for the most peaceful reason. I’ll give you a brief pre-Civil War summary first.
In the Beginning…
The land in and around Baxter Springs was originally inhabited by the Osage Indians. The first white settler was John Baxter, after whom the town was named. Baxter settled here in 1849.
The Battle of Baxter Springs
Things started getting volatile in the area in the decade that followed. Baxter Springs was sandwiched between the anti-slavery forces of the North and the pro-slavery forces in the South; Kansas was a Union state. On October 6, 1863, Baxter Springs was the site of a massacre, when William Quantrill and 400 guerillas attacked Fort Blair as they were making their way southward (read more about the massacre here).
I think it would have been fascinating to have a psychologist analyze Quantrill. According to the museum exhibit, Quantrill was a former school teacher from Ohio who came to the area in 1857 and “quickly honed his violent nature by living with thieves and murderers, committing several brutal murders during this time.”
That gives me the heebie-jeebies! How could he be a schoolteacher and then a repeat murderer?
The following mural of “Quantrill’s Raid on Baxter Springs” by artist Edmund Victor Ness is also displayed in the museum. Ness’ style is similar to another area artist Thomas Hart Benton, whose murals are displayed in Joplin’s City Hall building just 20 minutes away.
One artifact from the Civil War period that really stood out to me was this bookmark that a mother made for her soldier son, which she created by braiding strands of her hair and gluing them to a paper heart.
She placed the bookmark inside a bible and included this inscription: Your mother’s love and blessing go with you. May the Lord protect you on the day of battle.
If you’d like to visit the actual sites of the Battle of Baxter Springs, the museum has put together a self-guided auto tour with twelve stops on it. You can pick up a copy in the lobby of the museum.
The Wild West
From 1867 to 1872, Baxter Springs boasted the title of first cattle town in the Midwest, as the route through here was the shortest distance from the Texas ranches to the markets in the North and the East.
The cow town days were wild, with gambling, crime, and prostitution running rampant (over 30 “ladies of the night” were walking the streets in the 1870s). In 1876, Jesse James and an accomplice robbed Crowell Bank and ran off with $2900.
In the basement of the museum, there’s a representation of what the town’s boardwalk looked like in the 1870s, complete with a jail. Both kids and adults will get a kick out of walking on the wooden boards and peering inside the various shop windows to get a glimpse of what life was like back then. On the right, there’s a replica of a 1910 farm house.
From Lawless to Luxury
When the lawless days of the cow town era ended in the 1880s, the town did a complete 180-degree turn when it began promoting itself as a health resort destination. A park was built on Military Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets, and people came from all over the country to drink the local spring water, which many claimed cured their ailments.
The luxurious Springs Hotel was built at 9th and Military Avenue to accommodate visitors, but it burned to the ground in 1914. Whatever happened to those springs? I’d always wondered why the town was called Baxter Springs since I’d never heard anyone mention actual springs, and I finally learned the answer to this puzzle during my visit to the museum.
In the early part of the 20th century, the flow of the springs gradually decreased, then disappeared entirely in the late 1920s. It’s generally believed that it was due to area mining activities – which I’ll get to in a minute.
Baxter Springs hosted annual Civil War soldiers’ reunions, with the first one being held in 1883, 20 years after the massacre at Fort Blair.
The reunions were great celebrations, and one of the rides featured there was a precursor to today’s coasters; “Shoot the Chute” plunged from the top of a hill into the Spring River.
Peak attendance for the reunions reached 50,000 in 1911, but the annual events ended in 1914.
The Mining Era
With the discovery of minerals in the surrounding area, the mining boom hit Baxter Springs from 1916 through the 1920s.
To me, one of the most fascinating artifacts at the museum is the portable aluminum therapy machine, which is the only known one in existence.
Donated by the Picher Mining Museum, this machine was used to treat silicosis, a lung disease that was prevalent among miners.
Two miners at a time were given treatments of aluminum powder dust, gradually increasing treatment time and frequency until 200 treatments were completed. After all of that, there’s still no evidence that the treatments stopped the further development of silicosis in the patients.
The Mother Road and Beyond
In 1926, Baxter’s Military Avenue was designated as Route 66, and another new era began. The highway brought many visitors to Baxter Springs – as well as more outlaws. On two consecutive Saturdays in 1933, the infamous duo Bonnie and Clyde robbed the Kirkendoll grocery store in Baxter Springs.
On the main floor of the museum, there’s an exhibit dedicated to Route 66, highlighting area attractions on the Mother Road, including the Marsh Arch Bridge (also called the Rainbow Bridge), located just north of Baxter Springs, which you can still walk and drive on.
Baxter Springs Today
When I left the museum, I wandered through the town of Baxter Springs and witnessed a town coming to life – yet again. With such exciting things happening, I wonder what exhibits will be added to the museum over the next decade.
Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum is located at 740 East Avenue in Baxter Springs, Kansas. Click here to visit its website.
To read more about my adventures in the area, visit JoplinMOLife.com.