Topeka was our first stop on the Oregon Trail after leaving Kansas City and heading into the State of Kansas itself. Yes, as a Brit I have to get my head around the fact that Kansas City is in Missouri and the State next door is Kansas State.
If you want to take a step back in time to see what life was like for the earliest pioneer settlers out on the Oregon Trail, then highly recommended stopping here at The Old Prairie Town (Ward-Meade Historic Site).
The Old Prairie Town truly is an experience and a chance to look back to the very beginning of the City of Topeka but also to see into the lives of the early settlers.
The buildings showcase the build up and changes over time from the very first home through to the makings of the community.
Way back before 1854 Topeka did not exist in any way. The land here was wide open natural prairie.
In 1854 a Mr Anthony Ward and his wife bought this piece of land from the Native Americans and the first home here came to be.
Anthony was a very skilled carpenter and he built and expanded the wood cabin home to fit his family and life. That very home he built is still there to be seen today.
It is great to see that first house from the outside but when you step inside you can see much of what they had in furniture and tools. Plus plenty of what we today would call real hardships. To them it was a way of life.
What Anthony Ward did single handedly with his carpentry skills comes to the fore when in each room.
All thinks practical made out of wood and the land. Wooden cribs, beds, laundry tub, milk separator and so on.
Water of course was scarce here, and had to be brought from way down in the River, heated in the fireplace and then used for laundry once a week in the tub above. Hanging on the wall behind is the bathtub waiting to be placed on the floor and used!
The Oregon Trail became famed for its landmarks and places to stop along the way. Mrs Ward was known to often leave a candle burning in the window that signified that passing guests on the trail were welcome.
Mr Ward and this patch of land he owned started to make him money. He sold the sand from his land by the river to builders and was a wheelwright making and fixing the wagon wheels for people on the trails to Oregon or California.
With all that going on the Wards still had time to teach and work with the local Native American population.
By 1870, Anthony Ward began work on a much bigger and grander house for him and his family nearby the cabin, the great white mansion. To be later known as the Ward-Meade House.
1870 was also when construction began on the State Building of Topeka. This was the first mansion house in Topeka.
When you take the tour and look around you need to think and wonder, it was all self made from scratch. If you thought Ward’s original wooden cabin was great then this takes a whole lot of steps further for sure.
Stepping inside the mansion house you can feel the way of life in those 20 years had become more than just the basics, but it is still a fascinating insight into how it was back then.
Clothing, decor, heating, furniture, pictures.. all are now shown pretty much as it was back in the day
Anthony Ward and his wife had a daughter named Jenny. She married a railroad worker from Virginia named John Mackey Meade. They inherited the mansion on the death of her parents and thus the Ward-Meade name.
They themselves had 7 children as can be seen in the photo above.
Taking a closer look around the rooms inside I found all kinds of things that had me fascinated.
For example the fashion of the day for men was to have a great big moustache. Tea cups were made accordingly, to avoid a beverage full of hair.
The Ward Meade house stayed in the family hands, through the generations before it was bought by the city of Topeka in 1960. Bought as a garden you can visit the botanical gardens today.
The Community Growing
Back outside and into the Old Prairie Town area around these 2 houses and you get to wander through the buildings and see how the community would have grown into the 20th century.
The architecture becoming more turn of the century.
What was the Potwin Drug Store is now a cafe and I must say they do a remarkable cup of tea.
It also doubles up as a candy shop. Around the room you can see the old pharmacy goods and sweets of the old days.
The old jukebox in the corner brings things, slightly more up to date.
The Old School
The Victor Schoolhouse in Old Prairie Town started teaching children in 1891. It was used as a school all the way up to 1954.
Again it is like stepping back in time. The rules for both children and teachers that adorn the wall certainly are a pause for thought. Times have changed somewhat don’t you think?
Don’t dare write left handed!
Oh to be a teacher.
The classroom is set out as it was when left and is a great resource for local schools learning some history as well as a place for tourists.
There is a 19th Century church in Old Prairie Town Topeka yet it is the newest old building in the site. Let me explain.
Over 50 miles north of Topeka is the town of Everest. In 1880 this church was built in Everest as The Everest Methodist Church.
It was used a a place of worship there for 117 years. During that time the congregation shrunk and eventually it was closed as a place of worship in 2001.
That same year it was moved all the way to here to Old Prairie Town, Topeka and renovated to be seen as an example of a 19th century place of worship.
I did not know what to expect as we passed through and into this place.
I came away having learnt so much about the past in this part of the USA as well as learning about life about early settlers and how life was for them and their families.
A fascinating insight into the whys and hows.
A truly fascinating place to stop by on the Oregon Trail. See into the way of life for the early settlers. Learn about much of the whys and hows. Topeka’s Old Prairie Town.
Want to read more from the trail?
- The Reservation of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes
- The Guernsey Wagon Ruts of the Oregon Trail
- Independence: Chicago and Alton Railroad Depot