Buffalo, Cowboys, Railroads, Politics, Turkey Red Wheat and Highways:
A Short History of Harvey County, Kansas
“Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play….” Add waving blue-stem grass, Indian tribes, trees along the streams, a few early homesteaders and that would describe south-central Kansas in the late 1860s. The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), the building of railroads across Kansas, the Homestead Act (1862) and the end of the Civil War (1865) brought many families from Ohio, Illinois and Indiana looking for cheap farm land into the area that was to become Harvey County.
The earliest settlers saw the movement of great herds of cattle to Abilene through the area that was to become Newton. The town became a dynamic railhead when the Santa Fe Railroad, building track from Emporia, met the Chisholm Trail. Longhorn cattle from Texas were shipped to the east coast from Newton between 1871 and 1873. With a mix of cowboys, saloons and brothels, Newton became known as “the wickedest town in the West.”
A plan to create a new county from townships in Sedgwick, McPherson and Marion Counties came when Newton’s Republican representatives to a Sedgwick County political convention were snubbed. They came back to Newton determined to form their own county with Newton as the county seat. The plan passed the Kansas Legislature on February 29, 1872 minus the three congressional districts from Marion County, two of which were finally annexed in March, 1873, forming the 15 townships of Harvey County. The county was named for the Kansas Governor at the time, James M. Harvey.
Important to the agricultural growth of Harvey County were the German-speaking Mennonites who came from Russia. C.B. Schmidt, Santa Fe land agent, encouraged them to settle here, offering a good price for government-granted fertile railroad land and other amenities. Arriving in 1874, they saw the devastation of a drought year and the aftermath of the great grasshopper invasion. Nevertheless, they started farming and importing Turkey Red hard winter wheat seed that had been successful in Russia and was found to be adaptable to the Kansas climate. Other farmers in the county took up the practice. The milling of the special wheat helped make Kansas “the breadbasket of the world.”
The history of the county has included “the violence of cowtown wickedness, dynamic railroad activity, and prosperous settlements of Turkey Red wheat farmers.”
Agriculture is still important today, yet each of the county’s towns now attract manufacturing plants as well. Employment opportunities exist in the fields of health care, retirement communities, local school districts, independent businesses and local governments. Historical museums, archives and libraries are located in Harvey County’s towns showing a continuing interest in preserving the county’s rich history.
While main streets, grain elevators, small businesses, manufacturers, schools, athletic facilities, libraries and church steeples are common sights throughout Harvey County, each of its cities has a unique history.
Newton, the county seat, was a hub of the Santa Fe Railroad. Due to Newton promoter John C. Nicholson, the city was also at the crossroads of two major highways—US81 and US50. Founded in 1871, the town was named after Newton, Massachusetts, home of some of the Santa Fe stockholders.
Interested in a more history? A downtown walking tour booklet was created by Billi Jo Wilson of the Newton/North Newton Historic Preservation Commission in partnership with the museum. Copies are available at the museum or you can access the booklet by using the link below.
Burrton was laid out in 1873 and named after I.T. Burr, vice president of the Santa Fe Railroad. Because of the discovery of oil in the western part of Harvey County, the town survived the Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s. One of Burrton’s most famous residents was Milburn Stone, “Doc” of the long-running radio and TV series Gunsmoke.
Halstead was a center for milling (Bernhard Warkentin) and health care (Dr. A.E. Hertzler). It was incorporated as a city of the third class in 1877 and named after Murat Halstead, a Cincinnati newspaperman. The oldest continuing Kansas festival, Old Settler’s Picnic, began in Halstead in 1887 to celebrate Harvey County’s pioneers.
The town, founded in 1886, was named after two brothers, Abraham and Amos Hess, who owned the land where a depot on the Missouri Pacific Railroad was built. Since 1909, the town has been the home of Hesston College, a two-year school affiliated with the Mennonite denomination. AGCO (formerly Hesston Corp) is a major manufacturer of farm implements. Excel is a leading turf equipment manufacturer. These two Hesston companies are internationally known.
North Newton, a predominantly Mennonite community, grew up around Bethel College, a four-year Mennonite school founded in 1888. It was incorporated into a separate city in 1938.
Sedgwick is the oldest town in Harvey County, founded in 1870, with many of the county’s “firsts”—schoolhouse, church, flour mill, newspaper, first murder and recorded marriage. Sedgwick had hopes of being the county seat of Sedgwick County and, later Harvey County, but political shenanigans got in the way.
Walton was first laid out by William Matthews and originally was part of Marion County. Walton Township was added to Harvey County in 1873 and the city of Walton was incorporated in 1876.