Born to a land his great-grandparents settled in the 1870s, Ken McClintock is bound by blood and affection to Council Grove, Kansas. Shaped by the town’s history, perhaps even obsessed by it, he and his wife Shirley have reshaped a piece of that history into a treasure for us all.
The story of their accomplishment begins long before McClintock’s birth — long even before the births of his parents and grandparents — and stretches back to the time when Abraham and Mary Rowlinson, immigrants from England, built a home in Council Grove. They began construction in 1860, when Kansas still was a territory. By the time Kansas had been admitted to the Union in 1861, the house was complete.
Seen from the road, its native limestone walls were sturdy and attractive. Inside, light filtered through windows dressed as beautifully as any in Kansas City. In certain seasons, the walnut staircases and trim were warmed by the setting sun, and entire rooms became infused with the same shimmering, golden light that colored the surrounding prairie.
As late as 1863, the Rowlinsons watched and waved from their front steps as caravans traveling between Council Grove and Santa Fe passed their home. They bid farewell to those confronting the dangers of the western journey, and greeted soldiers, teamsters, and freighters as they returned to civilization.
For years, the town served as the only trading post between Independence and Santa Fe. When Tom Hill built his store in 1857, it lived up to its name. The “Last Chance Store” was, in fact, the last chance for necessities like whiskey and bacon for people undertaking the travails of the Trail.
Eventually, the coming of the railroad ended the importance of Council Grove as a trailhead. Wagon trains that previously had formed at Council Grove began gathering at Junction City before moving westward over the Smoky Hill route. Hall and Porter Stage Company, which had grown to provide weekly service along the trail, also moved its operation from Council Grove to Junction City. By 1872, the railroad had been completed to the Colorado border, and the primacy of the Santa Fe Trail as a transportation route was over.
During this time of transition, the Rowlinson house was purchased by William Riley Terwilliger. His family arrived in Morris County in 1859, and Terwilliger soon became a successful farmer, stockman, and livery owner. When the Morris County Rangers were formed in 1863 as a defense against the bushwackers who were roaming Kansas, their Third Lieutenant was W.R. Terwilliger, and he later served on the Board of Directors of the Council Grove Savings Bank.
After purchasing the house in 1870, Terwilliger added a wing in 1873, and continued to live there with his family for two decades.
Eventually, ownership passed from the Terwilligers, and the house began to change. It was modified in 1907, then converted to a gas station in 1927. By the time fifty more years had passed, multiple additions and renovations had nearly swallowed the old house.
While the house slowly disappeared, weighed down by the accretions of time, Ken McClintock left Council Grove to pursue a law degree. After serving in the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps from 1968-1972, he returned home to establish himself as an attorney.
One Sunday, Ken met Shirley in his Sunday School class. An Iowa girl, she was visiting her brother in Council Grove. As Shirley remembers it, “[Ken] gave me a tour of Council Grove that day, told me its history, and I fell in love with him and the town.”
The McClintocks married and went on about their lives until 1994, when they discovered that the old Terwilliger property — hardly a house any longer — was facing demolition. At the time, the building was believed to have been built in 1968. But after Ken discovered an old court document dating the building to 1860, their life took a turn.
“When we found that,” says Ken, “we knew we couldn’t let it go. It was then that we knew the house was older than everybody in town thought it had been. That made it the third-oldest stone house and the fourth-oldest house on the Santa Fe Trail.”
At first, they tried to recruit someone in Council Grove to save it. When those efforts to purchase and preserve the property were unsuccessful, Shirley created the non-profit Historic Preservation Corporation and purchased the property herself, operating with remarkable determination. In 2007, she reflected on the experience with Belle Grimsley for the Flint Hills Oral History Project.
“The Terwilliger home was in danger of being bull-dozed. There were going to be more trailer houses moved in here and it was going to be another kind of business that would not have been historic. So, without any backing or support from anybody except the good Lord, I took on to save this property.
It was in terrible condition, very dilapidated, trash all over, weeds growing everywhere. A pretty sorry sort, and everybody thought I was crazy to do this, but I just stepped out in faith. It was either do it or watch it go down.
I couldn’t in my heart watch it go down, so I tried to gather together enough money to satisfy the owners for a down payment. I got a couple of commitments each month — maybe three commitments — so that we could barely scratch by. The owners were willing to go the loan for a ten percent interest, so I managed to prevent it from being destroyed.”
Much of the work of restoration was done by the McClintocks themselves. Because a cement block wrap-around hid most of the home and cement covered the walls, it was hard and tedious labor. “We had to hand-chip every bit of paint off the stone,” Shirley says. “It was purple and pale green and had a coat of cement under it all.”
Still, as dust flew and chips of concrete piled up, it became clear that the project would be completed. Each payment, each deadline was met. From Shirley’s point of view, more than a few miracles were allowed to sustain them. A local woman left her estate to the project. A foundation provided an unexpected grant just in time to pay property taxes. Smaller, individual contributions of time, money and historical knowledge kept the project afloat.
Today, the Terwilliger Home has been restored to its former splendor. The woodwork gleams, period furniture delights the eye, and everywhere you look there are historic photographs and interpretive pamphlets that help to tell the story of the home and its place in Council Grove history.
In November 2001, the Historic Preservation Corporation opened the Trail Days Bakery & Café inside the building to provide revenue for its operation. In 2006, Ken retired from his law practice so that he and Shirley could operate the café, which specializes in such treats as roast buffalo and elk, as well as dishes reflecting the heritage of early Kansas settlers.
The first time I dined at the Café, it was a rainy Wednesday night in October, a perfect setting for conversation with the owners.
Outgoing and overflowing with tales, Ken seemed to be on speaking terms with every town resident since 1854. One of his favorites is Seth Hays, great-grandson of Daniel Boone and one of the first settlers in Council Grove. Seth’s Hays House still is in business, the oldest continuously-operating restaurant west of the Mississippi. Ken often plays Seth in historical re-enactments, although, as we talked, I considered the possibility that he might be channeling Seth right before my eyes.
In contrast to Ken’s ebullience, Shirley seemed diffident, perhaps even uninterested. Silent, apparently willing to fade into the background, she busied herself removing dishes and cleaning tables until the last large group of diners left the restaurant. Then, stopping by the table with coffee, she paused, smiled, and accepted an invitation to talk.
Hands tucked behind the surplice of her apron, she leaned against the edge of a table and spoke not of what she knew, but of what she suspected, what she imagined — what she felt moving through the house as it stirred back into life.
She spoke of the bushwackers, the massacres, the gambling in the cellars and competitions in the shops. She mused over “Bloody Bill” Anderson, unfortunate in his raising, cursed by circumstance, and given in the end to a life of vengeful, mindless violence.
She spoke of the Terwilliger family — its births and deaths, miscarriages and stillborn – and she recalled stories of the infant falling from the stairs. Accident or murder? No one really knows, but now and then she hears a frail, haunting cry carry into the silence of the house — a silence absent of all grief.
And then there are the Kanza.
In 1996, during the renovation, Shirley was scratching paint off an original walnut door casing when she discovered an unusual design carved into the wood. The Kanza Indian symbols she found are believed to be the nation’s only Native American pictograph incised on a white man’s building to honor a white man. In Shirley’s words:
“His name was George Alexander. He was living with the Rawlinsons. He was 45 years old, and we do not know what the relationship was, but he was a gardener. This was his occupation in England, where he came from. We think that he did something to save the lives of the Kanza during the drought of 1860.
That was a horrible time here, for all of the people trying to work land, or raise cattle, or whatever they were trying to do. Because, in that day and time, there were not stores to buy goods from. You had to grow it yourself. That year, there were [no crops] grown. There was no food at all. If the Sunday School classes or the relief groups from back east had not sent food out here, many of them would have starved to death.
The Kanza were already starving. So, they would come to the back doors of the settlers and beg for food. They had none to give them. So, we are thinking that this George Alexander did something to help them. After he died during the Civil War, of disease, we think the Kanza came here, to this house. It would have been the Rawlinson’s house at that time.
The back door had a two inch thick solid walnut lining, which would have been on the outside part of the door. There, they cut into it a memorial to George Alexander. We think he saved their lives, somehow, through his agricultural skills. This is not based on any information we have as far as eye witnesses or written accounts. It’s our educated guess from information we’ve collected and pieced together like a puzzle.
The pictograph shows the Pleiades and Milky Way as they would have been at time of George Alexander’s death on November 4, 1862. Seven points on the left side of a thunderbolt depict the seven bends of the river of life. A diamond (the upper world) contains a stick figure (the soul) and a symbol for the breath of life, the four winds, and the snare, or body, which contained the spirit until death.
According to the McClintocks, the Kanza placed their symbols on the right side as one exits a door, and this pictograph is on the right.
Captivated by the pictograph, I asked Shirley if she thought the spirits of the Kanza who had come to the house still were around. “They’re all here,” she said. “The settlers, the soldiers, the Indians, the thieves. All of them.”
Pressing on, I asked if she thought the house was haunted. Pausing, she said, “No, not exactly. It’s not the house that’s haunted. It’s history that’s haunted, filled up with the spirits of everyone who’s been here before. That’s part of the reason I had to save these buildings. It’s not just for us, it’s for them.”
Months after I left Council Grove, I still was pondering the McClintocks and their project. I remembered Shirley expressing the same conviction, in slightly different words. “I believe there is an eternal purpose for saving these buildings,” she said. “If nobody saves them, they’re gone forever. This is God’s project. It’s all about faith and love — faith and love of the past, faith and love of the future and faith that they belong together.”
And so they do.