performed in front of Ellis Depot 10/6/2012
In September of 1877, a group of former slaves, many from Vice-President Richard M. Johnson’s Kentucky plantation, traveled by train to Ellis, Kansas. Land speculator W.R. Hill, Hill City’s namesake, along with five black men, including Reverend Morris Bell, created the Nicodemus Township Company to attract these brave souls to western Kansas.
After paying $5.00 to join the town company and buying train tickets, this first group of Kentuckians and their luggage pulled away from the Sadieville, Kentucky Depot. Each of these resilient pioneers left behind family, memories, and a familiar landscape to come to the prairies of Kansas, their promised land.
Following their journey, the immigrants arrived in Ellis, where W.R. Hill met them. They exited the train at the small, wooden depot and viewed a dusty main street and the not so distant train yard. Probably they heard cattle that had traveled the Western Trail lowing in the stockyards west of the depot. What they didn’t see were the trees and dense greenery of their recent home.
Hill provided wagons to carry their belongings across the undeveloped grasslands to Nicodemus. Each family loaded their goods and followed horse-drawn drays out of town to their first resting place at Happy Hollow, just north of what locals call the Irion Hills. This was their introduction to two days of walking across the plains to their new place of residence.
This step-by-step familiarization with their new existence must have stunned folks who had grown up among forests and verdant fields of tobacco. Even the dry air inhaled differently than the humid air of their Southern origin. The birds were different, the flowers were different, and the buffalo grass was different. This was a brave new world to these hardy people.
Unfamiliar to these newcomers, the route they traveled north to their homes began what locals eventually titled the Ellis-Nicodemus Trail. For the next few years, this critical trade route between the two communities enabled Nicodemus to grow and thrive.
Farmers in Nicodemus would bring broomcorn, produce, and grain to trade for necessities at businesses such as Tom Daly’s store in Ellis’s well-developed business district. Nicodemus did not have a blacksmith until 1879 so those needing such services traveled the 35 miles to Ellis to utilize the local smithy. Ellis had some of the nearest medical services for those in need. Finally, Ellis’s railroad was essential connection for delivery of necessary supplies and mail to Nicodemus consumers.
Today, Nicodemus, “the oldest and only remaining Black Town west of the Mississippi River” is a designated National Historic Site with the U.S. Park Service. Each year Nicodemus descendants gather to celebrate Homecoming at the end of July and Pioneer Days in early October.