Join Wade Mitchell as he steps back in time to meet the founding fathers of the Aggieville shopping district. Historic time travel in Manhattan, Kansas. Hop on board!
The Stairway to Nowhere
by Dan Walter
It was about two minutes until midnight on December 31, 2014 and there was a biting chill in the Aggieville shopping district night air. A large crowd had filled Moro Street for more than a city block, then overflowed both north and south on Manhattan Avenue. The group included singles, couples, and families with young children – probably more than 8,000 in all – and everyone seemed to be enjoying the music and festive atmosphere of this great Manhattan, Kansas tradition: The Aggieville Ball Drop.
For Wade Mitchell, it had been a long but productive day. Working in retail always meant a busy December, even after the K-State students left for vacation, but this holiday period was a little shorter than normal, and preparations for the return of the students in January meant extra hours in the office.
On the other hand, it was nice to see old friends who came into town for the holidays, and it was an opportunity to capture another set of photos for his Aggieville history files. He had been taking pictures each year since the Ball Drop had started in 2003, and it was rewarding to see how much people had enjoyed seeing the images and how useful they had become in promoting the event – and the whole Manhattan community – in various publications.
New Year’s Eve in Manhattan was almost always cold – sometimes bitterly so – and a breeze caused Wade to pull his great-grandfather’s overcoat up tighter around his neck and ears. He kicked himself for wearing a gray fedora instead of a warmer and more practical stocking cap, but it did look sharp with the gray coat. It had been just a few months since his father had discovered the coat in a cedar chest in the attic at Grandpa Frank’s old farmhouse outside of town. It was a perfect fit for Wade, now 58, and knowing what a history buff Wade was, his father had gladly turned it over to his son. It was full length and made of dense wool. All he needed now were some white spats buttoned over his shoes, and his early 1900s costume would be ready to go, he thought to himself.
As this year’s local celebrity was coming to the stage area to be introduced and to start the “count-down” to midnight, Wade happened to notice an unusual light coming from a glass doorway at the west end of the Chartier building. What was particularly strange about any sort of light at all coming through that old doorway was the fact that it opened into a stairway which ascended to…nowhere. Built in 1912, the second floor of the building had been destroyed by fire in 1987, and the dark stairway that originally guided people to the large upstairs meeting room now came to an abrupt halt at the top due to a black plywood panel which sealed it off. Why would a light – how could a light – be coming from there of all places?
Having folded up his camera tripod, he quickly passed through the crowd and made his way over to the doorway. No one else in the noisy street seemed to have noticed the unique occurrence, but Wade was intrigued enough to investigate. Knowing that the door was always kept securely shut – and even hard to open with the key that Larry Chartier had once given him to keep – he was puzzled to find the door opening easily to his tug. What was going on here? He cautiously stepped inside the doorway and noticed that the stairway, sometimes used as a storage area by the current owners, had been totally cleared and, although it was still fairly dark, appeared to have been somewhat remodeled. He wondered why would they spend the money to restore this old stairway, then leave it open to the public, especially on a night like this? It didn’t make any sense at all. He slipped his camera case strap off his shoulder and placed the case in a dark corner of the stairwell with his camera and tripod. He was very curious about the glowing light and decided to walk up as far as he could and see what was going on.
The stairway felt familiar to him, and he remembered back to the fall of 1976 when he had gone up and down these stairs many times. He sat out of college for one semester and was hired by one of his best friends from high school to work full-time at Ballard’s Sporting Goods. At that time, Ballard’s had all their silk-screening operation on the second floor of this building, and he made many trips up and down the stairs with arm-loads of brightly colored shirts with different types of brightly-colored graphics imprinted on them. This trip, however, was different. Very different.
Though the stairs themselves seemed to squeak and groan less than he remembered, Wade realized he was now walking step by step to the crest of that exact same familiar stairway. He could tell his heart rate was accelerating, but it wasn’t from exertion. The black plywood was no longer in place, and as he neared the top he could see the mysterious light originating from a large gap under a doorway to the right of the landing. Impossible. Was this some sort of amazing New Year’s Eve stunt? Even then, what could possibly be the purpose? Should he knock on the door? Should he go in? Should he run back down the stairs as fast as he could go? For a moment that seemed to transcend time, he stood frozen at the top of the stairs, cold, tired, and trying to process a set of data that was impossible to comprehend.
Against the better judgment of his racing mind, he was surprised to see his hand reach out, turn the handle, and gently push the door wide open. He could not have been more surprised at what he saw in front of him.
There was a large meeting room, almost as large as the building itself, with 10-foot ceilings and a wooden floor scattered with chairs and tables. There was smoke in the air with a smell that reminded him of when his father used to smoke a pipe around their house when he was a boy. In a day of no public smoking, it was strange to see a smoky room at all. Yet his eyes met even stranger sights.
There were a number of men in the room – it appeared to be over 20 in all. Whatever in the world this gathering was, it was clearly out of the ordinary. If he hadn’t known better, he would have thought they were all dressed and ready for some McCain Auditorium performance on campus. They had on business suits – mostly of the 3-piece variety – with fancy ties. Wade was no fashion expert, but the styles and colors they wore seemed to date them around the turn of the century. The last century. 1900.
The men were mostly seated in somewhat of a circle on the south side of the room, although a few were up out of their chairs and pacing slowly. It reminded Wade of a jury that had been together for hours and couldn’t come to a unanimous decision on the trial at hand. Who were these men? What were they up to? How did they get here? How did he get there?
As these questions shot through his mind, he glanced past the men and suddenly realized that the windows he knew should be facing out over Moro Street were bright with what seemed to be – amazingly – sunlight. When he came through the downstairs doorway it was nearly midnight, yet an afternoon sun was clearly streaming through seven large windows on the south side of the room. How could this be possible? Where in the world was he? If that wasn’t enough, Wade looked out the closest window to see a dirt street with trolley tracks running down the middle in the exact place where he had stood just moments ago with a crowd of 8,000. The room itself seemed to spin a little and then went dark for Wade as he slumped against the door frame and fell to the floor.
Wade could feel the cool rag on his forehead as he slowly came back to consciousness. He was lying on his back, apparently on one of the tables he had noticed when he came in. As he opened his eyes, he could see several of the men staring down at him. “You must be Mitchell,” one of the men spoke in a deep bass voice. If Wade wasn’t confused enough already, he was at a total loss to explain how one of these men could possibly know his name! The man spoke again, “Are you Wade Mitchell?” “Yes…I am,” he managed to say. “Well good – it’s about time you got here! I’m Barney Youngcamp and this is my building. I’m the one that invited you here from Chicago. As soon as you are ready, we would like to get started.”
Wade closed his eyes and tried desperately to gather his thoughts. The story Wade heard as a boy was that his great-grandfather, Wade D. Mitchell, was from Chicago. As a young man he had helped C.B. Dewey build his financial empire after the Chicago fire in 1872, which led to Dewey purchasing almost 80,000 acres of Kansas land, including about 11,000 acres near Manhattan. Many years later much of Dewey’s Flint Hills grazing land would be preserved in the Konza Prairie Research Park. While working for Dewey, his great-grandfather had died in a train wreck near Kansas City. His grandfather Frank Mitchell had come to Manhattan as a young adult and made his living in real estate development. In this bizarre scenario that Wade had somehow walked into, was it possible that these men somehow believed that he was his great-grandfather?
After helping Wade to a chair and providing him with some water, Youngcamp seemed ready to act as if nothing had happened and began to commence with whatever meeting it was that had brought this group together. “Mitchell,” Youngcamp started. “ I’ve heard from C.B. Dewey that you are one of the sharpest real estate developers in all of Chicago. We’ve come together this morning – ,” and taking a quick look at the gold watch in his vest pocket, “or should I now say afternoon – to lay the groundwork for a whole new section of stores here next to the Kansas State Agricultural College campus. About five years ago, folks around here started calling the area Aggieville – and we like the name. Aggieville will be the first of a kind – equal or better than downtown – and filled with stores that provide the goods and services that the college students want and need. We are asking you to help us.” His face suddenly broke into a wide and gracious smile, a trait that had possibly been a part of this younger man taking such a prominent role in this gathering of businessmen mostly older than himself. “But please forgive me – we should introduce ourselves!”
Going around the room, each man gave his name and a brief word about what type of business he was currently doing and what he hoped to do in Aggieville. Wade simply couldn’t believe his ears. As the Aggieville Historian he had spent over 25 years reading articles, gathering pictures, and doing interviews with Manhattan residents about the businesses and business owners that had made Aggieville what it was today. In his office he had filing cabinets packed full of names and dates and stories and pictures. He had already written four books on Aggieville history and had more planned for the future. Now, on this amazing night in this amazing room, he began hearing man after man introduce themselves with names he had come across over and over again. These were the founders – the pioneers – of the Aggieville shopping district!
Barney Youngcamp went first. He said he had his start in Manhattan as a downtown barber, but was rapidly becoming a major real estate developer. He had hopes of being on the ground floor of this promising new business area and he was investing heavily in Aggieville’s success.
Joseph L. Johns introduced himself by saying that he and his wife were already selling ice cream on the 1100 block of Moro, but had big plans for a huge 2-story structure at the corner of Moro and 12th. Wade knew the name J.L. Johns well – and had even seen his picture from about 20 years later. He knew one of the sons of J.L. and had gone to high school with one of his grandsons. There were many difficult challenges ahead for this man, but on this day his eyes were full of enthusiasm.
E.L. Askren said he was an established jeweler/optometrist in the downtown area, but had opened a branch store on the lower level of Youngcamp’s building in 1912. With the KSAC enrollment now up over 3,000, Askren was looking to extend his business even more among the college students. Wade knew that Askren’s name was still set in stone above 1220 Moro, but he also knew that state regulations on training for optometrists had eventually pushed him and other local jewelers out of that side of their business.
J.T. Crowder was involved in the business of cleaning clothes down at 1109 Moro. Wade had a picture in his files of Crowder’s first-class delivery truck with his name clearly painted on the side. Crowder’s Cleaning and Dye Works would be a regular part of Aggieville for many years to come.
Harry Orris was a competitor of Crowder, having opened the Aggieville Laundry (or A.V. Laundry for short) several years earlier on Moro. As far as Wade knew, Harry was the first merchant to actually use the name “Aggieville” in their store name, advertising as early as 1912 for his business.
W.A. Givin ran a clothing store on Moro, although Wade recognized that the name Givin would be more connected in Aggieville history with the Aggie Hardware store that G.W. Givin ran for many years in the same location. Elmer Kittell was selling men’s clothing at the Varsity Shop, as was W.P. Barber at the College Tailor Shop and W.L. Hout at the Hout Tailor Shop.
Three of the men ran what they called “dry good” stores. J.C. Dundore owned Dundore’s Cash Store, a name used downtown by the well-known Spot Cash store near the corner of 4th and Poytz. J.A. Cress had been successful with his Cress Racket Store on Poytz and was thinking of putting in a Cress Economy Racket Store on Moro. These were general stores that sold a wide variety of household and school supplies. N.L. Haslan said he and his wife had owned the Bungalow Dry Goods and Notion Store at 631 N. Manhattan since 1911, and that they were slightly different in that they catered to the needs of the female portion of the college students.
John Harrison was a grocer who had moved his business from Bluemont Avenue over to Moro Street in 1903. But he was seriously considering starting over by building a huge 2-story structure that Wade knew would become a landmark in the Aggieville skyline for the next eight decades.
L.C. Shafer also owned a grocery store just down a block from Harrison, being located at 1202 Moro. He would eventually put in a building across the street that Wade’s pictures showed still bore his name. J.W. Dewey and John L. Coons were other grocers in the Aggieville area. Dewey owned Dewey’s Grocery and Coons owned the Star Grocery.
C.O. LaShelle was the lone professional man in the group, being a dentist. Walter Simpson owned the Electric Supply Shop, while Jasper Fink owned Fink Electric Company at 12th & Moro. W.P. Roper and H.F. Wilson were Aggieville barbers.
Clyde Lewis told a little about his beautiful downtown drug store in the Gillette Hotel building named The Palace Drug Company, then shared about starting a branch store there in the Youngcamp building in 1912. His main concern was that the store was too small. He felt his business could be increased with a larger location. Wade smiled to himself as he thought of the Forrester brothers, later owners of both Palace stores, and their work fourteen years later to duplicate the beauty of the downtown Palace in what they called “The Uptown Palace” around the corner on N. Manhattan.
Samuel P. Olson said he was a second generation shoe repairman. His father Peter Olson had started the business back in the late 1800s on Poyntz. Samuel said he came to Aggieville in 1913 to set up his Electric Shoe Shop. Wade thought how proud Samuel would be to find out that his son Clyde, his grandson Edwin, and his great-grandson Edwin, Jr. had all continued the shoe repair business in Aggieville. As far as Wade knew, Olson’s Shoe Repair Service had the record for the oldest continuous family-owned business in all of Manhattan.
George Scheu was involved in providing a decent meal at a decent price to the students and faculty and townsfolk in the Aggieville area. He knew he had some stiff competition with the fancier restaurants downtown, especially Harry Wareham’s College Inn, but he said, “All I know is that when folks in this area are hungry, I’ve got a meal cooking that is over a mile closer to their stomachs than the best establishment downtown!” Wade’s research showed that Scheu ran a number of cafes and restaurants in both Aggieville and downtown over the years, but was best known for his downtown Scheu’s Café at 5th & Poyntz in the 1950s through the 1970s.
The bookstores were represented by Ray Pollom of the Coop Bookstore next door to Youngcamp’s building and Joseph Guy Varney of the College Book Store on N. Manhattan. Both stores had established storefronts on N. Manhattan in 1908, but Varney was about a year away from a huge expansion that would put him right on the corner of N. Manhattan and Anderson Avenue, about 30 feet closer to the edge of the campus than Pollom’s store – a fact that Wade knew Guy’s son Ted would note frequently in his advertising years later!
When the last man in the circle was done introducing himself, Wade’s mind was totally overwhelmed with all that he had seen and heard. Just a few minutes earlier, he had only known a name and sometimes a business name and maybe a storefront location for most of these men. Now he could attach a face and a voice with each name. There were no words to describe his pleasure and there were no words to describe his total confusion on how this was all coming about right before his very eyes. But there was more to come.
Barney Youngcamp once again addressed the group by saying, “I think we would have time for a few more brief remarks if you think there is something that it would be good for Mr. Mitchell to hear before we turn the meeting over to him.” Wade wasn’t exactly sure what Youngcamp was talking about, but he was eager to hear what was on the mind of the men.
W.A. Givin was the first to speak up. “That’s sure a nice overcoat you’ve got there Mitchell. Must be the latest thing out of Chicago. How they get merchandise in Chicago that I can never get my hands on here in Manhattan I’ll never understand! Seems like all the new styles come out of the east coast and make their way to Manhattan by carrier turtle!” Quiet chuckles broke out around the group. W.P. Barber broke in, “It could be worse, Givin. Imagine if all those fortune-hunters out in California ever got the notion that they had something to say about fashion! Ha! Their ideas would be forever frozen up there on the Rocky Mountains before they’d ever make it to the plains of Kansas!” A hearty round of laughter seemed to put everyone a little more at ease.
Harry Orris spoke up next. “Here is what I see. The customers downtown have been walking on the fine brick streets of Poyntz Avenue since 1910, while our customers wade through the mud on Moro! By the time my customers get their clean laundry out of Aggieville, it’s so covered with dust they need to bring it right back in! Well, it almost seems that bad sometimes. Gentlemen, its 1914 – as of today, 1915 – and its high time for Aggieville to get some attention from the city leaders we all pay our taxes to! We need to get organized and petition the city just like they did downtown.” “You’re right there, Harry,” spoke up Guy Varney. “There is a procedure and we just need to do it right.”
Clyde Lewis quickly added, “And in the process, it is high time they authorized a post office here in Aggieville! There are plenty of letters going in and out of this section of town to justify the expense of our own sub-station. If we approach them as a group and present our case well, I think they would be open to our request.” Elmer Kittell said, “I think we can find room at the Varsity Shop for a mail room, and I would be willing to serve as a postmaster if it was agreeable to you gentlemen.” “That would be fine, Elmer. Maybe we could push for parcel post and American Express delivery down this way too, for a change,” commented John Harrison.
E.L. Askren said, “You know, we should have invited Harry Wareham here today. He helped get the whole Commercial Club started 15 years ago, and look what all they’ve done for the downtown area.” George Scheu replied, “Look, I don’t have anything against Harry Wareham. I just think Aggieville should provide some opportunities for some little guys to make a go of it, just like Harry’s father and mother did on Poyntz Avenue so many years ago. I’m sure the Wareham’s will invest in Aggieville, but I think that if many of us are investing our entire life savings and risking our reputations on this adventure, we should have a clear and powerful voice in how things are going to go for us – and not be overly influenced by those with the most money in our town.” Several heads nodded in quiet agreement. These merchants weren’t the “rich and famous” of Manhattan, but they were good men who were willing to take risks and work hard in hopes of providing for their families and securing a good financial future.
For Wade, he had all the information he needed to establish the time frame of this amazing gathering. It was New Year’s Day in 1915 – 100 years before the New Year’s Eve gathering that had drawn him to the streets of Moro that special night. He remembered reading an old newspaper article that noted 1915 as the year the Aggieville Club was formed. It was later changed to the Aggieville Commercial Club, then the Aggieville Merchants Association, and finally the Aggieville Business Association. This was the start of these merchants working together to lay the groundwork of the shopping center that thousands upon thousands of people would come to know and enjoy in the years to come.
As Wade’s mind drifted in wonder of all that he was experiencing or dreaming or whatever this was, he was quickly brought back to the moment at hand by Barney Youngcamp’s clear voice directed straight at him. “Well, Wade Mitchell, you’ve heard who we are and the kind of ideas and concerns we have. But we didn’t pay to have you come all this way just to listen. We want to hear about your ideas. What is your vision for the future of Aggieville?” All eyes were on Wade, and the night’s events weren’t quite so fun anymore. What would he tell this group of experienced businessmen who were considering risking their careers and fortunes on the development of this place called Aggieville? If it were at all possible – if somehow, in this crazy dream he was experiencing – that he could actually influence the decisions of these men in a way that would influence their futures, what would he possibly say? Wade closed his eyes for a moment, said a quick prayer for help, swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and started in on a presentation that no one else on the face of the earth could have possibly presented.
“Gentlemen, I’m honored that you have invited me here today, and I’m honored to meet each of you. I do, indeed, have some clear ideas about what the future might hold for Aggieville.
Manhattan is a town of 7,000 today, but I can see this wonderful town, nestled in this beautiful river valley, growing to become one of the most prominent cities in Kansas. Along the way there will certainly be adversities, as there is in any great effort, but by continuing to attract men and women of good character, with vision for the future, this town will certainly enlarge and prosper.
Think ahead in time with me. Try to imagine just 35 years in the future. 1950. Imagine the 3,000 students at KSAC doubling to over 6,000.
Many of those students will be needing food to eat from your Aggieville grocery stores and your Aggieville cafes. They’ll need to buy clothes from your Aggieville tailor shops and have their clothes cleaned at your Aggieville cleaners. They’ll need the books and school supplies available at your Aggieville bookstores. Many of those young men will need haircuts in your Aggieville barber shops. And many of those students will be looking forward to sharing time with friends at your Aggieville drug stores and dancing in your Aggieville ball rooms and being entertained in your Aggieville opera houses.
It is 1915 and it is the time to think big and dream big! I picture an Aggieville that takes up four full city blocks from Bluemont to Laramie and 11th Street to N. Manhattan Avenue, with more shops around the edges – over 100 in all! I picture an Aggieville where a student or town resident can purchase just about anything they could need or want that’s available this side of the Mississippi.
I picture an Aggieville that will become a treasured part of the college experience for thousands of K-State graduates. A part of their memories will be the way Aggieville is different from anywhere else in town. Downtown has their cut limestone just like the buildings on campus and out at Ft. Riley. But Youngcamp’s building and the Student Coop next door have chosen a red brick theme. Let that be the distinctive standard for future construction. It will set Aggieville apart in the minds of people and will provide its own unique charm.
Some of you are considering major building projects this year or in the next few years. I have three words of advice for you. First, if you can possibly afford it, put in two stories instead of one. Maintain your retail business below and use the upper floor as flexible space for the years to come. Today this space is being made use of as a meeting hall. Perhaps someday it might house a small school of business or student apartments or professional offices. As you get your business established, or if times get hard, it might even provide your family a place to live. Put yourself in a position to have room for future opportunities.
Second, if you put in a basement, try not to use it for anything but rough storage. Water has a way of getting in sooner or later, and many a small business owner has regretted their decision to place valuable merchandise in convenient space below ground only to find it ruined through mildew or flood.
Third, as the seasons of God’s nature have their cycles, so does the business world. Joseph told Pharaoh of seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. I cannot explain to you how I know this with such certainty, but you would do well to get completely out of debt by the summer of 1929. Preserve you fortunes in land and buildings and currency on hand. You have the next fourteen years to grow and prosper, but this cycle of unbounded financial success will come to an end – and you must be ready.
There are two last things I want to share with you that I hope you will all take to heart as you plan for your future. First, take time to hire good employees, pay them a decent wage, and treat them with respect. A faithful and experienced employee is certainly a great strength to any company in dealing with the challenges that come with growth. Help your workers be successful and they’ll be more likely to help you be successful.
Lastly, many of you men go to work every day at a business that bears your name. The Scriptures tell us that a man’s reputation is his most valuable possession – and your reputation is on display for all to see. So I understand how you would want to give yourselves heart and soul to see that things go well and that your customers are treated right. There is nothing wrong with that. But one more sale and one more dollar in the bank can never, ever make up for the regret a man feels when he realizes that he has neglected his wife and children. It’s been said that no man, on his death bed, says, “I wish that I had spent more time in the office.” My advise to you would be to put God first in your life, then family, then business. I am firmly convinced that you will never regret living your life with those priorities.
Best wishes to you all, and long may Aggieville prosper!”
A hearty round of applause made Wade feel that his speech was very well received. From the looks on their faces, he felt that the spirit of his talk and the clarity of his vision for the future of Aggieville seemed to inspire the men. The ones who had big plans for the future seemed to be filled with new determination to see their dreams become reality.
He knew that a few things he had said must have seemed somewhat odd or clearly unfounded. His concern about basement water would make no sense at all to them until a short four months later when Wade knew that flash flood waters would fill every basement and cellar in the Aggieville area. Perhaps his caution about debt and the 1929 deadline was too dramatic to be taken seriously, and would certainly be long forgotten by most of them when the prosperity of the 1920s was in full swing, but he knew that J.L. Johns and several others would lose everything in the early years of the Great Depression.
When it came to priorities, Wade knew too well the high price men and women had paid for their obsession with building a financial empire in Aggieville. One man standing in that very room would eventually be committed to a mental hospital. One man’s son would carry on the family business in Aggieville until he completely disappeared, leaving his parents, wife, children, and siblings with only unanswered questions for the next 20 years. And yet another man there would take his own life in the store he founded, leaving his widow and two young children to face the future without him. In some miraculous way, Wade hoped that he could help them seek to make a good living for themselves and their families to enjoy together instead of seeking to gather a personal fortune at the expense of their marriages, their families, and their health.
But that day, New Year’s Day in 1915, the minds of these men were filled with great hope and unbounded optimism concerning the years to come. Wade Mitchell’s presentation had confirmed that they were on the right track, and there was nothing that could de-rail them now.
With all that had gone on in the past hour, Wade suddenly realized that he had never even taken off his great-grandfather’s coat. He chuckled to himself about how he could have possibly explained the Powercat logo on his polo shirt he was wearing that evening.
Barney Youngcamp quickly rose and extended his hand for a firm and enthusiastic handshake. “Thank you, Mitchell – that’s just what we needed to hear! Thank you so much for coming!” Glancing back toward the gathering, Youngcamp said, “Now we’ve got some serious business to discuss among ourselves. We’re 15 years behind the Commercial Club downtown and we’ve got a lot of work to do!” Turning back to Wade, he continued, “Thank you again. I’m not sure what time we’ll be done today, but I’ll try to catch up with you for a meal tonight at Wareham’s College Inn. Maybe you can tell me if it really does match up to the best of Chicago’s restaurants like they claim.”
As he was preparing to leave, Wade intentionally made it over for one last special handshake. Joseph Guy Varney, the founder of Varney’s Book Store, would build a huge building the following year on the corner of N. Manhattan Avenue and Anderson Avenue. It would be a two-story brick building with a rough basement. 63 years later, Wade Mitchell would be hired as a bookkeeper at that very store and end up working there for the next 35 years. How could Wade tell Guy the connection that he felt with him, or how Guy’s own son Ted and his grandson Bill would help Wade write a history of his bookstore – the one Guy hadn’t even built yet? As their hands clasped, their eyes met and strongly locked for an awkwardly long moment. Guy said quietly, “May the Lord bless you, Wade Mitchell.” “And you too, sir,” Wade replied, then he turned away and headed through the doorway to the stairs.
As he closed the meeting room door behind him, a cold blast of air hit Wade and he began to descend the wooden stairway. There was more creaking on the way down than he remembered going up, but it was quickly drowned by the roar of a crowd as they chanted, “15-14-13-12.” His camera and tripod were still resting safely in the shadows right where he had left them. The crowd shouted, “11-10-9,” as he stepped through the doorway and back into 2014. As the door shut behind him, he turned back enough to see a pitch black stairway. Giving the door handle a quick tug, he was surprised to find the large glass door firmly locked. “8-7-6-5.” Wade’s mind was filled with questions. What in the world was going on here? Where had he been? How could this all have happened?” Getting louder with each number, the crowd gave the final countdown, “4-3-2-1,” followed by the sky above Aggieville exploding in a dramatic fireworks display. Those that weren’t giving a New Year’s kiss to their sweetheart were cheering in celebration. Confetti filled the air. 2015 was here. For the first time in 12 years Wade Mitchell, the Aggieville Historian, didn’t take one single picture of midnight on New Year’s Eve in Aggieville – yet this would be the New Year’s Eve that he would never forget.
Somehow Wade managed to walk the three blocks back to his family home. The air was getting colder, but he didn’t even notice. His mind was dazed and nothing was making any sense to him.
His wife and children were sound asleep when he arrived, so Wade slipped quietly into the living room, unbuttoned his coat, collapsed into a soft chair, and stared blankly at the embers in the fireplace. Had his wife still been awake, he really had no idea what he could have possibly told her anyway that wouldn’t make her think he had been drinking – or had lost his mind.
When he sat down, he became aware of something hard in a side pouch on the coat. Pulling the side of the coat from underneath him, he reached into the pocket and pulled out what looked like a small notebook with a distinctive hand-made leather cover. With all that had happened to him that night, this new discovery did little to excite him – until he opened the cover and read, “Happy Birthday, Daddy! With all my love, Jenny,” dated December 29, 1914.
His grandfather, Frank Mitchell, had a sister named Jenny. Could this possibly be a notebook of his great-grandfather, Wade Daniel Mitchell, after whom he had been named? Perhaps the upstairs meeting had all been some amazing dream brought on by some sickness or something he had eaten – he had no idea. But this was different. It was 2015. He was sitting in his own house on his own chair and touching with his own two hands a real journal that appeared to have been written over 100 years ago by his great-grandfather. His cold hands started to tremble as he carefully turned the first yellowed page and began reading.
December 30, 1914 11:15 am
My daughter gave me this little journal for my birthday yesterday. Somehow she made the leather cover herself. I guess this is a good time to make use of it. I’m sitting at the Chicago train depot awaiting word on the status of my outbound train. There was a wide band of heavy snow south of here last night and the railroad men are trying to make sure we can get through before they allow us to head out from Chicago. This new coat my wife gave me sure feels good in this drafty station!
I’m scheduled to meet with a group of businessmen in Manhattan, Kansas on New Year’s Day. The men met Dewey down there and he put in a good word for my skills. Hope I can be of some help to them. If things go well, I should have a day to look around the town before I’m asked to speak.
What I know so far is that the town itself has about 7,000 residents and 3,000 students at the local agricultural college. There is a growing downtown business area, but a group of men want to develop a totally separate shopping district that caters to college students. They call it Aggieville, named after their sports teams – the Aggies.
It’s a unique concept with some intriguing potential. It may be one of the first shopping centers of its kind in the whole Midwest. I’m looking forward to meeting with them. Perhaps I can add to their vision for the future of “Aggieville”.
2:30 pm The train official just came by and told me that all southbound trains are cancelled until further notice. He said it may be a week before the tracks are clear and safe. Not only that, but communication lines are down and I won’t be able to let the folks in Manhattan know where I am. What a fine mess! As soon as they get my baggage unloaded, I’m heading home.
Flipping the aged paper carefully, Wade found that the next page contained an additional entry dated January 5, 1915.
Was very surprised to receive a letter today from Barney Youngcamp in Manhattan, Kansas. It contained a large check made out to me and a most amazing note. He thanked me for my presentation on New Year’s Day and expressed his confidence that what I shared would be a tremendous help to him and the other merchants. How in the blue blazes could this possibly be? On New Year’s Day I was sitting with my family watching a fresh blanket of snow cover Chicago! Who could have given a talk there that they believed to be me? What possible purpose could some imposter have hoped to accomplish? My wife urged me to cash the check and “play along” for now. That may be a good idea, but I sure would love to find out what really happened that day. Hopefully I can get some answers on my trip to Kansas next week.
Although Wade carefully checked each page, he was disappointed to find that the remainder of the journal was blank. As he made it to the final page, he found what looked like a newspaper article, folded flat just inside the back cover. He could tell it was old – very old – and he began to unfold it as carefully as he possibly could. The date on the paper was January 13, 1915.
Chicago –A switchman error on Tuesday sent a northbound train out of Kansas City heading up the same track as a Union Pacific train which was heading south. Both trains rounded a blind curve in the line north of Kansas City and realized too late that they were headed for disaster. 17 passengers and 3 crew members were killed, and 12 others were taken to a hospital in Kansas City for treatment. Among those killed was Wade D. Mitchell of Chicago, a well-known real-estate developer employed by C.W. Dewey. Mitchell was traveling to Manhattan, Kansas on personal business.
Wade leaned his head back on the chair and tried to put together the pieces of this impossible puzzle of information. His great-grandfather never made it to Manhattan to sort out the mystery since he died in the train wreck. Someone knew about the journal because they inserted the newspaper article. Was it Frank Mitchell, who had the coat and journal in his cedar chest in Manhattan? Was it this journal that drew his Grandpa Frank to leave Chicago and settle in Manhattan as a young adult? Did he ever tell anyone? If he had told someone, who would have possibly believed him? As these questions swirled around in Wade’s head, his body felt the fatigue of a long and eventful day, and he drifted off into a deep and needed sleep.
In the morning, he awakened to the sound of his wife in the kitchen trying her best to keep their lively children quiet as they ate their breakfast. As she saw Wade stirring in the living room, she poured a glass of juice and brought it in to him. She said, “Good morning, Honey. How was your time in Aggieville last night?” Taking a quick refuge behind his hands as he rubbed his eyes and slowly slid them down his face, he looked deeply into his wife’s lovely and trusting eyes. He paused as he searched for something – anything – he could say to her.
At last he responded, “Do you remember how I said I’ve always wanted to write a fiction book based around Aggieville? Well, I think I got some direction last night. It will be a time-travel book centered around the development of Aggieville. I think I’ll call it The Stairway to Nowhere.”
“Sounds interesting, Dear – how about some breakfast?”
(c) 2013 Daniel R. Walter
Here is a selection of random Aggieville ads and info from around the 1915 era that I thought might let you know the basis for some of the characters and events of the story.
On October 16, 1915, a Union Pacific train wrecked on the Fancy Creek Bridge north of Manhattan. 15 of the 50 passengers were killed.
Manhattan, KS Train Derails, Sep 1913
Submitted by Stu Beitler on 21 July 2008 – 4:32pm
20 HURT IN KANSAS WRECK.
ONE FATALLY INJURED WHEN ROCK ISLAND TRAIN LEAVES TRACK.
Manhattan, Kan., Sept. 20. — Twenty passengers were injured, one probably fatally, when Passenger Train 40 on the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad, eastbound from Denver and Colorado Springs to St. Louis, was derailed on a curve a mile west of here early to-day.
Eight coaches left the rails, one of them, the combined steel baggage and smoking car, rolled down a twenty foot embankment, turning over three times and landing upside down. The smoking compartment was full of passengers, most of whom were injured, but none seriously except J. P. BALDY of Herington, Kan., who was crushed by a falling trunk. He probably will die.
The smoking division of the car was inundated and the passengers bespattered by a flood of cream from a consignment in the baggage compartment.
Of the others hurt, J. O. THOMPSON, conductor, is the only one whose injuries are believed serious. Passengers in the steel chair car and in the three sleeping cars were shaken up and some badly bruised. The more seriously injured were taken to local hospitals. Among them were J. J. CURRAN, Payson, Okla.; WALTER STONE, Altheimer, Ark,; T. E. ARMSTRONG, Fort Worth, Texas, and JESUS RODRIGUES, Amerillo, Texas.
The New York Times New York 1913-09-21
October 5, 1929 article in the Manhattan Mercury:
“The Aggieville Club…was organized in 1915 by a group of Aggieville business men who were interested in the improvement of the Aggieville district. It was organized as a civic service club which could confine its activities to the Aggieville district…Twenty-three members made up the original roster of the Aggieville Club. [Some]charter members can be recalled. They are as follows; W.P. Barber, John Harrison, L.C. Shafer, W.A. Given, Roy Wilson, Jasper Fink, J.T. Crowder, Mr. Dundore, J.E. Dewey, Walter Simpson, J.A. Cress, George Scheu, C.O. LaShelle, Harry Orris, the Pollum brothers, E.L. Askren, Mr. Haaland, and J.L. Johns. During the first year of the club’s activity, it functioned well and proved how valuable such an organization could be to the Aggieville community. It secured, during the first year, the delivery of express to Aggieville, a sub-post office, the delivery of parcel post, and assisted in crystallizing sentiment for the paving of Moro Street [in the Aggieville district], which was done in 1915.”
Manhattan Nationalist newspaper, May 27, 1915
“A FLOOD IN AGGIEVILLE Aggieville was flooded. The water entered the Students’ Inn, owned by Harold Dewey, and if hasty dams and blockades had not been erected, would have covered the floor to a depth of six inches. The sidewalks on Manhattan Avenue, Moro Street, and Bluemont Avenue, were covered with from two inches to a foot of water. The basement of the new Shafer building at Twelfth and Moro, was completely filled, and there were three feet of water in the basement of the new Harrison building. Cellars in Aggieville, and along Bluemont and Moro streets were filled to the ground level.”