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Frederick, population nine, lingers as Rice County ponders town's future

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Frederick is on life support. 

Melode Huggans knows this. She's seen the signs since she was a little girl, visiting her grandparents, who lived on the same parcel she does today.

The schoolhouse is empty − stripped of its desks. A jail cell sits in the middle of a field of wheat stubble, the metal bars and innards rusting. Old playground equipment and paint-worn cars are barely visible amid the trees after decades of neglect. 

Now loved ones like Huggans are faced with a difficult decision on whether it is time for this town to face a natural death.

Ten people call Frederick home − on a good day, that is. It once had as many as 150 people, along with grocery stores, a lumberyard, blacksmiths and restaurants. 

Yet, on this July morning, Huggans pointed up an empty street in front of the home she and husband, Steve, have lived in for 19 years. This was the main thoroughfare, she said. But every business has vanished. There isn't even a foundation left. 

Frederick, an official Kansas third-class city, is almost a ghost town. 

In the April election, no one ran for mayor or for any of the city council seats. Not one resident wrote in a name, either. In fact, it appears no one even voted.

For the first time since the town's inception in 1887, Frederick has no leaders. The town's budget is due Aug. 25.

At a recent Rice County Commission meeting, commissioners and the county clerk discussed if it is time the town calls it quits and unincorporates. 

Huggans doesn't know the answer. She serves as the Frederick city clerk, but isn't sure the next time the former council will meet. Her husband is on the city council. But their thoughts have been on other things. Melode has been battling breast cancer, diagnosed in April.

Frederick, however, is a part of her life. 

"My grandparents lived here," she said. "It was a town when they lived here. My mom was born here, went to school here."

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A sign depicts what was once The First Baptist Church in Frederick along a rural road on July 9, 2015.

Birth of a prairie town

Frederick is no different than countless towns across Kansas. It was once a booming frontier town called Golden City, settled by pioneers in the 1870s. 

For 10 years, the area's post office moved around and changed names, including to locate along the railroad.

A history of Frederick, written by the late Gracie Kitchen, stated that in fall 1886, the railroad arrived but missed the town, then named Kansas Centre. Its few businesses and houses relocated near the tracks and the name eventually changed to Frederick.

Frederick had potential. As the village grew, residents established three churches − the Baptist, Methodist and Christian − and they organized a town band. Businesses sprang up - including a hotel, livery, hardware, grocery, drugstore and bank. And, in 1888, a roundhouse was built.

The Frederick Independent boasted of the town's possibilities.

"From $10,000 to $20,000 will be paid out every month to railroad employees at this place and will be increased," the newspaper stated. "Grand opening for all branches of business. Frederick will be a city of 1,500. Now is the time to invest in future metropolis and rail division town of Central Kansas."

Then the town saw its first big blow: Railroad officials decided nearby Hoisington was better suited for a roundhouse than Frederick.

Yet Frederick continued to stave off death. A tornado in 1914 knocked the town to its knees, but it rebuilt, according to a 1975 article in The News. However, a fire in 1934 wiped out much of the business district.  

It's largely the reason for the town's present bareness, said Helen Gregory, 93, whose husband, Sheldon, served as Frederick's mayor for 39 years.

The fire took three groceries, the bank, blacksmiths, two restaurants and a pool hall, according to the story in The News.

There might not have been much for business after that, but Frederick continued to survive, largely on religion and wheat. On Sunday mornings, the last church in town, the Baptist, would fill the pews. During the annual June harvest, farmers brought loads of wheat into the elevator.

"I can remember as a kid sitting on my grandparents porch and trucks would form a line clear down here − when it was small trucks and stuff," said Huggans of the late 1950s and 1960s.

The school, which educated children from first to eighth grade, also was a cornerstone, said Wanda Plautz, 87, whose family, the Kitchens, live on a farm just south of town. 

Plautz, who farmed with her husband near Bushton, recalled the town's heyday, noting a highlight at school was the box dinner fundraisers. Girls would make a homemade meal, which was bought by the highest bidding boy, who also got the opportunity to eat with the cook.

They never traveled far − largely doing business in town, Plautz said. Saturday night entertainment, in fact, included purchasing groceries and supplies and visiting with friends.

"On Saturday nights, the town was hopping," Plautz said.

But those community pillars began to crumble.

Farms got larger and farmers fewer. Rural populations dwindled. Plautz thinks the school closed sometime in the 1940s. 

That hurt population, she said.

The church, which was rebuilt to a brick structure after the tornado, was razed in 1983.

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All thats left of Wanda Plautz' childhood home is a barn that used to be behind their home, but now sits abandoned in the woods of Frederick on July 9, 2015.

Town dedication

Gregory lived in Frederick for 55 years. 

She watched the town dwindle, but they always tried to keep a five-person council. Even when the city building/Masonic Lodge burned to the ground, her husband held meetings at the elevator or at his home.

He died in 2000. For 13 years, Gregory continued to serve the community as the appointed treasurer, doing the books. That typically included pulling everyone together for a once-a-year council meeting to set the budget, as well as writing a check for $48 once a month for the city's seven street lights.

"I don't want to say anything hateful or anything, but we couldn't get anyone to do anything," she said of recent years, adding people have their own businesses and own lives. 

She understands that, she said.

In November, 2013, due to Frederick's remoteness and Gregory's age, she decided to move to Lyons. She continued to do the books through August 2014, when she had a stroke. Then she decided to turn over the job to Huggans, the city clerk.

Eight months later, no one ran for office in the April city election. No one wrote anyone in. Only five people in the entire township showed up to the polls, according to the Rice County Clerk's Office. 

With the need to set a budget, Frederick's status was brought up by Rice County commissioners last month, said County Clerk Alicia Showalter.

She sent former Mayor Robert Root a letter about a month ago asking him to schedule a meeting about the city's intentions − whether they wanted to stay a third-class city and appoint a council or be dissolved. 

He hasn't responded, she said.

Robert Root didn't answer his cellphone or return a call after a message was left by The News last week. But his wife, Judy, stood outside their Frederick home on Thursday, a couple of their cats lounging on the porch.

"There's more cats than people here," she said jokingly.

Judy Root said they received the letter from the county but her husband works for a farmer, and he's been too busy during harvest to respond.

"He doesn't want it to go unincorporated," she said, adding they have lived here since the early 1990s and her husband does all the mowing around the city and runs the city's grader. She thought he'd be interested in serving as mayor.

Robert Root didn't vote in the April election, according to voting records. Judy, who works in Ellsworth, said she didn't make it to their Bushton polling location, either.

She admits residents have been at a loss without Gregory, who always rallied the group together.

She kept everything going, Judy said, adding it isn't easy living in a remote community with limited resources, she said.

That proved an issue when her neighbor's home burned. There are are no fire hydrants - each home is on well water. The home still stands, albeit boarded up. The resident has since moved away.

Gregory said she sold her home to a young family, the Baileys. She also sold her car. She hasn't been back to Frederick since she moved.

She tries not to think about Frederick's decline or its future, she said.

"I just think about it once in a while," Gregory said, adding she and her husband raised four children in Frederick. Her children and grandchildren live all across the nation.

"The kids had to live somewhere else to make a living," she said, later adding, "I lived there 55 years, and it is sad."

Memories live on

Gregory has a picture of Frederick in 1908. It shows State Street, the city's downtown, bustling with activity.

Today all that is left of Frederick are a dozen or so houses. Only four or five are livable. The Central Prairie Co-op is the lone remaining business.

A granite marker stands on the corner of Monroe and Second streets as a reminder of the red brick Baptist Church that was razed.

And there is the school, albeit weathered, as well as the former town jail − which with its construction of solid concrete, will continue to survive the Kansas wind. 

Huggans said she doesn't know what will happen. She and her husband haven't talked about Frederick's fate. He was on the council for about four years, she said, adding members begged him to serve.

"They said he had to be on it so there would be enough," she said, adding, "It's the first time in a lot of years" that no one was elected to Frederick's city council.

Either, way she says, they still are a community.

"We might not have street lights," she said, but added they still have their neighbors. "It's just such a nice community. Everybody knows everybody. Even if we unincorporated, it still will be a nice little town."

Frederick, however, is not dead yet. There still is life here.

Agnes Smith, a young mother, strolled hand in hand with her daughters, Margaret Melton, 7, and Kaelea Bailey, 5, down a city sand street. They had picked mulberries for a while − hoping to get enough for mulberry pie. Now the kids were bored so they decided to take a walk around town. Her spouse, Jacob Bailey, was at work at the town elevator.

"I think of it kind of like ghost town − but people actually live here," Smith said, adding, "I like the privacy."

Kansas Agland Editor Amy Bickel's agriculture roots started in Gypsum. She has been covering Kansas agriculture for more than 15 years. Email her with news, photos and other information at abickel@hutchnews.com or by calling (800) 766-3311 Ext. 320.

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