Just 75 miles southwest of the suburban sprawl of Kansas City, 25 miles west of the I-335 Kansas Turnpike, Council Grove (pop. 2,228) still looks much as it did over a century ago when, from the 1830s to the 1860s, it was the most important of all way stations on the Santa Fe Trail. Council Grove's lush maples and oaks were the last hardwoods available on the long route west across the treeless plain, which meant traders and travelers could make final repairs and stock up on spare axles and other essentials.
It was also the western extent of "safe territory;" beyond here travelers were subject to frequent attacks by hostile Indians.
Nowadays the town proudly preserves its many historic sites, and in many ways serves as the most unmissable stop for modern travelers heading along the Santa Fe Trail. The sites of two of the most important trail icons, the Council Oak under which in 1825 the native Kansa and Osage Indians agreed to allow Americans to cross their territory, and the Post Office Oak that served as a natural message center for early travelers, are marked along Main Street (US-56), east of the bridge over the small Neosho River, while four blocks west the Last Chance Store at Main and Chautauqua streets has served as a bank and a post office in the years since it was built in 1857.
In between, the banks, cafes and stores along Main Street, which the Santa Fe Trail followed through town, make little obvious effort to cater to tourists, and the town basically goes about its day-to-day business without forgetting its extraordinary past. The Hays House, in the center of town at 112 W Main Street (316/767-5911), lays fair claim to being the oldest restaurant west of Mississippi; originally built as a frontier home, and later serving as a saloon, supply post, courthouse and hotel, it has stood on this site since 1847. Now modernized, it is still the focus of the town social and political life and is open all day-with excellent fried chicken. Across Main, the soda fountain inside the Aldrich Apothecary has good milk shakes; the best place to stay is the comfortable Cottage House Hotel at 25 N Neosho (316/767-6828 or 1-800/727-7903).
Further information is available from the
Council Grove visitor center, 313 W Main Street (316/767-5882
** Marginal: The Kaw Mission State Historic Site, in Council Grove five blocks north of Main on Mission Street, was built by Methodist missionaries in 1851 as a school for local Indian children. Students included Charles Curtis, who served as Vice President from 1929 to 1933.