As we commemorate the Civil War, all eyes should also look to Topeka, where, in 1855, Free State delegates assembled to draft a constitution that prohibited slavery in the Kansas Territory.
John Brown, styled as the “liberator of Kansas,” led the charge, even marching slaves out of Pro-Slavery Missouri. This border war between Missouri and Kansas fanned the flames that led to America’s Civil War.
“The story of John Brown, Bleeding Kansas and how crucial we were to the abolitionist movement is a great story about our past,” says 32-year-old Chris Schultz, who has lived in Topeka all his life.
The state capitol, which began construction in 1866, honors Brown in a mural by John Steuart Curry (left). The mural has been named one of Kansas’s “8 Wonders of Art.”
But Topeka—population 130,000—is no longer a battleground. Beautiful Victorian homes line brick streets at Potwin Place, while the night lights of downtown Topeka’s skyline shower a rainbow of colors onto the Kansas River. “The people make the place,” Schultz says. “I have made so many friendships that will follow me for the rest of my life. Most of us wouldn’t hesitate to inconvenience ourselves for the good of our neighbors.”
Some of these neighbors have banded together to keep history alive in Topeka—from the Great Overland Station that pays tribute to the city’s railroad heritage, to the Charles Curtis House Museum, the former mansion of the only American Indian to serve as vice president of the United States, to the “Arlington of Kansas,” the local cemetery where Kansas territorial governors and hundreds of Civil War veterans are among those interred.
To experience Topeka’s local flavor, Schultz also recommends the following attractions.
Good Cowboy Bar: The Wild Horse Saloon, a Country dance club with an Outlaw Country vibe.
Popular Local Hangout: Gage Park, dating to 1899, features a rose garden (best June through August) and a 1908 carousel.
Favorite Local Cuisine: Of course, I am partial to my restaurants, Field of Greens and the Break Room. We range in offerings from a huge salad bar to a Tapas menu. But aside from my places, Boss Hawg’s has fantastic barbecue.
Best Art Gallery of the West: Mulvane Art Museum, with gems such as the 1863 oil Lander’s Peak by Albert Bierstadt.
Best Bookstore of the West: Lloyd Zimmer Books & Maps.
Best Spot to View Wildlife: Topeka Zoo (for its Wild West Summer Safari, folks are encouraged to wear Western gear).
Historic Site Most School-children Visit: The State Capitol and the Brown v. Board of Education museum at the national historic site.
Old West Attraction: Old Prairie Town, a six-acre pioneer village on the Oregon Trail.
Old West Event in October: The Apple Festival at Old Prairie Town takes place on the first Sunday in October (this year, October 2).
Avg. House Cost: $96,000.
Avg. Temps: Fall: 67-44; Winter: 41-21; Spring: 65-43; Summer: 87-65.
Who knows Topeka’s history best? Historian Douglass Wallace, who is full of fun Topeka facts.
Best-Kept Secret: The Gourmet Cabaret Dinner Show, which pairs a five-course meal with a variety showcase of our finest local and regional entertainers. It’s a one-stop shop for an incredible evening out.
Preservation Project: Our state has just invested more than $300 million in the restoration of the capitol. While it is still under construction, the capitol remains truly breathtaking.
Special thanks to Shawnee County Historical Society President Chris Schultz for sharing his love of the town with us.