By Dr. Ferrell Miller
Geary County Historical Society Board Member
“Washington Street Reflected Our Diversity From The Beginning”
Today’s story comes from an article written and is published in the book Set In Stone, which is available at our Museum at a discounted price for members of our Society. The article was written by Gaylynn Childs, retired Executive Director of the Geary County Historical Society.
She wrote that Washington Street in Junction City reflected the diversity of our town from the beginning.
“The first structure built in this town when it was new was the “Claim House”. It was built in the summer of 1848 on the southwest corner of Seventh and Washington Streets where the George Smith Public Library was before it closed and has since become the George Smith Reception Hall. The “Claim House” was built by a young Scottish immigrant soldier who was an apprentice carpenter. Edmund McFarland was paid $50.00 to erect this first business in Junction City.
The influx of early merchants and their hastily built places of business were common along the western frontier. What was unique was the great diversity of people who could be found here in those early days.
New Englanders and Pennsylvanians were prominent among the city’s founders. Most were strong Free-Staters or Abolitionists, who came to assure that Kansas would not enter the Union as a “slave” state.
The end of the Civil War brought a new influx of settlers to this area. The arrival of the railroad in 1866 brought crews that were mostly Irish and German. By the end of the 19th Century Italians and Mexicans were also represented.
The homesteaders and farmers who settled the rural regions of Geary County were predominantly German and Swiss immigrants. The build-up of Fort Riley in the latter part of the 18th century brought in a colony of Swedish and Norwegian settlers, skilled in the stonemason’s trade. When Fort Riley became the home of the 9th and 10th Cavalry for a brief time in 1867 and again in the 1880’s, the black “Buffalo Soldiers” settled their wives and families in Junction City.
When the United States began to send its armies abroad at the beginning of the 20th century, Junction City’s population and business district reflected the places our Fort Riley troops served. Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese have all now become second and third generation Junction Citians.”
Many of us often comment about how cosmopolitan our community is and how much we appreciate the diversity even today that is our town in the Flint Hills of Kansas.
“The Rockwell’s and Sargeant’s Families Brought Fame To Early Junction City”
Bertrand Rockwell decided to locate his business here in October of 1865. It would be called the B. Rockwell Merchandise and Grain Company. For 20 years, Rockwell’s father lived in the store and worked with him. Typical business hours were from 5:30 A.M. until 11:00 PM daily. The Rockwell’s stocked everything needed in a home or on a farm and they were willing to trade homegrown products for goods.
The business made history when they shipped the first railroad cars of wheat and corn from Kansas City overseas by way of the Gulf of Mexico. For over 25 years the firm made Junction City the best market for grain in the State of Kansas.
The wood structured store suffered two disastrous fires with the last one occurring in 1888. The fire-ravaged building was replaced by a brick and stone structure. The current address is 723-725 North Washington Street. The building has been a Woolworth’s, a Duckwall’s and is currently where the Rent-A-Center is at 723 and Edward Jones Investments at 725 North Washington Street.
Another early business in town was the Sargent’s Drug Store, which became the home of Junction City’s famous “Coca-Cola Senate.” In 1865, Major O.J. Hopkins, who was stationed at Fort Riley, wrote to his father-in-law in Indiana about the opportunities for business in the new town near the fort. James Sargent and his son, William, arrived in Junction City a few months later and by August of 1866, they had opened a drug store in a building owned by Ruben Emick on the east side of Washington Street between Seventh and Eighth Streets. At that time there were only three other buildings on that side of the block. The Sargent’s Drug Store was at 706 North Washington, where it remained for 76 years and was run by four generations of the Sargent family.
In the 1890’s an Army officer who came from Atlanta, Georgia told the Sargent’s about a new and refreshing drink he had tasted there. It was called “Coca-Cola”. Lindon Sargent was persuaded to order some of the syrup and Sargent’s became the first business west of the Mississippi to serve Coca-Cola. It was served cold, but without ice and led to the drug store’s designation as the “Coca Cola Senate.” Businessmen, farmers and locals all gathered at Sargent’s daily to drink this unique beverage, discuss the news of the day and the happenings around town. The Drug Store was sold in 1941 and thus came an end of a 75 year history.
Eyeware Junction is located at what is now 710 N. Washington Street in the former Sargent’s Drug Store. Stop by to see and experience a moment in what was at one time the community’s most popular gathering spot.