Disclosure: Unmistakably Lawrence sponsored this post. However, all opinions and photographs are my own.
Having lived at one time in my life in Lawrence, Kansas, I returned for a visit to study the town’s history and to experience the events surrounding Civil War on the Border. The experience helped me to better understand how significant figures in the state’s history impacted the town during a time referred to as Bleeding Kansas. Prior to the Civil War, feuds between pro-slavery Missourians and anti-slavery Kansans raged erupting in Lawrence in 1863. Confederate leader William Quantrill led a band of 400 men on horseback to attack the men and teenage boys. They burned homes and businesses to the ground. Some totals report that over 150 people were killed. Those who escaped death hid in cornfields or underground. Their accounts of that day tell the story.
Today, Lawrence is a thriving town having rebuilt itself on more than one occasion from conflict. The college town is home to the University of Kansas. Downtown businesses include eclectic eateries, breweries, boutique shopping, taverns, and bars. But many of the town’s original buildings remain as a testament to the town’s will to survive, including The Eldridge Hotel.
THE ELDRIDGE HOTEL
When Explore Lawrence invited me to stay overnight in Lawrence to learn more about the town’s historical value, I jumped at the opportunity. I had been inside The Eldridge Hotel on more than one occasion and even hosted my college graduation there, but I had never experienced it as a hotel guest.
Originally built in 1855 and called the Free State Hotel, it was one of the tallest most beautiful buildings in town. Unfortunately, its fate was doomed. In 1856, the hotel was burned to the ground by pro-slavery forces. Later rebuilt by Colonel Eldridge it was destroyed again in an 1863 attack. Quantrill and his men rode into Lawrence and burned much of the town to the ground. Like a phoenix, the hotel rose from the ashes when it was rebuilt again.
The hotel is considered haunted. Hotel employees have seen Colonel Eldridge’s ghost sitting in an original hotel chair in storage. A photograph taken in the lobby shows a ghostly spirit standing in the lobby’s elevator. Room 506 is considered to be the most haunted guest room in the hotel and it is considered the colonel’s favorite spot. Of course, I requested room 506 for my overnight stay. Having lived in a haunted house on Kentucky Street during my college years, I was prepared to experience unexpected noises and the like. Later in the evening after returning to the room and just in time to escape a raging thunderstorm outside, the ceiling fan’s lights flickered multiple times. Was it his ghost? The next morning, I discovered that my new laptop’s battery was dead. I had charged it to full power before arriving at the hotel. Was it the ghost’s way of letting me know its presence? I’ll let you decide. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep soundly that night.
In 1932, the Bonnie and Clyde Gang stayed at the hotel and later robbed the bank across the street. They fled across state lines without issue. According to an article on The Eldridge’s website, the gang made off with over $33,000. You can read more about the hotel’s history and ongoing renovations here.
Today, the hotel continues to serve as a venue for guests who want to celebrate weddings, reunions, and private gatherings for up to 180 guests. The ballroom pictured below includes original crown molding, archways with windows, and crystal chandeliers. The hotel’s concierge wanted to show us other rooms of historical significance in the hotel, so he took us to a few private areas not open to the public.
We entered what looked to be a boiler room of sorts that included a narrow, steep staircase without a railing. It was time to scale the stairs to see Colonel Eldridge’s favorite chair first-hand. I climbed the stairs steadying myself with my hands upon each stair. There it was! A dusty ornate chair that many employees say they’ve seen Eldridge sitting on smoking his pipe. Would you want to see the chair for yourself?
All in all, my stay at The Eldridge was exceptional. The hotel stay went above and beyond to cater to my curiosity about the hotel’s history by taking me on a guided tour and telling me the background story of many of the black and white photographs hanging in the lobby. The hotel bar staff was hospitable and welcoming. My room, although haunted, offered stunning views of downtown Lawrence on the anniversary eve of Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence. By all accounts, it was a delightful stay and one that I’d recommend anyone experience.
BLEEDING KANSAS BUS TOUR
On Saturday afternoon, we gathered with others at Watkins Museum of History (1047 Massachusetts St.) for the Bleeding Kansas Bus Tour. Our first stop took us to the Robert H Miller Home and Farm (111 E. 19th St.) in east Lawrence. Miller was an Underground Railroad conductor who hid runaway slaves on his 160 acres property. Miller, a successful farmer, built the home in 1858. The Oregon Trail lies directly in front of the home making it a high-traffic area. Slaves were trying to make their way to freedom to Topeka and other northern territories like Canada. The Millers provided them temporary shelter and food.
Quantrill and his men rode up to the house with 400 men on horseback on his way from the town of Franklin to raid Lawrence on August 21, 1863. He was recognized by one of the Miller daughters. She greeted him. He and one of his men most likely stayed overnight at the home week’s prior when on a scouting mission. Quantrill and his men acknowledged the daughter and then left. They killed a nearby cow farmer and made their way to Lawrence to kill more men. Why didn’t Quantrill kill the Miller’s? Perhaps because they remembered them fondly from an earlier encounter.
Now, the home is a private residence but the homeowners often invite guided tours to visit the property.
The second stop on the bus tour took us to the Grover Barn (2819 Stonebarn Terrance), an underground railroad station on the south side of the town built in 1858. When Abolitionist leader John Brown made his final journey through Kansas, the Grover Barn is where he stopped.
During our tour, an actor playing the role of John Brown told us the story of the Grover Barn. It was there that Brown traveled with a slave family on their way to find safety and freedom. The limestone barn is considered to be one of the best-preserved Underground Railroad sites and is listed on the Lawrence Register of Historic Places.
Take a look at the walls in the photo below. The crudeness of the limestone barn’s constructions is awe-inspiring. I encourage you to visit the historic structure to see the hand-hewn wood beams up close. In 1980, the City of Lawrence repurposed the building to use as a fire station and later for storage purposes. Today, the preserved barn serves as a historical location of pre-Civil War significance and the place where Brown and freedom seekers stayed during their journey.
The final stop of the Bleeding Kansas Bus Tour took us to the Spencer Museum of Art (1301 Mississippi) on the University of Kansas campus. Our tour group had an early opportunity to view newly framed prints by African American Jacob Lawrence. The screenprint series “The Legend of John Brown,” tells the chronological story of John Brown’s life. Was he a martyr or a religious zealot? The 22 screenprints depict Brown’s life choices to lead anti-slavery troops to maintain Kansas as a free state. Oftentimes, Brown’s tactics included violence, which many say contributed to the rise of the Civil War. “The Legend of John Brown” print series collection is on display in a small gallery.
Also on display was a lithograph by artist John Steuart Curry created in 1939. The famous image shows Brown’s arms outstretched with a tornado and wildfires in the distance. Some say these images were depicted as a prelude to the Civil War. Contact the museum for details regarding touring the collection. Admission to the Spencer Museum of Art is free. Plan your visit here.
WATKINS MUSEUM GUIDED TOUR
After the bus tour, I met an employee of Watkins Historical Museum (1047 Massachusetts St.) for a private tour of the iconic building. Built in 1975 by JB Watkins as the Watkins Land Mortgage and National Bank Building, it serves as an artifact of an earlier time in the town’s history.
The building’s founder was a fan of ornate architecture and the finest materials available. The building itself is a masterpiece with its marble staircases, salvaged stained glass windows, hand-carved woodwork, and marble mosaic flooring. The bank originally functioned as a place were farmers came for land loans. Later, it was donated to the city and was used as City Hall until 1970.
For the last 10 years, Watkins Historical Museum began welcoming visitors to tour the building and its permanent exhibits for free. Four smaller rotating exhibits are updated about every six months. The permanent collections’ themes range from the story of Lawrence’s history to University of Kansas basketball to pioneer life artifacts.
The space shown in the photo below is part of Watkins’ original office, which still includes his fireplace, bank vault, and shutter-covered windows. Artifacts from his wife’s contribution to the University of Kansas are included near the space. Elizabeth Watkins donated much of their wealth after JB’s death to build the Watkins Scholarship Hall and the Watkins Nurses Home. A considerable amount of the couple’s earnings were donated to the KU Endowment Association without instructions for its use.
In one corner of the museum, an authentic electric car sits on display. The Milburn Light Electric car was owned by Lawrence resident Eleanor Henley who used it to run errands in town. When you visit the car, look inside! It doesn’t have a steering wheel. How did Eleanor drive it? You’ll have to take a trip to the museum to find out.
Pictured below are two significant items from the University of Kansas’ basketball program’s history. The desk was used by James Naismith in the Robinson Gymnasium on the KU campus. It most likely was also used by Forrest “Phog” Allen. If you open the desk’s drawer, you will see handwritten locker combinations, which may have belonged to the basketball players’ lockers. The 1940s practice backboard was designed by Allen for his students to use to teach them how to arc the basketball. Other artifacts on display include a team jersey worn by Jawhawk Adrian Mitchell-Newell.
A future traveling exhibit “Encountering John Brown” will be on display at the Watkins Museum of History’s Community Room from September 4-November 6. Artist Brad Sneed’s portraits tell the story of Brown, a controversial figure who became America’s most prominent abolitionist. Individuals and groups are welcomed to visit for self-guided tours although the museum prefers to prepare for visiting students. To find out more about visiting the museum and its collections, view their Facebook page.
FREE STATE BREWING CO.
There is no better place on Mass Street in downtown Lawrence to enjoy a meal and a craft beer than Free State Brewing Co. (636 Massachusetts St). Kansas’ original craft brewery has been serving flagship beers, rotating seasonal selections, and limited selections for decades. During my visit, I requested the John Brown Ale, but it wasn’t available. Instead, I happily settled for Free State Lager. I was happy to be back at Free State, a place I frequented on Monday $1-pint night during my college years.
Their menu has always included items made from fresh ingredients with flair. You won’t find standard pub grub at Free State. The menu options appeal to foodies who appreciate unique flavor combinations and the freshest ingredients available. We enjoyed the Filipino Egg Rolls with Sesame Chile Soy Dipping Sauce as an appetizer. For dinner, we shared the Nashville Chicken Mac and Free State Fish and Chips. Both entrees exceeded our expectations.
I would highly recommend stopping at Free State Brewing Co. for lunch or dinner during your visit to Lawrence. Although they are not hosting brewery tours at this time, you can check their Facebook events page for upcoming trivia nights or festival celebrations. Locals and visitors alike love the brewery’s vibe. Limited patio seating allows patrons to watch Mass Street happenings with a beer in hand. You may find a street performer nearby playing music.
EXPLORING MASS STREET
BUILDINGS, SHOPPING, PARKS, DRINKS
The following morning, I rose early to walk the quiet streets of downtown Lawrence before the stores opened. I navigated my way to South Park, established in 1854, just beyond 11th and Mass Streets. It is the town’s oldest park and was a location that suffered the wrath of Quantrill’s Raid. In later years, it has served as a picturesque location for outdoor concerts, festivals, antiwar rallies, and women’s rights protests.
How could such a beautiful, green space have once been the site of devastation? It’s hard to imagine, but it’s true. On the way there, I admired the Douglas County Courthouse (1100 Massachusetts St.) for its architectural features. Construction of the building took place in 1904 with a dedication following a year later.
Later, my explorations led me to Black Stag Brewery (623 Mass St.) for a cold one. A massive space, it also includes a covered patio. It’s the kind of place where locals strike up conversations with you.
Stop in for a beer and stay for a meal from the grill or opt for a shareable platter. Unsure what beer you want a pint of? Ask the bartender for samples. I enjoyed tastings for the Mosaic Dream IPA and 1865 Black Stag. Eventually, I committed to the Founding Fathers Tavern Tale, which seemed an appropriate choice given my mission to uncover Lawrence’s history.
When in Lawrence, I also like to revisit a few tried and true hangouts. Eight Street Taproom (801 New Hampshire St.) is an escape from the hustle of downtown and the heat of a Kansas summer day. The dark dive bar is a cool place to enjoy a beer or cocktail to the sounds of indie music and a busy billiards table. The downstairs bar opens after the sun goes down and often features live bands. It’s home to hipsters and townies who have been calling it one of their favorite bars for decades. You’ll appreciate their impressive beer collection.
OAK HILL CEMETERY
Just as the evening was coming to a close, I joined a group of history fans at the Oak Hill Cemetery (1605 Oak Hill Avenue) to hear stories of early Lawerence and view the graves of victims from Quantrill’s Raid. It serves as a final burial spot for many including 81 women who were widowed after the raid. Some notable people buried were Kansas politicians. James H. Lane was the first U.S. Senator from Kansas and his grave was the first burial monument added to the cemetery (pictured below).
With flashlights in hand to guide the way after sundown, our group listened to a Watkins Museum of History curator recount the details of those who lost their lives in the raid. If you visit the cemetery, look for The Citizen’s Memorial that stands in remembrance of 50 unidentified men and boys who died during Quantrill’s Raid. To view these graves and others like it, use this map to locate Section 1 and Section 2.
JOHN BROWN’S UNDERGROUND
My final stop for the evening was for craft cocktails at John Brown’s Underground (7 E 7th St). Within moments of entering this basement bar, I realized that it was unlike any “typical” college town establishment. One detail that defines it differently than other bars in the area is that John Brown’s Underground requires reservations for indoor seating.
The space transports you to a surreal environment with low lighting, mood music, and a menu that reads like an excerpt from someone’s diary. A friendly server helped me choose a cocktail recipe from a long list of options. Since it was the eve of the anniversary of Quantrill’s Raid, I chose the John Brown made from whiskey, rum, demerara sugar, and bitters. It was spirit-forward but smooth. My boyfriend opted for the Fever Dream Nova gin cocktail made with basil and mango. It came with Lemongrass Pop Rocks on the side. Both drinks included a square ice cube embossed with a chair on them. Why a chair?
The chair symbol is a major part of the John Brown Underground story and aesthetic. For the employees, of which many had it tattooed on their arms, it represents the chair John Brown sat on while protecting slaves on the underground railroad. For them, it represents safety, looking out for one another, and a general sense of kindness. The employees are passionate about the tavern’s mission to create a welcoming atmosphere, which is best symbolized by the chair. When enjoying time at the bar, ask your server more about it.
DOWNTOWN HISTORICAL TOUR
QUANTRILL’S RAID WALKING TOUR
Intrigued about all that I had learned about Bleeding Kansas, I attended Quantrill’s Raid Walking Tour hosted by local historian John Jewell the following morning. He led about a dozen of us around downtown Lawrence starting at the Watkins History Museum and to the main of the locations where fighting and bloodshed took place during the raid. A historical marker identifies the House Building. It was the only structure left standing on that black after the raid.
During the tour, Jewell pointed to buildings that were rebuilt after that fateful date in history. A post-raid campaign was the focus of community members who wanted to rebuild a shattered community. Lawrence’s downtown district is a testament to their will to survive.
Hungry for breakfast before leaving Lawrence, we stopped into Ladybird Diner (721 Massachusetts St.). Sometimes the places we stop to eat when on the road we’re not originally a part of the travel plan and they turn out to be delightful. When in Lawrence, choose to have breakfast followed by homemade pie at Ladybird Diner. We enjoyed Avocado Toast with Scrambled Eggs and Huevos Rancheros with Corn Tortillas. With room left for dessert, I selected a slice of peach pie made with latticework crust. Beyond delicious. He said, “It’s one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had.”
We will definitely return to the diner during a return visit to Lawrence. Until then, I may have to learn how to copy the Huevos Rancheros recipe at home.
BONUS HISTORICAL STOP
KANSAS STATE CAPITOL (TOPEKA)
A visit to the Kansas State Capitol (SW 8th & SW Van Buren St., Topeka) wouldn’t be complete without viewing John Steuart Curry’s “Tragic Prelude” painting on display on the second floor’s east wing featuring John Brown. This painting as well as others he did for the capitol brought criticism, so the Kansas legislature caved to public pressure and demanded that the “marble panels not be removed and thus put an end to Curry’s rotunda murals” (Source: kshs.org). Curry did not finish the paintings and left the statehouse murals unsigned. What do you think the images in the painting represent given the turmoil of the time?
The original sword belonging to Brown is also on display in a rotunda room not far from the Kansas Constitution. It is part of a larger collection of artifacts that tell the story of when Kansas Territory was established on the brink of the Civil War. We got lucky and happen to visit the capitol minutes before a guided tour was about to begin. To view public viewing hours and tour information, visit this page. It is an impressive building worth viewing at least once in your lifetime, especially if you’re a Kansas native.
To truly understand a town’s existence, you have to dive deep into its history books. Peruse its museums. Walk its streets. I invite you to travel to Lawrence and visit these historical places as well as the ones that welcome visitors today. It’s a town near and dear to my heart, and now I appreciate it that much more.
If you’re interested in learning more about the best places to check out when in Lawrence, leave your questions below or head over to Unmistakeably Lawrence to plan your visit.
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