Disclosure: Kansas I-70 Association sponsored this post. However, all opinions and photographs are my own.
One aspect of travel that motivates me to take to the road is to learn about an area’s history. Take Exit 197 from Kansas I-70 to Lecompton, Kansas and you have arrived at the Birthplace of the Civil War and the Territorial Capital of Kansas from 1855-1861.
Located between Topeka and Lawrence, the quaint town is home to a friendly community that welcomes tourists interested in learning about its impact on American history. In addition to historical buildings and tours, travelers will appreciate the downtown area for its charming small businesses.
During my visit, I was met by the town’s top historian, Paul, who took me on a guided tour of Lecompton’s landmarks and businesses. It’s not every day that your tour guide is dressed as a reenactor or as the infamous Samuel Jones, a Douglas County sheriff who helped Lecompton play a role in the Bleeding Kansas conflict. This was going to be fun.
Paul joined me at Aunt Netters Cafe (336 Elmore) as I dined on Country Fried Steak and Eggs. The restaurant is the sole gathering spot for locals and people passing through town during the breakfast and lunch hours. Known for serving homestyle food and gourmet baked goods, the place was buzzing with conversation.
The meal was scrumptious and the menu prices were reasonable for the portion sizes. If you’re passing through northeast Kansas in route to Lawrence or Bonner Springs, stop by for a plate of pancakes, biscuits and sausage gravy, or breakfast sandwich. The lunch menu is just as appetizing. (View the cafe’s hours here.)
As Paul introduced me to the history of Lecompton, he pointed out the wall decorated with the town’s history “The Lecompton Swindle”. I quickly surmised that Lecompton was a town prideful about making its mark in history dating back to its founding in 1854.
With breakfast complete, we set out on our trek through town.
The town was originally named Bald Eagle (yes, that’s right!) but was later renamed Lecompton by a judge. It sits on the south bank of the Kansas river making it a prime place to view eagles nesting along its banks.
Dressed as the pro-slavery sheriff Samuel J. Jones, Paul led us to Constitution Hall (319 Elmore St.) directly across the street from the cafe. A visit to the town is not complete without immersing yourself in its history and this should be the first site on your self-guided tour.
Constitution Hall is listed as a National Landmark, Kansas Historic Site and was a finalist as one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas. Built in 1856, it was the site where the Lecompton Constitution was written by pro-slavery advocates.
The famous document was rejected in the 1858 election. To learn more about how Kansas was eventually admitted to the Union as a free state on January 29, 1861, visit this website page. A copy of the actual document is on display in the hall.
Because of the conflict that took place at the site, it is said that Lecompton was the original Birthplace of the Civil War. To take a deep dive into the state’s history during this time, visit the Kansas Historical Society’s site here.
As we walked on the creaky wood floors, I learned that the hall is the oldest wood-frame building in the state still standing in its original location. The sunlight beamed through the windows. We were standing where Kansas history took place. The Kansas Supreme Court once met upstairs. Some of the artifacts on display include the box used for fake ballots, an office safe, and a land office desk owned by Daniel Boone’s grandson.
If you’d like to visit Constitution Hall, it is open to individuals and small groups Wednesday-Sunday. Adult admission is $3. I found the employee on-site to be extremely knowledgeable and willing to answer questions. I’d recommend at least 30 minutes for a tour.
If you want to visit with a large group, a courtesy call to museum staff at least two weeks in advance is appreciated. View the hall’s hours here.
LECOMPTON CITY JAIL
Sitting in the shadow of Constitution Hall is the old Lecompton City Jail (315 Elmore St.) The tiny, one-room structure was originally built by Sheriff Jones.
Of course, it was fitting that Paul had a key to the jail. He ushered me inside. After a few seconds of standing in the musty dark room, I was ready to exit. There was very little sunlit peeking through the iron window bars.
The story goes that Jones, a pro-slavery sheriff, was shot in the back by free state forces. He helped in the effort to burn down Lawrence, Kansas in 1856. His original tombstone was moved from Las Cruces, New Mexico, and sits on display in front of the jail.
TERRITORIAL CAPITAL MUSEUM
Another important stop on the tour was Territorial Capital Museum (640 E. Woodson), a towering limestone multi-story structure. Did you know that Lecompton was the state’s capital until Topeka earned the title in 1861? The 1855 legislature voted for it. The town was a bustling center for political discourse.
The museum sits on the former 13-acre Lecompton capital square district and was constructed in 1855. The budget was $50,000, but eventually, the money ran out. When antislavery legislators gained control of the territorial legislature, the location of Kansas’ capital was moved to Topeka. This action was detrimental to the town. Later, the building became known as Lane University where reportedly seventy-five co-ed students studied there.
Now, the building serves as a museum that is open to visitors who want to come inside view rooms of historical artifacts. Paul wanted me to experience history first-hand by attaching a ball and chain to my boots. The 20lb. weight, dating back to the early 1900s made by Leavenworth prisoners, was nearly impossible to walk with when attached. Other museum artifacts included Civil War weapons, documents, and an extensive collection of the town’s memorabilia.
During my tour, every inch of the space was decorated with 200+ Christmas trees, an annual tradition that attracts tourists to town from November 1-January 1. Each tree was adorned with Victorian, antique, and themed ornaments. It’s well worth stopping at the museum if only to see the holiday trees, a sight to behold.
I’d recommend devoting about an hour of your time in town to tour the museum. Admission is free, but a $3 donation is kindly accepted. If you have questions about the artifacts in the cases, a volunteer is on hand to answer them for you. View the museum’s hours here.
I followed Paul in my car to the Democratic Headquarters (640 E. Woodson Ave.). A simple limestone building, it was once a cabin/meeting space for the Democratic Party from 1854-1861. Men discussed political issues and planned strategies there.
In later years, it was used as a railroad pay station by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. Today, it is maintained by the Lecompton Historical Society and houses furnishings one might have used during the pre-Civil War era. When you stand inside and look out the windows, you can almost imagine boat traffic on the river. A beautiful location, it’s not uncommon to see eagles flying in the area during fall, winter, and spring.
OTHER INTERESTING PLACES TO DISCOVER
EMPTY NESTER’S WINERY
Aside from hosting history seekers, Lecompton is home to several businesses including Empty Nester’s Winery (338 Elmore St.). Owned and operated by a husband and wife team, they serve a variety of fruit wines. Surprisingly, the wines didn’t taste as sweet as I expected. Paul and I sipped on peach wine slushes during our tour of the facility.
While Vickie prepped pumpkins for a future wine, Troy told that it takes six months from fermentation to bottling to produce a taste-worthy wine. Opened in January 2021, visitors can choose from four dry wines and 12 semi-sweet wines for a tasting flight.
When they’re not busy making wine or socializing with customers, they also make preserves, jams, and jellies available for sale in the tasting room.
Empty Nester’s Winery focuses on quality wine and excellent customer service. They host game night on Thursdays and invite a food truck to park out front on occasion. To view the winery’s hours and learn about entertaining events, view the Facebook page.
BALD EAGLE MERCANTILE
You can find anything and everything for sale at Bald Eagle Mercantile (336 Elmore St.). The search for the perfect something to bring home is a part of the fun. The shelves are stocked with timeless gifts and items you didn’t know you needed until you saw them.
Open since 2010, shoppers are greeted by Kathy and her employees with a warm smile and helped them find “goods for the journey.” It’s only appropriate that Kathy owns a store in the heart of Lecompton since she is a descendant of Albert G. Boone, one of the town’s founders. He was also a shopkeeper.
The store hosts flea market events on Elmore Street as well as Fabric Fridays. Kathy said she has plans to expand her business and bring in more sellers. Stay up-to-date on Bald Eagle Mercantile happenings here.
C&C CLOTHING/CLAYMAMA’S ART WORKSHOP
Next door to Bald Eagle Mercantile is Claymama’s Art Workshop and C&C Clothing (338 Elmore St.) store under the same roof. When the owner isn’t in the studio creating beautiful jewelry, she is greeting customers in the retail space. The store is filled with consignment clothing and apparel for women of all sizes.
Shoppers are surrounded by walls of colorful artwork and an abundance of handcrafted jewelry for sale. Rings resemble twisted metalwork. Earrings made from leather and beads dangle on display. Clay pots hold earrings and bracelets designed with care.
If you’re not able to make it to Lecompton, you can still shop the boutique online. C&C Clothing sells items live via Facebook every Thursday at 7pm. Never miss a moment of the shopping fun by following the Facebook page here.
Don’t leave town without seeing the fantastic mural painted by Perry-Lecompton High School graduate, Rick Wright. Its vibrant colors showcase symbols that represent the town’s history dating back to 1858. The Latin motto in the eagle’s grasp reads, “Born of the Popular Will.”
Completed last June, “Resilience” is a 60′ mural funded by donations to Lecompton Community Pride. Wright recently finished a painting of the former Lecompton High School, which is on display at the entrance to the building. Visit Wright’s TikTok page to watch his painting in progress.
NOTE: As of September 9, 2022, Kroeger Country Meats no longer operates as a retail walk-in business. The family retired.
As our tour of Lecompton was wrapping up, Paul had one more stop for me. I followed him to a building on the edge of town, Kroeger Country Meats (505 Eisenhower Memorial Dr.).
The butcher shop is well known in the county and beyond for its high-quality meats. Two generations of Kroegers run and operate the store on a daily basis, which is necessary to keep up with business. The store attracts passersby and tourists from outside of town who make special trips to Kroegers to stock up on fresh-cut meats, jerky, and bulk and link-style sausage.
Other visitors stop by to indulge in delicious burgers served fresh to order for each customer. When you visit, simply walk up to the counter meat counter and place your order. Once it’s finished, you can add burger toppings from the self-service salad bar nearby. My single cheeseburger was scrumptious. It alone was worth stopping at Kroegers to enjoy.
When the butcher told me that Kroegers’ meats appeared on the chef-prepared menus within the county, including some of my favorite restaurants in Lawrence, I walked straight to the reach-in refrigerator to select frozen sausage to bring home.
Kroeger has partnerships with breweries and the beer is used in the sausage-making process. (Note: I prepared my sausage links, made with Freestate Brewing Company’s Garden Party Lager, once I returned home. They were some of the best sausages I’ve ever tasted.) To view the store’s hours, visit the Facebook page.
My experience in Lecompton was a delightful one. I was sad to say goodbye to Paul and the residents of the town. As I took to the highway to head for home, I knew that I would be back. I would return with friends or family next time because they need to experience historic Lecompton “a small town with a big history.”
Did you learn something new about Kansas history? Perhaps you’ve already visited Lecompton? Share your comments below. I’d love to hear from you.