Eight miles southeast of Eudora in Johnson County’s Lexington Township, David Vestal established Prairie Center and opened a general store in 1871, and post office in 1872. The first child born in Prairie Centre was Eli J. Vestal, July 27, 1874; the first death was that of Melissa Vestal on May 13, 1875.
Named because of its prairie location and equal distance from four surrounding towns, Prairie Center also was known as “Bear Paw” or “Bear Foot.” The first schoolhouse was built in 1874 with Edwin Stanley as the teacher. By 1874, the 75 town inhabitants had a blacksmithy and woodwork shop, too.
The Quakers built the Prairie Center Friends Church one-half mile north of the community during Prairie Center’s early years. The men sat on one side of the church facing the women on the other. A larger Quaker church was built in 1892. The Methodist Episcopal and Free Methodist also built churches in Prairie Center.
W. C. Barnes, a physician, came in 1877 to set up an office and drugstore. (A later business in this building was a meat market, followed by a dressmaking and hat shop.) J. J. Woodard, who gathered plants from nearby fields for his medical treatments, took Barnes’ place and practiced here and in Hesper until 1916. George Horn, a blacksmith, left Prairie Center in 1888 in his move to Altmont, Kansas. Levi Ogle and his brother ran the general store with the assistance of Minnie Moore.
Records from the 1890s show G. A. Boynton owned one of the town’s general stores and the Johnson Company, operated the other. A creamery cooperative also was part of Prairie Center. From its well that cooled the cream, a man pumped water from it with a two-inch pump and gasoline engine steadily for 60 hours.
Because most farmers owned an orchard, W.G. Rice, a blacksmith, set up a cider mill powered by a one-cylinder stem engine by his smithy. Farmers lined up as far as the eye could see during peak apple harvesting times. Another mill, this one operated by William Andrew, crushed sorghum cane with large rollers powered by horses; the sap flowed to a cooking shed.
Community events took place in a store building jointly owned by Grange members and the Odd Fellows Lodge. When Eudora established rural delivery, the Prairie Center post office closed in 1902. Although people kept moving to the area such as English-born Joshua and Hannah (Hutchinson ) Weston and their six children in 1907, the population never developed, and the general store closed in 1916.
Bert Rogers, B. H. Rogers, and “Buddy” Rogers, a famous movie actor and bandleader, bought a farm in 1935 they called the 3-B Ranch and a dam on Spoon Creek in 1937 for a recreational site. When Hollywood matinee idols “Buddy” and Mary Pickford, his celebrity wife known as “ merica’s Sweetheart,” came to visit, the newspaper took pictures of Pickford gathering eggs and doing other domestic chores. The Rogers’ mother was Maude (Moll).
In 1942, rumors circulated that the federal government planned to include Prairie Center in the land used to make war ammunition. The rumors proved true. More than a hundred farm families had to move, and the entire small town of Prairie Center had its buildings burnt and razed except the church and filling station. Families who had to leave when the Sunflower Ordnance Works plant developed included those with the surnames of Paxton, Frazier, Anderson, Hennessey, Rowe, Votaw, Rice, Schulz, Gordon, and White. Others who lived within two miles of Prairie Center were Couch, Smith, Hale, Brecheisen, Kelsey, Bowling, Lefmann, Ball, Wade, Hale, Moody, Finley, Vance, Moon, Pellet, Fellow, Osborn, Thoren, Marley, Garrett, Hoyt, Hammer, Weston, Kanzig, Ayers, Simpson, and Redding.
Sunflower Ordnance Works produced ammunition off and on for decades as shown in this 1945 photograph. As it closed, Kansas State University obtained a long-term lease on the southeastern corner of the 10,000-acre complex for its horticultural research and education center along Spoon Creek. The Oz Entertainment Company had tried to buy the area in the 1990s for a Wizard of Oz theme park that never made it past the planning stages. The United Tribe of Shawnee Indians also unsuccessfully competed for the land. Ultimately, Sunflower Redevelopment acquired 9,065 acres in August 2005 and projected a seven-year environmental clean up. When complete, 3,000 acres were promised to the Johnson County Park & Recreation District, Kansas State University, Kansas University, the city of DeSoto, and DeSoto public schools.
The town cemetery remains with an access road from the west. Another cemetery, three miles north in back of a school, had its contents removed to a DeSoto cemetery. Also remaining is a bridge built in 1916.
Prairie Center sources used for this short history, include: Towns of Johnson County, Kansas, (1973) by Laura Steed; William Cutler's History of the State of Kansas; Memories of Prairie Center, Kansas, by Edwin Rice; and The Kansas City Star articles.
Copyright 2015. Cindy Higgins. Where the Wakarusa Meets the Kaw: A History of Eudora, Kansas. Eudora, KS: Author.