We were headed into Southern Kansas, seventy-five miles per hour across what seemed to be an endless stretch of flat and empty highway, eventually carrying us into a very unusual town. Uniquely intriguing could possibly be the best pair of words to describe this place. The town was like something you might imagine seeing only in movies – something that many may believe still exists only within imagination – a wonderfully weird ghost town, left practically empty, but still held together by some of the most interesting characters who continue to paint the picture of its remaining life. Of course it was decided that we would walk its dusty dirt roads, examining the neighborhood, which would most likely lead us into an unforgettable experience. Who says you can’t have a little bit of fun in the decrepit countryside of Kansas?
Outside of a normal route, down a stretch of dirt road, lies the very strange town of Neosho Falls – not to be confused with Neosho County, which is what a few kind locals will bring heavily to your attention when engaged in conversation. If you have an adventurous spirit, or a burning desire to challenge the smoking guns and ruthless attitudes that a few of this town’s rougher residents carry with them, it may be just the place for you – otherwise I would suggest leaving this untamed madness in the shadows.
Stepping into this quiet old town was like unlocking a hidden passageway, opening directly into the heart of a dusty old story book, and falling further in, you become more and more immersed, as imagination truly becomes reality. Eventually, I realized that what I was wandering was, in fact, a very real forgotten place. It’s a mostly lost place, a near-ghost town, a practically forgotten village. It’s that kind of town where, during the beginning of spring time, when someone starts their lawnmower for the first time, every single person knows it.
The city of Neosho Falls was established on April 6, 1857 by Benjamin F. Goss, alongside his brother Colonel National S. Goss and Isaac W. Dow. Benjamin F. Goss would later come to organize a company of cavalry to fight for the union in the American Civil War. Neosho Falls is actually the oldest town in Woodson County, with the first post office being established May of 1857 – exactly 158 years prior to this writing.
1879 – Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife visit the Neosho Valley fair. During this same year, Neosho falls reached its peak population of right over 1,200 residents, but would continue to fall with the passing of each following decade. At this time, the town boasted numerous lively retail businesses, two banks, as well as manufacturing facilities full of life and energy, producing goods mainly for the town, but many surrounding areas as well. Flour mills, sawmills and more filled the many spaces of this countryside town, and everything ran like clockwork, if only for a short period of time. The Woodson County Post newspaper was still in heavy circulation, and I could only imagine how daily life was for this lively, small town, as a paper boy rode up and down each block delivering news to all of the happy, close-knit, rural families.
During the first half of the 20th century, the town would come to see numerous negative impacts, eventually leading to the early abandonment of many factories and mills. Electricity replaced water power and there was simply no longer a need for certain structures, becoming tossed aside and forgotten, leaving them to fall away into dust. A hydroelectric plant was built in an attempt to keep up with the growing technology, but was short-lived and very quickly abandoned. It’s rare to find a place that fell so quickly downhill ‘in such early years of its life, and it was not long after the town began to go under that it would literally “go under.” In 1926, Neosho would see its first flood, submerging the town, putting it entirely under water. This disaster resulted in one death and an immense amount of damage to the town, with nothing but years of steady decline to follow.
Very soon after their first flood, Neosho’s remaining population bid farewell to the roaring 20’s, welcoming the 1930s, bringing with it a decade full of heartache, headaches and struggles known as the Great Depression. Once the depression hit full force, this could only mean more rough times to come for Neosho Falls. The town soon lost their only newspaper, along with the only bank still standing. The Santa Fe Railroad pulled out in 1935, however they were still left with the Missouri, Kansas and Texas railway – which Neosho was home to. More oil was discovered in 1937 and an attempt to rebuild was made, but effort was all for naught when most everybody came to the realization that there was just no use attempting to revive this town to the life it once enjoyed. Fast forward a bit and we find ourselves welcoming the 1950’s. It was during the beginning of this decade, that a second devastating flood hit the town in 1951, washing away and destroying most of the town. Due to such a great drop in population, the high school closed its doors in 1961, shortly followed by closure of the town’s grade school in 1969.
In Kansas, there’s a whole lot of nothing but fast highways and open countryside. No cell service for miles, no internet and very few gas stations, so you had better come prepared when driving many of these long stretches of road. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my drive through this wide open state, it’s that you should fill your gas tank at any chance given – and not only that you should, but that you will most likely NEED to.
With a population of only 141 residents tucked away in the quiet countryside, it’s no surprise that there are absolutely no satellite connections here. Emergency resources are scarce to none in Neosho. Hell, the town only has a single sheriff, whom actually doesn’t even reside inside the town, rarely even paying small visits to check in on how things are going. Police and fire emergency vehicles of any sort have been cut from this land, and even the former gas station hasn’t seen a customer in years. More recently, the only remaining business in town – the Oasis Tavern, has shuttered its doors, boarded its windows and closed indefinitely. On Friday nights, everyone goes out for country drives in their trucks under the warm spring and summer air, having fun and immersing themselves into the outdoors under bright blue glow of moonlight. Living amidst the light pollution of cities, it seems unreal to me how bright the moon actually illuminates everything in a place like this. I could feel the old country charm growing with each block that I walked. Outside one home in particular, a sign read “no visitors after 8:00 pm Sunday thru Thursday!” This simple sign reminds me of a time when things were simpler, those summer days when children rode their bikes from block to block, and meeting with their friends; peaceful nostalgia – though I will note that we did not have dirt roads where I grew up.
The town seemed to have had its fortune flipped upside down so greatly, I felt at any moment my feet could leave the ground, sending me falling into the sky. This place is definitely incomparable to any I have wandered before. It’s like life here has been stuck in time for the last 70 years. Dirt roads kick up clouds of dust with each passing pickup, and only a couple of crooked street lights illuminate the town, buzzing as they turn on, welcoming nightfall with their peaceful amber glow. Every dog roams free, joining each other in yards to run and play without worry of any traffic for miles. Oh – and everybody owns a dog – it becomes practically a madhouse of barking for multiple moments throughout the day. I made my way up and down numerous lonesome dirt roads, kicking up small stones at my feet as I walked. I could feel people staring at me like I had done something horribly wrong, or upset some kind of fragile balance; this wasn’t really the case – so much as it was that the people were surprised to see any kind of outsider wandering their quiet countryside town. I could tell that within just a few short moments, everybody was aware of my presence, knowing fully that I didn’t belong. Even the dogs gave me a bit of an evil eye. It wasn’t long after I had done a bit of meandering that I was approached by a man toting his guns and superiority, boasting an ego so large that it could pinch out the sun like it was a small ember. Now, don’t get me wrong – I agree with every point he made to me, other than the part where I was threatened with the possibility of being shot; I mean, is that really necessary?
The thing is, when photographing places such as this, I’m often asked why I find such a heavy interest. As I mentioned, having been threatened with the possibility of being shot at, with not so much as one single police officer in the entire town, there has to be a reason I continued to photograph and document. I’ve said it over and over again, but the bigger picture continues to grow with the infinite amount of small details forever being added, varying from location to location. I love to find a less-noticed beauty in the blight of these places, at times creating a sight of despondence during past lives, when all hope was finally given up – everything left behind. Not only do I find this beauty in the forgotten, but through resurrecting the lost stories of happy lives, or even uncovering an interesting history. If you could put a key to the stormy sky, and open up the clouds, you would be greeted with a bright blue wonder – behind darkness always follows light.
The future of Neosho Falls is uncertain, and I’m unsure where the town’s life will head, but some of the original families do still remain, holding their ground until the day they finally move on – like a collective of captains going down with their ship.