Elk Falls - The Outhouse Capitol
Elk Falls is running at a slow trickle, Dave
Alexander, October, 2015.
Image available for photo prints and editorial downloads
"Elk Falls is a state of mind... There's nothing
like it anywhere."
-- Mil Penner,
In the heart of the
Ozarks is the small town of Elk Falls, which touts itself as the "World’s
and the "Outhouse Capitol of the World." Thriving as a mere shadow of its former self, the mid-nineteenth century
settlement, at one time, attracted thousands of yearly visitors to its "Outhouse Tours”
and other eccentric attractions.
Sitting on a wooded
bend in the road not far from the Oklahoma border, the first settler
to locate upon the town site was a man by the name of R. H. Nichols in
February, 1870. Soon after, the enterprise of establishing a town
site was conceived, and Nichols, with six other businessmen, formed a
town site company laying out lots and making plans for the new
settlement. Nichols built a small house, which also served as a loan
and real estate office, a general store was built, a drug store and
blacksmith shop opened, the post office was established and school was
taught to 25 pupils by Miss Dora Simmons at her father’s
By 1871, the site was named Elk Falls,
deriving its name from a nearby waterfall on the Elk River, and became
the temporary county seat of Howard County. The same year, a school
building was erected in a small one-story frame house, where services
for the Methodist Episcopal Church were also held.
elections in 1872 and 1873 failed to establish a clear choice between
Falls, Peru, Boston, Longton, and Howard for the county seat. After a questionable election of 1873, citizens of Boston raided Elk
Falls and took the county records and furnishings. The records
were hidden in Cowley County and the town of Boston posted armed
guards to keep out the Howard County sheriff.
bitterness became academic when Elk County was divided into Elk and
Chataugua Counties in 1875, with Elk Falls falling within Elk County
and the town of Howard becoming the county seat due to its central
In 1875, E. A.
Hall and L.J. Johnston constructed a grist and flour mill on the river
near the falls, from which the power was derived with a turbine water
wheel. The three story frame building was built at a cost of $1600.
Grinding wheat from both locals and others who shipped it in, the
mill provided flour throughout the entire state.
In order to create a water supply for severe
droughts that often plagued the area, several dams were built along the
Elk River, from logs, lumber, and timbers, but one after another they were
destroyed by high waters during floods. Finally, a man by the name of Jo
Johansen, a Swede from Minnesota, took over the mill and built the present
dam, made of sandstone rocks cemented together, which has withstood the
floods more than a century.
In 1879 a
Baptist Church was built and in the following year a Methodist
Episcopal Church was built.
Elk Falls' population peaked in 1880 at 513 people.
By 1883 the new
and rising town had attracted many prospects and numerous improvements had
been made, increasing the population to more than five hundred residents. Much of the population were children, as the school included more than 200
On November 15, 1892, the board of Elk County
Commissioners, voted to build an iron truss bridge over Elk River,
connecting the dirt roads into the main thoroughfare leading into
from the northeast. Built at a cost of $2,000, it was completed in
1893. Pratt Truss Bridge, as it is called, was unique for its type
since expansion joints were made from rollers, rather than wheels. The bridge still stands today and is on the National Register of Historic
Sometime in the late nineteenth century, the
grist mill was closed and the building moved to the south side of the
river and was used to store hay in.
Though the small town had two stores, two
barber shops, a doctor’s office, a dentist, a drug store and a feed
store, the population had begun to fall by 1927, having only 269
Highway 160 was built through Elk Falls in 1957, the traffic on the
old steel bridge dwindled to almost nothing. And, when the Elk
River experienced a dramatic flood in 1976, most of the wooden planks
making up the bridge floor were taken with the turbulent waters. The old bridge was no longer feasible for repair or vehicular traffic
and the Elk County Commissioners voted to condemn the bridge and
closed it. However, plans to destroy the bridge were fortunately
delayed and in 1983, the bridge was preserved as a foot bridge.
In 1992, the bridge was made a historical site by the
State Historical Society and in 1994 was placed on the
National Register of Historic Sites.
Elk Falls describes
itself as a living ghost town, it also has to say: "We ain’t dead
yet!” Not the typical tourist destination, this off the beaten
path town, has done its absolute best to stay alive. This is a
place where the visitor can slow down, feel the soothing tranquility
of the Falls, relax, and see a bit of history without the frenzied
pace of a city.
Several years ago, an
resident got an idea to draw tourists by calling it the world's
largest living ghost town. Evidently, at the time of this
idea, some of the people really appreciated it, while others weren’t
so happy, preferring to remain anonymous in the dying town. However,
the idea caught hold. Numerous artists and craftsmen began to
converge on the dying town and within a few short years, the
town was drawing thousands of visitors each year.
Though many of the
artists and performers have since moved on and Elk Falls is once again
making good on its "ghost
town" claim, its falls
are still running and an old attraction known as the Rock Garden,
built in the 1930's, has been restored and is home to Elk Falls Pottery,
an establishment that has been thriving for three decades.
The busiest time of the year for tiny Elk Falls is the annual Outhouse
Tour held on the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving. In addition
to some creative outhouses, visitors enjoy live music, handcrafts,
food, and more.
"The Falls" can be seen at the east end of
Montgomery Street, about three blocks east of the main street in
Today, this small town is called home to just about 100
people. Elk Falls is located about 35 miles northwest of
Kansas on U.S. 160.
Friends of Elk Falls Association
P.O. Box 115
of America, updated November, 2015.
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From Legends' General Store
Frontier Slang, Lingo & Phrases - By
Owner/Editor of Legends of America
and a native of KANSAS
Autographed From the wild
and woolly mining camps, to the rampages of the Civil War, to the many
cowboys riding on the range, those frontier folks often used terms and
phrases that are no longer used in everyday language today. Yet other
words and sayings were often specific to certain regions and never used
across the states. These terms, as in the past, are still sometimes heard
in specific areas, but are “foreign” to the rest of us.
From the pages of period newspapers, books, and century old dictionaries
comes the slang, lingo, and phrases of the American Frontier. Even if
you're not looking for a definition, you'll get a peek into the charm and
character of a historic era. In addition to the hundreds of words and
phrases, readers will also enjoy more than 150 vintage images.
Signed by the Author. 6x9", paperback -- 132 pages. Published by
Legends of America, 1st edition, October, 2015.
Made in the USA.