Democrat and Chronicle
Rochester, New York

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Carl Manning,  The Associated Press

Franklin, Kan. - When a massive tornado hit this small town in May, about 50 homes were destroyed in seconds.  One person died and a dozen were injured.  The post office and community center were leveled.

Residents worried that Franklin, which had been losing population for decades anyway, would never recover.

But that was before the "Franklin Forever" motto started showing up on T-shirts and the Internet, with supporters hatching big dreams for this little town in southeastern Kansas.

Not only are people rebuilding their homes, but they're lobbying for a new post office and planning a new community center where they hope celebrations will be held for years to come.

"We have a common goal, to rebuild Franklin and get it back on its feet.  We're all trying to keep the small-town spirit," said Phyllis Bitner, who grew up in Franklin and still lives in the area.

In the 1930s, Franklin was a Crawford County coal-mining town of nearly 1,700 people, with shops, a school, a church and even a saloon.

Seven decades later, all that remained were 500 people living in about 150 homes, along with the town's last two public buildings, the post office and community center.

Those two buildings and a third of the town's private homes were wiped out on the afternoon on May 4.  That's when the twister tore through, with winds up to 250 mph and a path of destruction a quarter-mile wide.

But instead of leading to the town's demise, the disaster has made the locals appreciate what they have.

"It opened up a lot of eyes to see what they lost.  If any good comes from this, it's the reuniting of people and the desire to get it back," said Veda Maxwell, who moved to Franklin from Chicago a decade ago.

Bitner set up a Web site that chronicles the community's history and hopes.  The home page proclaims, "Franklin has a future, and the future is Franklin..Franklin Forever."

She also designed two pins to sell, along with T-shirts to help raise money for reconstruction.  Donations are sought through the web site from those with family ties to the area and alumni of it's now-defunct school; a bulletin board contains good wishes from as far away as Australia.

Rebuilding the post office and the community center are top priorities.  "Without them, we'll probably just dry up and blow away," said Catherine Lovelady, who has lived in Franklin for 15 years and has no plans to move.

A drop box was installed at the site of the post office so people can deposit mail.

Postal officials haven't written off Franklin -ZIP code 66734.

"We want to maintain a presence in Franklin, but we don't know what the time frame will be," said Richard Watkins, spokesman for the Postal Service's Mid-America District in Kansas City, Mo.  "We aren't looking to abandon any of our small offices, particularly when they are damaged."

Hank Pichler, 77, lost the house where he had lived for 47 years, but wooden stakes outline where his new house will be.

"It's a great neighborhood, maybe a little too quiet now," said Pichler.  "People think we're crazy to rebuild because we're so old, but to us it's home."  

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