Franklin rebuilding community
By CARL MANNING
The Associated Press
FRANKLIN - When a massive tornado hit this southeast Kansas community
in May, it destroyed about a third of the homes and leveled the community
center and post office. Many figured that was it for Franklin.
But the Franklin Forever movement isn't ready to hang it up. Its members
are working to rebuild the unincorporated community and make it better than
"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 with stores, shops, a school, a church and even a saloon. Seven decades
later, all that remained was the post office, community center and about
500 residents in 150 homes.
When the twister struck the afternoon of May 4, within seconds there were
50 fewer houses and the post office and community center were leveled.
"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.
She said the community will grow because it's an ideal place for those
who want to work in Pittsburg, about 10 miles south, but raise a family in
a rural area.
Some residents, including Catherine Lovelady, say the post office and
community center are essential for community survival.
"Without those things, we'll probably just dry up and blow away," said
Lovelady, who has lived here 15 years and has no plans to move.
John Houck has been spending a lot of time working to restore the town,
including finding grant money. But he shuns the label of community leader.
"In a small community, everybody just steps up and does what they can,"
said Houck, who grew up in the area and moved back last year after being
gone 45 years.
Photo/The Associated Press
Franklin resident John Houck surveys empty lots in Franklin. The
post office, which used to be on the lot where the flag is in the background,
was one of more than 50 houses and buildings destroyed by a tornado that
hit in May of this year.
Just about all that remains of the post office is a concrete slab and
a flagpole with an American flag flying like a lone sentinel. A drop box
was installed at the site so people can deposit mail.
"We want the post office because we don't have a place to get the daily
news in the community. It's the identity of the town," Houck said.
Postal officials haven't written off Franklin - ZIP code 66735.
"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," he said.
Dating from the 1920s, the 4,000-square-foot community center was the
place where people gathered for meetings, family reunions, wedding receptions,
dances, funeral dinners and bingo.
Plans call for a 4,500-square-foot replacement, and Houck said there are
two federal grants to help pay for it. Now it's an empty lot and a sign:
"Future Home for Franklin Civic Center," but he hopes to have it completed
by the end of 2004.
Some of the original wooden dance floor was salvaged, and Bitner would
like to make it part of the new floor.
"If people can walk in and step on this floor that their grandparents
danced on, it gives you a connection to them," she said.
Bitner set up a Web site that chronicles the community's history and hopes.
She also designed two pins to sell, along with T-shirts to help raise money
for the rebuilding project.
Most of the homes destroyed were in the middle of the community. All that
remains are a few foundations in an open field rapidly overtaken by weeds.
Houck said 11 families who lost their homes have moved back.
Hank Pichler's home of 47 years was among those destroyed. Wooden stakes
outline where his new house will be, which he hopes will be ready for him
and his wife to move in by Christmas.
"It's a great neighborhood, maybe a little too quiet now. People think
we're crazy to rebuild because we're so old, but to us it's home," said Pichler,
Houck said a key component to revitalizing the community is a $2 million
sewer system that has been in the works for nearly seven years. It would
be financed by a federal grant that Houck said the community expects to get
in about a year.
With a sewer system, Houck said, the next step could be constructing a
small apartment complex for the elderly so those who lost their homes could
"This is still home to them," he said.