Little River’s fascinating history includes Kansas staples such as pioneers, horses, trains and an enduring spirit that weathered both good and hard times. What’s somewhat unusual is that its story includes elephants.
The community was platted by engineers at the Arkansas Valley and Land Company, who designed Main Street to run perpendicular to the railroad track. All other streets run parallel to Main Street. On June 1, 1880, Little River heard its first train whistle when the M and M branch of the Santa Fe Railroad made its inaugural stop in town. Six years later, Little River was incorporated on Nov. 8, 1886. The seeds for today’s community were already planted by the time the first train left the depot! There were hotels, feedlots, livery stables and churches, as well as a hardware and grocery store, broom factory, salt mine, newspaper, post office, bank and more. By 1887, an average of three new buildings were erected each week, and the bank recorded nearly $2 million in business.
Life was prosperous until 1897, when a small pox outbreak forced the Tremont House Hotel to be quarantined, and local officials relocated infected people to a “pest house” east of town. A tornado blew the structure away, erasing all traces of the outbreak. Two years later, tragedy struck again, but this time it was most likely not at the hand of Mother Nature. A fire consumed an entire city block on the east side of Main Street, long suspected to be the act of an arsonist. The fire was believed to start in the broom factory on the second floor of the three-story building located on the south end of Main Street where Mutual Telephone, the fire station and Carolyn’s Cookies are today. While the community was not immune to fires, this one was particularly devastating.
Little River residents began the hard work of reconstruction, and by 1902, there were 21 businesses and tradesmen who called Little River home. In 1903, telephone lines crisscrossed the community, connecting neighbors with each other and the outside world. The growing community needed community services, and City Park was established in 1904. Hoffman Memorial Hospital opened its doors in 1916. In 1919, the ice plant stored 400 tons of ice and in true Little River style, the plant offered free delivery within the city limits. A 500-pound ice block cost $2.75. The volunteer city fire department was organized in 1915, and in 1920, the city sold its light plant to Kansas Power and Light for $15,000. In 1935, Drillers Gas brought natural gas to the community.
As the community grew, the livery stables became problematic because of the unwanted equine byproduct that bookended Main Street. When the circus came to town, city leaders were struck with a solution: use elephant power to overcome horsepower. An elephant pulled out the hitching posts on one side of Main Street, reducing equine “contributions” by 50 percent. Transportation changes signaled the end of an era as Main Street was paved in the early 1920s.
Saturdays were something to behold. When car ownership became more common, people came to town as early as possible to get good parking spaces in front of stores. Many ate dinner at the café and children went to the picture show. Ladies visited in their cars or in stores, which were open until midnight. These were happy times and lasted until the ’40s and ’50s, when people opted to stay home and watch a fascinating new technology: television.
Change is a constant in Little River. The community has a quality – envied by many – to adapt to residents’ needs, market forces and global competition in a truly unique way. Perhaps that’s why the only thing little about Little River is its name.
The photos and stories are based on research done by Don Young using articles that appeared in the Monitor-Journal and materials courtesy of The Young Historical Library.