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Comparing Gretna, Kansas with Gretna, Nebraska

Comparing Gretna, Kansas with Gretna, Nebraska

Many people in Gretna, Nebraska, are completely unaware that there is an unincorporated town in far northern Kansas, called Gretna, Kansas.

I know because my late father, John William “Bill” Marples, was born there in August 1910. His father, John Marples, bought 160 acres in 1898 (acquiring more substantial nearby acreages, later, in his heyday.) At their zenith, my grandparents, John Marples and his wife Dora (White) Marples (1891–1977) owned slightly more than 3,000 acres, in an era of time when that was a lot of farm ground.

That is especially striking, since it was in a day and age when most farmers (including my grandfather, John) used walk-behind plows and cultivators with either a horse or a mule. My granddad could even give the mules vocal commands such as “gee” meaning “turn left”; “haw” meaning “turn right”, word “whoa” meaning “stop”, and I can’t remember his word for the mules to back up, but they could and did. My granddad wouldn’t even have to be seated in the wagon holding the reins, since he had those mules trained so perfectly. I have seen a few other men who could do that, but not many people can do it.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that he began to accept assistance from neighbors with steam-engine threshing-machines, precursor to today’s modern combines, to harvest wheat and milo. My granddad also had large patches of ground solely dedicated to alfalfa. My dad said that growing up it was almost a constant ritual of letting the milo grow, then use a swather to cut it, letting it dry a little then wind-row it, bale it and pray it didn’t rain before baling. The final day would be stacking the bales onto a hay-rack wagon and transporting it via a team of horses and placing them in the barn. Then, he said it would only be a few days afterward when this whole cycle or process would repeat itself. A person can imagine the endless cycle of hard work. My dad said that the only benefit was that where he went to school, five miles east at Agra, Kansas, the school had a strong football team of hardy young farm boys wearing leather football helmets (back in the late 1920s) and winning most of their games.

Gretna, Kansas is located just a mile north of U.S. Highway 36, and only 5 miles east of Phillipsburg, the county seat of Phillips County, Kansas. Back in 1910 when my dad was born, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad went through Gretna from Goodland, Kansas towards Belleville, Kansas and Fairbury, Nebraska. Now, the Kyle Railroad runs a few trains weekly through there.

As far as U.S. Highway 36 goes, it is a “Coast-to-Coast” highway, running from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Pacific. Even to this day, U.S. 36 is the shortest distance between Indianapolis and Denver. I have driven the entire route. It is pretty scenic. It may not be as fast as Interstate 70, which parallels it and also links both cities without starts and stops, but you see more of “hometown America” on U.S. 36, including Marysville, Kansas, and St. Joseph, Missouri.

In 1910, Gretna, Kansas boasted a grain elevator, several general stores, a telegraph office, a post office, a bank, a couple of “one-room schoolhouses” within close range and a creamery. It was the focal point of Arcade Township. Even my great-grandparents George White and Clarissa Jane (Williams) White lived within two miles of Gretna, Kansas for several years, and their youngest child, Ray White, was born there in 1903.

Today, in 2021, about all that is remaining is a grain elevator and a few homes, some deserted and empty. Even my grandparents’ farmhouse stands idle. All the windows either have bullet-holes or are entirely broken out. My grandparents’ barn, which was once stately and majestic, has totally collapsed, likely due to straight-line winds. I was there only six months ago. It almost saddened me to see how things change. The population might be a dozen families within a mile radius, if that.

Ironically, some of my second cousins and third cousins live near Gretna, Nebraska. Its population is near 5,000 people. Gretna, Nebraska and Gretna, Kansas share the same Scottish heritage of Gretna Green, Scotland.

Gretna, Nebraska has the advantage of being near Omaha, Nebraska (population 475,000) with all its amenities, including a good airport and a vital air force base.

Gretna, Nebraska has scores of businesses and near nightlife attractions. About all that Gretna, Kansas offers in the way of nightlife is the sounds of coyotes howling in the distance or barn owls doing their characteristic hooting sounds. In the autumn, Gretna, Kansas is pretty close to prime pheasant-hunting areas. A lot of deer still thrive around Gretna, Kansas. Sadly, young people have made an “exodus to the cities” to find decent employment. With modern machinery, one farmer can farm the same number of acres that 75 people once occupied. It would be common to see abandoned one-room schoolhouses and old wooden churches near Gretna, Kansas. Sometimes, you can still encounter a rare one. My late grandmother Dora Marples actually bought an abandoned one-room schoolhouse and had it moved to Agra, Kansas, where it was totally renovated and a bathroom built on to revitalize it into a living residence. It was her home until she died in 1977.

Thankfully, residents of Gretna, Nebraska are blessed with a fire department, post office, golf club, public schools, parks, a medical clinic and even a city pool. I’m afraid if you run out of gasoline in Gretna, Kansas, you will have to walk (or hitchhike) five miles into Phillipsburg. In Gretna, Kansas, a person would be lucky to find a natural pool in the bottom of a low-lying spot in the land, which my dad would call “the draw.”

Both towns — Gretna, Kansas and Gretna, Nebraska — are distinct, unique, but were founded by good people striving to make a living and raise their kids.

I just thought readers of the Gretna Breeze in Nebraska would be interested to learn more detail about their counterpart village of Gretna, Kansas. One is thriving (Nebraska), while the other is barren (Kansas.) However, the land around Gretna, Kansas still produces as much wheat and milo as it ever did, if not more. The only downside is a century ago almost every section of land (160 acres) was occupied by a farmer and his family. In many cases, when I only see a windmill, I silently think to myself, “That land once had a homestead with likely a farmer, his wife and their kids, and lots of vitality.” The empty land now, almost echoes loneliness. Now, that type of homesite of the past would remain unknown, except for the hint of the old rusty windmill, standing lonesome on the prairie.

Rural life has its virtues; and urban life has its virtues, too. I have to admit, I enjoy being closer to big-city amenities such as grocery stores, pharmacies and hospitals. Yet, at times, I enjoy a few slower, relaxed and less stressful (and less crime-ridden) areas. Thus, it is a trade-off. However, it still requires good planning, lots of stocking-up on supplies and being healthy enough for lots of self-reliance if you want to live out in the boondocks, then or now.

The two Gretnas illustrate the dichotomy of the two types of life. Hopefully, this letter helps illustrate the similarities and the near polar opposites of the two Gretnas, which a century or so ago had more in common than they do today.

JAMES A. MARPLES

LONGVIEW, TEXAS

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