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A Brief History of Perry, Kansas

Updated: Jan 12

Perry was surveyed and platted in 1865 by the Kansas Pacific Railroad and was originally named Perryville after the Kansas Pacific railroad’s president, John D. Perry.


Perry was incorporated in 1871, with N. J. Stark elected the first mayor. It primarily grew based on its proximity to the railroad and the rich agriculture of the Kaw Valley, with additional benefit from the nearby location of the Delaware and Kaw Rivers.


Perry’s early downtown area was the location of J. C. Grinter’s Store, Lee Hardware (est. 1875),Stark Lumber Co./ J. Thomas Lumber, Perry Flour and Grist Mill (1881) Bouton’s Blacksmith, Duncan’s Fancy and Staples, Knapp’s saw mill (1900), the Bank of Perry (chartered 1893), Boyle’s Restaurant (burned 1910s or 20s), grain elevators, and the Perry Hotel (erected 1866).


There was also a millinery shop, a print shop, a drug store, a boot and shoe shop, blacksmiths, and a livery stable as well as other businesses. This growth was supported by the building of a “Pontoon Bridge” in 1871 just north of the city to carry the increased wagon traffic to and from the town. Bars and saloons were also established in the early days. In 1879, these became the objects of “Hatchet-wielding” prohibitionists who broke up the bars and sent the customers fleeing.


Some later downtown businesses were Clark’s Perry Drug Store, the Perry Mirror (newspaper) office, Grinter’s Jewelry and Variety, a potato sorting house, a tree nursery, doctor’s offices , Farmer’s Bank, Lawson’s storm window manufacturer (1951), an ice cream producer, and a series of hardware and “Seed and Feed” stores. Of course, Perry also hosted the obligatory restaurants, among them the “Nifty Lunch”, the “Golden Belt Café”, and “Delk’s Restaurant” (the first one with booths!); and other necessities such as laundromats, beauty shops, an ice house, grocery stores, barber shops (one had a bathtub for men and poker tables in the basement!), gas stations, and the United States Post Office. After utilizing the “brigade” system of fire protection for many years with limited success, the first city volunteer fire department was organized in 1949. One luxury in Perry was the roller skating rink at the corner of Front and Oak Streets. Bus tickets were sold at Perry Drugstore and the bus stopped right in historic downtown Perry. Also, one could take the train for a day trip to towns east or west on the railroad line.


In the midst of the businesses by the town well, grew an American Elm which later became the anchor for the small grassy circle in the middle of the brick street where citizens of Perry gathered. It was once called “Bum’s Park” since retired men of leisure gathered there on homemade benches. The tree, a sapling in 1895, was nick-named “the Tree of Knowledge” since the retired men were such a repository of wisdom. A judge once held court under the venerable tree. It succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease and was replaced by an Oak tree which still stands there.


In the early days the dirt road through Perry’s downtown, called “Front Street”, was punctuated by the all-important town well, where local farmers drew water and which supplied the railroad’s needs. This road curved around corners through downtown as it traveled from Lawrence to Topeka and points west. Eventually, the downtown portion of this road was paved and became part of the “Golden Belt” Road (est. 1912). The “Golden Belt” road was so named because each dangerous turn was indicated by the presence of a “golden belt” painted on the nearest telephone pole as a warning for drivers. In Perry, it crossed the Delaware River over a small arch bridge, which was replaced in 1926 by the present Parker Truss Bridge (closed 2013). This road became Highway 24 in 1936, but around 1970 it was moved north of downtown Perry to its current location.


The anchor for Perry’s early downtown was the Kansas Pacific Railroad’s first depot. It stood next to a large water tower from which steam trains were filled. Trains could also stop atop the Delaware River bridge and fill their tanks with river water when the tower’s water was in short supply. The second depot was a more picturesque building made of rough-hewn cottonwood with some wood pegs used as nails. It was closed in 1967 against the desire of the locals who enjoyed the hometown touch of Mr. Roy Dent, the last railroad agent who ran the one-man office where they could buy tickets to go on the train. In the 1940s and 50s, mail delivery by train occurred every 20-25 minutes, and the mailbag was placed on a hook on a pole near the tracks so the mail could be exchanged without the train having to completely stop.


Informed of the events of the day by word of mouth, by the newspapers, the “Kaw Valley Chief” (est. 1879) and the “Perry Mirror” (1898) , or by the first phone system (est. 1891); citizens of Perry heard of the grasshopper plague (1874), downtown fires (1903, ‘10, ‘12,’16,’21, ‘35), drought, the fatal 1893 tornado, murder at the Kirby Hotel (1899), floods (in 1844, 1903, 1951, and 1993), bank robberies , school consolidations, Highway 24 being moved, the Perry Dam being built, and other events of local and national interest .


The local residents belonged to churches and organizations, some still existing, some long gone. Perry has been home to African Baptist (built 1872, later African Methodist Episcopal), Presbyterian (built 1869), Baptist (est.1878), Brethren Assembly (1930s), Methodist, and Catholic Churches. Perry has had Lion’s club, the American Legion, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (est.1869), and Masons as well as Boy and Girl Scouts, and the 4-H club. There have been several women’s organizations, such as the Order of the Eastern Star, the Jayhawk Club, and the Perry Civic Club. In years gone by Perry had a Mandolin Club and an Opera Hall was above the 2nd Lee Hardware building in 1899. Through the years, the Opera House was the site of lyceums, Chautauquas, performances by touring troupes, dances, and dinners as well as local functions such as banquets and commencements. Agriculture has always been important to Perry. In the 1930s, potatoes were the crop of choice on the fertile river plain, and potato trains were often seen loading in Perry to deliver the goods to points east.


The first school, a subscription school, was organized in 1867. The first public school district was organized and a large, 2-story brick schoolhouse was erected in 1871. A new high school, Perry Rural High School, was built in 1921 on Old Highway 24 and the new grade school was built in 1949 on Cedar St. School district consolidation of the Perry, Lecompton, Williamstown, and Grantville areas occurred in 1966 as a result of the state unification act of 1963.


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Perry Pride

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