By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University.
“The white cliffs of Dover.” That’s a reference to the scenic landscape along the British coastline in the English Channel. Those white cliffs have provided inspiration for many travelers and artists – and even inspiration for those who would name a town in far-off rural Kansas.
In a previous profile, we learned about the many attractions chronicled on a new CD about the Native Stone Scenic Byway. The byway is a 48-mile highway route between Topeka and Alma.
The easternmost community within the Native Stone Scenic Byway is Dover, namesake of the famous landmark on the British coastline. Dover, Kansas is located in Shawnee County, at a point where the Southwest Trail crossed Mission Creek. This area was first settled in 1856 by brothers Alfred and Mark Sage who had come from near Dover, England. They were soon joined by the Haskel, Loomis and Bassett families.
These early settlers spoke of living “Up Mission Creek” or “Down Mission Creek” depending on which side of the creek’s crossing one lived. The first post office in the area was called Mission Creek. The village of Dover was established at the crossing in 1870.
According to the Sage family, Dover took its name from their birthplace in England, since nearby Echo Cliff reminded them of the famous White Cliffs of Dover in their homeland. The Haskels claim it is named after Dover, New Hampshire. Back in England, folks in Dover argue over whether the name is of Roman or Viking origin.
Today, Dover, Kansas is known for its historic Sage Inn and the Sommerset Hall Café. Sommerset Hall was the original name of the three-story frame building erected in 1893 by members of the Sage family, descendants of the region of Somersetshire in England. The Sage Inn, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in the 1870s to serve travelers on the trail. Today it is a bed and breakfast serving the same purpose.
Dover was a natural spot for growth because it was the halfway point on the Southwest Trail, which connected the Oregon Trail in east Topeka to the Santa Fe Trail in Council Grove, a one-day's ride from each. It was also the route of the old Wells Fargo line between St. Louis and Denver and the only place where Mission Creek could be forded by wagons. Because it was the original "route west" through Kansas, today's K-4 Highway (formerly Southwest Trail Highway) was the first paved road in the state – built in 1913.
The Sage brothers were premier stone masons. They so impressed folks with their building of the Sage Inn and Stagecoach Station that they were invited to do the stone work on the first portion, now the East Wing, of the State Capitol Building 18 miles away in Topeka. A total of four native stone buildings still remain in Dover, as well as the wall of what is called “Campbell's Curve” four miles to the north.
In the 1800s, a New York Times writer described Mission Creek in spring: “The woods in every direction are rendered beautiful by the gay attire of redbud trees covered in early spring with a rich pink blossom, before any appearance of the green leaves. Some of them are twenty feet high and now in full bloom. Plum trees are also in flower and very abundant. Grape vines, gooseberries, blackberries, mulberries, strawberries, raspberries, etc., are scattered in profusion in many places; hops also grow abundantly, wild.”
In modern times, Sommerset Hall Café is the site of home cooking. In 2008, ABC's “Good Morning America” had a contest to find the best pie in the nation. The winner was a pie by the late Norma Grubb, age 88 at the time, who baked pies for Sommerset Hall Café. After a taste test and online vote, Norma’s Coconut Cream Pie was the winner. This made a difference in a rural town like Dover, with a population of maybe 50 people. Now, that's rural.
For more information about the byway, go to Wabaunsee County, Kansas.
So, I get the Dover part. What about the white cliffs? We’ll learn about that next week.
The mission of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development is to enhance rural development by helping rural people help themselves. The Kansas Profile radio series and columns are produced with assistance from the K-State Research and Extension Department of Communications News Unit. A photo of Ron Wilson is available. Audio and text files of Kansas Profiles are also available. For more information about the Huck Boyd Institute, interested persons can visit Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development.