- Associated Press - Friday, October 31, 2014

BYERS,Kan. (AP) - It’s not a question Tim Tobin gets often, he admits.

“You want to know where Naron was?” he asked as he stood in his repair shop in the town of Byers, population 36.

Traffic here is minimal, but his shop, L&W; Repair, is always hopping. He had three or four cars inside his large building that he and his small crew were fixing on a recent sunny day, The Hutchinson News (https://bit.ly/1wzIqna ) reported.

“There’s no sign of it there,” he adds, but quickly becomes an eager guide to a location just a half mile north of town - an empty field of CRP grass.

It was 100 years ago that Naron died and Byers was born - a little town in Pratt County that developed along the new Anthony and Northern Railroad, Tobin said.

Most moved to the new town on the prairie - packing their belongings and moving the few structures standing. Little by little, the grasses reclaimed the area, swallowing up what roadways and fragments of civilization existed.

And today, most pass the former town site and don’t give it a second thought.

Naron’s short life was started by a man called Chickasaw.

A well-to-do slave owner in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, Levi Holloway Naron was an unlikely supporter of the Union. However, when the Civil War began in 1861, he vocally opposed secession, and his “agitation against the Confederacy so outraged his fellow Mississippians that they drove him from his home.”

Searching for retaliation, Naron headed north and approached the Union army. Gen. William T. Sherman quickly saw the possibilities for employing Naron, and Naron became “Chickasaw” - a chief scout, spy and raider, according to Louisiana State University Press, which republished Naron’s wartime memoirs in 2005.

Naron’s activity was primarily in Mississippi and Tennessee. He soon proved invaluable to Sherman and other Union commanders. But Naron also stood before Rebel commanders as well, “having bedeviled their security forces” - maneuvering under their noses as he burned bridges and rail cars full of supplies intended for Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Bell Hood. He also recruited for the Union while clad in a Confederate uniform.

Thomas D. Cockrell, a college professor who edited the book, wrote in the preface that it is unclear how many Confederate spies were living in the South. But when the war was over, Naron soon realized he couldn’t stay in his home state. His neighbors had lost heavily during the war, and many blamed him for his troubles and considered him a traitor.

He moved to Kansas with his family in 1878, acquiring the land near present-day Byers. He quickly became involved in politics - elected to the county commission. And on a small portion of his land, the town named after him, Naron, was started.

According to the Kansas State Historical Society, Naron’s post office started in March 1881. Naron soon had a church and a school, said local historian Gary Curtis, who graduated from Byers High School in 1959.

One historical book, Curtis noted, “tells about forming the first church and over 100 people attended that first meeting,” he said. At the meeting, they raised enough money to build a permanent structure.

Meanwhile, Curtis said, a man named W.F. Brown operated a store.

Kathy Schuette, who lives in Dodge City, said her great-grandparents, Hunley and Angie Warren, also operated a store in Naron.

But Naron began to dwindle. It lost its post office in 1907 and, according to “Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History” published in 1912, the hamlet had a population of 45 in 1910.

Schuette tells the story of Byers as it was passed down to her. A man named Otto Byers came to Naron and told residents he was putting in a railroad.

The only problem was the railroad wouldn’t go through Naron and instead would be situated a half-mile south.

Much of Kansas’ railroad expansion occurred after the Civil War, largely in the 1880s. But in the early 20th century, Byers, of Hutchinson, who already was involved in the rail system and had interest in a flour mill in Pratt, had a desire to be president of his own railroad.

He launched his railroad company in 1912, which he named, at the time, the Anthony and Northern Railway, according to the book, “Wichita Northwestern: The Story of a Dust Bowl Railroad” by Lee Berglund.

The rail line was to become a better outlet for farmers to get their wheat and other commodities to market. Byers’ dream was to eventually make the line go all the way to Hays and Wichita.

With the advent of this line, residents began to form communities along it, including Zook, Ash Valley and Trousdale. It reached the Naron area in the latter part of 1914 or early 1915.

“He told the people of Naron that he would try to get the railroad to lay tracks through the area if the people would move the town a mile or so to the south to make it more convenient for the railroad,” Schuette said. “Realizing the potential for increased population and business, the people did indeed move the town to the site.”

Schuette’s aunt, Janis Honeman, who grew up in Byers, said there was a contest to name the new town. Her grandmother, Angie Warren, thought it should be named Byers after Otto Byers.

Byers incorporated in 1915, according to the Kansas League of Municipalities. The post office started that same year.

Schuette said her great-grandmother was awarded a small glass pitcher commemorating the occasion.

Curtis said the church was moved, and Brown started up his general store in Byers. Area farmer Bob Moore said his grandfather, whose family homestead in the Naron Township area in the 1880s, started the bank.

Honeman said her grandparents helped build the bank and started up the hotel. The Naron school was moved to Byers and turned into the house she grew up in.

But Otto Byers’ dream didn’t last long. The railroad went into receivership in the 1930s and the last train blew through Byers in 1940, said Moore.

“I do remember, I was 7 years old and my folks loaded me up and we went a mile south of my house and watched the last train go through Byers,” he said.

Byers still prospered for many years, with 212 people living there in its heyday of 1920. By 1950, the population dropped to 83, according to the University of Kansas.

The cemetery, which was originally for the town of Naron, is still in existence, Curtis said.

And Moore said that Byers once had two elevators, an implement store, a general merchandise store, a blacksmith, shoe repair shop and the bank. There was a bar and burger joint, he said, with an Odd Fellows Lodge on the second story. And he and his dad would go to the Byers barber to get their hair trimmed.

Moore said he graduated from Byers High School in 1952. He was on the Byers school board when it closed the school in 1967 and helped organize the Pratt Skyline district. Someone thought they could run a flea market out of the school, but when it didn’t pan out, the school was eventually torn down.

He later bought the town site of Naron. He tore down its last residence, the Brown house.

About 6 a.m. every day, Warren Hatzenbuehler drives into Byers from his home in Pratt and puts the coffee on at the repair shop.

A handful of others begin to trickle in, including Curtis. They sit around with cups of coffee, reminiscing about the good old days, sometimes even pulling out at Byers High School alumni book, which they keep in Tim Tobin’s office.

Hatzenbuehler used to run the repair shop, purchasing it from Honeman’s father. He sold it to Tobin about a decade ago and, despite living in Pratt, he can’t seem to get too far from his hometown.

Byers continues to survive, although a shell of its former self. It still has a mayor and a city hall, though the clapboard siding is peeling. The bank building that was eventually turned into a grocery advertises it as a hunting lodge. Honeman said her grandparents’ hotel burned down in the 1960s.

A concrete loading area still sits by the long torn-up tracks at Byers. And in the old Naron cemetery, now called Byers Cemetery, is the grave of Levi Naron, who died in 1904.

But Tobin’s repair shop stays busy, thanks to the farming community and business from surrounding towns. He still has a few bricks from the school, as well as the metal staircases that used to be attached to the outside.

Curtis quoted an article from the 1920s written by Naron resident William F. Brown, who said he built his first home in Naron out of lumber purchased with the money from bones he gathered on the prairie.

“That was the good ol’ days,” Brown wrote. “Full of hope and full of expectation.”

It was a time, Brown quipped, that “the latch string was always out.”

“It is truly amazing how much history is connected to these little places that are now just ghostly images of themselves,” said Schuette.

___

Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, https://www.hutchnews.com

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