That Grow a Beard Abe! Town
Small towns across America examine their past, searching for a citizen or event that can be turned into an annual festival, or at least a plaque, to attract visitors. Delphos, Kansas, is an exception to this norm -- it has plenty of baggage in its civic closet. The problem with Delphos is that it appears to have hitched its tourist wagon to something that didn't even happen in Delphos. And while all sorts of noteworthy things have occurred in town since then, it has neither the money or the energy to promote them.
Back in 1966 -- more prosperous times -- governor William Avery traveled to Delphos to dedicate a granite monument on the town square to Grace Bedell, paid for by her descendants. She's known to history as the 11-year-old who wrote a letter to clean-shaven presidential candidate Abe Lincoln, urging him to grow a beard -- which he did, and then won the election.
Abe's Grow-a-Beard Girl, however, wrote her letter to Lincoln while living in Westfield, New York -- over a thousand miles from here (Westfield finally erected its own monument to Grace in 1999). Grace didn't move to Delphos until ten years afterward, as the grown-up wife of a homesteader, when her history-shaping letter-writing days were long over (the original letter is in a collection at the Detroit Public Library.
We drove out to Delphos to see the Grace Bedell monument. The town is depopulated, with empty storefronts on the town square. It's an economic casualty like many small farm towns nowadays. It doesn't look like it can afford to put up any more monuments.
A man drove by slowly in an older sedan as we read the inscription, "Delphos: The home of Lincoln's Little Correspondent," and rolled down his car window. "If they're gonna have a monument to that girl," he yelled, "they should have one to that other girl who got took by the Indians, and when we got her back, she had an Indian baby!" (He even claimed that the 1956 John Wayne movie, "The Searchers," was inspired by the incident.)
This was news to us, so we walked down the block to the Delphos Museum, where curator Mary Ballou filled us in. Oh, yes, she said. That was Anna Brewster Morgan. She was taken by a band of Sioux in 1868, and wasn't released until months later when General George Custer, who was in the area, threatened to hang a captive chief a day until she was freed. Shortly after her return, Anna had a half-Sioux baby named Ira, who then died, and Anna was shunned by the town and eventually went crazy and was buried next to Ira in the town cemetery.
That's quite a story, we told Mary. Does the town have a plaque about Anna Brewster Morgan? No, said Mary.
We asked Mary if there was anything else interesting to see in Delphos. She pulled out a hand-drawn map, and tried to interest us in the Zebulon Pike Monument, west of town, which she said offered a lovely view of the valley (We were polite, but we're not normally interested in scenic views). A small X on the map, just northeast of Delphos, caught our eye. Written next to it were the words "UFO site."
"Oh, that," said Mary, when we asked her about it. "That's where the UFO came down in 1971."
Mary recounted the tale. Ronnie Johnson, a local teenager, came across "a big glowing mushroom thing" hovering just above the ground on his parents' farm. The object froze him and his dog in place, then flew skyward and left him with headaches and nightmares. Others in town saw the strange light as well (including the school principal), and a glowing, grey-white circle was left on the ground. Mary took us into a back room to show us some photos. "On this picture there's a Geiger counter there, and it was way high at that time. REALLY high."
"When the scientists come out," Mary told us, "they dug a two foot deep trench in that circle, put the dirt in water, and it never, ever sank. It floated indefinitely."
Does the town have a monument to mark that UFO landing site, we asked? No, said Mary.
We asked Mary to show us the most interesting exhibit in the Delphos Museum. She pointed out a fossilized shark vertebrae, a barbed wire collection, and the big fire extinguisher that used to be in the Glasco Booster Plant. Then she lowered her voice -- in a way that all museum curators do when they have an exhibit that they can't normally talk about.
Ah-ha! we thought. She has the Indian baby skull! She has a piece of the UFO!
"We have the pen," Mary told us. The pen used by Grace Bedell to write a letter a thousand miles away from here. It's in a secret location in town, but Mary showed it to us and she can show it to you, too, if you ask.
We left Delphos, puzzled by what we had seen -- and not seen. Only later did we learn that Ronnie Johnson, after his UFO encounter, had been visited by a mysterious "wolf girl" with wild blonde hair and torn red clothes. She ran off into the woods on all fours -- and then three years later she returned to town, reportedly was seen eating out of dog dishes, and attacked a couple of residents! We called Mary. Yes, she said, she remembered the Wild Girl. Did the town have a plaque or monument to this girl, who actually did something newsworthy while in Delphos? No, said Mary.
Mary told us that Delphos has projects that it wants to invest in -- for example, buying the empty house once occupied by Grace Bedell -- but putting up monuments to the Indian baby lady, the UFO, or the Wolf Girl are somewhere far down on the list.
"We've been talking about getting a brochure fixed that would have all these things on it," she added, "but that's something else we're still working on."
[Note: We like Delphos. We do. We think everyone should visit, especially the museum, to learn more about the town's unique claims to fame. And maybe donate a few bucks. Delphos may not be thinking UFO Monument right now, but eventually, who knows?]