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5 best things to do in historic Girard, Kansas

Dr. Charles H. Strong decided to bag a deer for his birthday on February 28, 1868. He succeeded, shooting a deer on the southwest corner of the current Crawford County Courthouse square in Girard, Kansas. A sculpted deer on a pedestal marks the event. He named the town for his hometown, Girard, Pennsylvania. Girard became the Crawford County seat a year after Crawford County’s organization. Girard is halfway between Kansas City and Tulsa, Oklahoma, an easy day trip.

Like its beginning, Girard’s history marks it as unconventional, too. Visit unconventional Girard, population 2,400, for the perfect weekend getaway.

Related: While Girard is the county seat, Pittsburg is Crawford County’s largest city.

Explore Crawford County sponsored my visit, but all opinions are mine. If you use our affiliate links, including Amazon Associates and Stay22, to make a purchase, we might earn a small commission for our time and website costs (at no additional cost to you).  These links are always disclosed. 

Joplin, Missouri (JLN), is the closest regional airport.

Book flights, lodging, and car rentals in the above ad.

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Strong's deer statue, the Crawford County Courthouse, and a marker
This deer sculpture marks the spot where Dr. Charles Strong decided to set up the Girard townsite.

1. Crawford County Courthouse

Girard’s first two courthouses fared as well as Strong’s birthday deer. In December of 1868, Girard became the county seat. The initial courthouse was a two-story frame building. The first story held four county offices, with the second story reserved for the district court. 

Girard built the second courthouse as a city hall, but the city donated it to the county in April 1890, paying more than two-thirds of the cost. The new brick courthouse displayed the then-popular Victorian Gothic style. It looked magnificent, but its appearance was deceptive. The magnificence disguised a disaster. Towers at the building’s corners provided the defining feature of the Victorian Gothic style — and the southwest tower defined its design flaws. Eighteen years after its construction, the southwest tower leaned eight inches out of alignment. Crawford County razed the courthouse two years later.

Crawford County dedicated the current courthouse on June 1, 1922, and renovated it in the 1990s. The building is made from Carthage stone and marble throughout the interior.

May 3, 1904, Appeal to Reason edition from the Girard, Kansas, History Museum
Note the “Chicago” on The Appeal to Reason‘s flag.

2. The Appeal to Reason boosts Girard

The stereotypical Kansan holds conservative political beliefs. However, Girard did not conform to type. Instead, the largest socialist newspaper called Girard, Kansas, its home. Its worldwide circulation attracted leading commentators like Jack London, Helen Keller, and Mother Jones. J.A. Wayland brought the newspaper to Girard in 1897. By 1913, its circulation had topped 750,000. Special editions sold millions of copies. The paper’s success made Girard the smallest city with a first-class post office and a Carnegie library.

Coeditor Fred Warren commissioned Upton Sinclair’s classic novel The Jungle. The newspaper serialized the story but canceled it after a poor response. Sinclair revised the book, and it became a best seller in 1906. Sinclair’s account of disgusting conditions in Chicago meatpacking plants shocked the nation. President Theodore Roosevelt pushed Congress to pass the Food and Drug Act, the foundation for the Food and Drug Administration. 

Sinclair thought his novel’s success had reached the wrong target. He had hoped to highlight the workers’ plight, but instead, he had improved food safety. “I aimed at the public’s heart and hit it in its stomach,” he said.

Read the classic novel.

While Sinclair prospered, the Appeal suffered. Roosevelt’s successor, Woodrow Wilson, repressed socialism, and circulation plummeted. Then Wayland’s wife died, and he despaired, eventually dying by suicide. 

Copies of Little Blue Books
Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England had the subtitle, “A Plain Exposition of Socialism, What It Is and What It Is Not.” The title was guaranteed to upset the Wilson Administration and the FBI.

The Little Blue Books turn Girard into a literary wonder

Emanuel Haldeman-Julius and his wife, Marcet, bought the paper. She was the daughter of a Girard banker. They started publishing The Little Blue Books, 3.5-inch by 5-inch paperbacks. Their size fit in a shirt pocket. The five-cent publications sold 350–500 million copies and brought recognition to unknown authors. Because of their output, The Chicago Daily News labeled Girard “The Literary Capital of the United States.”

The Blue Books covered a range of topics, including controversial ones. The controversy spawned unpleasant governmental interest.

The couple divorced in 1931 but continued to live together. She died 10 years later. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover became their enemy, and a federal court convicted Emanuel Haldeman-Julius of tax evasion. He drowned in his swimming pool a month later.

Roxie’s reliable report: The Appeal’s first home is now Mike Carpenter’s New York Life Insurance agency. The Haldeman-Julius family were atheists, and ironically, the Bible Publication shop is only a block away. Veterans Memorial Park is on the company’s final site.

The Girard History Museum's exterior and sign.

3. Girard History Museum preserves Girard’s stories

The Girard History Museum inhabits the former St. John’s Episcopal Church. The church’s exterior remains unaltered, except for the museum sign. The interior retains the church’s furnishings in front of the chancel rail, including the pipe organ. Beautiful stained glass windows illumine the displays.  

Of course, exhibits explain the Appeal and Little Blue Books. Find print blocks, bound newspaper editions, and books. However, Girard’s aviation history is also intriguing.  

May Fly model and a picture of its founder in front of a stained glass window.
A model of the “May Fly” from Girard, Kansas

The “May Fly,” the Girard contribution to aviation history

Henry Laurens Call came to Girard in 1909 with blueprints for an aircraft. He soon approached every citizen with fundraising appeals. Wayland and other Girard residents backed the call. Call planned to fly a group of socialists to the Socialist Convention on May 10, 1908. The tickets would pay for the plane’s construction. His giant four-winged contraption weighed 3,000 pounds. Call named it “The Great Dream.” Skeptical locals called it “The May Fly,” saying, “It may fly — or it may not.” 

The first design crashed into a ditch, and its propeller later killed mechanic H.W. Struble. Call eventually built 14 designs, two of which briefly flew. The investors finally lost patience and folded the company. Call left Girard shortly thereafter, dying in a 1917 plane crash in Wyoming.

Call’s Aerial Navigation Company of America set several firsts, including the first attempt to build an aircraft west of the Mississippi River, the first aircraft designed and built in Kansas, and it was the world’s third-largest airplane manufacturer in its time.

Related: William Purvis and Art Wilson invented America’s first patented helicopter in Goodland, but it also failed to fly.

Lindbergh’s flyover

Charles Lindbergh was the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic on May 21, 1927, landing at Le Bourget Field in Paris. Afterward, Harry and Daniel Guggenheim sponsored Lindbergh’s three-month nationwide tour. He flew the record-breaking plane, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” to  48 states and 92 cities, but that did not satisfy the citizens. Because of this, the Lindbergh team scheduled extra time between in-person appearances so he could circle above more communities. His route took him from Kansas City to Wichita on August 18, 1927, flying over Osawatomie, Fort Scott, Girard, and Chanute. 

Because of Girard’s contribution to aviation, Lindbergh flew a tight flight circle radius and dropped a bright yellow scroll from his plane. It landed on a sidewalk in front of Sauer’s Department Store. The scroll read in part, “This message from the air … express[es] our sincere appreciation … in the promotion and expansion of commercial aeronautics in the United States.” The museum preserves the ribbon and related memorabilia from the overflight.

Related: Instead of flying over Osawatomie and Fort Scott, drop in for a visit.

Grotto and ruins of St. Aloysius Church, Greenbush, Kansas
St. Aloysius Church turned ruins into a grotto.

3. St. Aloysius Church, Greenbush

St. Aloysius Church in Greenbush, a hamlet 9 miles west of Girard, is an arresting site. The church’s ruins look like something from Europe. A parking lot separates the ruins from a functioning church building. The ruins symbolize the parish’s many hardships. 

Appropriately, the church began with hardship. Father Phillip Colleton was a Jesuit missionary priest in 1869 when he was caught in a severe thunderstorm. His saddle was his only protection from the weather, and he vowed to build a church there if he survived.

Colleton’s church, a small wooden building, opened two years later. He started eight other churches in the area and some Catholic schools. He survived two train wrecks, only to die 11 months after a handcar pump bar struck him in the chest.

Another storm destroyed the Greenbush church a year later. The parishioners quarried stone from Hickory Creek limestone and finished a new church in 1881. The church dedicated a stone church in 1907, turning the second church into a community center.

Seventy-five years later, lightning struck the third church. The resilient parish returned to the second church, technically the parish’s fourth church. The Diocese of Wichita closed St. Aloysius in 1993. Determined to keep the faith, the parishioners installed the Blessed Virgin Mary grotto in the 1907 church’s ruins and returned the 1881 church into a community center. Colleton would be proud of their persistence.

Roxie’s reliable report: Greenbush celebrates Greenbush Day on the third Sunday of each September.

The Appeal to Reason and St. Aloysius are featured in my book Secret Kansas: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure, along with 82 other stories. Buy an autographed copy from our store.

We (heart) Our Square! Girard mural depicts a field of blooming sunflowers it with an overcast sky in the background.

4. Admire Girard murals

Two murals adorn the Girard, Kansas, courthouse square. The Barn Quilt Mural commemorates the rural folk art and honors Girard’s 2018 sesquicentennial. The Girard Heritage Mural depicts historic Girard buildings on a wheatfield background. A Girard High School Trojan is at the left. The Kansas-shaped Sunflower State Mural announces, “We (heart) Our Square!”

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A partially full pan of cinnamon rolls in Eastside Café, Girard, Kansas
The delicious cinnamon rolls at Eastside Café disappear fast, so come early.

5. Eat in Girard

Here are the best local restaurants to savor great food in Girard.

• No visit to Crawford County is complete without fried chicken. Experience the Girard version with all the sides at Chicken Annie’s Girard

• Eastside Café‘s cinnamon rolls are showstoppers. The confections rise high, and they last. I brought home a roll for my husband to share after a week on the road. The roll was still delicious. Their omelets are fluffy and full of fixings, and the hash browns are crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. Perfection.

Three saddles are bar stools at C4 Coffeehouse.
Saddle up to the coffee bar at C4 Coffeehouse.

• Saddle up at C4 Coffeehouse & Country Store. No, really. The coffee bar stools are saddles. I ate a delicious panini. I could have taken the Bull by the Horns (drank a shot of coffee), but instead, I chose to drink a Bull (extra large). The sizes also come in Calf, Heifer, and Cow. Buy farm-themed household goods as well.

Take a day to relax in Girard, Kansas, and stay 15 minutes north at Crawford State Park.

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