Rooks County title

Fascinating things to do in Rooks County, Kansas

Explore fascinating Rooks County, Kansas

Rooks County, Kansas, is full of fascinating stories. Meet French-Canadian settlers who emigrated to Damar from Canada and marvel at their spectacular St. Joseph’s Church. In contrast, Ash Rock Church north of Woodston is plainly, but solidly built, a solid comfort source for its community.

Codell endured the shocking misfortune of being struck three times by tornadoes. On the same date. For three consecutive years. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not commemorated the strange circumstance.

Adore the outdoors at Webster State Park.

Plainville honors a heroic airmail pilot who saved the mail he was carrying but lost his life and a little girl who died in a traffic accident.

At the Frank Walker Museum in Stockton, learn about a trailblazing Black performer from Stockton. Downtown, browse specialty shopping options.

In Nicodemus, barely over the county line into Graham County, explore another important chapter of African-American history.

Because it’s nestled in the Chalk Hills, Rooks County features beautiful scenery and an excellent scenic drive. To reach Rooks County, drive north on US Highway 183 from Hays.

Fun fact: The county gets its name from Civil War Private John Calvin Rooks, who died from wounds suffered during the Battle of Prairie Grove in Arkansas.

Part of this trip was hosted, but, as always, all opinions are my own, based on my experiences.

Experience Rooks County stories

Let’s open the Rooks County storybook from the freakish Codell tornadoes to the French Quarter Visitors Center. Then we’ll venture into Graham County for the story of Nicodemus.

St. Joseph's Church in Damar, Rooks County
St. Joseph’s Church is 158 feet long and 55 feet wide.

Explorez le quartier français de Damar

The elaborate altarpiece at St. Joseph's Church
The church’s decorators and renovators spared no expense.

(The French headline means Explore the French Quarter in Damar.)

Francis St. Peter’s tiny city of Damar attracted so many French Canadian settlers that it became known as “The Acadia of the West.”

Damar cherishes its heritage, and its gem is the spectacular St. Joseph’s Church. You’ll need no directions to the church because the 90-foot towers are visible for miles. The Richardson Romanesque-style church is so spectacular that it was named one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Architecture. The first time we saw it, my husband compared the interior to Notre Dame in Paris. When we walked inside, my jaw dropped in shock at its lavish decor. The wonder of the sun streaming through the glorious stained-glass windows brought me to tears.

The pillars are actually made from concrete, not that anyone can tell. To make the pillars look like marble, the pillars are covered with plaster layers, a process called scagliola. The process has a long history; the Medici started using it in the 17th century.

While you’re in Damar, visit the French Quarter Visitors Center and buy a “Proud to Be Damartian” T-shirt. Call Rooks County Economic Development to arrange for a tour.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Experience the French Riviera.

Ash Rock Church north of Woodston, Rooks County
Ash Rock Church is one of many buildings constructed of native limestone.

The simplicity of Ash Rock Church

Elegant in its simplicity, Woodston’s Ash Rock Church was finished in 1882. It’s the oldest Rooks County church. Its stones are Fort Hays Limestone, which is softer and easier to work than Post Rock Limestone. The outdoor walls are 18 inches thick. The walls are actually a set of walls separated by a gap filled with stone chips.

Codell tornado marker in Rooks County
This metal marker commemorates the freaky Cyclone Days.

Codell: Tornado Alley’s poster child

On May 20, 1916, and May 20, 1917, tornadoes danced around Codell, damaging properties near the community. No one was hurt or killed. On May 20, 1918, the day began with calm, cool weather, and the residents thought the tornadic scourge had ended. Instead, the worst tornado struck. The 1918 tornado was an F4, a killer with winds over 200 miles per hour. Nine people died. The tornado destroyed the school and some businesses. The town never recovered from Tornado No. 3. The next year, the tornadoes ceased visiting the town.

In 2018, the town erected a marker commemorating the twisters’ visits. Two siblings who had survived the tornadoes, Lee Smith and Ellen Hockett, attended the dedication ceremony. The marker is on Fourth Street, but I think the street should be named Tornado Alley.

An impounded pond on the Chalk Hills Scenic Drive
Rooks County is filled with chalk bluffs and winding creeks.

Dare to do dirt on the Chalk Hills Scenic Drive

Chalk bluffs and winding creeks cover the land on the Chalk Hills Scenic Drive. From Ash Rock Church, drive south 5.5 miles on Road 29 to Highway 24. Turn west 0.7 miles to Woodston, then head south on Road 29 for 18 miles. The gravel road crosses the South Fork of the Solomon River and roughly parallels Medicine Creek before it reaches Highway 18 east of Codell.

The route splits in Codell. Explore the Paradise Creek area on Road AA from Codell 5.8 miles west to Highway 183. Or take Codell Road 6.5 miles south to Saline River Road. Turn west and follow the Saline River another 6.5 miles to Highway 183.

Clarence Audburn Gilbert
Airmail pilot Clarence Audburn GIlbert saved the mail but lost his life in a crash. (Roger Hrabe/Rooks County Economic Development)

Neither snow nor dark of night stopped this airmail pilot

Clarence Audburn Gilbert fully lived up to the unofficial postal service motto, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Gilbert’s fidelity as a mail carrier cost him his life.

He regularly flew from Chicago to Iowa City. On the night of December 21, 1924, Gilbert was pressed into service to fly extra Christmas mail. He took off from Chicago in hazy weather. Soon, he flew into a blizzard, which obscured all navigation aids. Instrument-aided flying was still five years in the future. The adverse weather forced Gilbert to abandon his plane.

To prevent the mail from catching fire, Gilbert turned off the plane’s engines and jumped. Unfortunately, the parachute opened too close to the plane and the plane’s tail severed the parachute lines.

Gilbert was the first pilot to die while flying a nighttime mail route.

With his story and his plane engraved on the pedestal, Gilbert’s bust stands in front of the Plainville Post Office, the perfect honor for the hometown pilot who gave his all to deliver the mail.

Karen Elizabeth Nuckols reading
Follow Karen Nuckols’ example and read a book from the Plainville Public Library. (Roger Hrabe/Rooks County Economic Development)

Plainville Public Library remembers a little girl lost

A poignant statue of Karen Elizabeth Nuckols graces the entrance to Plainville Public Library. The six-year-old Nuckols died in a traffic accident.

Plainville City Park benches
Enjoy nostalgia for early day road trips with these park benches. (Roger Hrabe/Rooks County Economic Development)

Rock the benches in Plainville City Park

Every park has park benches. But in Plainville, they aren’t your ordinary wooden or plastic benches. Take the weight off on these rock-solid benches. In the 1930s, John Hilgers and Harvey Shaw built the benches for travelers to rest in Home Oil Co.’s pocket park. The park was adjacent to the Red Line Road, which later became Kansas Highway 18. Later the benches found a home in City Park, and the road moved north of Plainville.

Frank Walker Museum in Stockton
The horse commemorates the huge Thomas Barn that stood near Woodston until a fire destroyed it in 1995. (Roger Hrabe/Rooks County Economic Development)

Frank Walker Museum honors a Black trailblazer

Nat “King” Cole is often said to be the first Black man to have his own network TV show. But that honor actually belongs to Lorenzo Fuller from Stockton. In 1947, Fuller hosted a 15-minute show on NBC. His show Van and the Genie on WPIX-TV in New York City was the first show to star a Black man and a White woman. Explore Fuller family memorabilia at the Frank Walker Museum.

The museum also holds a large doll collection, memorabilia from the World Wars, replicas of early-day businesses, fossils, rocks, and minerals.

Webster State Park, Rooks County
3,700 acres of open water await you at Webster State Park.

Prioritize fishing lines over waiting in line at Webster State Park

Do you hate waiting? Does a queue at the boat ramp make you gnash your teeth? You need Webster State Park. Because it’s far from major population centers, Webster is uncrowded. So put your boat in the water — fish and swim to your heart’s content. Below the dam, cast your line for trout at Webster Stilling Basin.

Rooks County is a center for great fishing. Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism ranks Plainville Township Lake and Rooks County State Lake first and second in their “Whatever’s Biting” fishing list.

Hunt deer, pheasant, waterfowl, and turkey in Webster Wildlife Area — with a weapon or a camera. (To avoid crowds, hunt during the middle of the week and after November.)

You’ll feel free after you escape those pesky crowds.

Trout fishing at Webster Stilling Basin
This angler is about to hook trout bait at Webster Stilling Basin.

What to know: Learn all the news about Webster and other parks in the vicinity in their newsletter. Check the fishing forecast. Buy hunting and fishing licenses. The park is friendly to leashed dogs. Reserve a campsite.

Nicodemus Township Hall
Nicodemus Township Hall is now the Nicodemus National Historic Site Visitor Center.

Escaping Jim Crow in Nicodemus

After the Civil War, life should have been different for formerly enslaved persons. But it wasn’t. Reconstruction hadn’t broken virulent racism before it abruptly ended. Instead of treating freed people as equal citizens, governments passed segregationist statutes known as Jim Crow laws. Instead of enduring the racism, which often included violence, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton advocated escaping. Like a latter-day Moses, Singleton led his people from what was slavery in all but name. In the late 1870s, about 600 people arrived in eastern Graham County, many of whom walked from the railroad in Ellis.

After the settlers arrived, Nicodemus prospered until both the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific railroads stayed away. When the railroads bypassed Nicodemus, the settlement began to decline. The decline worsened during the Dust Bowl and other farm crises, just like many other rural communities. But Nicodemus still stands, the final Exoduster community that is still extant.

Nicodemus National Historic Site holds five buildings. The former township hall, now the visitor center, features some interpretive displays that explain Nicodemus’ history and importance.

About three miles west of Stockton, look for the remains of a stone dugout that Nicodemus residents used for overnight shelter when they traveled home from visiting Stockton.

Sand Creek Mercantile
Experience Cheryl’s creative vision at Sand Creek Mercantile in Stockton.

Where to shop in Rooks County

Stroll Rooks County streets for fun shopping. We recommend visiting these stores in Stockton and Plainville.

Join the quilting bee at Stitch and Chatter

Simply stepping into Stitch and Chatter will inspire you to create something new with textiles. The store features everything associated with textile crafts. Join the Happy Stitchers quilting group on Mondays from 3-5 p.m.

Shop rustic style at Sand Creek Mercantile

Cheryl at Sand Creek Mercantile turns decorative items into delightful one-of-a-kind pieces you’ll be proud to own. We loved her creations.

Fun finds await you at This & That

You’ll never know what will be in stock at This and That, the Plainville flea market. The search is part of the fun.

Gifts and flowers will delight your heart at Mill Street Market

Unique gifts are the province of Mill Street Market. While shopping there, send fresh flowers to those you love.

Outfit yourself for outdoor activities

Since Rooks County is a hunting and fishing paradise, you’ll need to stock up on supplies. Morgan Arms & Ammo offers everything related to guns. Webster Bait & Tackle is conveniently located adjacent to Webster Reservoir. The store stocks all things fishing, plus camping supplies.

Dad's Place/Damar Cafe in Rooks County
Quesadillas and tater tots at Dad’s Place/Damar Cafe.

Where to eat in Rooks County

Thankfully, chain restaurants are not a thing in Rooks County. Instead, dine at home-owned restaurants.

The Goose & Frog, where everybody knows your name

Phone menu at The Goose & Frog, Rooks County
This charge sheet tucked into the faux British telephone booth explains how much various phone calls cost.

We half expected to see Cheers characters at the Goose & Frog Tavern in Stockton. The neighborhood bar feels cozy and welcoming. Try the Hawai’ian or the Early Bird burger. The travel-themed decorations warmed our travel writer hearts.

Happy hour runs from 5 to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays through Saturdays. Show off your vocal talents during Karaoke Nights every third Saturday, beginning at 10 p.m.

Nostalgia rules at Plainville’s Cardinal Drive In

Savor diner classics at Plainville’s Cardinal Drive In. Stay in your car, eat inside, or carry out your food. The restaurant takes its name from Plainville High’s mascot, the Cardinals.

Good food meets good company at Dad’s Place/Damar Cafe

Friendliness and good food are the hallmarks of the cafe in Damar. I always eat the delicious chicken quesadillas.

Rose Cottage, Rooks County
Enjoy the charming surroundings at Rose Cottage.

Where to stay in Rooks County

After a day of exploring Rooks County’s stories, you’ll be ready for a night’s sleep.

Be a beach baby at Rose Cottage in Stockton. The relaxing beach-themed decor will help you unwind. The two-bedroom cottage features a full kitchen and full-sized laundry facilities.

The bunkhouse-style Sportsman’s Paradise sleeps eight people in two bedrooms. The outdoor-themed lodging is only 1.5 miles from the state park. Besides the kitchen and laundry facilities, it features dog kennels.

View more options below.

More to explore

Prairie Dog State Park offers great outdoor recreation opportunities in nearby Norton County. Take the Kansas Rocks tour in North Central and Northwest Kansas. Kansas has so much to offer travelers, as does the rest of the Midwest. Tour the best of American attractions in the national parks.


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