USA - Neuchatel, Kansas

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History of Neuchatel, Kansas...

Neuchatel, by Susan Dodds
Geography of Kansas
S. L. Stover
November 24, 1986

NEUCHATEL

(Picture by Nicolas Junod - July 2010 - click for full size)

Neuchatel is set in the rolling hills of northeastern Kansas. Thick stands of timber line the banks of French Creek as it curves around the south and west side of the Neuchatel community.

The famous Parallel road runs on the south side of Neuchatel and is still used by many drivers. It is now officially labeled Pottawatomie county road number 752 and it is in the dividing line between Nemaha and Pottawatomie counties.

The Neuchatel area is a favorite of sportsmen as it abounds with quail, pheasant, deer, bobcats, raccoons, squirrels, doves and coyotes. This area is part of the glaciated area of Kansas and many of the red, brownish-red, and purple quartzite rocks left by the glaciers are found in the pastures, fields, and timbers of the Neuchatel community.

The Neuchatel area of Kansas is primarily pasture land with some fields of milo, corn and soybeans: Most of the farms of this area are diversified, raising both livestock and grains. Farmers practice dryland farming with some irrigation where French Creek and man-made ponds are available. The livestock produced are cattle and hogs, with a few sheep. Approximately fifty percent of the present day Neuchatel farmers hold off farm jobs to survive in the present economic situation.

The town of Neuchatel today consists of a community hall, a school house , a church and a cemetery. The community is composed of farm homes separated by miles instead of the many homes that composed the community in the 1800’s. Many houses are deserted, vacant, dreaming of the past, the times when Neuchatel was alive and a part of the great American westward movement.

Neuchatel – 1856

The prairies of the Neuchatel areas were covered with scant, sparse growth of grass. The grass grew in remote clumps. The constant prairie winds blew away the soil, leaving the grass clumps much higher than the rest of the soil. The Whitman and Searl Map of Eastern Kansas, 1856, shows the locations of several early historical cities and villages but none in the Neuchatel area. This map was the first accurate source used after Kansas became a territory in 1854.

The map shows the Pottawatomie Indian Reservation to the south of the Neuchatel area. The only community northwest of Neuchatel area is Marysville. The map shows that Marysville had a post office at this time.

North of the area the map lists no towns between Neuchatel and the border of Nebraska Territory. To the east the Kickapoo Reservation sets between the Neuchatel area and the Missouri River area around Atchison.

West of the Neuchatel area in 1854, there were more prairies stretching to the Blue River Valley with no towns listed on the map. On the Whitman and Searl map, Neuchatel is not listed nor are any notes made about settlers in this area. The official governmentsurvey of this area was completed in the summer 1857.

(Picture by Nicolas Junod - July 2010 - click for full size)

Neuchatel – the settlers

Kansas was a new territory when the first recorded settlers began to claim land in the Neuchatel area. Ezra and Steve Lot of the State of New York settled in the area in 1856. Charles and Ami (Bach) Bonjour (Charles Adolphe & Ami Eugène Bonjour) arrived in this locality in May 1857, just after the government surveyors had finished their official survey of the territory.

The Bonjour brothers arrived in the US from Switzerland in 1852, first settling in Indiana before moving west to settle on French Creek in northeast Kansas. They were the first French-speaking people to arrive in the Neuchatel area. These early settlers recruited other French-speaking Swiss settlers to the Neuchatel area. Later, in July 1857, their brother Frederic H. Bonjour (Frédéric Henri Bonjour), his wife Julia (Julie Adèle Simon), and L. August Zurcher (Louis Auguste Zürcher) took up claims in what was to called Neuchatel.

Fred and Julia Bonjour had the first white child born in the Neuchatel community on September 21, 1857.

Ami, Charles and Gustave Bonjour and L. August Zurcher hired out to the government that first year to cut hay using the common scythe method. L. August Zurcher left the Neuchatel area in 1860 when he enlisted in Company G, 4th Missouri Cavalry to fight in the Civil War. He returned to Neuchatel in the spring of 1867 after he married Mrs Mary Dodds in Indiana. They were accompanied by her two sons Milton and Newton Dodds. (Newton was the great great grandfather of Susan Dodds, the writer of this report).

Many of the later Swiss settlers were relatives of the early Neuchatel settlers named above. Some of the Swiss settlers immigrated directly from cantons in Switzerland and others came to Neuchatel after living in other states of the United States.

This area also attracted settlers from other countries and areas of the United States. Henry Labbe and relatives immigrated from France to Wisconsin in 1856. Along with August Seigneur, they staked claims in the Neuchatel area in 1866. A popular figure in Neuchatel history was Peter Dockler, a doctor of medicine. He was a native of France who was educated around and had practiced medicine in Africa before coming to the United States. He practiced medicine in the eastern United States before coming to Neuchatel in 1862.

A family group of Belgians, who had originally settled in Wisconsin, also settled in the Neuchatel area. Other settlers were from other areas of the United States including Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and West Virginia.

The people of homesteaded the Neuchatel area chose it for its plentiful water supply and fertile soil. The settler’s farms raised corn and some wheat. The first livestock consisted of cows, pigs, and oxen. The first team of horses were brought to this area around 1860.

Early settlers lived in dugouts and caves until they could later build log houses and frame homes. The area was noted for the use of old fashioned rail worm fences. Goods and supplies for the community were hauled from Leavenworth and Atchison. Many of the later settlers were tradesmen who homesteaded and either built businesses in the town of Neuchatel or operated their businesses from their homesteads.

The Lot brothers and L. August Zurcher were noted for digging a furrow from their claim at Neuchatel to the settlement of America City (approximately nine miles east) and panting cuttings of cottonwood trees so others might find their way on the wide prairie.
Another thing of note is the fact that Charles Bonjour bought the second organ in the territory in 1877 and his house became a gathering place for the young people of the area. It is also noted in Neuchatel history that the settlers felt the earthquake of 1868.

Neuchatel – the town

(Picture by Nicolas Junod - July 2010 - click for full size)

The settlers who came to Neuchatel area were not strictly farmers. Many of them had trades that were of use to others in the settling of the area. Carpentry, cabinet making, and shoemaking are just a few of the occupations of the people who settled the Neuchatel area. The town of Neuchatel was formed by these talented people. Following is a description of Neuchatel on March 1, 1878.

Neuchatel is a small trading point on the south line of Nemaha county, the headquarter of a large French settlement, who have a fine church building, controlled by the Presbyterians - and the Catholics will build a church north of Neuchatel this summer. Also there is a fine stone schoolhouse.

The businesses of the place are :

Cooper: Baptist Dulac
General Merchandise: F. H. Bonjour & Co
Physician: Dr. A. Henry
Saloon: F. H. Bonjour
Steam Flour Mill: Neuchatel Mill Co.

(taken from an old newspaper account in the Kansas Historical records).

The Swiss settlers of Neuchatel were concerned with establishing a school for the community. Due to a lack of funds, a subscription list was circulated in the community to raise money for a school and a teacher. School was taught in homes until a log house was erected in the fall of 1868.

The school site was changed to the present location in Neuchatel in 1871. This stone structure housed District #5, a joint school system for Nemaha and Pottawatomie counties, until it was closed in the winter of 1951.

Alfred Bonjour (Louis Alfred Bonjour) sent a petition to the United States government to establish a post office in early 1864. A post office was established on August 8th, 1864, and at this time the town was officially named Neuchatel, in honor of the canton in Switzerland that the original settlers immigrated from.

A general store was built in Neuchatel in 1867. It was a log structure. This store burned in 1875 and a frame building was erected. Goods were hauled from Seneca and from the end of the Central railroad between Corning and Centralia to the north. Store goods were primarily sold on credit. The general store was a gathering place of the area.
A French Presbyterian church was chartered and a wood structure built in the year of 1870.

The Swiss people in the Neuchatel community were noted for their religious fervor. On December 13, 1905, the present church was constructed. This church conducted weekly services until 1932 and is now used infrequently.

The Catholics members of the Neuchatel community built a church at Coal Creek, a neighboring area to the northeast of Neuchatel.

A grist mill was built on the Julia Bonjour farm in 1874 (wife of Frédéric Henri Bonjour). It was a massive structure made of stone and run by the waters of French Creek. The mill was built by funds of several Neuchatel farmers and merchants.

Following is a description of Neuchatel on March 1, 1901

Neuchatel is a pleasant little settlement of about 50 souls, located on the parallel about 6 miles north of Onaga and surrounded by a rich and developed country. It has one good general store and post office (with a public hall above), a blacksmith shop (fitted with woodworking and plow polishing departments), and a large church. The village has an overland daily mail connecting with the L.K. and W. (railroad) at Onaga, which affords good service. (Taken from the Onaga Republican, April 23, 1901).

Neuchatel – death of a town

Neuchatel as a town died because of four major reasons. These reasons were the failure of the grist mill, the closing of the post office, the building of the railroads and the urge of the settlers to move on.

The Neuchatel grist mill, built in 1874, was a community endeavor and several families invested heavily in it. The mill failed due to a lack of area wheat and a short supply of water. Several Neuchatel farmers lost their land due to the mill’s failure and other lost their savings.

On May 15, 1901, the postal facility was closed in Neuchatel and area residents began picking up their mail in Centralia and Onaga.

In the late 1800’s, the railroads were beginning to make an impact on the Kansas economy. Neuchatel was missed by the railroads. One line, the Central railroad, went north from Corning to Centralia and the L.K. and W. railroad went south and west of Neuchatel, through Onaga and Duluth. As the town of Onaga grew around the railroad, many of the Neuchatel people and their offspring moved to Onaga.

It is ironic that one of the reasons the Neuchatel area was settled is also one of the reasons the community died. The urge to move on or go west was very strong in the settlers of this community so when the economy of Neuchatel failed, the people of the community moved on to new relatively unsettled areas of the west. Colorado, South Dakota, Oregon and California are all homes of the descendants of the Surdez, Dodds, Bonjour, Labbe and other Neuchatel families who called the Neuchatel area of northeast Kansas their home.

References

  • F.F. Crevecoeur, “Old Settlers Tales”, printed in the Onaga Republican during the Winter of 1901-1902
  • Mil Penner and Carol Schmidt, Kansas (Inman, K.S. : Sounds of Kansas, 1985)
  • Marjorie Labbe, “Neuchatel History and Heritage”
  • Daniel Fitzgerald, “Ghost Towns of Kansas”, 1976