In 1871, taking advantage of the Homestead Act, Mary Rickman Anderson and her husband David paid the $10 fee and headed out across Kansas to claim their 160 acres. The family’s first home was a sod house, so poor that their children slept in beds suspended from the cellar rafters – the only way to protect them from snakes and insects.

After David’s death the following April, Mary, and her eight children had to work extra hard to keep their land but they did, and eventually, they built a new home from limestone found on their property. And 18 years later, in 1889, Mary finally had full ownership of the farm after she made the final $8 payment on the land.

LEFT: Francesca Catalini outside an abandoned building. RIGHT: The 1889 home of Mary Rickman Anderson and her children
LEFT: Francesca Catalini outside an abandoned building. RIGHT: The 1889 home of Mary Rickman Anderson and her children

This is just one of the many stories that Francesca Catalini, 32, uncovers every day as she documents the histories of the disintegrating structures across the Kansas prairies.

LEFT: This mill produced flour from 1875 to 1941 along the Cottonwood River. RIGHT: Church of Lost Springs from 1821.

“I moved from Colorado three years ago to a small town just outside Wichita,” explains Francesca. “Out west, I was accustomed to shooting mountains and old abandoned mining towns. During my first week in town, I began exploring the Two Lane backroads. I’d drive for miles with stretches of nothing then suddenly happen upon a crumbling building in the middle of nowhere. Like a moth to a light, I’d find myself outside my car, knee-deep in prairie grass, with my camera clicking away.”

The only problem: When she was ready to post her photos on Instagram, Francesca had no idea how to caption the images. Rather than resorting to a worn-out cliché about “the road less traveled,” she took prints of her photos and began knocking on the doors of the neighbors and farmers nearby to see what they knew about these ruined buildings, information she could use to caption her art. What began as a hobby has now evolved into a full-blown preservation project as Francesca works to save the stories of the small towns and settlements that dot the Kansas prairie.

“I’ve come to find that farmers know everything. If you consider generations of the same family cultivating the same soil for all those years, you can bet stories have been handed down about the area.”

At its peak in 1910, this Kansas ghost town had 21 residents. It was just a small stop along the railroad, but the town couldn’t have been more alive. Above city hall, there was a dance floor. On the weekends a band would play up there, the music spilling out into the streets. All that remains is this farmhouse.

On top of that, Francesca uses “old school” research tools like the library, microfilm, genealogy books, newspapers, and the local historical society to help identify the subjects of her photos. Her favorite method is simply approaching the locals in town and starting a conversation — a concept that to some may seem as archaic as the structures in question.

“Strangers don’t talk anymore. I feel like we look down at our phones more than we look into the eyes of the people on the streets. I can’t tell you how many times these chance encounters have led to introductions with relatives, teachers, and community members who’ve helped me understand the impact of these places when they were in their prime. Sometimes simply asking about them brings back an appreciation for the soul of the town”

Silos and ghost signs RIGHT: Lawrenz Feed Co. in Wellsville, Kansas dates back to 1884

The clock is ticking on the race to save these stories because many of the storytellers Francesca interviews are nearing the end of their lives. They hold the keys to the area’s history, and she feels keenly the responsibility to gather and preserve their memories about the places that shaped their first-hand experiences about the places that shaped them.

“Many of these places have little to no documentation and sometimes they’re 100-years-old. The unstable state of the structures with their sunken roofs, creaky floors, and remote locations can be intimidating. The current rundown state of general stores, churches, post offices, and mills should not dictate or lessen their significance. Their stories are radically important to the thread of the town. I never want people to walk past an old building, not knowing its role in the community.”

LEFT: Fetrow General Store was a popular place to buy penny candy in 1927. RIGHT: an eerie mill rests in rust on the back roads of Kansas

Francesca hopes that her photos and their stories will inspire others to get curious about old buildings in their own state and beyond.

“Your personal experiences in your hometown give you roots there. What’s even more incredible to me is how a place that holds no ties to you, can latch on and make you feel part of it. It’s the emotional connection to the story that leaves a lasting impression. With each picture, every conversation, it’s my hope that I can take these memories and preserve them as an inclusive piece of local history through my lens.”

In 1917, the Santa Fe Railroad laid its tracks right through the middle of this farm. At one time there was a lumber yard, two grocery stores, several houses, two elevators, and a depot. Today the land is still farmed, but the town is a ghost.



43 thoughts on “Abandoned Kansas: Preserving the Stories of Small Town America”

  1. Murray Dinneen

    Well…what can one say…History is such a HUGE part of life. We don’t realise what these people went thru and some even lost everything.
    Luv the pics sooo much.

    All the way from New Zealand


  2. Brad Eustice

    I grew up in Kansas and traveled a lot of the back roads.. thanks for sharing the details of the project. Looking forward to seeing more of the work..brings back memories. Southeast and central Kansas were my favorite places to wander.

  3. Rick Ambrose

    I was born and raised in the Kansas Flint Hills. My grandfather had a large cattle ranch there. I love roaming the backroads discovering abandoned farms and little towns like these. Most houses in the Flint Hills and west to Lucas were build of native limestone, as in the photo here. The downfall is when the roof finally goes, then deterioration begins…… For a good scenic drive of the area, take Kansas Hwy 177 south from Manhattan thru Council Grove, Strong City and beautiful Cottonwood Falls to Matfield Green. You will see the Konza Prairie Preserve, The National Tallgrass Prairie, and all the historic little towns in between. A side trip to Alma is an added bonus! I love Kansas!

    1. Dana

      I live here in Emporia, KS. My husband use to work on an oil rig and when I would travel to see him I would see abandoned houses everywhere along the back roads of north, south, west and east Kansas.

  4. Denise

    Love the history of Kansas my dad’s side of the family moved there in 1804 my great,great,great grandparents,all the way down the family chain, to my dad.

  5. Koos

    Nice to see the history of those old buildings. Where are the old cars . In our country you can hardly find such buildings or places. Because we need the space for new buildings. Every part of land is needded for homes in our tiny country.
    Greetings from the Netherlands.

  6. Susan

    Love this story. I have just begun photographing rural NC decrepitude. I love the old and crumbling… the rusty and crusty…the abandoned beauties with so much history in their bones. I am beginning to find out the stories to some I have photographed and am hopeful to put them together for others to see and enjoy. So nice to know that others appreciate them too.


  7. Dave McNeil

    I felt myself drawn into these Kansas photos. I cant stop thinking about the stories of the people who lived in those homes and owned and worked in the mills, stores, and depots. I get emotional reading the stories. Thank you so much for sharing your journey.

  8. Jeff B

    Great pictures. It’s nice to see that you are so interested in the history that is attached to these homes and shops. What did people do in the “old days” before? They read, made things with their hands and slept because they were so tired from 12 hour days 7 days a week.

  9. Hugh Bishop

    I was born in Hamilton County Kansas. Lived in a sod house my Grandfather built in 1912. Today the population in the whole county is around 2600 people. There is a true story my Dad told me about homesteading , that was published in the 2018 fall issue of Range Magazine. It’s called “Calico”. It happened in 1913. 105 years later it was published.

  10. Robert Bigelow

    I applaud the efforts made to preserve the structures of the past.. Congratulations!!! and thank you..
    My wife Jan, and I of what would now be 42 years ago– she passed away this last July– lived in north central Florida just south of Gainesville. We bought a home there in 1977 and a small pasture adjacent to it. Over the course of the five years we lived there we created a community (museum if you will) of vintage buildings that were virtually abandoned. One was a 300′ long railroad depot which we move in five pieces and reassembled first. it was restored and has housed numerous business’s since , and still does. It was 101 years old when we bought it. Next we bought a 104 year old two story country store,restored it to original style,and it housed one of our antique enterprises till an arsonist burned it down on a whim one night.We replaced it with an orange packing shed and opened an auction house there and it too has housed numerous other business enterprises since and still does.We then bought a 65 year old “Florida Cracker” five room house and moved it to the property. It became Jan’s year-round Christmas shop,and has housed a restaurant since we moved away 32 years ago. The village still stands and is now on the NATIONAL HISTORIC REGISTER and if you want to visit it, look it up on line,it is HARVEST VILLAGE between McIntosh and Gainesville Florida on highway 441.
    Jan and I continued to buy-collect-restore-and sell antiques and collectibles together till this last July and I’m sure she’s still looking on as I carry on till it is my time to rejoin her but I felt led to share our story with you, have a blessed day.

    1. Rick Ambrose

      Great place near the wonderful little historic towns of McIntosh and Micanopy. And….while in the area drive thru Eviston and wee the oldest post office and general store and over to Cross Creek where Marjorie Kinnon Rawlings house is you can tour it and then have lunch at the Yearling Restaurant while listening to 83 year ol bluesman Willie Green! It is a wonderful area of old Florida!!

    2. Judy Goff

      This comment from Mr. Bigelow is so sweet and healing for me. My mom, Julia, died July 2018. She was from Panama City, Panama. My father met her when he was in the Army and they married in 1953. I just took her ashes back two weeks ago and visited all the old places in Casco Viejo. She went to school right there in the heart of the old city, the school windows faced the ocean. I walked all the places she played as a child, two years ago I visited the music conservatory where she took piano. I relived her life in those historical places, dating back to the 1700s, which is changing so fast. I took pictures of buildings where windows were only wooden shutters, open to the warm ocean air. Now these buildings are sleek, boutique hotels and expensive condos. All the older folks, who lived there for years, looking at the passersby, are gone. My heart aches at the change. Although I guess some of the change preserves total loss. I can also appreciate her memories of music, so many old piano books of classical music, Italian operas and Panamanian folk songs which take me back to her home. I’m glad to hear Mr. Bigelow lovingly with his wife preserved so many buildings and now have them registered. I’m from Moultrie, Georgia, so the Gainesville area is just over yonder! I needed a sign to know my mom is still with me, and here this message shows up beautifully with all the pictures on this website, with a young woman keeping memories alive, talking to people the old fashioned way.

  11. Melanie Oliver

    Wow these photos went straight to my heart. The stories to go with the photos were fascinating. You’ve inspired me to look further into the history of old buildings in my area. Thank you for your efforts and sharing these wonderful photos, it meant a lot to me.

    Melanie (in Australia)

  12. Jeremy

    I’ve been following Francesca for a long time on Instagram. Her short snippets about the places she photographs are so captivating. She gives some very unique perspectives on these abandoned places that you can only get from talking to genuine people in these withering small communities. She goes so far above and beyond what most of the rest of us rural abandonment photographers do on Instagram, and it is really a pleasure to see her getting some well deserved attention for her magnificent work.

  13. Jeff mitchell

    The photo of the old farm house with the cows out front if you zoom into the third window from the left it looks like a face just under the middle bar of the window frame, just under where the locking latch is, can anyone else see it? Or am i seeing things lol

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  15. Paul

    Having been a carpenter all my life and living in a 104 year old farm house, I can imagine what some of these buildings looked like in their hay day. It gives me chills looking at these pictures and thinking of the people who lived there during the good times and the bad times. Those places hold the secrets to some amazing stories. Paul. Olmsted Twp. Ohio

  16. Todd Limoncelli

    Growing up on Long Island, I was familiar with the history of old structures. I worked in a town that had a rich history in forming the island. I really appreciate the work that woman is doing in kansas. My wife and I are planning on going on a road trip to visit old towns and buildings when we retire.
    The architecture on some of these old building is incredible. You do not find that kind of details in many buildings today .

  17. John Loftus

    I commend you Francesca Catalini for your zeal in documenting the history behind small town America, and the structures that are quickly disappearing. Your photos are outstanding ! I share your passion in wanting to document the stories behind these abandoned structures, before they are lost forever. They need to be told….and read by generations to come. Keep up the great work !

    John Loftus, from small town Ohio

  18. Becky

    It’s hard to believe that some of these places were built by just the family needing a place to call home. You should make a calendar with all these photos! Thanks for sharing your adventure.

  19. lynn finlayson

    there is a really neat, house in marsland, nebr, between Hemingford and Crawford, right along the bnsf rr. this is the only house left standing. nobody lives in it and its fallin appart. I have a few photos. there are even some old sod houses, in this area, closer to Hemingford. if you drive along old highway 30, between north platte and Cheyenne, youll see some old sandstone houses, here and there. same type of yellow sandstone houses, if you go straight south, into west Kansas..

  20. Garry Reed

    I love the pics of those beautiful old buildings. It’s a great pity no one wants to restore them to their former glory! I hope you are going to produce a story book of them , I would love one, maybe you could call it, memories of homes past!

  21. David

    Homesteading was made possible by a Kentucky politian named Henry Clay. Urban homesteading has become the bane of many land owners. Currently the largest single private landowner is Ted Turner.
    The term “the road less traveled ” comes from a poem by American poet Laurette Robert Frost. It was then used as the tittle of a best selling book by Dr. M. Scott Peck.
    Robert Frost also said , ” Good fences makes for good neighbours “.

  22. Janet Carman

    I directed an arts organization in St. Francis, Kansas. I would like to make contact with Francesca Catalini. How can I do this?
    Janet Carman

  23. Deborah Hightower

    I Love reading about all the history behind the photos and I too love riding the two roads sometimes it seems into nowhere. You can find ao much when you’re looking for nothing and alot of times looking at what doesn’t even appear to be anything. I Love these atories of OLD.

  24. David S Geddes

    I wonder how many of the original home owners had come from Scotland 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿? We hear so many stories from our past over here in Scotland about so many that resettled over in USA for a better life . Predominantly hard working farming or craft tradesmen looking to better themselves and raise families. Excellent photos showing past times and the weathering of the seasons .

  25. Lorie J Hatcliff

    This is something that I’ve thought should be done, but didn’t know anyone was actually doing it. I see so many abandoned homesteads in Kansas and know there’s got to be a story behind each one. I also think there could be descendants out there, maybe even in different states, who’d love to see pictures of places their ancestors have lived. THIS IS A TREASURE! THANK YOU!

  26. Gail Chouinard

    Great photos of the past,love the stories. It’s so nice to see these places still standing and wonder what life was like back then.

  27. Gary S Heard

    Very cool. It’s interesting to fly over these areas and see all the relics left over from the dust bowl and to imagine the lives lived there.

  28. Sean West

    Love to find out more info on the church in Lost Springs if you have any. What church was it? When did it close? ECT. Thanks

  29. Lisa

    I am a native Kansan who has now lived decades in Minnesota. Fascinating photos. One edit: Cottonwood River is misspelled as Cottenwood River in the caption of the mill photo.

  30. Martin Versteeg

    When I was young, my great grandma told me about Kansas. All I have now are pictures. She lived to be 100. Many of the people I don’t know. The house she lived in burned down and they were so poor, they used old newspapers as blankets to stay warm. Most people today don’t know that kind of poverty. I have only driven through Kansas. I wish I knew more. So happy younger folks have an interest in the past, especially old buildings.

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