FREEPORT, Kan. — The conversation varied at the old bank building, where 15 folks gathered around a table for the most recent Freeport coffee.

Some talked about the cotton harvest. Others admired the newly paved road – and first ever – which runs in front of the abandoned storefronts here. But Carol Peterson had a more pressing request before visitors Harper County Sheriff Tracy Chance and Road and Bridge Supervisor John McClure left on this November morning.

“Do I see you about changing our little sign to the village of Freeport?” she asked McClure.

“Village, huh,” McClure said, drawing some chuckles, then added. “Whatever you want.”

Just a few weeks before, Peterson, and her husband, Bill, the town’s mayor, along with two other former residents, made a difficult decision after years of trying to keep the state’s smallest incorporated city going, The Hutchinson News reported .

On Nov. 7, nearly 133 years after Freeport became a third-class city in Harper County, they voted by ballot to dissolve it.

“It was a hard decision,” Carol said. “It was a sad decision.”

For Freeport, time has marched on.

At its peak of 700 people, there was a bank, two hotels, two newspapers, five dry good stores, nine grocery stores, three drugstores, two hardware stores and two elevators, among other businesses. The town even boasted a police force for a time, according to historical articles and a story in The News.

Nevertheless, one by one, those businesses closed. A school still stands, along with rusted playground equipment that hasn’t seen children in years. The post office moved its personnel to Anthony last year. Even wheat harvest doesn’t bring the truckloads of grain anymore. The area cooperative built a new location south of town a few years ago, calling it Newport.

And the Freeport State Bank, which once gave the town its title as “the smallest incorporated city in the United States with a bank” closed in December 2009, opening a branch in the county seat of Anthony, 13 miles to the west, Bill Peterson said.

Coffee regular Mary Jo Hodson, who lives in Anthony, remembers the once bustling Freeport of her childhood.

She grew up on a farm not far from town – back when it still had a couple of grocery stores, along with a lumberyard, barber, hairdresser, bank and creamery. She graduated eighth grade from the Freeport school in 1944.

“It’s where all my good memories are of growing up in a small community,” Hodson said. “I remember when Freeport was a good-sized little town and had everything you needed.”

The bank is just one relic of the town’s storied past. Another is the 1930s Work Progress Administration outhouse, with its concrete toilet, that once provided the lavatories for both the post office and the bank. A new bank president in the 1970s decided to install indoor plumbing.

A street sign leading to the school designates Midlothian Avenue – another reference to Freeport’s beginnings.

Midlothian, a Scottish word that means mid-ocean or mid-land, according to Freeport historical articles, was the town across the street. Back then, cities were situated every 10 miles – the distance farmers could travel by horse to do their business.

But the railroad didn’t go through where Midlothian founders had situated it. Thus, B.H. Freeman moved his post office, which had been in existence since 1879, two miles to the southeast in March 1885 – right next to the eight-day-old town of Freeport.

The locations of both cities were too close together for residents to stay civil, according to historical stories and the story in The News. Freeport and Midlothian, sometimes spelled Mid Lothian, sat side by side. Freeport’s Main Street was two blocks north of Midlothian’s Main Street, with the two towns were joined by Grand Avenue. But hostility grew, especially over who would get the railroad depot. When it went on Freeport’s side, tension peaked and, as local lore says, residents went as far as to build a fence down the middle of Grand Avenue and dared either side to cross it.

Eventually, leaders of the towns came to an agreement: Midlothian would give up its name and gave Freeport its post office, in exchange for the opening of a vacant strip of land between the two towns that provided a needed street for Midlothians – giving them access to the depot.

Freeport immediately doubled in size and, by the spring of 1892, there were 700 people in the city. However, by September 1893, Freeport’s population plummeted as residents took advantage of the Cherokee Strip Run for free land in Oklahoma – 13 miles to the south, according to the articles.

A census report from 1894 showed only 54 people living in Freeport. In 1910, population peaked again at 161 residents, then began to fall.

Freeport’s population even dropped since the 2000 census, when the town had six people. In 2010 – the population was five.

“We are the smallest incorporated city in the state of Kansas,” Bill said, then realized his mistake. “That should be past tense. We were, I should say.”

For years, the Petersons worked to keep little Freeport an official city.

Carol Peterson grew up near Freeport as Carol Burke, attending the town’s school. A photo on the wall of the bank turned community center shows Carol on the Freeport basketball team in April 1957.

The couple moved back to Carol’s hometown in the mid-1980s. When the previous mayor and her husband, the town’s minister, left the state about a decade ago, the Petersons, whose home sat just outside the city limits, annexed their property into the city to keep the five-member city government going.

Bill became the new mayor. But Freeport’s existence was already on shaky ground with the closing of the bank, followed by the grain elevator, which is now privately owned. Another blow came in September 2016. After years of fighting to keep their post office – with its wooden boxes and teller window – staffed, that door closed, as well, and was stripped empty. Today, a pillar of metal boxes outside the old post office is where Peterson and others in the community get their mail.

It was around that same time that talk of dissolving was brought up. When his daughter took a preaching post in eastern Kansas, Jim Brooks, who lived in town all his life and was the city clerk, moved with her. Both were on the city council.

At that time, Bill and Carol were Freeport’s last residents.

“We would have been governing ourselves,” Bill said.

A unanimous vote by the city council – the Brooks and the Petersons – put Freeport’s fate on the November ballot. The question passed 4-0.

Since the Petersons began working on Freeport’s unincorporation, two families moved in – boosting the population to eight, Bill said. None were eligible to vote, however.

“It was time,” Carol said of the dissolving of Freeport, adding that if it was going to happen, “I wanted to be the one to do it.”

Freeport lives on with the twice-a-month coffees inside the former bank – decorated with old photos of Freeport, along with a few old trophies.

Ernie and Freida Schmidt are among the dozen regulars. Ernie grew up on a farm near Freeport and graduated from the Freeport grade school in the late 1940s.

He recalled an overdraft from the bank while in high school.

“I bought a tennis racket and didn’t have quite enough,” he said, adding that a bank employee, “caught me on the sidewalk between the post office and the bank.”

Barbara Kille Ott travels back and forth to manage the family farm near Freeport from her home in Dallas. Her great-grandfather, Charles Schmidt, owned the grain elevator and helped found the bank in 1902.

She comes to the coffees as often as she can.

“Carol and Bill do an amazing job keeping the community informed, together, enthusiastic,” she said. “We are very lucky to have them.”

The tradition lives on, Hodson said.

“We’re a little village, and we are still friends,” she said, “and we have the memories.”


Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, http://www.hutchnews.com