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Deadly Twister Breathes New Life Into Dying Town

Determined Kansas residents rebuild homes, lobby for a new post office and community center. "Franklin Forever" is their motto.

October 19, 2003|Carl Manning | Associated Press Writer

FRANKLIN, Kan. — When a massive tornado hit this small town in May, some 50 homes were destroyed in seconds. One person died and a dozen were injured. The post office and community center were leveled.

Residents worried that Franklin, which had been losing population for decades, would never recover.

But that was before the Franklin Forever motto started showing up on T-shirts and the Internet, with supporters hatching big dreams for this little town in southeastern Kansas.

Not only are people rebuilding their homes, they're lobbying for a new post office and planning a new community center."We have a common goal, to rebuild Franklin and get it back on its feet. We're all trying to keep the small-town spirit," said Phyllis Bitner, who grew up in Franklin and still lives in the area.

In the 1930s, Franklin was a Crawford County coal-mining town of nearly 1,700, with shops, a school, a church and even a saloon.

Seven decades later, all that remained were 500 people living in about 150 homes, along with the town's last two public buildings, the post office and community center.

Those two buildings and a third of the town's homes were wiped out on the afternoon of May 4.

That's when the twister tore through, with winds up to 260 mph and a path of destruction a quarter-mile wide.

But instead of leading to the town's demise, the disaster has made the locals appreciate what they have.

"It opened up a lot of eyes to see what they lost. If any good comes from this, it's the reuniting of people and the desire to get it back," said Veda Maxwell, who moved to Franklin from Chicago a decade ago.

Bitner set up a Web site that chronicles the community's history and hopes. The home page proclaims: "Franklin has a future, and the future is Franklin ... Franklin Forever."

She also designed two pins to sell, along with T-shirts, to help raise money for reconstruction. Donations are sought through the Web site from those with family ties to the area and alumni of its now-defunct school; a bulletin board hosts good wishes from as far away as Wyoming and Australia.

Rebuilding the post office and community center are top priorities.

"Without them, we'll probably just dry up and blow away," said Catherine Lovelady, who has lived in Franklin for 15 years and intends to stay.

Just about all that remains of the post office is a concrete slab and an American flag flying from a pole like a lone sentinel. A drop box was installed at the site so that people could deposit mail.

Postal officials haven't written off Franklin, ZIP Code 66735.

"We want to maintain a presence in Franklin, but we don't know what the time frame will be," said Richard Watkins, spokesman for the Postal Service's Mid-America District in Kansas City, Mo. "We aren't looking to abandon any of our small offices, particularly when they are damaged."

John Houck, who grew up in the area and moved back last year after being gone for 45 years, has been working to secure federal grant money for reconstruction of the community center.

The original center, which dated from the 1920s, was a gathering place for meetings, family reunions, wedding receptions, dances, memorial services and bingo. Plans call for an empty lot to be turned into a 4,500-square-foot replacement by the end of 2004, and Bitner would like to see it include wood salvaged from the original dance floor.

"If people can walk in and step on this floor that their grandparents danced on, it gives you a connection to them," she said.

Houck is also hoping that a new sewer system that's been in the works for seven years will become a reality within a year thanks to a federal grant.

"They say it's assured," Houck said. "I think the sympathy they have had for this town may have hurried it up."

If the sewers are built, he says, construction of a small apartment complex for the elderly could follow, and some of those who lost their homes could come back.

"This is still home to them," he said.

Most of the houses that were hit were in the middle of the community, and all that remains are a few foundations in an open field overtaken by weeds. Houck says 11 of the families who lost their homes have moved back, and others hope to do so.

Hank Pichler lost the house where he'd lived for 47 years, but wooden stakes outline where his new house will be -- a house that he's hoping will be ready for him and his wife to move into by Christmas.

"It's a great neighborhood, maybe a little too quiet now," said Pichler, 77. "People think we're crazy to rebuild because we're so old, but to us, it's home."

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