The Florence area was the earliest settlement in the county. One of the earliest immigrants was a man named Patrick Doyle, who was from Ireland. He homesteaded near what would become the townsite of Florence in 1859. Although gone for a period, he returned to Florence in 1871, where he lived until he died in 1911 at 94. His name remains on local maps – Doyle Creek, Doyle Township, and Doyle Street – all in Florence.
A town wasn’t planned until it was learned that the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad would be coming through. In December 1870, Samuel J. Crawford, President of the Florence Town Company, filed for a plat and named the town in honor of his daughter.
A. F. Horner came to Florence in 1870, planning on engaging in the mercantile business. However, after he saw the immense deposits of magnesium limestone, he abandoned his original intentions and engaged in the stone business. The Florence Stone Company eventually had a quarry at the bottom of the hill at 5th Street and a quarry east of town that employed hundreds of men.
In early 1871, the blocks of the new townsite were laid out and staked, and several men bought as many as 50 lots each for resale. Because Florence would be the only town in Marion County with a railroad, these businessmen anticipated many new settlers moving in.
In its early days, grocers set up shop in tents, the bank was operated out of a shed, and many families lived in the wagons they rode to town. Hotel accommodations were also rugged, with travelers staying in a room with two beds, with three men to a bed. The only permanent house was a two-story home built by Mahlon Riggs. However, a post office opened on March 13, 1871, with J.K. McLean as Postmaster. Mail was carried by stagecoach between Florence and Marion and Florence and El Dorado.
When the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad arrived on May 11, 1871, the town began to grow. Soon, permanent houses and businesses were built, and more blocks were laid out and staked. That year, the town’s first newspaper — the Florence Pioneer, was established by W. M. Mitchell, and the Catholics built a church. Dr. T.J. Conry, a physician and surgeon, moved here in May 1871, and F.W.R. Zachorecky, a manufacturer of and dealer in boots and shoes, moved to Florence the same year.
The city was incorporated in June 1872, with Major T. P. Alexander as the first mayor. Alexander was a hardware and agricultural implements dealer who arrived in Florence in May 1871 from Emporia.
In 1873, with the organization of the Marion Bank, Charles Barker, who came to the area in the fall of 1866 and worked as a farmer and stock-raiser, became the bank president, a position he would hold for some years. The same year, Phillip Hinkle came to Florence and operated extensive stone quarries near the city, was engaged in the mercantile business, and served as the Justice of the Peace.
In the spring of 1874, C. H. and J. A. Kurtz took possession of the Florence Pioneer and moved the newspaper to Augusta, Kansas, in Butler County, where they began to publish the Southern Kansas Gazette. A few years later, in June 1876, Isaac Howe and H. D. Morgan started the Florence Herald newspaper.
On April 21, 1876, the Marion County Record announced that four local men named Pike, Battey, Barker, and Robinson had purchased an existing eating house and materials to build the Clifton Hotel, a restaurant and lodging facility that would serve railroad passengers. The first meal in the new structure was served toward the end of June. For the next year and a half, the Clifton Hotel, located on the south side of the Santa Fe railroad tracks, was operated by local people.
In 1877, the Florence, El Dorado, and Walnut Valley Railroad Company built a branch line from Florence to El Dorado that was leased and operated by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. Later, it would be extended to Douglass and Arkansas City.
Because of its location at the confluence of the Cottonwood River, Doyle Creek, and its lowland valley, floods were an ever-present danger, with the first recorded flood occurring in 1877.
In December 1877, Fred Harvey visited Florence to inspect the hotel at the suggestion of Superintendent C. F. Morse of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, who desired to see better accommodations established for railroad passengers.
After his inspection, Harvey offered to buy the property and paid the owners $4,275 for the building and $1,000 for the furnishings. A formal contract between Harvey and the railroad was signed on January 1, 1878, stating that it would stop its mainline passenger trains for two meals daily in Florence. There was also a verbal agreement that the railroad would purchase the hotel from Harvey as soon as its financial situation improved, which it subsequently did.
The hotel was then redecorated inside and out, and two large fountains were placed at the front walk entrance. This hotel, the first Harvey House to provide sleeping facilities, was the first of a chain of Harvey House hotel restaurants throughout the West that revolutionized railroad eating and sleeping accommodations. Harvey’s insistence upon cleanliness, good food, and neat, young waitresses made railroad travel in the West more pleasurable.
Due to increased patronage, plans were made in April 1879 to build a 40-foot extension onto the main building, which was completed by August. After the addition, the hotel measured 130 feet long and 30 feet wide and had a three-story tower above the main entrance. The Florence Herald announced it “is now the largest of the railroad hotels and is the best.”
The same year, a branch line of the Marion and McPherson Railway was built from Florence to McPherson that was leased and operated by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. It was later extended to Lyons, Ellinwood, Canton, Chase, and other towns along the way.
The town continued to grow in the following years, and by 1880, it was called home to 954 people. In 1881, the Methodist Episcopal Church was built for $3,500, and a Presbyterian Church was built the following year.
By 1883, the Marion Bank had a capital of $50,000, a water-power flouring mill, six hotel keepers, four grocery stores, four general stores, three meat markets, three livery stables, three dealers and quarrymen of Florence stone, three blacksmiths, two drug stores, two lumber dealers, two cattle shippers and grain dealers, two milliners, three coal dealers, a hardware merchant, a boot and shoe dealer, a saddle and harness maker, a baker, an auctioneer, a photographer, jeweler, dentist, four physicians, a pork packer, a billiard saloon, a furniture store, and two wagon-makers. A new stone school was also built in 1883, replacing an earlier building. Built for $7,500, it served 360 children.
That year, the Florence Creamery, destined to become one of the most important manufacturing interests of Marion County, began operations in May. The main building was 32 x 46′, and the ice house was 30 x 50′, with a capacity of 400 tons of ice. The churn and vat room was 26 feet square and contained two revolving churns, which held 275 gallons of cream each. There were also two rooms for working butter from which could produce 75 pounds in ten minutes.
In 1886, there were five miles of side tracks within the city limits, and the railroad had established machine shops, a large depot, and a roundhouse.
During these years, the need for adequate fire protection and indoor plumbing led the town fathers to investigate the possibility of a waterworks system. Fire had destroyed four buildings in the local business district in the mid-1880s, which included the post office, a drug store, the opera house, and a grocery store. Sadly, early city records and the city’s charter were lost in the fire that destroyed the grocery store.
The city soon adopted an ordinance “for construction and maintenance of waterworks” and formed the Florence Water Supply Company. In 1887, stonemason and contractor C. O. Johnson, under the direction of A. F. Horner, director of the Florence Water Supply Company, built the water tower as part of the community’s first waterworks system. Johnson built many of the town’s early stone buildings, including the Horner Hotel and a church at 604 Main Street.
The tower is a cylindrical structure 110 feet tall and 18 feet wide. The tower’s lower half is constructed of native limestone and is covered with an outer layer of cement, which was added in 1929. Today, the tower is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is on a grassy hill just east of the junction of US Highways 50 and 77.
The system initially took water from the Cottonwood River and included a pump house and well adjacent to the river. Water for the city began to run in March 1888. The waterworks system cost $50,000 to build. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always an adequate water source for the growing Florence population.
With available water, a fire department was organized the same year. It responded to its first fire on June 23, 1888, utilizing horse-drawn carts with no pumps, depending solely on the water pressure from the city water system.
The discovery of oil in the Florence area in the 1880s led to an economic and population boom, and by 1890, the town was called home to 1,229 people. During this decade, as many as eight passenger trains per day came through Florence.
The worst hail storm in Marion County hit the hardest about two miles northwest of Florence in March 1892. Crops were knocked down, cattle were killed by falling hail, and drifts of hailstones were reported to be five to six feet deep.
Three years later, the citizens of Florence were startled awake in October of 1895 by a small earthquake that was felt throughout the county. Though it was a startling event, no damage was done by the small tremor.
H. R. Snyder installed the first telephone in Florence between his home and store. However, phone service in Florence and all of Marion County was very limited until the installation of a long-distance line in 1897.
On March 31, 1900, the last train passengers were served in the Harvey House, and the Harvey operations were transferred to Newton. The hotel soon closed, and the various sections were removed and relocated over the years. The main part of the hotel was moved and used as a rooming house until the Florence Historical Society purchased it on April 1, 1971. Work began on its restoration, and although not totally completed, it was opened as a museum on September 6, 1971. Part of the building resembles the old Harvey dining rooms, and rooms upstairs display items relating to the town’s early years. Located at 204 West Third, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The first serious flood occurred in 1903, with water in the east end of town standing 3-5 feet deep. In 1906, more flooding occurred when the water was 1-3 feet downtown and up to six feet in the east end of town. Both railroad bridges were washed out, and railroad tracks were washed away despite having heavy rail cars loaded with coal standing on them.
By 1910, Florence was described as “a thriving little city” and became an important eating station on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. With the nearby quarries, most of the buildings were made of stone, and the town continued to support a couple of banks, the Florence Bulletin newspaper, and numerous retail businesses. The town was supplied with telegraph and express offices and an international money order post office with two rural routes. The population in 1910 was 1,168.
A second oil boom occurred in 1918 when drillers found oil about five miles south of town. The largest wells drilled around town gave up 4,500 barrels per day. The inevitable oil field workers and their families came with this boom, and a new school was soon built.
Electricity in Florence was limited in its early stages until Florence built its own generating mill, which was owned and operated by P. D. Schriver until it burned down in 1919. In 1920, Kansas Power and Light was granted the right to provide electrical service to Florence and continues to do so.
The same year, the current water supply was determined to be inadequate, and the Crystal Springs city water system was built. The city leased Crystal Spring from Ralph Robison on a 99-year lease for $10,000 and an additional $500 each year after that. The white concrete pump house at the head of the springs still stands and is still in use, supplying cool, good-tasting water to the town of Florence. The pump can supply 370 gallons a minute to the water tower in town.
“The present water supply, while plentiful, cannot be filtered satisfactorily unless a purification plant is installed, which is very expensive and would cost a great share of the amount of the bond issue in question. With connections to the Riggs spring, the city water patrons will have a bounteous supply of pure, soft water.”
— Florence Bulletin
By this time, Florence had reached its peak population of 1,517, but afterward, it would gradually decrease each decade until today.
In 1922, a library was established by the women of the community. It was located in a rented room in the First National Bank building. Today, it occupies the ground floor of what was the First National Bank building.
The most disastrous flood that ever occurred in Florence was in July 1851. The third flood of the year, this one inundated the town, placing 90% of it underwater from three inches to over 8.5 feet deep. The Cottonwood River finally crested at 37 feet. Governor Edward Arn declared the area a natural disaster and sent in the National Guard. Fortunately, no lives were lost during the flood, but two homes and two businesses were completely washed away. Another business that suffered was the Florence Library, which lost nearly its entire inventory of books and periodicals. However, as news of the loss spread throughout the United States, donated books and magazines began pouring in from all over the country. By Christmas 1951, the Florence Library had received almost 7,000 books.
The railroad line from Florence to El Dorado was abandoned in 1942.
In 1964, a levee was built on the east and south sides of town; since then, there have been no floods.
The Marion and McPherson Railway from Florence to Marion was abandoned in 1968.
In 1992, the railroad line from Marion to McPherson was sold to Central Kansas Railway, and the very next year, after heavy flood damage, the line was abandoned.
Today, small-town Florence is called home to about 435 people. It also includes views of beautiful stone buildings, several of which are on the National Historic Register.
Florence is located about ten miles southeast of Marion.
Blackmar, Frank W.; Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Standard Publishing Company, Chicago, IL 1912.
City of Florence
Cutler, William G; History of Kansas; A. T. Andreas, Chicago, IL, 1883.
Harvey House Nomination to the National Register
Water Tower Nomination to the National Register