Compiled by Marvin Bush
Thomas Mullen moved to Kansas from Illinois in 1867 and purchased a quarter section of land 6 miles south of Brookville, where the Castle Rock Bed and Breakfast now stands.
The Union Pacific Railroad, Eastern Division, ran diagonally through this quarter section, which made an ideal location for Mr. Mullen’s business of shipping clay out for pottery and sand out for molding.
At this time, Ellsworth was the end of the track.
The clay and sand were shipped from Mullen’s siding, which was the name given to the side track located on Mullen’s farm. At this time, there were about 15 or 20 people living near this siding. Later on it was called Rock Springs, then Terra Cotta. Terra Cotta means “colored earth” from the red clay in the surrounding hills.
In 1878, Tom Mullen and Mr. S.M. Simpson from Lawrence, laid out the Terra Cotta town site. In 1867, land sold here for $3.50 an acre. One hundred and sixty acres would cost $400 or $360 if you paid cash. Mr. S.M. Simpson sold his half interest in Terra Cotta to a load of Yankees from Connecticut.
There were three Loomis and Keep families. Monroe and Frank Loomis built a grocery store, elevator and a lumber yard. Monroe Loomis was the town’s first postmaster. These brothers also built a hotel and later sold it to a man named Bliss. Mr. Bliss sold it to a Mr. Fletcher, who added a grocery store to the hotel. Mr. Bliss started a blacksmith shop. The town grew to a population of 75 people, with no sidewalks and only a few trail streets. Dave Burrall and a Mr. Williams started a cheese factory. They produced very fine longhorn cheese. John Mullen was the town’s second postmaster. He was follow by Mr. Burrall and Alex Fletcher. Ellen Hessian later ran the post office from the Hessian Home.
In 1897, Mrs. Tom Mullen became postmaster and ran the office until it was discontinued in 1914. Tom Mullen shipped out over 3,000 cars of sand.
Ranching was the most important vocation in the area with a little farming mixed in. About 3 miles west of Terra Cotta was the Weigh Ranch, where the main source of income was from sheep. There were quite a few sheep and cattle in this part of the county at this time, but there were no signs of hard feelings between the two.
In 1885, the stockyards were built at Terra Cotta. Between 1886 and 1912, more cattle were shipped from Brookville and Terra Cotta than from any other town between Kansas City and Denver. Terra Cotta alone shipped three times more cattle than Brookville. Many citizens of Terra Cotta, through their work with the railroad, met such men as Wild Bill Hickok, Ben Thompson, Wyatt Earp and others.
Some of the people around Terra Cotta were famous in their own right. One of them was Warren Webster, who invented the first disc wheat drill. He got the idea while watching Frank Mullen playing with a rotary posthole digger. He designed the drill and it worked, but he failed to get a patent on it. Some men from an Eastern manufacturing company looked it over while visiting Webster and told him it wouldn’t be profitable to manufacture. They returned to the East, built the machine and got a patent on it.
A Butterfield Stage Relay station was located about 1 ½ miles west of Terra Cotta. A prairie fire came through in 1887 and burned down the hotel. Terra Cotta’s lifespan was a wild 10 years.
The children of Terra Cotta were educated in a school located about three-fourths miles east of the town site. In 1876, school district No. 28 was organized and a school was built the same summer. This was the first school in Ellsworth County to provide books free to its pupils. The school was called Rock Springs and when Terra Cotta was founded, the name was changed to Terra Cotta school.
In the early years, it had as many as 45 pupils and in 1940 it had one pupil. Thirty-one teachers taught in the school during its span of usefulness.
In about 1888, the recession hit. Loomis and Keep left, the elevator was moved to Shady Bend, the hotel had burned in a prairie fire, Bliss Blacksmith Shop was moved to Venango and Mullen ceased a large part of his clay operations. The Loomis grocery store, which had been sold to Mr. Fletcher, was moved to Kanopolis. By the early 1890s, all the business houses had disappeared.
Some settlers sold their holdings to area ranchers who were springing up all over the eastern part of the county. Others mortgaged to Eastern loan companies at $10 an acre, which was the going rate at the time, and left the Eastern investors to hold the bag.
The cemetery was at the north end of town. At one time, there were 48 marked graves.
In 1900, a depot was built, long after Terra Cotta was down to no business houses whatsoever.
The reason for the construction still is a mystery.
Some say the depot building was designed for a siding in Nebraska and was shipped out on the Kansas City to Denver by mistake and built in Terra Cotta.
In 1934, the depot was sold to a Mr. McCoy, who moved it to Ellsworth along old Highway 40. It was used as a night club and honky tonk club called the “Silver Moon”.
In 1946 and 1947, it was moved south of the Lockhart Motel and made into apartments. It sat empty for many years and in 1996, the City of Ellsworth bought it and the ground it sat on. The city gave it to the Ellsworth County Historical Society and paid for moving it to its present site at the Hodgden House Museum complex.
In 1999, the Union Pacific Railroad started building a new and longer siding at Terra Cotta. It is about 1 ¾ miles long. The switch heaters are in place and the signals also are installed, but turned sideways and not in use. The continuous welded rail hasn’t been installed yet between the two signals. The switches for the siding will be controlled from Omaha Nebraska.
What is the connection between a dead man’s hand in poker and Ellsworth County?
One night, after finishing his run to Abilene, Tom Mullen stepped off the train, and saw a man walking down the railroad tracks carrying a lantern. Wild Bill Hickok was there and told Mr. Mullen and another passerby to watch him put out the lantern light.
Now Hickok had a reputation as a sure-shot gunfighter. Hickok shot at the lantern and instead hit the unarmed man and killed him in cold blood. This man’s name was McCall. McCall’s brother vowed he would not work another day until he killed Hickok. Hickok was hired in early 1871 as marshal of Abilene, and discharged by the city after shooting one of his own deputies by mistake. That was around December 1871.
He was shot in the back while playing poker in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, on August 1, 1876. He was holding a pair of aces and eights. They are why it’s called the dead man’s hand. Hickok was shot by a man named McCall, the brother of the man the gunfighter killed in Abilene in front of Terra Cotta’s Tom Mullen.
Information compiled by Marvin Bush, railroad historian and director of the Ellsworth County Historical Society.