Travel

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Rifle: A Church Steeped in Abolitionist History

Don't mess with Kansas's Beecher Bible and Rifle Church.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

A quick history recap (bear with us, it gets good) : In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, organizing the territory that would eventually become the great states of Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and the Dakotas.

The land was vast, and peaceful, already inhabited by Indigenous people and roaming bison. It lay north of 1820 Missouri Compromise, which meant slavery here was technically prohibited. However a powerful coalition of politicians from the South was trying to change that restriction and repeal the Compromise. To appease them, the 1854 Act stipulated that the new territory would be organized “with or without” slavery. In other words, the citizens could vote amongst themselves to be a free or slave state.

Kansas could go either way. And so, the race was on. Pro- and anti-slavery acts flooded the territories in an attempt to sway the vote in a time that became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” If you were going to come down, you needed to be armed.

Which is exactly what a group from New Haven, Connecticut did.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

An anti-slavery coalition of 60 men were formed, led by activist Charles B. Lines, with the purpose of emigrating and setting up shop physically and idealistically in Kansas. Before they left, the congregation of New Haven’s North Church held a meeting to provide the group with the necessary provisions and arms for their journey. There, Yale professor Benjamin Silliman pledged $25 to provide them with a Sharps rifle. The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher from Brooklyn -who opened the meeting with an antislavery sermon-followed suit, promising that if 25 rifles were pledged that day, his congregation in New York would pledge 25 more. At the end of the meeting in Connecticut, 27 rifles were pledged.

A few days later Beecher (brother of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) sent Lines $625 for the rifles. With it came 25 bibles. According to lore the rifles were smuggled through Missouri-a slave state-disguised with the Bibles, most likely in crates marked “Bibles.”

Later, the imposing Sharps rifle would be nicknamed the Beecher Bible.When the group of Connecticut settlers got to Wabaunsee (an indigenous word meaning “Dawn of the Day”) first by train to Kansas City, then by wagon partially along the Oregon Trail, there was already a bustling tent town in place. On the South bank of the Kaw-now Kansas-river a settler had built a tiny store. Streets were being laid out. Makeshift church services were held in tents, which later became cabins. Not all the settlers could endure the rough pioneer life: some gave up and went back up North. Things got better when company in the form of wives and children came down to join. With a steady population, in June 1857 they decided it was time to organize a church officially, and “the First Church of Christ in Wabaunsee” was born. Of this initial group of 28 charter members, nine were women.

Funds for the permanent church were mostly raised in New Haven, and the structure was built using sturdy stone hauled from quarries by oxen. Mortar was mixed by hand. Straight-backed pews were divided down the center of the church by a partition that divided men and women. The churchyard was lined with hitching posts.

In 1861, the work of the settlers came to fruition: Kansas entered the Union as a free state. In May 1862, the church, now the Beecher Bible and Rifle Church, was dedicated, and became one of the largest and most influential Congregation churches in Kansas.

Photo by Vanita Salisbury
Photo by Vanita Salisbury
Photo by Vanita Salisbury

As time passed settlers moved on, and the church became deserted. But in 1950 the residents of Wabaunsee had formed a new church group. They began holding weekly services again, and it’s thought that this new incarnation was one of the first churches in Kansas to integrate, continuing the settlers’ legacy. Renovations came in 1957 to the rural century-old structure in the form of a new floor, a tile ceiling, and replacing coal stoves with modern heaters. New pews were put in with comfortable padded seating, and stained glass windows for a welcoming pop of color. In the back room is a cabinet of history with a plaque that reads “Integrity is Doing the Right Thing When No One is Watching,” flanked by pictures of the pioneers and parishioners throughout history. Black and white parishioners are represented, and a picture of an impressively-bearded Charles B. Lines-the original leader of the Connecticut group-makes an appearance. There’s also a couple of incredible shots of two older women wearing cat-eye glasses, handling one of the Sharps rifles.

In 1969, a monument was erected in a park a few blocks north of the church, which reads, “In Memory of the Beecher Bible and Rifle Colony, which Settled This Area in 1856 and Helped Make Kansas a Free State. May Future Generations Pay Them Tribute.”

In 1992, a new structure was added to the church, with modern facilities for classes and Sunday School. Today you can still attend a Sunday church service-continuously running since 1950-or take a tour. Maybe leave your rifle at home.

 

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Other Historical Sites in the Area

Wamego Historical Museum and Old Prairie Village
A complex of buildings culled from around Pottawatomie County, now sitting in Wamego’s City Park, the Old Prairie Town includes structures from the 1800s, like a one-room schoolhouse, an 1840 log cabin, a general store, and the first jail in the county, built in 1872. Helming it is the museum, with items like the first Wamego dental X-ray machine, the first switchboard in the area, and a full-body taxidermied buffalo named Abigail. Attached to the museum, in the Transportation Building, is a seemingly out-of-place 1950 Chrysler. But it makes perfect sense if you know that Wamego also was the birthplace of Walter P. Chrysler (1875), founder of the Chrysler Corporation.

Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie
Along the Native Stone Scenic Byway, nestled in rare and endangered prairie tallgrass, is this 170-acre historic hilltop park, sacred to Indigenous people, and which once contained the westernmost part of the Underground Railroad. Trails take you up to the top of the hill for vast views of native prairie. At the top is also a brass plaque commemorating the Connecticut-Kansas Colony, a.k.a. the Beecher Bible and Rifle Colony.

Oregon Trail Nature Park
The Oregon Trail passed just north of Wamego, and wagon ruts can still be seen around Kansas. To get to this nature park and lake in the Kaw River Valley-a haven for birdwatchers with red-tailed hawks, northern harriers and turkey vultures-you drive part of the route of the trail, traveling the same route that immigrants going west did 150 years ago. Don’t forget to stop at the silos, painted with murals depicting scenes from Kansas history.
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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. Writing this story she learned that if you come for Kansas, you best not miss.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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