Community Feature

Discovering Grouse, Gas, and Goodies in Dexter

December 2, 2020

Arched Bridge Over Grouse Creek2

The History of Dexter

The history of SKT is intertwined with the town of Dexter, Kan. Eighty years ago, Edwin B. and Dorothy E. Mikesell purchased the Atlanta, Burden, and Dexter telephone exchanges. These were, in essence, the beginnings of The Southern Kansas Telephone Company – which has grown into a telecommunications provider that serves more than 20 communities today 

Dexter can be found in the rolling flint hills of southeast Cowley County ia beautiful valley, nestled on the banks of Grouse Creek. The town of Dexter was named after a famous trotting horse owned by New York newspaper publisher named Robert Bonner. Bonner was born near Derry, Ireland, and came to the United States with his family at the age of 15. Eventually becoming a millionaire and philanthropist, one of Bonner’s later passions was the “trotting” form of harness racing. As the owner of many such horses, in the late 1850s Bonner paid $35,000 for Dexter – his most well-known. With inflation, that would’ve been more than a million dollars today. Bonner even allowed presidential candidate Ulysses S. Grant the thrill of taking the reins at top speed as depicted in this popular 1868 lithograph by Currier & Ives.

“The Dexter Town Company was organized by enterprising citizens of Emporia in July 1870,” according to William G. Cutler’s History of Cowley County (1883). Its incorporators were Alex Stevens and Thomas Manning, who lived near the town site, and L. W. Robinson, C. B. Batcheller, and G. W. Frederick of Emporia. The Dexter Post Office was established in September of 1870, with I. B. Todd the postmaster. The first mail arrived by regular carrier from Eureka, Kan., in March of 1871 – the same year that James McDermott built and moved into the first house in Dexter.  

On October 21, 1875, the Dexter Town Association was incorporated, and the town site was laid out into lots, blocks, and streets. Describing the new town of Dexter, Cutler says, “It has three or four stores, a blacksmith shop, a hotel, and other business houses, and does a good business with the surrounding farming population. It has a water-power flouring mill and saw mill in its immediate vicinity, on the Grouse. The post office is a money order office, and is supplied by a daily mail from Winfield, and by tri-weekly mails from other directions. The present postmaster is J. V. Hines.” 

The “Grouse” referred to in Cutler’s description refers to Grouse Creek, which features prominently in the history of the area. Cowley County is well watered, with the pristine, south-flowing Grouse Creek one of its larger streams. The creek’s namesake – the grouse – is a game birdsometimes known as a prairie chicken, whose population has declined.  

The great Osage Indian Black Dog Trail ran east and west across Cowley County, crossing Grouse Creek about two miles north of Dexter. In the 1830s, it was a 200-mile, road-like passage where thousands of people, horses, and dogs traversed at least twice yearly. For the early settlers, Grouse Creek provided an abundance of running water, important timber belts for livestock shelter and lumber for building, and its bottom land made for fine crops and orchards. According to Cutlerin 1879, Capt. A. B. Elliott, in partnership with L. B. Bollington, “built a flouring mill on Grouse Creek near Dexter, the building 24 x 40, with two run of buhrs, the fall being twelve feet, and furnished with a thirty-horse-power turbine wheel. This was a benefit to the people of this vicinity, it being the first mill of any consequence built in this part of the county, and filled a long-felt want.”  

The Discovery of Helium

Dexter has the distinction of being the place where helium gas was discovered; previously, it was thought that helium only existed in the gasses that made up the sun. In 1903, a company drilling for natural gas hit “a howling gasser” – with about nine million cubic feet of gas escaping each day before the well could be capped. It was one of the strongest flows ever found in Kansas! Considering all the potential enterprises that could be developed from this discovery, the residents of Dexter were very excited – even holding a large celebration, complete with music, speeches, and games – the culmination of which was the lighting of the escaping gas (which a promotional flyer promised “a great pillar of flame from the burning well that would light the entire countryside for a day and a night”).

However, at the very moment a burning bale of hay was pushed to the gas, it was quickly extinguished … several times over. Eventually, scientists from the University of Kansas found that the reason this gas would not burn was because it contained large amounts of non-combustible helium. Although this was an exciting scientific discovery, it was not of much use at that timeBut, in 1917 helium began to be used in military balloonsIn 1927 a heliumextracting plant was established in Dexter. The U.S. Navy’s helium-filled blimps were a major asset to the United States during World War II and helium was used for nuclear reactors and ballistic missiles in the 1950s, when the demand soaredToday, the original Dexter well no longer produces.  

A Sweet Claim to Fame

But undoubtedly, Dexter’s sweetest claim to fame is Henry’s Candy Company. Operated by the same family for over 60 years, fourth-generation candy makers use the original recipes and methods – big copper bowls over open flames – then pulling and twisting and stamping out the sweet confections. Amazingly, Henry’s Candy Company is open 363 days a year (only closed for Christmas and New Year’s Day)Two of their specialties are Fancy Cut Rock candy, featuring intricate designs such as trees, butterflies, and American flags (to name a few)and rare, beautiful Ribbon Candy. People from all over the world have made their way to Dexter to visit Henry’s Candy Companyas evidenced by their guest book. Perusing that is just part of the fun. Watching the candy being made by hand is another – but eating it is probably the best part of all! Read our 2018 Community Feature on Henry’s Candy Company

What with the Grouse, gas, and goodies, Dexter is certainly a fun place to discover and visit. Its 274 residents (according to the 2017 Census) can also vouch that it’s an amazing place to live. And, finally, SKT knows that Dexter is a wonderful community to serve, with more than 80 years of phone service and 20 years of internet service provided to residents and businesses in the area. 

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