While many of us may appreciate history, very few of us can claim to own a significant piece of it.
McPherson’s Steve Schmidt is an exception. Schmidt, a former McPherson public works director, owns a small portion of the Santa Fe Trail in Marion County.
His passion for the Santa Fe Trail has lead him to become one of its historians. He now teaches others about this crucial nineteenth century commerce trail.
The Santa Fe Trail served as a commercial highway connecting Missouri and Santa Fe, N.M., from 1821 to 1880. It was used for international commerce by both American and Mexican traders.
With the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the trail became a national road connecting the United States with the new southwest territories.
The trail also was used by fur trappers, stagecoaches, immigrants and those traveling to California in search of gold.
In 1880, the railroad reached Santa Fe, resulting in the trail’s abandonment.
The United States Congress designated 1,203 miles of the Santa Fe Trail as a National Historic Trail in 1987. The National Historic Trails Program is administered by the National Parks Service.
Schmidt said his interest in the trail evolved from an interest in trains.
“I’ve always loved trains,” Schmidt said, “and that lead to an interest in how railroads were instrumental in the settling of the Old West. That lead me to an interest in the fur trade, which lead me to an interest in the trails.”
Schmidt’s interest in trail history evolved while he worked in Denver in an engineering consulting firm where, he said, he would read history books during his lunch breaks.
“The Santa Fe Trail was interesting,” Schmidt said, “because it was close enough to see. At the time, we would drive back and forth from Oklahoma to visit family, and on those trips, we’d stop and look at the tangible remains of the trail. I was connecting the history I was reading with the things I could see in the ground.”
A friend even gave Schmidt the opportunity to fly over a number of area Santa Fe Trail locations.
“It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen,” Schmidt said. “Marion County had a lot of remains visible from the air.”
Schmidt said an estate auction brought him the opportunity to purchase land the trail crossed.
“A friend called us and told us a piece of land the trail ran across was going up for auction,” Schmidt said. “We’d always thought it’d be neat to own a piece of the trail one day. We ended up taking ownership May 10, 2000.”
Page 2 of 2 - A year later, the Denver company Schmidt worked for was sold.
“I was surfing the web,” Schmidt said, “and I saw that the position of director of public works was open in McPherson. I applied and got the position. It got us near our families, near our land and out of the Denver rat race.”
Schmidt said living in the area has further propelled his interest.
As his research and knowledge on the trail became wider known, Schmidt said he began to be asked to teach on the subject.
“My first really formal talk was at the Lions Club in Hesston,” Schmidt said. “In 2004, we did a tour and presentation on our land, and since then we’ve been doing tours.”
Schmidt said other groups heard about his speech and asked him to come speak at their events as well.
“There was a lot of misinformation floating around,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt continued his research, conducting a survey with Rich Hayden of the Sibley expedition of 1825 through 1827, and oriented maps from 1825 to contemporary maps for easier orientation.
Schmidt said he currently gives a lecture he calls “Santa Fe Trail 101.”
“It’s an overview of the history of the trail,” Schmidt said, “without professor-level terminology.”
Schmidt said over the years he has become even more interested in the trail.
“It’s sort of addictive,” Schmidt said. “The more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn. For me, when I do my presentation, the most interesting thing is the ‘why?’”
Schmidt said he particularly enjoyed opportunities to speak to homeschool groups.
“I read them a diary excerpt from a young woman who was traveling on the trail,” Schmidt said. “Then I say, ‘Do you know where that happened? It could have been right here.’ Their eyes got big at that idea.”
Those interested in having Schmidt give a speech on the Santa Fe Trail can do so by contacting the Santa Fe Trail Association at 620-285-2054, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org