by Wendy Nugent
The Kansas sun of the 1870s beat down on the longhorn cattle, numbering in the thousands as they ambled along, grunting and grazing as the wind blew. Cattle as far as one could see. Cowboys on horses. A thundering on the plains.
Scenes like this happened a lot on the Chisholm Trail.
This famous cattle trail ran right through Newton and Goessel, as did other pioneer and Indian trails, some with names, some without.
One area resident, Brian Stucky, has been mapping those long-ago trails, with an unconventional tool, an L-shaped copper dowsing rod.
“This is my dowsing map,” Stucky said, looking at the map on his kitchen table. The map shows the Chisholm Trail had several branches running through Newton and the area. Stucky, a retired Goessel High School teacher, did all the trail map research himself.
“This is my plate of spaghetti,” he added, laughing.
It did look like a plate of spaghetti, with all the lines drawn representing trails in different colors.
“Lots and lots of history under your feet,” he said.
Stucky mapped out such trails in the Newton and Goessel areas and has a passion for doing so.
“If I believe that I’m finding things that have never been found before, I want to not only document them on paper but also map them,” Stucky said. “People like to see visual things. It is fun to see the look on people’s faces when they look at a map, for instance, of all the trails in Newton.”
Those trails include the Fort Zara to El Dorado Trail 1871-72, several Indian trails, Cottonwood City to Perry Ranch near Sedgwick Trail, River Route to Cottonwood Valley “Old Trail” 1887, Trail to Elivon from Cherokee Trail and Lt. Col. Morrison Trail north route before 1861.
“My fascination was how did people get where they were going,” Stucky said, sitting in his Goessel home.
Stucky said grand central station for trails was at Ninth and Plum in Newton, because that’s where Sand Creek easily could be crossed.
Stucky’s locating of trails involves several aspects of research, which started around the year 2000.
“I’ve always been interested in local history,” he said. “It was about the year 2000 when I was at Goessel Threshing Days.”
At the time, he and Larry Buller asked each other the same questions. In 1874, when Mennonites went to Goessel from Russia, they got off the train at Peabody and walked or rode 18 miles northwest to immigrant houses built by the Santa Fe Railroad, which were in the middle of the section where Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church is now.
“The question we asked was what path, what trail did they take?” Stucky said. “We didn’t know. Nobody knew.”
That’s how Buller and Stucky started on trails, working together about six years. Their research started at libraries and the Wichita State University special collections, where there are land surveys dating from around 1862.
The surveys have notes, and distance was measured in chains, with a chain being 66 feet. Stucky said one can figure out exactly were the surveyor stood 150 years ago.
“There are trails that show up on the surveys,” Stucky said, which include the Santa Fe Trail, Cherokee Trail and Kaw Indian Trail.
However, because the surveys were done before the Chisholm Trail came into existence, the Chisholm Trail does not. Stucky and Buller also looked at diaries, maps and legends.
Their second research step was to go out in the field and look for physical evidence.
For instance, there still are swales and ruts from the Santa Fe Trail north of Lehigh. In their research, they also found dirt that had been ploughed, so they had to look for other clues, like differences in vegetation.
If it rains a lot, there might be a drown-out pattern in a wheat field, or perhaps a hedge line might have a dip in it. Stucky said even on the survey information, there are gaps and disconnects.
“You get to a place and say, ‘Wait a minute. What happened here?’” Stucky said, adding there might be a five- to six-mile surveyor gap.
Stucky said around 2006, he and Buller got frustrated, saying you stand by the edge of a road and say, “Well, it must have gone somewhere,” regarding a trail that seemed to stop.
“I was about ready to quit doing trail research when the thought came to me, ‘Oh, I might try something I saw as a kid called dowsing.’”
Stucky said that as an eighth-grader, his family lived two miles north of Harvey County West Park, and his dad asked A.J. Frey to go out and locate water underground with what they called at the time “water witching.”
Frey had a string-and-stick device that turned sideways when it came to what Frey indicated was a water source underground, Stucky said.
“I had never seen anything like that before,” Stucky said. “I thought I’ll imitate him, and so I had the same kind of device. I wasn’t impressed because you could tilt your shoulders one way or the other and influence it.”
About a year later, Stucky said he found an L-shaped piece of copper wire on the ground an electrician left and was playing with it with his fingers. All of the sudden, it turned downward.
“I thought, ‘What the heck was that?’” Stucky said, adding he asked his dad if something was buried in the yard, and his dad responded there was a water line from the house to the barn.
Stucky thought this might have had something to do with what Frey was doing, and he made bigger and bigger L-shaped wires, holding the tension so gravity didn’t pull it down but allowing enough tension so when it came upon a target, it turned down, Stucky said.
Then, when Stucky picked it up again in 2006, he knew Frey did work for the Chisholm Trail, but Stucky didn’t know how dowsing worked with a trail. He went out by Goessel where there’s a Chisholm Trail marker, and the dowsing rod turned down at various points, indicating a continuous trail and the width of what could have been a wagon.
Now, by trial and error, Stucky said he finds what appear to be wagon tracks, Indian Trails, unmarked graves, Indian campsites and outlines of lost buildings.
“All of these things have to do with disrupted earth,” Stucky said.
Through contact with a geophysicist, Stucky asked how dowsing might work in detecting things like that. She said it’s a known scientific fact disrupted earth has different magnetic patterns than undisrupted earth. When one talks about wagon tracks, that disrupts the surface, and the earth below can be affected.
Stucky said he’s talked to scientists about it, and they don’t want to confirm it works.
“I think dowsing is a poorly understood natural phenomenon,” Stucky said. “It’s not witchcraft. I’ve looked all through the Bible. It’s not that.”
Stucky believes it hasn’t been tested correctly, since it’s only been tested in an artificial environment.
Stucky has, however, found his dowsing is accurate.
One time he was in the Elbing area at the Cherokee Trail and used a measuring wheel, getting accurate measurements to the foot of what he was finding. After a day there, he returned home, typed up his notes and compared them to the survey notes from long ago.
“What I found was I hit right on the surveyor’s mark 10 out of 10 times,” Stucky said. “When I give a speech, I joke, ‘If I’m just lucky or a good guesser, I need to play the lottery or there’s something to this.’”
Since then, Stucky realized he always hits on the surveyors’ marks.
Stucky said he approaches dowsing differently than anyone else and doesn’t use the same tools or technique as anyone else. He also warns people to not look at anything about it on the Web because it’s all baloney.
He said people ask if they should believe in dowsing.
“I say it’s not a matter of faith,” he said. “It’s a matter of evidence and patterns.”
Stucky said there are many trails near Goessel.
“I believe there are more trails or more different kinds of trails than anyplace in the U.S.,” he said regarding within an 18-mile radius of Goessel. They number 15 to 17, he said, and include the Santa Fe and Chisholm Trails.
In addition to making these maps, Stucky created the first and only map of the Chisholm Trail going through Wichita, he said. It can be purchased at the Sedgwick County Museum.