Wide Spots in the Road: Watt’s Mill, New Santa Fe and Dodson

(originally published 5/9/19)

History can be fickle when it comes to what is remembered and what is forgotten. When I wrote the book on Waldo’s history, I realized what a quirk of fate it was that the name Waldo should have survived when there were plenty of other places like Waldo, that didn’t. They all started out as – that familiar phrase – “a wide spot in the road,” but in their time, however brief, they were the center of a community or a popular way station, and sometimes both. Some of those that started up with Waldo still exist, though like Waldo they bear little resemblance to their early beginnings. But most just missed their chance at longevity, then were swallowed by growth.

For the Waldo book, I chose three of Waldo’s earliest neighbors – Dallas (or Watt’s Mill), New Santa Fe, and Dodson – to profile. They share important ties with Waldo’s past, and are places that many Kansas Citians are familiar with, even if they aren’t familiar with their histories.

  • Dallas – Waldo’s closest neighbor was the town of Dallas, about three miles to the south and west. That Dallas existed at all was thanks to the Fitzhugh Mill, built in 1832 on the banks of Indian Creek. The spot was on the Santa Fe Trail, and its cool grove and natural waterfall were an inviting rest stop for travelers after their first day’s ride south from Westport.  Brothers Jonathan and George Fitzhugh milled corn and wheat, and sold much of the flour to the freighters and travelers. Over the next twenty years, the mill continue to serve the trail traffic though the mill itself would change hands, eventually purchased by Anthony Watts. Under this ownership the mill, and the place once known as Dallas, became known as Watt’s Mill.  The famous Jim Bridger, legendary mountain man and a close friend of Watt’s, bought property to farm on the south side of the creek. He lived there until his death in 1881. The mill was still operating when it celebrated its centennial, but closed a few years later in 1939, no longer able to compete with Kansas City’s more modern mills. During World War II, the building’s iron was sold for scrap to support the war effort. The building was razed in 1949. When Kroh Realty purchased the property in the 1970s, they donated the mill site to the city and today it is open to the public as a park. The last building associated with the town of Dallas was torn down in 1992. Today, the mill’s foundation is still visible from a walking trail that follows Indian Creek. The adjacent shopping district has long adopted the name “Watt’s Mill.”
  • New Santa Fe – The little town of New Santa Fe emerged from homesteads established around 1833 near present-day Minor Drive between Wornall and State Line Roads.  About four miles further south than Dallas on the Santa Fe Trail, New Santa Fe thrived for a short time as a way station, with the extra advantage of being at the convergence of the trails leading from both Westport and Independence. But unlike Dallas – or Waldo, for that matter – New Santa Fe was incorporated as  a town, established in 1852. The records of the Jackson County Historical Society tell of a thriving place in its day, with a population of five hundred, and served by two general stores, an inn, a post office, a doctor, and a saloon that straddled the state line and served as a public room for the transaction of business. Its strategic location proved to be a disadvantage during the years leading up to the Civil War. Much of New Santa Fe was burned in the mid 1850s during the border conflict. Following the Battle of Westport, the Confederate forces camped there briefly as they fled south. But ultimately, it was the railroad – or lack of it – that sealed the town’s fate. When it failed to connect to any of the new rails being built in the area in the 1880s, New Santa Fe slowly faded from existence. All that remains today is the New Santa Fe Cemetery, just south of the original town site. Today, the cemetery is under the care of the New Santa Fe Cemetery Association. A separate organization, the Historical Society of New Santa Fe, helps promote the area’s unique heritage.
  • Dodson – Perhaps no other community born in those early days has as direct a connection to Waldo as Dodson. Dodson’s experience was the opposite of New Santa Fe. It sprung from the Missouri Pacific’s decision in the 1880s to run its tracks near the Blue River, near the current intersection of 85th Street and Prospect Avenue. Dodson took its name from Billy Dodson, an area property owner. When an interurban rail line was developed in the 1880s, the Dodson Line provided a connection for folks in the rural areas of the county coming in to the city attractions and conveniences they needed. Soon, a little community grew near the convergence of the two rail lines.  Farmers shipped produce and livestock on the line into the city’s markets and slaughterhouses. Starting in the 1920s, Dodson became the final stop on the streetcar line as the city grew southward, and was still a stop on the line when operation ceased in 1957. Today, Dodson continues as one of the city’s oldest operating industrial areas and business parks, with the railroad still defining much of the area’s unique character.

(Photos: (l) The mill at Dallas (now Watt’s Mill) just east of 103rd and State Line, circa 1932, not long before the last of the original building was dismantled; (r) Dodson, just south of 85th & Prospect, circa 1927, when it still served the surrounding neighborhoods as a local commercial area, in addition to its connections to the railroad. Photos courtesy: KCMO Parks Department (l) and author’s collection (r).)

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