It doesn’t look like much, just a weather-beaten, bullet-riddled old mailbox stuck in the middle of nowhere. Surrounding it is a broad grassy clearing, a stone and brick monument with carved relief, a few elms and catalpas staggered along the dusty road, and behind it, toward the river, an impenetrable thicket of poison ivy and second-growth timber where once a town stood. The sign says “Irving.” Something about the place seems both desolate and sacred.
People come here for many reasons, to touch the past, to feel the land where their parents and grandparents walked and lived, chasing ghosts and memories. Others are here out of curiosity, using a guidebook to Kansas ghost towns as reference. More than a few open the mailbox and look inside, wondering, perhaps, what its purpose is.
Like the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the mailbox is a repository of a people’s search for meaning as written out on scraps of paper, or, in this case, a stenographer’s notebook. First placed there almost thirty years ago, the notebook has gone through many editions, most of them lost to vandals. Only a few remain.
The words these people have left speak for themselves. They require neither interpretation nor paraphrasing. A few are affirmations of a former existence, others mere mental diddling, some a request for genealogical information. All of them are love letters to a town that exists only on old plat maps and in hearts that will never forget.
A few letters mention the natural life of the place, as in this entry from July 10, 1978. “Richard Lytle killed all but 1 of the flies in Irving. (With his bare hands!!) (and feet).” Another mentions what anybody familiar with the spot understands all too well: “August 19, 1978 – Your mosquitoes ate us, so we didn’t have time to write our names.” And then there are the wasps. “We were here the other day and some turkey had taken the book. And the wasps had taken over the mailbox. So we came back to take care of the wasps, and thanks to the Sparks or someone the wasps were gone.”
Many bemoan the sad fate of the town, and are filled with loss and yearning that often is almost painful to read.
“May 28, 1993. Irving will never die as long as we remember. In memory of Maude Harris. Oscar Harris, Bob & Bonnie Harris.”
“25 April 89. I don’t know if you’ll ever respond to this. But I would like to know why this town isn’t under water? I mean, it was destroyed for the purpose of the dam, but I don’t see why Irving couldn’t have existed. It sure makes me wonder what it was like & ponder over the possibilities. What a shame, huh?”
“July 16, 1989. Dear Irving, We have the book “Ghost Towns of Kansas.” Thought we would stop to see the town that survived tornadoes, floods, fires, droughts & grasshopper plagues! Too bad the ‘Dam’ (& man) was able to do what Nature could not! Enjoyed reading this book about the town & the love people have for their Home!”
“5/26/89. Shawn Burke & Loresca Foster had a baby boy today at 1:00 a.m.. 8 lbs 13 oz. Congrats!! It’s Friday night and not much to do. My friend with me cannot believe that there was once a town here and all that is left is the mailbox and pad. Just passing through! Denice Nider, Manhattan, Ks.”
“May 7, 1989 We find Irving a very quiet and peaceful town. The people are very polite and easy to get along with. Hope someday the town will be again. What a waste for a resovoir (sp). A loss for Kansas. Lonnie, Vicki, Bubba, Tawny, Charity, Tara, James, Sandra, Stasha, Joshua & Eva Morgan.”
The letters are written by strangers passing through, hunters of deer and morels, old residents and families visiting for reunions. Reading them is an intimate act and yet these were all penned with the idea of sharing thoughts and emotions for a common people.
“5-20-86. It is so sad but yet it is good to come back & remember the good times & so many good people that once was here. While I set here by myself I don’t feel alone. Some of the dearest people I know come here just like I do. I miss you all. Ben L. Green.”
“8-16-88. Came back to Irving with my own family again. I lived here until I was 3 and then used to visit my grammy till everybody had to leave. I like this place. It sure seems unfair that they did this to Irving. I suppose what we all long for is a permanent home. I think Heaven will be like going home to all the yearnings we feel now, only much better. God bless you all, Tom Green & family.”
Old and young alike take the time to scribble their feelings, and while the grammar isn’t always perfect, the meaning is clear.
“May 7, 1993. Sara Adkins. My grandma once lived here. Lace and I always come hear and write are name in the book. Dad and grandma showed us wear grandma’s house was. It is real neat to see this place again. Real nice to come back. Hope to come enjoy this place again sometime soon. I love the butie of this place and hope it stays this way. From Sara Adkins P.S. Won’t forgit this place.
But of all the letters, this last one might be the best. Short, sweet, to the point, it epitomizes what so many people – myself included, a stranger to this place and yet adopted by a force beyond my reckoning – feel about this hallowed ground.
“Dec. 13, 1980. Kathryn D. Farnum, Roy A. Farnum, Ronda Estelle Farnum. I’ll cherish this spot forever. My heart it will remember. (Just for you Irving township.)