A Look at Victoria, Kansas

Braun, C.E. 'Bud'. "A Look at Victoria, Kansas." Online Edge, May 2008.

For those with the inclination and ability to enjoy life at a slower pace, to leave the high speed interstate highways, and experience a sample of the leisurely pace of life from the past, a journey across old Highway 40 can be enjoyable and enlightening. If one starts at the eastern most part of the state on Old 40 and heads west, they will pass through small town after small town. All have their own history, people and story. Some, which owe their original existence to railroads long gone or the old highway system -- almost gone -- are little more than ghost towns. Many are struggling just too survive; some to keep faith with their heritage and hold to the values and pleasures of small town life.

As Old 40 leaves the plains, and begins its climb onto the high plains it passes through one such town; Victoria , Kansas . If you have even the most casual knowledge of Victoria , you are probably aware of its heritage as the place where the hard working Volga German farmers settled. If you are like me, you wondered how a German community got such a British name as Victoria . The current town of Victoria was originally established in 1873. Victoria was founded by 38 Scottish immigrants under the leadership of George Grant. It was the hope of the immigrants to bring British agricultural methods and a genteel way of life to the American plains. They failed in both respects. They did, however, bring the Aberdeen Angus cattle to the area. They named their community Victoria after Queen Victoria, then Queen of England. Failing to tame the prairie, most of the Scottish immigrants returned to Scotland .

In 1875, the first of the Volga Germans arrived and founded the community of Herzog near Victoria . With the Scotts mostly gone and new Volga Germans arriving, Herzog and Victoria merged to become one community.

“Herzog” is remembered each summer with Herzogfest, an outdoor festival featuring a parade, Polka Mass, German foods, music and entertainment including Polka music, of course, and perhaps a drop or two of beer as well. This year Herzogfest will be held Friday and Saturday, August 8th and 9th.

As a historical road sign states; “Nowhere in America were two colonies more unalike
than those that came here. Scarlet-coated British who chased antelope on bob-tailed ponies were joined by frugal and hard-working German-Russian immigrants.”

Among the first acts of the Volga Germans was to build St. Fidelis Church, commonly know as The Cathedral of the Plains, a magnificent church completed in 1911. At that time, it was the largest church west of the Mississippi River . It is visited annually by some 16,000 visitors from all over the world.  

The church, which seats 1,100, was dedicated in 1911. Of Romanesque design, it contains many works of art, windows from Germany , hand-carved stations from Austria , and the altar of sacrifice, carved in Italy of Carrara marble and rossa antica (as cited on a postcard). It has been selected as one of the eight wonders of Kansas . 

Incidentally, it was William Jennings Bryan, three-times a candidate for President of the United States , who nicknamed it the "Cathedral of the Plains" during a visit to St. Fidelis in 1912 

But the history of Victoria goes beyond the Cathedral; there are graves of Union Pacific workers massacred by Cheyenne Indians in 1867, there are huge nearby oil fields and great expanses of farms. In the final analysis, it is people who made Victoria what it was, and it is people who make it what it is today. It was people who built the structures, who made the great American desert bloom, who raised cattle to help feed the nation and the world, people who built the Cathedral of the Plains, the businesses and the taverns, and banks, the streets and schools, and parks.

So today it is the people of Victoria, (61%  of whom are descendants of the Volga Germans) who are working to keep Victoria what it has always been, a small town with close net people who still value the small town way of life and their proud heritage of hard work and faith.

When I set about talking with the people of Victoria I quickly lost some preconceived notions. I thought I could compartmentalize each persons place in the community and then meld them together later. I found that impossible. All do the same thing, and only sometimes do they even do it from a different perspective. There is only one compartment and it’s called Victoria . After my first two interviews, I could no longer even think of Victoria as a town. It is a community, a community in the best original sense of the word.

In a community that is almost 80 percent Catholic, it should not surprise anyone, as Father Charles, Pastor of St. Fidelis said; “The town is involved in the church and the church is involved in the town." Nor should it surprise anyone that in a community with such a strong German heritage, even the newcomers are often German. Father Charlie, Volga German from Hays. Friar Augustine, German Irish from Wyoming . City Council woman IIona Patterson, born in Munich Germany . County Commissioner Vernon Berens, German from nearby Walker, Kansas.

German? You bet! Here is a list of present or recent names of those on or working with the City Council. Unrein, Pfeifer, Brungardt, Robben, Schmidtberger, Hoffman, Windholtz, Pruitt and Dinkel.

As I write this, former Police Chief Don Pruitt is enjoying his second day of retirement after 32 years of law enforcement. Don started as a Marshal, became a combination of Marshal and Police officer, and eventually became Chief of Police. Incidentally Chief Pruitt never carried a handgun on his person. The British/German tradition continues with the British name Pruitt being replaced with a German name as new Police Chief Cole Dinkel begins his second day as Chief.

Victoria is not a “night life” town. Evening events seem to revolve around schools events and community events. An evening out meal can be found at Gambino’s Pizza, and beer and food can be found at “The Library” a local tavern.

Visit the friendly people of Victoria . Experience life in a small Kansas town with a big history.

Reprinted with permission of the Online Edge.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller