Harper County was first organized in 1873. It was named in honor of Marion Harper of the Second Kansas Calvary who was killed in 1863 during a Civil War battle in Arkansas. The oldest city in the county, Harper was settled by a party of 11 families from Bloomfield, Iowa in April of 1877 and was named after the county. The site was chosen in anticipation of the railroad.
In 1880 the Sante Fe Railroad halted in Harper. It became an important shipping point for various agricultural products. The highlight of many a Harper citizen was to spend their evening watching the trains come in. From then on, the town prospered. By 1892 the city boasted nearly 4,000 inhabitants.
Harper has survived many disasters. The year of 1887 brought two disastrous fires. The Arcade Mill and later in the year, ten Main Street business were completely destroyed. Severe droughts were experienced in 1889, 1890, and 1894; many were forced to leave the state. One of the worst disasters to befall the city was the cyclone of 1892. Few lives were lost, but many homes and businesses did not withstand the damaging winds. In the days after, the sky opened up and sent heavy rains down onto the exposed structures. Goods were damaged as much, if not more by the flooding rain than by the cyclone. The destruction amounted to over $100,000 while that of the goods piled up to many thousands. The people of Harper pulled together to help those who were left devastated. Harper citizens continue today to work together in the face of adversity.
There is still a lot of history to be seen here in the city. Harper is the home to the Runnymede Church; it was moved from the once thriving English town site north of Harper. An Englishman named F.J.S. Turnly bought land in 1887 (where a post office had-been established earlier) and he offered (for a $500 fee) to teach the sons of British gentlemen the secrets of successful farming. After learning what they needed to know to survive in the West, they could buy farms of their own and Turnly would advise them.
Unfortunately, most of the young men from England were so well supplied with money that they found it easier to be idle than to work. They raced their horses, had frequent parties, and they "rode to the hounds" but it lasted no longer than 1892 when most of the families in England decided that their sons were learning very little about agriculture. The church is the only structure left from those days of old.
It was first dedicated as St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in 1889, but was rededicated in the name of St. James when in 1893, Episcopalians of Harper, purchased the frame building and moved it to its present location at 11th and Pine Street.
In 1959, the City of Harper leased the Church from the Episcopal Diocese of Salina and the Harper City Historical Society undertook the restoration and preservation of the Church as a monument to local history. Through donations of materials and labor the outside has been painted grey and trimmed in white. The interior furnishings are, for the most part, retained from the Runnymede era. It is certain that the stone baptismal font and the bronze memorial plaque were imported from England. The pews, the kneeling benches, the organ, the choir seats and a few Bibles, hymnals, and prayer books number among the original contents. Three stained glass windows, lights, carpeting and altar furnishings were added or replaced since the church was moved to Harper. The bronze plaque is in memory of Robert Watmough who perished in the fire which was greatly responsible for the final ruin of the Runnymede project.
Although Runnymede is still shown on the map, in a slightly different location, the only reminder of the colony is the old church building and it is well worth a visit.
The Harper water tower is one of the most novel water towers in the United States. The large fish on top, used as a wind direction finder, is about as long as a wagon, we use that analogy as that is what was used to haul it to the location where it was mounted atop the tower!
The Harper City Fountain has become quite an historical landmark. It was dedicated to the city on May 14th, 1909 by the Study and Social Club who saw a need for a town drinking fountain. It was purchased for $375.00 and accepted on behalf of the city by then Mayor, M.S. Shephard. It was fifteen feet tall from base to the top of the lights and weighed in at about a ton. The base was thirteen feet across and made of concrete. There was a six foot cement walk surrounding the base. There were two places that furnished drinking water and one at the base for dogs. There were five electric lights, one on each side and one on top that lit the square up quite well. No expense was spared to make certain the fountain would stand for many years.
It was erected over the old city well at the center of Main and Central Ave. and replaced the old town water pump. Former residents of old remember planning their trips to do trading around a good, cold drink from the fountain for them and their horses.
At an unknown date, a motorist hit the fountain, destroying the lighted globes. Water service was terminated, the fountain was placed on a raised base and a four-way light replaced the brackets and globes. This version of the fountain is evident in a photograph form the 1950’s. In 1969, the fountain was removed and replaced with a decorative water fountain.
In 1983, the Harper Chamber of Commerce decided to reinstall the original fountain. Although relatively intact, the two lion heads that originally dispensed water were missing and one side of the fountain was broken. A local wood carver volunteered to carve a wood replica of the lions head. This replication and the broken piece were taken to a foundry in Norwich, Kansas, where they were reproduced at no charge. The traffic light was removed and replaced with a new light fixture similar to the original. It was then repainted a bronze color; resembling the original color. The fountain was placed on a new raised concrete base for added “motorist protection”. Water service was never resumed and the fountain no longer a functional drinking fountain.
The looks of today’s fountain are much the same as when it was renovated in 1983. It was approved for the Register of Historic Kansas Places on May 8, 2004.
An active Historical Society operates and maintains the museum located on the east edge of town and is home to many an interesting find. The local library also has a lot of valuable information regarding the shaping of the City of Harper.