This article appeared in the July 2, 2009, issue of tmiWeekly.
In the cool comfort of your living room, you have mysteries at your finger tips. Fire up the D.V.R., punch the remote, and watch C.S.I., Bones, Cold Case, and C.S.I. again. If, however, you have a more adventuresome spirit and are willing to leave your house, you can find more than the common mass-market mystery. You may have to drive down a dirt road in the hundred-degree heat or spend hours squinting at old newspapers on microfilm, but it can be worth it to uncover a genuine homegrown mystery.
One such local story, which has survived via whispered rumor for 80 years, centers on the tiny town of Falun, Kansas, about 20 miles southwest of Salina. On January 5, 1929, The Salina Journal ran the headline,
Strange Disappearances Near Falun
That should grab your attention even if the microfilm is a bit blurry. The story reveals that over the span of twenty-fours hours, four people vanished from the unincorporated community. Falun was not normally a news hot spot. It would register a population of only 448 in the 1930 census. Presumably, that headcount would have been 452 if not for those four residents whose absence drew statewide attention.
The disappearances began on the day after Christmas, 1928. That evening was the last time anyone saw general-store owner Don Muller. He was considered a prominent citizen. He had recently served jury duty at the district court. A rumor circulated that he had been seen with several hundred dollars in cash and a suitcase on his way to Salina. He left behind a wife and three children.
That same day, Ranghild Oleen, who lived with her husband and three children about three miles southwest of Falun, was last seen bound for town. She never arrived and, like Muller, her whereabouts remained unknown.
The news story did not speculate about any connections between Muller and Oleen, but you can put two and two together if you like. And if so, you'll like even more regarding the two people who went missing on the night of December 27, 1928, from the Griggs farm, eight miles northwest from Falun in the Smokey Hills. They were Mrs. Griggs and a hired hand named Harold Johnston. The Journal got some detail from the County Attorney regarding Muller and Oleen because a warrant had been charged against Muller for child desertion and Oleen was reported as a missing person. Such was not the case with Mr. Johnston and Mrs. Griggs, so little more information is available about them. Nevertheless, it appears obvious they weren't victims of alien abduction.
Today, Falun has shrunk to half its 1930 size, but plenty of people with ties there remain in Saline County. A descendant of Ranghild Oleen is one such former resident. He won't go into detail regarding her story but acknowledges that she ran off with Muller. He also notes that later in life she returned to Falun frequently to visit her children. Other than the coincidence that two couples chose to flee on successive days, he does not consider his ancestor's story remarkable and sees "no reason to dwell on such things."
He is right, but homegrown mysteries are hard to resist, and the story of the missing four will live on in, of all places, a short story by a young writer with ties to Falun. Shannon Draper-Gard, currently a high school English teacher in Lawrence, turned to fiction to fill in the gaps.
In 2004, Shannon was a grad. student in Creative Writing at K-State, when her mother, aware of her daughter's fascination with her small-town heritage, sent her a clipping from The Salina Journal. On each Friday, the paper ran a "Today in History" column, and that week's selection featured under the heading "75 Years Ago" an excerpt from the 1929 article on the Falun four.
Shannon had lived in Falun when she was twelve, went on to high school in Lindsborg, and recognized some of the names in the article as those of families who had remained in the Smoky Hills, but more than a sense of familiarity drew her to the story. Fascination set in when she pondered people abandoning their families.
After writing extensively about her great-grandmother's life, Shannon had become particularly interested in the lives of women in rural Kansas history. These elements, the basic facts regarding the Falun four, and speculation about their circumstances came together in the form of a short story titled "The Disappeared" which she included in her Master's Thesis.
[Shannon Draper-Gard blogs "Half Asleep in Star Pajamas"]
Today, Shannon is at work on a revision she plans to submit for publication, and she recommends to her students the path that led her to write "The Disappeared." "If you're fascinated by C.S.I. shows," she suggests, "dig through old newspapers, and you'll find inspiration. A wealth of material exists in local history, and it's not all about pretty people in pretty places like we get from Hollywood. It's about our past, and we can use it to tell our stories."