Residents try to repopulate Nicodemus with tiny home project

Residents of Nicodemus are trying to repopulate the historical African American community with the construction of tiny homes.

JohnElla Holmes, a Nicodemus resident and township trustee, is spearheading the effort.

Holmes’ ancestors lived in Nicodemus, and she moved back to the community in 2015 after her retirement.

Nicodemus was founded in 1877 by African Americans moving west during the Reconstruction. It is the only remaining African American settlement west of the Mississippi and is registered as a National Historic Site.

Holmes remembers as a child coming home to Nicodemus during the summer for festivals and seeing aunts, uncles and cousins. She said living in Nicodemus has meant everything to here.

“My whole life I have wanted to come back because there is so much pride in being a descendant of original settlers. I can trace my lineage back to my great-great grandparents who came to Kansas. I know the plantation they came from. Not many people know that and can say that, but I can.”

Workers pour foundations for the tiny homes in Nicodemus.

Workers pour foundations for the tiny homes in Nicodemus.

Holmes wants to share that history and pride with others.

The community received a $120,000 grant from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation and a CY PRES grant toward the project. The project also has been supported through other grants as well as private funds.

The project has 11 families and individuals on a list for the homes.

Three tiny homes are now in process and a family located a single-wide trailer in Nicodemus as a part of the repopulation project. The community hopes for a total of seven tiny homes in its first phase of development.

Foundations for three homes have been poured. Portions of the tiny homes have been preconstructed by the Sturdi-Bilt company in Hutchinson, but workers need a break in the weather to begin installing the homes on their foundations in Nicodemus, Holmes said. Move-in dates for the homes are going to depend on weather, but the homes should only take a couple of months to finish once they are on their foundations.

The tiny homes are only about 500 square feet, but will be move-in ready each with a kitchen, bathroom and sleeping loft.

A worker works on the foundation for a tiny home in Nicodemus.

A worker works on the foundation for a tiny home in Nicodemus.

One of the tiny homes is being built for a person who is disabled. Instead of sleeping loft, that home will have a built-in Murphy bed.

Each home is expected to cost about $38,000 to $40,000.

Holmes said she was surprised at the number of people interested in the project, not only the tiny homes but family homes. Organizers did not anticipate developing two- and three-bedroom homes until the third phase of the project, but there is interest in that housing now, Holmes said.

One family is living in Hill City until they can be accommodated in Nicodemus.

At its height between the late 1870s and 1890s, 700 people lived in the community. However, that number declined when the community failed to attract the railroad.

When Holmes moved to Nicodemus in 2015, the community had only 15 residents. Today, the community has 37 residents and is growing.

Although Holmes said she did not think the community would ever get back to 700 residents, she said she thought 150 to 200 residents was within reach.

“I am totally optimistic,” Holmes said. “There is a huge interest. If we could get in and remodel some of the homes or refurbish them, we could fill them today with people who want to move back to the community. They want a simpler life. They want to get back into agriculture. They want to have their own gardens. They want the security and safety of living in a nice place where they can get a good education and go to school in Hill City.

“Once we can get our infrastructure fixed and our water system fixed and complete roads and the platting of the land there in Nicodemus, I really see us growing.”

Infrastructure is proving a challenge. The water and sewer system has not been upgraded in 40 years. The original community also was not platted correctly, and some homes are sitting in alleys.

Holmes said she would like to give Colonial Williamsburg a run for its money by having residents regularly dress in period costumes and share Nicodemus’ history.

The historical society, which is lead by Angela Bates, already has a cooperative agreement with the park system. They have descendants who are community interpreters and share the history of the community.

“Nine out of 10 people or nine and half people, when they hear the history from those young women, it just blows their minds,” Holmes said. “There is not much to speak about, but once they hear the history, they hear the pride and the ground swell of what was going on, they understand why we would be so prideful of this small … almost ghost town.”

Holmes also hopes to entice businesses to move to Nicodemus through the repopulation project. The community’s church, 1st Missionary Baptist, also has a new pastor and 40 regular attendees.