Sawyer sees a resurgence downtown

A small town in Pratt County seems to be going against the trend. Business in Sawyer, while maybe not booming, is livelier than it has been in years, and more active than in many rural towns.

Part of the credit goes to its location at the junction of U.S. 281 and K-42, 10 miles south of Pratt. Coats, Byers and Isabel don't have the 2,000 vehicles traveling through every day that Greg Wolf counted before opening the Family Food Store.

Longtime resident Lothair Dauner likes to think there is another reason.

"It's a friendly little town," he noted.

And while it's not the Sawyer he recalls as a boy, with a bank, grocery store, mercantile, hardware, restaurant, lumber yard and a filling station on all four corners, there is a lot going on in the town.

In Sawyer you can buy gas and get a tire fixed, get a haircut, buy a sandwich or a jug of milk, hire someone to paint or remodel your house, have your deer processed and a trophy mount made for your wall, and buy a case of oil.

You can store your excess stuff — except that Sawyer Self Store is currently full — get the dents fixed and the car repainted good as new, buy a used vehicle or have some shirts embroidered or printed. On Sundays, you will find two churches holding services. On a good day, Sawyer United Methodist has 20 in the congregation, Dauner said.

Location doesn't really matter for the biggest business in town, except that Sawyer is close to home for Mike Van Ranken. He grew up in Isabel, went to work in the oilfield right after finishing school and moved to Medicine Lodge when he married a girl from that town. In the mid-'80s, he took a break from the oilfield and hauled grain for a while.

The Van Rankens moved to Sawyer in 1995 and in 2000, when the oil business had picked back up, they established American Trucking, Inc.

He started with one employee who is still with him. With 13 trucks and 21 employees, the company is a general oilfield hauling contractor working in five states, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri. They service independent oil producers in Pratt, Barber and Kiowa counties, as well as large companies, moving rigs, supplies and equipment on trailers up to 60 feet long.

He has recently added a full time mechanic and a full time fabricator to the employee roster. The fabricator builds the beds and puts on the needed equipment, a process that can take three to six months.

Not all employees are local. American Trucking has drivers in Great Bend, Anthony, Kiowa, Pratt and Cullison.

Mike says he has outgrown his shop and office on Main Street, and will put up a new building at his pipe yard on the county road that begins where K-42 ends. He will keep the old location as a paint and body shop and Nancy has plans for the office building, which she rented as a beauty shop when they first moved to town.

About seven years ago, she moved into a new building right across the highway from their house. She likes not having to drive to work and being able to go home for lunch or down the street for a sandwich.

Sawyer is a good location for her; she previously had a shop in Medicine Lodge and worked in Pratt. Clients from both locations followed her, and she also draws from Isabel and Coats, each about 10 miles away. Regulars who are picky about appointment times book two months in advance.

She thinks the town is a good place to live.

"When something bad happens we're all there to help each other out," she said. "That's why I like Sawyer."

Chris and Stephany Mohler moved to Sawyer in 2010, having a "pretty good idea" a wildlife taxidermy and game processing business would be successful.

Their customers are local hunters, and out-of-state residents who hunt leased land in the area. Local landowners and outfitters refer customers, and Mohler refers them to The Bunkhouse, a bed and breakfast in the hills north of Medicine Lodge. Owner Roger Ringer returns the favor.

The Mohlers hope to expand their showroom before the next hunting season, moving into the "next window" of the former grocery store.

The Family Food Store, Sawyer's newest business, handles about 250 transactions each three-day week, according to owner Greg Wolf. They sell meats, cheeses, sandwiches ready to go or made to order, hot soup, baked goods, some grocery items and bulk foods repackaged in smaller sizes. They hope to add pizza to the list by the end of the month, and a sign out front leads customers inside to shop for Valentine's Day.

The town has a population of 123, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and has remained steady since 2000, after a significant drop from the 1990s. There is a demand for rental housing in town, Dauner said, but not much is available.

Businesses occupy most buildings in the one-block Main Street. Doc Bucklin's building is used for storage, the Humble Garage hasn't had a mechanic there for nearly 30 years, and what locals refer to as the opera house has been vacant for longer than that. A former mercantile store serves as a community building.