Small Town Wonders

Small Town Wonders

“Snow . . . accumulations . . . high winds,” the weatherman said. High winds are nothing new. I’ve been dealing with those since Oklahoma. The heavy winds out here make driving tough (firm grip with BOTH HANDS on the steering wheel, or risk being blown into the oncoming lane of traffic! Really!) I didn’t want to deal with snow, too. So, I left Liberal and its citizens (are they called “Liberals”? just wondering . . .) and hit the road early Wednesday morning to try to beat the bad weather to McPherson.

I had stayed in Liberal long enough to learn that the town’s name stemmed from the generosity of its founder, a Mr. S. S. Rogers, who offered free water to passing travelers in the late 1800’s when water was extremely scarce and most people with a ready water supply made others pay for the use of it. Legend has it that the beneficiaries of Rogers’ generosity often replied, “That’s mighty liberal of you,” and when a town was later established here (once they had a post office and a general store), “Liberal” seemed like a logical name for it.

On my way out of Liberal, I noticed a sign pointing the way to “Land of Oz” and “Dorothy’s House” and couldn’t resist a quick detour, just to get an idea what I’d be missing. (I’ve posted some photos – see link at end of this blog entry)

Apparently, Liberal is also home to a 60-year-old annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Race tradition, when women run down the streets of the town, flipping pancakes in skillets, in competition with women in Olney, England, who have been doing the same thing for over 500 years there. Must be quite a sight . . . if only I’d arrived here a few weeks earlier…

But alas, it was time to angle northeast toward McPherson, in the dead-center of Kansas (like State College, in the geographic center of PA). Highway 54 strings together a series of tiny towns, each with its own claim to fame:

Meade, KS: home of the Dalton Gang Hideout, an underground tunnel connecting the barn and house where the Dalton boys’ sister, Eva, had lived. The three Daltons were infamous outlaw horse thieves who also robbed trains and banks throughout the West in the early 1890’s. Grat and Bob Dalton were killed in a shootout in Coffeyville, Kansas in 1892, and the third brother, Emmett, who survived 23 gunshot wounds, was given a life sentence in the Kansas Penitentiary. After serving 14 years, Emmett was pardoned and he became a California real estate agent and actor before his death in 1937 at age 66.

A billboard with the slogan “Get the heck INTO Dodge” caught my eye, so I investigated Dodge City. Known as the “Queen of the Cowtowns,” Dodge City claims connections to “Wild West” greats Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday, and was later made famous as the setting of the TV series “Gunsmoke.” The town boasts 11 National Historic Sites. Dodge City has also created a Liberty Garden commemorating the September 11th tragedy, with replicas of the twin towers and a 4-foot section of steel from the original World Trade Center, recovered from Ground Zero.

Haviland, KS is known for its meteorite crater, one of only three craters in the US authenticated by the presence of its rare Brenham Meteorites, ten tons of which fell to the earth nearly 20,000 years ago.

Just a few miles further on, the brick-lined streets and Victorian architecture of Pratt’s Main Street oozes small-town charm. Their most-acclaimed landmarks are the “Hot” and “Cold” water towers at the edge of town and a variety of chainsaw sculptures around town including a bald eagle and a painted American flag. Pratt is also the site of the annual Miss Kansas Pageant.

Hutchinson has an embarrassment of riches, including the site of the Kansas State Fair, the Underground Salt Museum which allows visitors to travel 650 feet below the Kansas Prairie to see salt mines that have been in operation since the late 1800’s, and the Cosmosphere, which boasts the second largest collection of US space artifacts (the Smithsonian has the largest), the largest collection of Russian space artifacts outside of Moscow and is one of only three museums in the world with exhibits of flown spacecraft from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs.

Inman, KS (pop. 1200) is home to the largest natural lake in Kansas, a section of the Santa Fe Trail, at least five Mennonite Churches, a huge motocross track, which was named “Track of the Year” in 2008, and the “Kansas Sampler Foundation,” whose mission is to preserve and sustain rural Kansas culture and help rural Kansas communities draw attention to all that they have to offer through the “8 Wonders of Kansas” program.

But the best “Kansas town” story of the day came mid-morning (though I’ve saved the story for last), when I made a stop in Greensburg, KS for a coffee break. At the Green Bean Coffee Co. on Main St, I met Kari Kyle, the owner, and one of the locals who shared the incredible story of Greensburg:

Prior to May 2007, Greensburg was best known as home of the “Largest Hand Dug Well in the World,” visited by over three million visitors from around the world.

But on May 4, 2007, the town of Greensburg was nearly obliterated by a tornado. Every business along Main Street was flattened except the liquor store. Every church in the town was destroyed. Over 500 homes were lost. The largest intact building left standing after the storm (a bar) became the town morgue for the 10 citizens who lost their lives in the storm.

Despite the devastation, within days, the townspeople gathered to talk about how to rebuild and decided to pursue becoming a model “green” community, pursuing LEED Platinum certification for every building of 4000 square feet or more. Greensburg is now known as a model community for environmental sustainability and green building practices. Kari and other local business owners and residents take great pride in the pluck, determination and commitment their entire community has shown as they’ve worked together to turn devastation into opportunity. Oh – and the Discovery Channel has apparently run an extensive series on the Greensburg story. One of the locals told me Leonardo DiCaprio has been involved in the Discovery Channel project, and that he’s given a lot of money to help build some of the green buildings here. I was so glad I had stopped in Greensburg.

An hour later, as I drove through another town (Pratt), I noticed a portable BBQ trailer parked in a church parking lot with a long line of customers waiting out front. The sign painted on the side of the trailer said “JD’s BBQ II, Greensburg, KS” with a picture of a funnel-cloud swirling next to the words. I decided to give some more Greensburg folks my business. Best BBQ sandwich I’ve ever eaten – a mound of sweet, juicy pork with just the right amount of kick, on a soft roll that soaked up the juices, finally falling apart just at the last bite. It was served up with a generous helping of thick napkins (much needed!) A bargain at $3.95. What a thrill to support another hardy Greensburg business owner!

Though it was a miserable, rainy, damp, cold, windy day – I did manage to take some photos, which you can see here

By 3pm, I arrived in McPherson – enough time to do a little exploring of the downtown, then get settled in at the McPherson RV Ranch and Horse Motel (fancy name for a campground outside of town). After many overnights “roughing it” at Walmarts and assorted other parking places, I’ll be living luxuriously tonight with a real shower, electricity hook-up, coin-operated laundry and free Wi-Fi! Woo-hoo!

Best of all – NO DRIVING TOMORROW! Tomorrow night, I have a speaking gig at The Cedars, a Church of the Brethren retirement community in McPherson. They’ve invited the McPherson COB congregation as well as folks from McPherson College. The organizer told me they’re hoping for a great turnout, but I’ve learned that you just never know with these events. We might get 5 people or 50. But I’ve also come to understand that whoever shows up are the right people. That philosophy helps me to take each event as it comes and make the most of it.

Then, on Friday, it will be on to Kansas City and all the wonders it has to offer . . .

QUESTION OF THE DAY: What’s the best “small town wonder” you’ve ever experienced/visited? Where was it? What made it memorable?

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: grace goes to prison book tour

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