Kansas: Fun in Flyover Country

travel_kansasWhat can you say about a place that, at times, has more cattle than people? That was called “the great American desert” by explorer Zebulon Pike, discoverer of Pike’s Peak in Colorado and one of the founders of Minneapolis? That has millions and millions of acres of undulating, virtually treeless prairie? That’s the source of endless jokes and remarks about Dorothy not being there any more?

Actually, quite a lot. People were surprised when I told them what I saw and did during a recent trip to the Council Grove, Flint Hills and Abilene regions. Many believe that once you leave Kansas City — a good part of which is in Missouri anyway — all that’s left is cowboys in pickup trucks and Indian arrow heads.

Big Pow-Wow at Council Grove

There’s no denying the pioneer and Native American heritage of the region. It is especially prevalent in Council Grove, about a two-hour drive from Kansas City (take US 35 South to K-56 West at the Gardner — not old 56 — exit). A boom town during the 1800s exodus down the Santa Fe Trail, the area was distinguished by a stand of trees which made it the final stopping point before the trek further west. This was hardly a quick trip to the bathroom: supplies purchased at the Last Chance Store, today reincarnated as a post office and government building, had to be stretched for several weeks or even months, depending upon the weather, destination and other conditions. Back then, mail service was literally up a tree — letters were left in a hollowed-out trunk of what was known as the Post Office Oak. It’s clustered along Main St./56 with the Guardian of the Grove and Madonna of the Trail statues, which honor Indians and pioneer mothers respectively and the Neosho River Crossing, a natural rock bed over which thousands of settlers journeyed in their covered wagons, among other places of interest.

A stroll down the scenic Neosho Riverwalk will take you to the Kaw Mission State Historic Site and Museum (316/767-5410). The Kaw or Kansa Indians, after which the state is named, also had a reservation in Council Grove (the other main tribe was the Osage). Built in 1851, this two-story stone structure now houses artifacts from the school for mostly orphaned or disabled Native American boys and the family who taught them, Thomas and Eliza Huffaker. Council Grove also hosts s pow-wow every June and on odd-numbered years is the site of a historical pageant, “Voices of the Wind People.” The 2001 presentation will be held on September 21 and 22 (316/767-5410). Down the road a bit is the Hermit’s Cave, where Father Giovanni Maria Augustini lived, ministering to the local natives. He stayed only a brief while, walking the 500 miles to Santa Fe in the company of a wagon train.

Before getting out of Dodge, so to speak, stop by the Hayes House (317/767-5911) for some vittles. Actually the menu is quite varied and contemporary, ranging from steaks to ham to chicken salad to dessert to breakfasts. You can walk off the meal by exploring the historic building, built by Council Grove founder Seth Hayes in 1857. Along with being chock full of artifacts and native materials (yes, there is an arrowhead collection) it also served time as a church, government bureau, newspaper office and spot for theatricals. A few blocks away is the Seth Hayes home where this lifelong bachelor lived with his former slave Sally and took care of her and her family who resided on the premises as well. The nature of their relationship is the subject of long-term speculation (open Sundays and by special appointment; call 800/732-9211 for information).

Earth, Wind and Fire

A short (10 minutes or so) drive down K-177 S which bisects 56 will take you to the 11,000 acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (316/273-6034). Located in the Flint Hills, which comprises 30-40 miles of untouched land, it gives new meaning to “the middle of nowhere,” which is why you must look carefully for the sign that differentiates this from other large ranches. Kansas highways also tend to veer off suddenly so keep a sharp eye out for your designated road. And bring plenty of bottled water as it may not be readily available in certain locations and it’s easy to become dehydrated in the arid plains.

The awesome and colorful ecosystem supports four different kinds of tallgrasses as well as 40 species of grama, buffalo, and other grasses and wild blossoms including the state symbol, the sunflower; 200 types of birds; 30 breeds of mammals, plus reptiles and amphibians; along with an estimated 10 million insects per acre. The latter was borne out with an early autumn explosion of grasshoppers at every step. The prairie is also prime eating for wild and domestic animals, particularly cattle. Every spring, restricted range burning happens to control weeds and stimulate growth of grassland. Over the summer, steers and heifers are brought in — Club Med for cows — before being shipped off to feedlots and, eventually, grocery stores.

Along with participating in an hour-and-a-half bus tour of the prairie, you can explore the Z-Bar/Spring Hill Ranch, the native-cut limestone, Empire-style manor of cattleman Stephen Jones. Since the 1800s, Kansas limestone has been mined for structures all over the country. Nearby are a huge three-story barn originally used to store cattle in the wintertime and the one-room Lower Fox Creek School. Nature trail walks are also available, with paths being studded with steel-like chert, also known as flint, formed hundreds of millions of years ago, providing the area its name.

For those who prefer self-guided or vehicular-based excursions, less than an hour north up 177 is the Konza Prairie (785/587-0441). Named after yet another variation of the Kansa tribal moniker, this intact 8,600-acre preserve serves as a field research station for Kansas State University and is only open to the public in a limited capacity. Once every two years, the facility holds a Fall Visitors Day, with the next one being scheduled sometime in 2002. But you’re free to wander about in designated areas during business hours.

Did Someone Say “Shopping?”

Parts of the prairie are surprisingly sophisticated. Cottonwood Falls, a few minutes further south on 177 from the Tallgrass Preserve, has emporiums galore amid well-preserved Old West storefronts. Prices are right, too. I got a pair of blue-jean stud earrings with sterling silver posts for about $3.00 at the Fiber Factory (316/273-8686), which not has only handwoven items, but a rope machine so you can make your own (enough to hang oneself?). Along with a nice selection of clothing, Jim Bell & Son (316/273-6381) offers an array of Brighton silver women’s watches that might be the envy of a larger city, while the Holiday Boutique (316/273-8314) provides more outfits and jewelry at small-town costs. Croy’s (316/373-6412) is much more than your basic hardware store – it has furniture, hunting and fishing licenses, carpeting, even a dead stuffed squirrel that the owner ran over in his driveway (sorry, it’s not for sale).

Cottonwood Falls also boasts the Grand Central Hotel and Grill (800/951-6763, www.grandcentralhotel.com). This restored structure is chock full of resplendent wood and amenities, including a full-service gourmet restaurant that gets booked up weeks in advance. It also has a good selection of what Kansas is famous for — sirloin, prime rib, whatever parts of the well-fed bovine you prefer. From the hotel you can see the Chase County Courthouse, a striking French Renaissance edifice. Completed in 1873, it’s the oldest working courthouse west of the Mississippi and continues to be utilized. Interior highlights include a 40-foot spiral walnut staircase and the tantalizing possibility of getting a glimpse of “People’s Court,” Cottonwood-Falls style (weekdays only). You won’t see anyone getting hauled off, though: the last convict to reside in the Cowboy Jail down the street at Broadway and Main was in 1883.

Meanwhile, Back To the Ranch…

No excursion to Kansas would be complete without at least a taste of the “real” Old West. Among several options are ecology, horsemanship, and ranching experiences for women and youth at the Homestead Ranch in Matfield Green (south on 177, 316/753-3416). They offer a variety of programs. Among other things, you can do chores and help feed the animals. One thing I learned was never to turn your back on a baby calf unless you want a nose up the rear.

Those looking to jolt into the past can opt for the Flint Hills Overland Wagon Train (316/321-6300, www.wagontrainkansas.com) held every other weekend from June to September (another alternative is Covered Wagon Train Trips out of Newton, 316/283-2636, www.kscoveredwagon.com). Events begin Saturday morning at the Cassoday Cafe off 177S, a hangout for cowboy “regulars.” People garb up in jeans and pioneer duds; cell phones, video games, and laptops are left behind as you adjoin to a nearby Chase County ranch, the camp’s actual location. Lunch can get tossed around a bit during the afternoon covered wagon ride. Fortunately these vehicles only go 2.5 miles per hour so your insides can settle a bit if you walk alongside the procession. Also try not to confuse donkeys with horses and mules: Initially I thought the trail boss was “funnin’ me” about what was pulling our wagon, until I noticed the upright ears and shorter mane of the latter, making me feel somewhat like the former. At various points, trail bosses and others explain local flora, fauna, and cowboy customs. Dinner includes beef stew, beans ‘n franke and other grub and coffee brewed in a (hopefully clean) sock, while entertainment consists of cowboy poetry, tall, tales and singing. You can also spend the night.

Old Homes, Presidents and Greyhounds

Since the ground is a place I prefer to sit and not sleep on, I jumped into my vehicle and headed for Abilene, ready for a dose of city lights, however small they might be. It’s an easy, scenic ride of about an hour-and-a-half up 177N to I-70 W, and certainly worth the detour, particularly if you’re a museum and history buff. Most of Abilene’s eclectic assortment of attractions are close together, easily accessed from K-15S/ Buckeye street exit.

Even those who didn’t “like Ike” might want to stop at the Eisenhower Center (785/263-4751). The childhood home of the 34th President and also his and wife Mamie’s burial place, this 22-acre complex contains five buildings: the family residence, where tourists are ushered through quickly or brusquely, depending upon the demeanor of the guide; and a visitor’s center/ auditorium which runs a regularly scheduled film on Ike’s life. Along with the usual relics and childhood artifacts, the museum has a fascinating display of Mamie’s and other First Lady’s clothing, reinforcing my childhood impression that between her hairstyle and choice of outfits (often garish or unflatteringly cut) the former was in dire need of fashion policing. In addition to having a full collection of Presidential papers and photographs, the marble-and-glass library offers a stunning architectural space, suitable for just about any gathering, save a rat skinnin’ or hangin,’ activities in the area’s not-so-distant past. The mausoleum, called the “Place of Meditation” is eerily quiet and almost too peaceful, reminding one that no matter how rich or powerful, we all end up the same way.

It’s also easy to get hung up at the Dickinson County Historical Center and Museum of Independent Telephony (785/263-2681) even if you don’t buy into the party line about how great phone service is these days. With approximately 500 phones of all eras, shapes, and sizes including rare models, a re-creation of a 19th century telephone exchange, and display of classy coin-operated pay stations, it offers more ringers than the WWF. For those who like racing, a different sort of fix can be found at the Greyhound Hall of Fame (800/932-7881). Here you’ll learn about the genealogy of this distinguished animal and the sport that made him famous. I particularly enjoyed the chance to visit with two resident greyhounds and the neat selection of canine collars in the gift shop, although my two cats would not have been amused. Other stops of interest to buffs include the Fashion Museum (785/263-7997), the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame (785/263-7403, www.kshof.org), and the Antique Doll Museum (785/263-1883). Additionally a wide variety of crafts in several media can be found at American Indian Art Center (785/263-0090) which carries the work of 100 artisans from 30 tribes.

Abilene also boasts dueling historic homes: The Seelye Mansion (785/263-1084) and the Lebold Vahsholtz Mansion (by appointment only, 785/263-4356). While vastly different, they’re both worth seeing. Built in 1905 by Dr. and Mrs. A.B. Seelye and furnished with many innovations from the World’s Fair of the previous year, it was the childhood-to-death residence of their two unmarried daughters. Many of the fixtures are original and in working condition, such as a bowling alley in the basement, and furniture and draperies in the light and airy rooms appear almost untouched by time. The grounds, patio, and fish pond have been refurbished using period landscape drawings.

The Lebold Vahsholtz Mansion has much humbler roots and in fact started out as dugout and cabin where the first white child in the county is said to have been born. In 1881, C.H. Lebold, who made his fortune in banking, land development, and other enterprises, constructed a 23-room abode there with a tower that looked out over the city. However, by the turn of the last century, both building and owner fell on hard times and the mansion was sold, serving as a boarding house, orphanage and finally, shabby apartments. Purchased by the Vahsholtz family in the 1970s, it was completely restored with period pieces, only a few which were from the original structure. Yet the woodwork, roofing, carpeting, and fixtures recapture the Victorian era’s ornamentation and attention to detail. And you can visit both the original dugout and roof perch, thanks to Vahsholtzs’ dedication in removing truckloads of pigeon manure from the latter.

Before easing on the down the road, you might want fill your personal fuel tank at the Brookville Hotel (785/263-2244, www.brookvillehotel.com). But you’d better like fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, biscuits, cole slaw, and ice cream because that’s all that’s on the menu, all the time. Then it’s time to follow the yellow brick road home.