I must do one more Kansas post before I’m done with the state for now. I must. I know you’re thinking, Beth, get over your obsession with this incredibly flat, dull state. So here’s a newsflash: Eastern Colorado is flatter than Kansas. It takes all the strength of mind I have to drive through eastern Colorado without screaming the entire way just to stay awake. Without a frost to turn the ground silver, or some great clouds, driving eastern Colorado along I-70 is a snooze.
Western Kansas is also flatter than the rest of Kansas, but at least it has Goodland and a giant reproduction of a Van Gogh painting by Canadian artist Cameron Cross.
I last left you after a whirlwind tour through the Prairie Museum of Art and History in Colby. When I was done photographing Barbies, and they had turned off the lights again, I asked for some dinner recommendations. First they offered some of the fast food joints along the highway, but when I persisted, they mentioned a new place in downtown Colby: Mabel’s.
The day I ate dinner, Mabel’s had been open two days. My server said they had been packed for lunch. And it’s no wonder. In the four blocks that radiate outward from the center of downtown, you can find B Hive Bar & Grill, Salads and Subs, two jewelry stores, three furniture stores, a hospice, Wings upon the Prairie (social services), Stock Realty and Auction, and an art gallery. Perhaps Colby is a kind of urban hub in western Kansas.
Downtown Colby needs Mabel’s, and I needed dinner, so everyone was happy. I ordered the Indian taco, which was good, if a bit different from what I’ve had in the Four Corners area. It came on a fried flour tortilla instead of frybread, the beans were refried, not whole, and I’m pretty sure the salsa was Pace. The tortilla was crispy on the outside and soft inside, and I liked the radishes and purple cabbage. (If I had taken this photo after Saturday’s food photography class, I would have rearranged the lettuce so that you could actually see the ground beef.) The server told me that was the first Indian taco they’d served. I guess the standard American fare on the menu is more popular.
My server was a good saleswoman, convincing me to order coconut cream pie, which had very, very fluffy meringue. As you can see, the cream was a bit runny, and the crust was a little hard, but I liked it because it was not too sweet. Apparently the cook makes everything in Mabel’s from scratch but has no dessert plates.
Mabel’s is definitely worth checking out. I wish the owners the best of luck, and I hope that downtown Colby sprouts more locally owned restaurants.
Last week it was Nicodemus; this week it’s Colby, Kansas, right where Highway 24 runs into I-70. I went there for one reason: The Prairie Museum of Art and History, which I’d last visited in the spring 2007. It hadn’t changed much. The museum building, seen here from the back, is a dugout,
but many exhibits await outside, including a few live ones.Buildings from western Kansas dot the site. Volunteers built this sod house in 1984, but it contains furnishings from the late nineteenth century. On my 2007 trip through Kansas down to the Gulf Coast of Texas, I photographed the interior of the schoolroom. I think I may have sat at a desk like that in grade school. My main destination was the Cooper Barn, the largest barn in Kansas and one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas Architecture.
Inside it exhibits old cars, farm equipment, and lots and lots of cobwebs and dust. Upstairs is a room large enough to use for dances. I really enjoy wandering around historical museums like this one. I wish I’d arrived earlier in the day, but I wouldn’t have missed Nicodemus for the world. When I walked back into the museum, they had turned off the lights. I begged the staff to turn them back on so I could photograph Nellie Kuska’s collection of Barbies of color. Not the first thing you’d expect to see in Kansas, is it? And it’s only a small part of her doll collection, which is only a small part of her entire collection. That’s why tiny museums are worth a look—you’ll always find some odd detail that changes your view of the place.
Driving back from Kansas City to Denver at the end of September, I decided to go north to Highway 24, avoiding the tedium of driving I-70 four times in one month. Happily, Highway 24 lacks political signage and goes by 4 wildlife areas. I didn’t stop at any of them, though I was tempted.
The one place that did stop me was one I didn’t know existed: Nicodemus, the first western town built by and for African American settlers. It was founded in 1877, the year Reconstruction ended. No surprise there, or in the fact that the backlash against Reconstruction was severe enough to drive black families from the South to Kansas, Oklahoma (Boley), Colorado (Dearfield), and California (Allensworth).
Nicodemus is the oldest continuously inhabited African American town west of the Mississippi, though only 30 people live there, most of them retired. It is also the only such town designated as a national historic site (part of the national park system).
If you want to visit Nicodemus, the best time to do so might be the last weekend in July, when they hold their annual Emancipation Day celebration. At other times, it’s a sleepy, tiny town on the high plains of northwestern Kansas.
But it wasn’t always that way. In the late 1870s, boosters described Kansas as the Promised Land to southern blacks who could see the Jim Crow handwriting on the wall and wanted to find a safe place to live and possibly own land. Kansas attracted them because it had been admitted to the union as a free state after a bitter, bloody fight between Jayhawks (who wanted Kansas to be a free state) and Bushwhackers (who wanted Kansas to be a slave state).
The Nicodemus town company was registered by 6 black men and 1 white man a week before the end of Reconstruction in 1877, taking its name from a fictional African slave portrayed in the song, “Wake, Nicodemus!”
As was typical of advertisements directed at homesteaders in those days, Nicodemus was marketed as the perfect place to farm and raise a family. What settlers found when they arrived shocked them: people living in dugout homes, treeless prairies, and less-than-fertile soil. Some, like Willina Hickman, cried when they realized the smoke rising out of the ground came from fires in dugout homes. Ernestine Van Duvall said, “They told us in Kentucky they were bringing us to the Promised Land. I wouldn’t ask no one to come here like it is. I just blown here; I just come here, and this is home.” Others turned right around and returned to Kentucky or other points east and south.
But those who stayed helped swell the town’s population to the hundreds, and it might have grown still larger had Union Pacific Railroad not bypassed the town in the late 1880s. Afterward, businesses began to move out of Nicodemus, though the town was still building a church and a school in the early 1900s.
Finding Nicodemus delighted me, and I would love to see it restored, to see people moving there again to farm. In this day and age, I don’t know what that would take. Town residents are doing everything they can to preserve the remaining buildings and keep Nicodemus’s history alive. A walking tour goes by the St. Francis Hoteland the First Baptist Church,which clearly has some structural problems.Some of the information in this post was gleaned from Nicodemus National Historic Site by Judith Fertig, published by the Western National Parks Association in 2003.
For more about Dearfield, Colorado, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, see my August 2009 post, “Black American West Museum, Part III.”
I decided to drive south from Hays on Wednesday and go through Great Bend. That way I could get a coffee drink at Java John’s in McPherson, Kansas, a town I had enjoyed on my 2007 birding trip.
But then I realized the sign craziness extended south of I-70, all the way to Highways 96 and even 156. I’ve heard that one person funds these signs, but I think there is more to it. They’re spread out over a large area. So even if 1 person is paying to rent those billboards, all the landowners go along with it.
Here’s a note to the sign maker: your signs are not having the desire effect on me, a pro-choicer since age 16. When I pass a sign that reads, “Abortion stops a beating heart,” I think, “Well, so does running over a squirrel in your car.”
Then I begin to wonder if insects have heartbeats. Do I stop a beating heart when I swat a mosquito?
Another sign I passed asked, “What is the cost of abortion? 1 human life!” And I think, “Well, a back-alley abortion kills the baby and the mother. That’s two.” If that woman had been able to obtain a legal abortion, only 1 human being would have died.
There are nearly 7 billion people on this planet. We are not in any danger of going extinct. (And neither is the bald eagle, recently removed from the Endangered Species List. Please update your sign.) If I had to choose between saving 1 human life and saving a species, I’d go for the species every time.
I know my responses are not “proper” or “kind.” But then, neither is a sign imposing religious views on me as I drive down the highway. I would not feel any better if the sign said “Death to rapists” or “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” The only signs I want to see along the highway are “Rest Area 1 mile” or “Food Gas Lodging” or something about quilting stores.
I don’t want to see ads for adult bookstores either, but apparently the state of Kansas and Lions Den can’t leave well enough alone.
I’m forced to conclude the people sponsoring these signs don’t want dialogue. They don’t really want to change my mind. They want to preach to their own choir, or they want to make pro-choicers feel bad.
Does anyone out there know if other states have collections of anti-abortion signs?
My day of museums in Hays began in a leisurely fashion, with the continental breakfast at the Day’s Inn. I took my time heading to downtown Hays and arrived just in time for lunch, which I had at Café Semolino Coffee and Eatery.
Semolino is a comfy place to have lunch (Veganini on ciabatta with 3 cheeses, peppers, and pesto mayo) and hang out. Between the pastries at Semolino and the old-fashioned fountain drinks at the Soda Shoppe, you need never have a sugar low in Hays.
That afternoon I explored the Ellis County Historical Society Museum, housed in 2 churches, the First Presbyterian Church (1879) and the Presbyterian Church (1922). The Stone Chapel, as the first one is nicknamed, is lined with rectangular pressboard interiors dating from the 1940s. The main museum fills every inch of the newer church, including an activity area for kids in the balcony with a tiny one-room schoolhouse and a 125-year-old wooden rocking horse. If you think schools are full of mayhem these days, imagine being in school with people of all ages, some of whom are copying their lessons while others recite at the front of the room.
The museum proper begins with an exhibit of 500 arrowheads, an object in which land (where they’re found) and people (those who made or find them) intersect. In the late 1800s, the people included the Kansa tribe (People of the South Wind), the Pawnee, who made sod houses and presumably taught that skill to settlers, and the Kiowa, who migrated from the Black Hills of South Dakota in the 1870s.
There’s a lot in these first exhibits about Indian atrocities, but nothing about white treatment of Indians. I guess if you wanted the latter, you could try the Smoky Hill Museum in Salina. I did learn that Custer’s wife traveled to camp with him, and that the man who saved the buffalo from extinction, James “Scotty” Philip of Fort Pierre, South Dakota, had 2 brothers in Ellis County, Kansas. And I noticed that many of the nineteenth-century characters had awfully good hair: thick flowing locks and wonderfully tortured mustaches.
Well-known characters of the West, such as Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody, appear next to headings like “Boot Hill—Hangings—Shootings and Sheriffs.” Hays disputes Dodge City’s claim to have raised (or deep-sixed?) the original Boot Hill, reminding everyone that its cemetery was “populated” as early as 1867, 5 years before Dodge City denizens died with their boots on (that is, not in bed).
At times I thought the Ellis County Museum was a bit low-rent, perhaps because its exhibits remind me of something from a science fair or exposition. It’s mostly in one big room instead of a house, where different classes of items could inhabit separate rooms. But the room made up as a saloon (perhaps an entryway or side altar in the 1922 church?) intrigued me, as did the exhibit of clocks built by Justus Bissing, Jr., a prominent local citizen. One clock took 7 kinds of wood. Bissing’s brother, Peter, invented a musical instrument called the dulcette, a combination of piano and harp that is one of several musical instruments featured here.
History buffs will enjoy the exhibits on the Volga Germans, who were invited by Catherine the Great to settle in Russia (hence their name) but left when the government reneged on its promise that they would never be drafted. Volga Germans built the Cathedral of the Plains in Victoria, Kansas, east of Hays.
The museum wasn’t all about men, however. “At Home on the Farm” describes the lives of women on the High Plains. Near the exit I learned that Kathryn O’Loughlin-McCarthy, a lawyer, was the first woman elected to Congress from Kansas (1932). She defended female inmates from abuse and helped put a number of young people through college.
It was 4 o’clock before I finished touring the Ellis County Historical Museum, and I still wanted to visit the Sternberg Museum of Natural History. Luckily, it stays open until 6, so I had plenty of time.
The Sternberg, part of Fort Hays State University, is housed in an institutional building near I-70 that used to be called the Metroplex and is surrounded by ostentatious new housing. George F. Sternberg was a fossil collector who specialized in fossils from Cretaceous Sea deposits in Kansas, such as the fish-within-a-fish.
After spending so much time reading at the previous museum, it was nice to just look at creatures like this mosasaur.
The Sternberg Museum looks square on the outside, but inside the exhibits fit into two large circles, on the second and third floors. Halfway ’round the second-floor circle, I entered miscellany: Egyptian jewelry, a shrunken head, Indian artifacts, a coal-oil lamp, Russian peasant shoes for men and women, a Japanese toothbrush, and furniture and guns and swords and a dire wolf skeleton. Beyond that, I crept through the gallery of pissed-off stuffed animals, some of whom seemed to be guarding their territory. Still.
Then I passed through the African dioramas into the Hansen Gallery, in the center of the museum. There Robert Lindholm’s photographs played off Charles A. Lindbergh’s quotes from Autobiography of Values and other books. After a day of museum-going, it was all too demanding for me, but I did like this quote: “Wilderness created man, his intellect and his awareness together, in the first place.” And I noted a picture of one of the mittens from Monument Valley.
Switch to the third floor, where I walked through dinosaur dioramas. The Tyrannosaurus Rex turned its head when I walked by, startling me. On a second pass, I noticed a small dinosaur chewing. Finally I explored the Discovery Room, designed, liked the rest of the museum, for the kid in all of us. I especially liked Howie the Iguana, one of several animals in aquariums.
As you might imagine, all this touring made me hungry. That’s why I was especially glad to stop in at Gella’s Diner, next door to Lb. Brewing Company in downtown Hays. I thought Gella’s menu was pretty amazing. It has local German dishes such as sauerkraut soup and smothered bierock (like a calzone), as well as pork pibil tacos and sunflower seed pesto and wild-caught Pacific salmon cakes. I ordered the latter, along with macaroni and cheese and creamed spinach. The spinach was silky and tasted of bacon and onions, the mac was just fine, and the salmon cakes were crisp with a mild flavor. The leftovers made a hearty lunch the next day.
Although I was the only woman in the brewery for most of dinner and felt a bit uncomfortable, I didn’t mind too much because my waitress was so good. And even though I’m not much of a beer drinker, I was entranced by the tall iced beer stein she carried to another table. I tried a 75 cent sample of the amber, but the sample I really liked was the oatmeal stout, which was perfect with the chocolate mousse topped with 1.5 inches of whipped cream in a champagne glass.
I visited Abilene to go to the Eisenhower Museum and Presidential Library. When I think of Dwight David Eisenhower, I think first of termination and relocation, the Indian policy that was designed to move Indians from the reservation into urban life. It affected (afflicted?) a few tribes and was generally considered a failure by the 1960s, but I don’t believe the policy was reversed until the 1970s.
And when I think of Eisenhower, I think of his command of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II and of NATO after the war. The other day, just as I was pondering what to write in this post, I came across this New York Times opinion, “How World War II Wasn’t Won.” David P. Colley essentially blames Eisenhower for the Battle of the Bulge. Anyone out there agree? Disagree?
At Ike’s museum (much smaller than the library and in need of expansion, I think), I discovered his personal life. When he was courting Mamie Geneva Doud in 1915–1916 at Fort Sam Houston, Pancho Villa was raiding along the border. About 3 years earlier he had graduated from West Point, which he attended to get a free education and where he got lots of demerits.
As far as I could tell from the exhibits about his military career, he never saw combat until after he became a general in 1941. He was valued for his organizational and leadership skills.
Making sense of history, even the small slice of history presented in this one museum, is like braiding together several hanging threads. There’s the thread of the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Library in Broomfield, where I live. There’s the thread of her hats, which remind me of my grandmother, Dode. There’s the fact that Mamie attended a finishing school in Denver.
Those details are unimportant to anyone but me—they help me place her history in the context of my life and thus help me remember it.
I went to the museum twice, late Sunday afternoon and Monday morning. Even so, I couldn’t manage to absorb it all. I watched a film about D-Day that made me cry. I discovered that Eisenhower built the interstate system in part because of a work-related trip he took across the United States after World War I. He said then that the roads needed improvement.
When I think of the interstate system, I think of how it encouraged the car culture and sprawl and discouraged the use of public transportation. I think of how it damaged the economies of small towns, many of whom are struggling to come back now. And, of course, I think of how I use it on a regular basis. It’s good to know that it was a response to the bad roads of interwar America.
A few more random notes from the museum:
1. Mamie like to stay in bed all morning, reading and writing letters.
2. Eisenhower was elected president at age 63. He had a heart attack and stroke while in office.
3. Abilene is located at the confluence of the Smoky Hill River and Turkey Creek. Until 1860, the area was a hunting ground for various Indian tribes.
4. As part of the exhibit, “Ike’s Abilene, 1890–1910,” you can hear him telling stories. His voice is slow and gravelly.
5. Ike and Patton visited Gotha concentration camp after the end of the war in Europe. That part of the exhibit mentions the deaths of 11 million Jews. (At least, that’s what I wrote down. Perhaps that number also included Russian prisoners of war, for example.)
6. Eisenhower founded People to People, an ambassador program for ordinary people. The museum said it was headquartered in Kansas City, but the website gives an address in Spokane, Washington.
After I left the museum Monday, I ate lunch at Kirby House in downtown Abilene. Although Abilene’s downtown is smaller and less nice than Salina’s just a few miles to the west, it seems more real. It has more shops that cater to people’s everyday needs instead of a bunch of cutesy tourist traps.
I was delighted to learn about Rivendell Bookstore, but it was closed.
Kirby House is on 3rd Street, a block off the main drag. It’s beautiful from the outside and quite a sight on the inside. I assume it has been restored to approximate the period (1885), so all I can say about the room in which I ate lunch is that it puts the Brown Palace in Denver to shame. Perhaps the crazy patterns motivated the couple next to me to blather all through my lunch. Finally I got up to take pictures in self-defense.
I had vegetarian quiche (sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, Swiss cheese) with a salad and coconut-walnut bread. The bread was toasted and had a slightly sweet flavor, as did the celery seed dressing on the salad. If you want a light(er) meal, I recommend the Kirby House. There aren’t too many other places to eat in Abilene: the Brookville Hotel, near the Holiday Inn Express north of I-70, has been serving family-style chicken since 1915, and Mr. K’s Farmhouse offers such entrees as chicken fried steak, stir-fry, pan-fried catfish, and jumbo fantail shrimp.
Besides the Eisenhower complex, Abilene offers the C. W. Parker Carousel, Lebold and Seelye Mansions, American Indian Art Center (quite small from the outside), Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad (3 months of the year), and several other museums. The Museum of Independent Telephony closed just as I got there at 3, so I tried the Greyhound Hall of Fame instead.
The Talented Mr. Ripley was old and didn’t much enjoy being petted, despite the ads encouraging me to do just that. I had mixed feelings about this museum, mostly because of the annoying video that played endlessly while I was trying to enjoy the exhibits in the central hall.
If you’re a fan of greyhounds, however, by all means visit. The woman at the front desk said Mr. Ripley is more energetic and friendly in the mornings, and the other dog was comfortable with visitors. After watching a film, you can peruse the historical panels and find your favorite racer in the hall of fame.
I didn’t know, for example, that greyhounds were one of the first dogs to be selectively bred (as sight hounds), or that the Celts sacked Delphi in 600 BC (from the discussion of Irish wolfhounds), or that greyhounds could be owned only by the rich at certain points in history, or that there are two greyhound tracks along the front range (Cloverleaf Kennel Club in Loveland and Mile High–Wembley Park in Commerce City).
Sometimes I wonder why I seek out these tiny museums. Inevitably, all the minutiae fritzes my brain, but then the next one entices me. I suppose it’s the joy of discovery—each museum, even the last in a long string of tiny historical museums, has something I can’t find anywhere else.
Perhaps it has to do with getting older, and watching my father age, and realizing that no matter how many of his stories I write down, I will never know the entirety of his life. I can’t even remember my entire life. Perhaps postmodernism was right to privilege ludic deconstruction over summation, wholeness, the real story. So I go to these museums and look for some fact that makes me smile.
That’s a Virgo’s idea of play.
On Tuesday, the last day of my drive across Kansas, I spent several hours in Salina, 3 to 4 hours west of Kansas City. I found the sunflower motif there, as one might expect in a state with that nickname,
and an Italian restaurant that served a mediocre Caesar salad. That didn’t surprise me at all. At least it was cheap and the waitress very nice. I wish I had gone to this placefor “lunch,” where I found 2 great desserts instead. I told myself one of them was for my sister, but of course it disappeared quickly.
I had originally planned to visit Salina’s Yesteryear Museum, one of those places with in-buildings and out-buildings and all manner of historical stuff. But instead I found myself circling downtown looking for a place to eat lunch, and lo and behold, I came upon the Smoky Hill Museum,
an imposing building with a scary parking lot next to it.
I went in and parked anyway, rebel that I fancy myself, but the friendly and informative woman at the front desk, who reminded me of my aunt, advised me to park somewhere else. “They tow,” she warned. After I had gotten more advice out of her, such as where I should eat in town, and what was the address of the Yesteryear Museum (“Not that I have anything against this one,” I told her, which probably didn’t impress her), I did move my truck into street parking. Then I had the aforementioned salad and returned to the museum, which was all about Salina as a “city at the crossroads,” the main crossroads being the Solomon, Saline, and Smoky Hill Rivers that cradle Salina.
As one might expect, the exhibit began with the first inhabitants and what the European settlers did to them after they arrived, as well as conflict among Indian tribes themselves when the settlers started moving one tribe into another tribe’s territory. I peeked into the log cabin (not a good exposure here, unfortunately),
found out where the phrase “show your mettle” came from,
and in general enjoyed the circular layout and all the hands-on areas (great for kids) in this historical museum.
My plan for the return trip is to revisit the Smoky Hill Museum and also get to the Yesteryear Museum and and the local winery. But I make no promises, since my travel plans seldom get followed.
The wet drive across Kansas took me three days. While I was slip-sliding down I-70, I found this lovely place in Hays, Kansas. It’s part of the Ellis County Historical Museum, which wasn’t open the day I was there, but I was able to visit the gallery’s outdoor exhibit.
The Stone Gallery had all sorts of interesting stone and metal sculptures in the yard.
There were these creepy metal men (see the one in the previous photo?)
and creatures of all sorts (this bird looks like it’s considering mayhem)
and this sexy lady.
But the most amazing discovery was this courtyard,
with all manner of carvings.
That is one small sample. I could keep this post going for quite a while with the pictures I took, but I won’t. If you’re in Hays (preferably Tuesday through Saturday), go find this sign near downtown,
and start exploring behind the red brick building, which is attached to a church. You’ll find the German Volga Haus and, behind that, the Stone Gallery.
I arrived in KC late last night and haven’t yet had a chance to begin exploring. As soon as I do, I’ll be posting about KC.