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.