The State of Kansas is a bit of an enigma. Many people around the world will have heard the name, it features in so many Westerns, and many could hazard a guess as to where it sits on a map of the United States, but how many could tell you anything about modern-day Kansas? Who knows the name of its largest city – it’s not Kansas City, that’s in Missouri? Four years ago we were complete ignoramuses but now, well, we’re certainly better informed. We’ve actually been there three times in Winter, Spring and Summer and experienced its dramatic weather patterns, its vast, empty spaces and a few of its ‘curiosities’ – of which more later.
We have just completed a visit to Kansas that may well turn out to be our last. The big attraction has been visiting our family but it’s time for them to move on and, by July, they will be living in Little Rock, Arkansas. Kansas is not a natural State for tourists to visit unless you’re a devotee of “The Wizard of Oz” and want to chase tornadoes or have a desire to look at miles and miles of wheat fields, literally to the horizon in all directions. But like all places in the world, Kansas has its charms and its surprises. This blog will try to give you a flavour.
What is there To Do and To See in Kansas?
On our first visit to Kansas in 2009, one of our first questions was “what is there to do and see here?”. As our family had only recently moved there and their time had been taken up with all things to do with moving such as finding a house, finding schools and getting the kids enrolled, getting to know the neighbours and generally settling in, they had had little time to explore. So the suggestion was that we visit the local library and see what they had to offer. Henry our grandson, a big lover of books and then aged 8, volunteered to act as our guide.
The library, very well stocked and spread over two floors in a modern building, had a rather small travel section and the ‘Kansas’ part had but one book – “Kansas Curiosities”. That sounded promising although not quite the type of guidebook we had been hoping for. We asked at the desk if they had anything else but they said “no – there’s not much demand”, so we took the book out on young Henry’s ticket.
Have you ever wondered where the largest ball of twine in the world can be found, why you have never come across a museum devoted to barbed-wire or where is the geographic dead centre of the United States? If you’re asking those kinds of questions then you have obviously never been to Kansas. In total there were 26 of these, so called, curiosities in the book and we decided to attempt to experience as many as possible.
As Kansas novices, we hadn’t taken into account the fact that Kansas is a very large state and, incidentally, with a very small population – less than 3m. It is more or less a rectangle measuring roughly 420 miles East to West and 200 miles North to South making it nearly as big as the UK by land area but with 1/20th of the people. Stretching between approaches to The Rockies in the West and the Missouri River in the East, the curiosities are spread over the whole State and it would have involved well over 1,000 miles of driving to visit them all. Clearly we had to be a bit selective. Along the way we experienced other things that were not “official” curiosities so that to some extent made up for the ones we didn’t get to see.
The Underground World of Ellinwood and the Santa Fe Trail
Of the curiosities that we did visit, possibly the most interesting from an historical perspective, was the underground world of Ellinwood on the Santa Fe Trail, the famous trail that stretches west to east across Kansas. The trail was established in the early 1800’s to link the newly acquired territories of the South West that had been a part of Mexico with the markets and rapidly industrialising areas to the East. These were centred in part around the big rivers and in particular the Missouri. The Santa Fe Trail was both a trading and a military route and towns became established along the trail to provide services to the travellers.
One such town was Ellinwood, set up by a community of immigrant German Protestants. As you might imagine, there was a major conflict between the morals of these God-fearing, straight-laced people and some of the services that the travellers were seeking namely booze and women. An ingenious compromise was found that enabled the town to prosper and the inhabitants to be spared observing the worst excesses of the travellers. They dug underground and constructed a brick-built ‘city’ that consisted primarily of bars and brothels linked by a complex network of tunnels conveniently out of sight of the religious community above. It’s hard to tell how extensive it was at its prime because, following the prohibition era from 1913 to 1932 when it had a new lease of life, it was largely filled in with sand. Only a small area has been re-excavated but it is well worth the journey.
In the latter part of the 19th Century, the Santa Fe Trail was replaced by the railroad and, in particular, by the famous Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad (ATSF), a line that never actually made it to Santa Fe, but that’s another story. During the construction of the line, to improve its commercial viability, the ATSF was awarded by Congress vast tracts of adjoining land which they then sold for farming. This proved to be a very successful venture. Today Kansas is known as the “Breadbasket of America” with its vast acres of wheat and an extensive rail network to get the wheat from the farms and their silos to the major conurbations of the United States.
The “Biggest” Grain Silo/Elevator in the World
Talking of silos, or elevators as they are known in the trade, takes me to another curiosity, namely the largest grain elevator in the world. It is nearly half a mile long and 230 feet high and can hold enough wheat to make 1.3 billion loaves of bread, they say. And where is it, right in the heart of the City of Hutchinson, population 42,080. Unfortunately the owners do not allow visitors to see inside due to the dangers of a building that contains large amounts of highly inflammable dust. You can walk round the outside. Actually it is maybe the second largest elevator in the world as there is a claim of a larger one in Russia – but that doesn’t count, it’s not in the US of A.
A City of Rail Tracks
Hutchinson is a city of rail tracks, level crossings and the lonesome whistles of the locomotives. Apart from the one passenger train each way in the middle of the night on the Amtrak line from Chicago to Los Angeles, all the trains carry freight. And typical of American trains, any one train can be half a mile or more long. If you get stopped at a level crossing it is often a good idea to turnaround and take another route as it may take the train 10 or 15 minutes to clear the crossing. Even worse, you can wait ages for a train to cross only to find that it is actually carrying out a major shunting exercise and no sooner has the last truck passed over the crossing in one direction than it appears again going in the opposite direction. Be aware.
Wichita – but we didn’t meet the lineman!
No doubt because of the vast areas of flat and under-populated land, Kansas, and Wichita in particular, is a major centre for aircraft manufacture. All the big names are there including Boeing, Bombadier, Learjet and Cessna. The US Air Force McConnell Base is on the fringes of the city and is used for training and commissioning new military aircraft. All this industry makes Wichita by far and away the largest city in the state with a population of nearly 400,000. [As mentioned earlier, Kansas City with a population of just over 1/2 million is bigger but it is actually in the State of Missouri. It does sprawl over into Kansas but it is definitely in Missouri.]
Wichita has the main commercial airport for the State of Kansas but it has no international passenger flights. The main runway is long enough for the largest of aircraft, and indeed very large aircraft do land there on a daily basis. The logos on the side of these planes don’t say Delta or American Airlines but DHL and FEDEX. It is a major freight hub. The passenger facilities take you back to the days of simpler air travel. Of course, there is a security screening area between the land-side of the terminal and the aircraft on air-side, but that is it. Everything is low-key with no big buzz. From the kerb outside the terminal to the check-in desks is all of 50 feet and long-stay car parking is about 150 feet away so no shuttle buses. A much more relaxing experience than London Gatwick or Heathrow where so much of our travel starts or finishes.
Wichita itself doesn’t have a lot going for it but it is a pleasant place to be. In the downtown area, which sits alongside the River Arkansas there are a few office blocks but very few stores. [Incidentally, the last ‘s’ in the name of the river is pronounced as an ‘s’ unlike in the State of Arkansas where it is pronounced like a ‘w’ and that is where the river is heading.] All the retail stores are now to be found in massive ribbon developments alongside the major arterial roads of the city. What Central Wichita does have is a first-class modern art museum with works by Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe and Dale Chihuly (the extra-ordinary sculptor of glass) amongst many others. There is also a science museum that has concentrated, very successfully, on being accessible for children. The noise made by happy children exploring the world of science in all it’s manifestations, needs to be heard to be believed. There is also a lot of well-maintained parkland – land is cheap in Kansas.
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Before heading back to Hutchinson, one last curiosity worthy of mention is The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (TPNP) about 90 miles to the North East of Wichita and in the low, rolling Flint Hills. At one time large tracts of North America were covered with Tallgrass prairies but they were largely destroyed by arrival of large-scale cattle ranching followed by the development of agriculture. The TPNP, managed by the National Park Service, is an example of the United States at its very best. They have spent a few years fencing of an area some 10 miles in one direction and four or five in the other and encouraging the natural grasses to grow. We visited there in June 2010 and the grasses were “tall”, in places taller than us, magnificent in the range of colours and interspersed with wild flowers. There is a small bus that runs through The Preserve stopping from time to time, but we, being dedicated walkers, set off into the trail system and were soon lost in time. At one point we saw a small herd of bison about 1/2 a mile away. They have been re-introduced to add authenticity to the historical nature of the project. They have successfully recreated some of the atmosphere of the Old West when the only people in these lands were the Native Americans (Red Indians) and the white settlers were still back in Europe.
So back to Hutchinson and another ‘curiosity’, the Cosmosphere (http://www.cosmo.org/). This is a museum, part of the world-famous Smithsonian family, dedicated to the history of rocket science and the race into space. The Cosmosphere has the most significant collection of U.S. and Russian space artefacts in the world. On entering the museum, I was immediately taken back to early childhood and the German V1 and V2 bombs of WWII. Being born in 1941 I’m too young to know or remember the detail but I do remember being bundled into an air-raid shelter in the garden in of our home in West London when the V1 ‘doodlebugs’ came over. The rest of the tour through the museum was like a journey through the newsreels of my life from Sputnik, the first satellite in space, through Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, to the manned Moon Landing of Apollo 11 and the disaster of the Space Shuttle Columbia. It’s all there, in most cases the original rockets and space modules, the story of the development of space travel and so much more. This is the kind of museum that needs multiple visits to start to encompass it all. We’ve been there twice and feel that we’ve only just scratched the surface.
The Hutchinson Salt Mine
The very last curiosity to mention is the Hutchison Salt Mine. It lies some 600 feet below the ground and visitors are welcome. A lift takes you down from the ground level visitors centre to the cavernous level where the salt has been mined. As the salt has been extracted they have left pillars of salt – sounds a bit biblical, is one of them Lot’s wife? – to support the ceiling. The tunnels vary in size but are in the order of 30 feet high and between 20 and 50 feet wide. The area to which the public have access are now used for storage of important material, in particular, business archives. The atmosphere is so dry that paper and electronic disks, etc, etc, can be safely stored in the knowledge that they will not deteriorate. Naturally, the master versions of The Wizard of Oz are stored here. Definitely another curiosity of Kansas.
Religion in Kansas
Before leaving Kansas, there has to be a mention of religion, a subject high on the list of importance for many Kansans. The thing that immediately strikes the visitor about religion in Hutchinson is the sheer number of churches – virtually one on every street corner. When our family first arrived there, one of the first questions asked of Katie on meeting a neighbour for the first time was “Have you decided which church you will be going to?”. With a bit of quick thinking and not wanting to offend by saying that they would not be going to any church, she indicated that she was a Catholic – true but a very, very lapsed Catholic – and that got her off the hook. Now here is something that I didn’t know about the US. As an openly secular country at the official level, surprisingly, across the nation Wednesday night is reserved for religious activities. Henry and Beatrix seem to be out every night at things ranging from piano lessons to soccer practice, but, coming from an non-religious family, they’re always at home on a Wednesday night.
Amongst the earliest settlers in the State of Kansas were a group of Mennonites, originally from Russia. They were the first farmers who understood the terrain and successfully imported a variety of wheat that could survive the dramatic climate variations of the State. The Mennonites and the Amish have common roots but the latter lead a more enclosed life. They both have a common belief that your religion should impact directly on every aspect of your daily life and that you shouldn’t be baptised until you are old enough to understand what it means. The town of Yoder, some 10 miles South East of Hutchinson, is a Mennonite community and, to this day, they do lead a fairly separate life. However there is a big DIY store in Hutchinson, a bit like a B&Q or Home Depot, except that it focuses on the needs of farmers and, instead of selling potted plants sells day-old chicks and ducklings. This store is run by Mennonites.
And last but not least, the Tornadoes
As I write this the news has been about the one hundred tornadoes that struck Kansas at the weekend. In Oliver and Katie’s house there is a radio that is always switched on to the “Emergency Channel” and in the event of approaching tornadoes or other extreme weather systems, blasts out warnings of what is going to happen and when. It also puts out an announcement when the conditions have passed. Most houses and businesses have secure areas to provide shelter during a tornado. Houses have deep basements whilst in stores there is usually one area where customers gather. On one occasion we were in the Walmart Supermarket when a tornado approached. Everyone was told to go to the household department. Within a few minutes there was an almighty roar, the outside doors were blown in and the false ceiling tiles were blown up into the roof-space. Then it was gone. In the household department all was calm although I was berated by a security guard for taking a couple of photographs – “No photography is allowed in Walmart Stores” – what have they got to hide???
So it’s time to say goodbye. Kansas is a State that could sell itself better. No where did we see a tourist office. There are things to see and do but clearly, in three visits we can’t have seen everything. We never got to the State Capital of Topeka nor to the Dwight D Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in his home town of Abilene. But we did get near to the North East corner outside Kansas City and we did get near to the South West corner beyond Dodge City. One way and another we have given Kansas a good shot. So its bye bye Kansas, it’s been interesting to know you and maybe we will come back.