Wednesday, July 29, 2009

An Exploring Example in Palmer

Have you ever been to Palmer, Kansas? It's a town of 105 in Washington County. If you have Explorer blood in your veins you'll get a rush just driving into a town you've not been to or heard of before. The only expectation should be to see what it will give you.

Most of the Washington County towns I've been to lately have a sign that gives a brief history about the town. Some simple information helps set the stage. This sign says Palmer was founded in 1882 mostly due to the existence of the railroad.

A town of 105, it has a cafe and a grocery store (not pictured). That's impressive. I'm pretty sure that the grocery store owner shares an order with another town down the road. In fact, he probably owns both stores and does so just to make the $10,000 weekly minimum required by the grocery wholesaler. For a couple of small towns to meet that minimum means there are a good number of loyal shoppers.

What can a small town like this hold for an Explorer? In this case, you can start by buying a few stamps in the post office just so you can visit with the clerk. Do the same in the grocery store and cafe. Hec, maybe get a haircut just so you can visit with the barber! Sometime a conversation will turn up nothing special. Other times you'll learn about a most interesting tidbit or be led to see something that you would have never noticed.

Ask questions about the historic jail. When was the last prisoner released? Who was the most notorious over nighter?

This church is a beauty on the outside but what does it look like inside? Check to see if it's open and go on in. Stained glass windows and the shape of the pews are a few things to look for.

"Do" a town and then repeat the process in another town. After awhile the comparison and contrasts start to become the intrigue. You'll notice that some towns are cohesive, others have internal controversy. Some are hopeful, others negative. Some have cool stuff, others don't know they have anything of worth to see.

You'll also start to learn the meaning of the population. For a town of 105 to have as much going for it as Palmer tells me a whole lot about the town right there.

"Get Kansas" by exploring! See what you will see.

KE #2 Marci Penner

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Pump House Plan

Aren't these old-fashioned filling stations a wonderful nostalgic reminder of the early auto days? You can still see these vestiges in a majority of rural communities in the state. A few are used for some kind of active business but most are abandoned or used for storage.

They're so cute and charming. Don't you think?

For now, let's give them the name of Pump House. In the old days there were gas pumps out in front of these buildings. Now days? Well, we need a place to pump up the community and visitors.

Look at the two pictures again and imagine paint, landscaping, benches, fix up, and an attractive and consistent Pump House and Welcome sign. Each one would look like mission control inside with computers, maps, printers, GPS units, binoculars, and all sorts of technical doo dads and visual aids. This is where Explorer visitors would come to get the skinny on a town and where locals would come to get all sorts of community-wide communication.

Instead of a chamber office, you have the Pump House.

A quick side note. An alternative to a volunteer-led chamber model is the 8-98 Plan. Imagine that every able-bodied person in a small town between the ages of 8-98 would take some kind of "class" to learn how to become a positive contributor to the community. Every body has skills and personality that can lend themselves to a healthy community. Elsie could hem pants for a young man going off to an interview. Elmer could fix Christy's mower that has a minor problem. Heather and Jonesy could plan the parade. Amanda and the other cheerleaders could help Mackenzie and Zach and other young kids decorate their bikes for the parade. George's civic group could help paint Susie's house. The result of the 8-98 plan is the whole community working together to help itself be the best it can be.

Back to the Pump House. Though there should be community-wide electronic communication, the Pump House would be the physical location for all sorts of 8-98 interactions, deal making, and visitor hospitality.

I don't have a name yet for the person in charge of the Pump House but this could be a relatively high-paying job for a 20-30 something young person. All sorts of help would be needed at the community and visitor Pump House. It would pump up the town and the visitors!

Visitors would just know to look for that cute little ol' filling station.

Corporations, alumni, and citizens would make contributions to the development of the Pump House through a designated fund in the community foundation. Locals would take it from there. There would be statewide criteria and standards so visitors and community folks could expect excellence and function.

Rural communities aren't getting ready to die. They're getting ready to live and be viable.

What do you think? Can we make this happen? Who wants to be first?

The two filling stations above are located in Palmer in Washington County.

Get involved to "Get Rural Kansas!"

KE #2 Marci Penner

P.S. All we need to start making this and other Transformational Ideas get kicked into high gear, is some financial backing. Interested and able? Contact

Monday, July 27, 2009

Pinky's Bar and Grill. You gotta try it!

Pinky's is in Courtland. You know, between Formoso and Scandia. Located just south of U.S. 36 in Republic County, the beer is cold but here's why it's worth going out of the way for:

Meals are served Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight but come for lunch because if the food is gone you won't get these specials in the evening!

Monday: Chef's surprise.
Tuesday: Pan-fried chicken day with homemade gravy!
Wednesday: Award-winning Explorer Way chicken fried steak.
Thursday: Mexican menu.
Friday: Roast beef.

The meat is purchased at Kier's in Mankato. 785.374.4200. Downtown Courtland.

Eating at Pinky's is a great way to "Get Kansas!"

KE #2, a fan of Pinky's, Marci Penner

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Big Basin -- more than a big hole in the ground

Rolling green slopes, wildflowers. Look familiar? It's not the Flint Hills. It's Big Basin, a sinkhole that is one mile in diameter and 100 feet deep. This geological feature was formed thousands of years ago by naturally dissolving salt and gypsum formations.

Big Bisn Prairie Preserve is located in Clark County 11 miles west of Ashland, then 1 3/4 miles north on U.S. 283 from the U.S. 160 and U.S. 283 junction. This sweeping mixed-grass prairie of the High Plains is where buffalo roam, too.

You'll enter the preserve on the east side of the road by crossing a cattle guard and following a driveway. The first fork to the left takes you to a scenic overlook where you can see a corral below.

Return to the main driveway and continue. The next fork to the right takes you to a hilltop stone marker. You can see that a plaque is missing from this pillar of stones, known as the Indian Living Water Marker. In 1958 the plaque, which included the John 4:10 scripture and a description of the Plains Indians and St. Jacob's Well, was placed here. Vandals felt they needed the plaque more than the pillar.

The most famous landmark in the preserve is St. Jacob's Well. It's at the end of the main driveway by the windmill, a mile and a half from the main entrance. Be careful on the rickety steps but the trek down is worth it. You can't really see the legendary funnel-shaped pond until you're upon it. It's 84-foot in diameter and has never been known to go dry. Legend has it that the well has no bottom, but others say it is 58 feet deep.

Note: You never know where you'll find the buffalo! Try to locate them before you get out of your car.

The southern half of the county is dominated by the Red Hills but as you go further north you'll feel yourself cusping into the High Plains. A rugged site featuring Ogallala mortar bedsis Clark State Fishing Lake in the northern Clark County.

Do you have that Kansas Guidebook for Explorers? It gives directions to the lake and to the Monte Casino Marker 3 miles north of Ashland on N. Dodge off U.S. 160 on the way to the lake.

To "Get Kansas" you've really got to get off the main roads. What a scenic state Kansas is! Get to know all of it.

KE #2 Marci Penner

Saturday, July 25, 2009

What Wallace has to offer

The Fort Wallace Museum is a very attractive limestone building with a blue roof. It's open Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (MT) and Sunday 1-5 p.m. (MT). It's located east of Wallace on U.S. 40. There are several outbuildings including the 1865 Pond Creek Stagecoach Station, the Weskan depot, and a pioneer and agricultural equipment shed.

A buffalo made out of wire stands on a limestone pedestal in front of the museum. It's mind-boggling to think someone could manipulate wire into such a work of art. Ernie Poe is the sculptor and is a museum volunteer so you might get lucky enough to meet him. There are several other Poe wire sculptures around the complex.

The museum displays are a great testament to the era when the fort was in operation from 1865-1888. Though there is nothing left of the fort, displays show the layout of all the outbuildings. It's a must to go to the museum first and then out to the cemetery. Across from the cemetery one can look south and imagine the fort.

The cemetery is found 1/4 mile east of the museum, then 1 mile southeast. A marker beside the first flagpole provides the Fort Wallace time line and layout.

Numerous Jerry Thomas photos further depict the story of the fort. (He is so good!)

The Section House is located on the southwest side of town north of the grain elevators. Described once as the finest superintendent's residence on the railroad, this stone 1879 building is now one of only two remaining original Kansas Pacific Railroad structures.

The Clark-Robidoux House (featured in an earlier blog) is another feature in Wallace, a town of 66. Don't underestimate these small towns. The history is rich and the desire to convey the story is powerful.

KE #2 Marci Penner

Friday, July 24, 2009

First graduates

Rural Kansas: Come and Get It has had its first round of graduates!

Representatives from the following towns went through a two-day training to gain their community a page on the Rural Kansas: Come and Get It website.

The towns are: Bison, Ellis, Great Bend, Hoisington, Hudson, Jetmore, Kinsley, LaCrosse, Lyons, Stafford, and Wilson.

The first two to get graduation certificates were Judith Reynolds and Mary Swisher of LaCrosse!

The first day of training was held at the new Kansas Wetlands Education Center northeast of Great Bend. After a morning of learning the Explorer mindset, teams went out on a three-hour exploration of area towns.

The group reunited at The Store in Odin to share trip highlights and Explorer moments.

The two-women team from LaCrosse took a driving tour in Ellinwood and as they were passing through the circle drive at one house on the tour the owner invited them inside for a tour!

Another group spent time visiting with the employee at the Hitschmann co-op, the only business in this unincorporated town.

Explorer teams visited with locals, got tours of jails and wineries, made purchases, looked inside churches and around cemeteries and ate in local cafes.

Day 2 was the day to learn website maintenance, camera skills, and social networking. Expert instructors were Patsy Terrell, Hutchinson and Cort Anderson, Belle Plaine.

As the first group, participants provided valuable feedback to the Kansas Sampler Foundation for future classes.

The end goal is to have several hundred rural communities posting their Explorer assets and events on this collective site and help the world "get" rural culture in a way that will keep rural communities viable.

What a great class to start with in efforts to help the world "Get Kansas!"

KE #2 Marci Penner

Monday, July 20, 2009

Home-owned carnivals at county fairs

It's county fair time in Kansas -- a big week for rural Kansas. It's when pies and breads, cattle and sheep, quilts and fashions, and much more are studied and judged. It's a reunion week for families and friends and for those that share common bonds in the livestock barns or in the food booths. It's a rite of passage for some and just a great time for others.

Fourteen counties have gone a step further and have purchased, cleaned up, and re-tooled amusement rides. Then volunteers erect them and run them during fair week. Pictures below are of the early days of set-up for the Wallace County Fair. The seats aren't on the rides yet, that comes later. But when the rides come out of storage and start going up, it's the signal that it's almost fair time.

The fourteen counties with home-owned carnivals are Wichita, Decatur, Scott, Wallace, Norton, Logan, Sheridan, Ness, Rush, Thomas, Sherman, Lane, Cheyenne, and Greeley. Are there others? Kingman has just started "collecting" rides so their goal is also to have a home-owned carnival.

In Wichita County, tickets to all their home-owned rides are 25 cents and it's only one ticket per ride. Annually they sell about 110,000 tickets, bringing in $27,500. That means 110,000 riders! What a great value!

Go to a county fair and "Get Kansas!"

KE #2 Marci Penner

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday, July 18th -- the last day

Anthony Downs. The Centennial was in 2004 --horse races for 100 years; dog races for 60. Add five more years --and that's probably the end of the line for these races.

If so, we're about to lose one of the most interesting customs in the state. And, obviously, it's a big economic boom for Anthony. Sunday, July 18 is the last day. Go if you can. Races start at 2 p.m. Horse and dog usually rotate. After the sixth race will be the Derby Hat Parade and judging.

The beauty of this is that it's a classic, like something you see in a movie. In these times of slick and fancy, Anthony Downs is the opposite and that makes it about as charming as can be. The little white stand is the admission gate with a number of reminders and two friendly women behind the screen taking your $4 admission fee.

It's the wooden stands that are most classic of all. Deep and sturdy though sometime a little splintery and creaky. Like the old, wooden baseball stadiums that are long gone this massive structure has survived, complete with poles that obstruct view. There is usually enough room to maneuver to the best view.

The seats are broad and roomy.

Everyone has their own betting plan -- or not. I didn't really know what I was doing but in one race I placed $2 bets on the 3 horse to win, place, or show. My rider fell off right out of the gate and though the riderless horse finished second, the bet is only good if the rider finishes with his horse.

On my second race the 7 horse got second and I won $9.40!

Dogs and horses alternate races.

The shorter greyhound track is in the middle of the horse oval. It's the neatest thing to watch both kinds of races and the duo events keep the action moving.

Today is supposedly the last day for this rich tradition. Beside the story of how the funding has dried up for Eureka and Anthony is the story of how this culture affects everyone from the jockeys to the organizations that sell food at these races to the people who have been coming to watch for years. Young kids run around and oldsters just camp in the stands. Staffers behind the betting window tell you good luck and it's clear that everyone has a good time.

Go to the races today, if you can, and "Get Kansas" in a way that will no longer be available.

KE #2 Marci Penner

Saturday, July 18, 2009

What would you do?

What would you do if you owned this 1880 Gothic Revival style house? It was built in 1880 by early and influential Wallace businessman Peter Robidoux.

If you were Buddy and Glenda Allama you'd buy it and renovate it one room at a time.

Twelve of us that ventured to Wallace for The Happening met here for snacks and a tour. It was amazing.

This is just a view of the staircase but you get the idea that they've done a magnificent job in restoring the signature historic home left in Wallace, population 66, in Wallace County.

They have a commercial kitchen and love to host groups or give tours.

After two more rooms are done, they'll start on the outside.

People like Buddy and Glenda are an inspiration. To understand why people would make this kind of an investment and effort in a small town will help you "Get Kansas!"

KE #2 Marci Penner

Friday, July 17, 2009

Stay at the top of Kansas!

After you climb to the top of Mount Sunflower about 30 miles from Sharon Springs, you'll want and need a very relaxing overnight stay. That place would be an 8-room, nice as they come, bed-and-breakfast found within a converted 1922 Methodist Church.

Firm but comfortable mattresses, very soft towels, soap that you don't see in chain motels, and a delicious breakfast is part of the basic package. All rooms have private baths, high-speed internet access, and individual heat and air units, as well as cable TV. Two handicapped-accessible rooms are exceptional and an elevator makes it easy to get around the three-level church.

Breakfast is served in the basement in a room that can convert into a conference room for 100!

We were there for The Happening. Later that day they were hosting a tea. They even topped their sugar cubes with personally crafted frosting flowers!

The local Wesleyan church owns the bed-and-breakfast now and the church ladies volunteer their time to run it.

A block off of the main street, it's easy to walk around town from the bed and breakfast.

To learn more, go to

Stay at "the top of Kansas" at the Mount Sunflower Bed and Breakfast and "Get Kansas!"

KE #2 Marci Penner

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The picture we didn't take...

We turned west off of U.S. 83 about 27 miles north of the K-4 intersection in Logan County and headed cross country to Russell Springs.

One generally expects this area to look dry and barren. With plenty of rain this year, the High Plains vegetation had a lot of pep to it. The dry land crops looked lush.

But the most amazing part was the view. The picture we didn't take. At a certain point it seems that from a stance in the middle of the road, a person could have turned a 360 and seen little of civilization save the crops and road. Our guess was that we could see about 6-8 miles in every direction.

We does a farmer think about when he plows these colossal fields? What thoughts must he have? Likely a great affection for the isolation or it would have driven him mad by now and far, far away.

The wide open view was so awesome it was almost scary. A remote part of Kansas that most people likely can't imagine.

In fact, that is what our Explorer event, The Happening, is for. To encourage people to come to an area they aren't familiar with and learn about it, experience it.

By the time we got to Russell Springs, it was almost a shock to see a homestead. And what a great site it was to see the former courthouse. Civilization!
We saw many hitching posts as we approached this former county seat. A reminder of the annual Butterfield Trail Ride. We saw deer, pheasant, and flocks of turkey.

I was mostly reminded of how every county in Kansas is so different, has its own special characteristics. To the people that live here, this is the norm. Most years it's dry but that just makes the years with more moisture all the more special. If we just all understood and appreciated these differences, we could all pull together for one strong Kansas.

If I got on my soap box I'd say not everyone was made to live in Johnson County and I doubt that most natives of JoCo would be very comfortable in the expansive lands of Logan County. We ought to be glad we have people that can handle these extremes and be a little more respectful and supportive.

In any case, it was a great pleasure to have a reason to make this drive. We sure have a beautiful state.

The backroads of every county help us "Get Kansas."

KE #2 Marci Penner

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How did that giant rooster get there?

Two things drew us into this store. A grocery store called "Ma and Pa's" AND the giant rooster. WenDee took the lead on this and when we went inside the fabulous grocery store in Ransom, population 326, she found out that a guy in Ness City "makes" these giant roosters and he put one here to showcase it.

If you have an extra $1550 you might want to buy this for traffic-stopping yard art.

Seeing it wasn't hard. Finding out the story is the extra step that Explorers take.

One comment on the grocery store. It was clean, well-stocked, and had friendly staff -- in a town of 300+. That right there tells me a whole lot about the community of Ransom. Way to go!

To "Get Kansas" you have to ask the right questions -- like what is that giant rooster doing in your front yard?

KE #2 Marci Penner

Monday, July 13, 2009

Buying stamps in Bison

The Kansas Explorers Club Happening took place in Wallace this past weekend. Part of the plan is to encourage people to enjoy the journey on the way to the Happening.

We had terrific Exploring stops in Lyons, Otis, Bison, LaCrosse, Ransom, Utica, and Russell Springs before getting to Sharon Springs. For now, let's just talk about Bison, population 229, and Otis, population 316, in Rush County.

I love it when the Kansas Sampler Foundation needs stamps at the same time that we're headed out on a road trip. We get to choose a small town post office to make a usually substantial purchase. Bison got the business this time. Maureen was a very friendly and engaging post master who was grateful for the business -- which makes it feel even better.

$108 later, we left the post office. Amount of revenue decides salary, hours, and even whether or not a post office gets a digital scale or the antique version. When the revenue declines too much, the post office is in danger of closing.

Post offices are often a hub in a small town and you sometime see signs like this.

The red-brick corner bank is next to the post office. They have historic pictures of Bison inside.

Look closely here against the leaves but you'll see iron cut-out street signs shaped like bison.

When have you last seen a First ME Church -- I mean, First Methodist Episcopal Church. This one was built in 1921. It was locked so we couldn't see the inside. Beautiful exterior.

The cool looking Peter Brack Memorial band shell is found in the Otis park. It was named after a Russian immigrant. At 3rd and Eagle is a decorative entrance found above the doors of the 1931 school. Could that be Carthalite?

Exploring Kansas is all about the journey. There is so much to see, so much to "get" about Kansas if we just open our eyes.

KE #2 Marci Penner