Category Archives: Exploring Kansas

The Grinter sunflower fields in northeast Kansas

In late August and early September, when our lawns are brown and the native grasses are going to seed and the gardens are tired and everything but the soybeans have been harvested, there is something a little magical about the common sunflower. The cheery flowers are on the only green-leafed stems right now, and there are millions of them growing in every uncultivated field and along every rural road and highway.

With so many sunflowers on hand, you’d think us Kansans would get enough of the state flower. And yet…when word got out that the Grinter Farms sunflowers were about to peak, we couldn’t resist, and we weren’t alone. In the middle of a holiday weekend, people stopped what they were doing and drove out into the countryside to take in a million sunflowers.

sunflower fieldThe sight of all those cheerful flowers raising their faces to the sun stops you in your tracks. It takes your breath away. You want to study the face of every flower, and you want to see the entire ocean of them. There is this amazing moment of awe where the happy flowers make you smile back at them.

sunflower closeupWhat I found most amazing about these sunflowers is that their joy is so contagious. Jim and I posted our pictures online yesterday, and today, our Facebook and Twitter feeds were full pictures of our friends, smiling while standing in the same field of happy flowers.

Jim and me with a lot of sunflowers.

Jim and me with a lot of sunflowers.

It’s not too late to see the sunflowers, but don’t dawdle. Kris Grinter says this is really the week they’ll be at their best. Check out the Lawrence-Journal World article for information on how to get there and where to park. And if you want to take home a sunflower, that’s okay, too; just leave a donation of a dollar per flower in the boxes at the end of the fields.

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The Boyer Museum of Animated Carvings in Belleville

Last month, an old murder case I’m researching took me to Republic County, Kansas, a county in central Kansas that shares the boarder with Nebraska. I’ve never had a chance to explore this area before, so when I wasn’t buried in a back room somewhere researching, Jim and I wandered around, visiting museums and driving the back roads.

For a county with fewer than 5,000 people, Belleville has a lot of neat things to see–enough to merit several blog posts–but today I want to mention the fascinating and quirky Boyer Museum of Animated Carvings.

A lot of people are mechanically inclined, and a lot of people are artistically inclined. Paul Boyer is one of those people who looks at mechanical things and finds artistic ways to repurpose and apply them. He was just a child when he made his first carving, but after an accident left him seriously injured when he was 35, Boyer took refuge in his art. The result is dozens of wonderful animated carvings, whirling gizmos, and spinning things that mesmerize you with their cleverness and charm.  Some of his pieces were created over the course of thousands of hours.

This beautiful sculpture, with it's whirling gears and fans that fold and unfold like peacock feathers, is completely mesmerizing.

This beautiful sculpture, with it’s whirling gears and fans that fold and unfold like peacock feathers, is completely mesmerizing.

Each creation is housed in a case, and museum guests are invited to press the magic buttons that set the animations in motion. Jim and I easily spent two hours playing with these creations and puzzling over how they worked.

The museum is operated by Boyer’s daughters. Candy and Annie are passionate about their dad’s work, and they can often share the back story of how a piece was crafted and the challenges of keeping it running.

But words can’t do these pieces justice, so here is some video of two of my favorite animations.

At the Boyer Museum of Animated Carvings.

A post shared by Diana Staresinic-Deane (@kansaswriter) on

At the Boyer Museum of Animated Carvings.

A post shared by Diana Staresinic-Deane (@kansaswriter) on

The Boyer Museum is definitely worth a visit if you’re anywhere in the area. Because it’s a family-run place, you might want to call ahead to make sure it will be open that day, especially if the weather is looking ominous (Paul Boyer has instilled a healthy fear of tornadoes in his daughters). I will mention that a few of the pieces might be considered risque or culturally insensitive by some visitors, but all are pieces of amazing artistic and technical achievement.

If you’re interested in spending a day in Republic County, a trip to the Boyer Museum is easy to combine with a trip to the Pawnee Indian Museum, which I’ll be blogging about soon.

And then we discovered a town called New Lancaster and the New Lancaster General Store

The past few months, Jim and I have spent every available weekend to get out of the house for a few hours, even crossing into Missouri–gasp!–to visit Civil War battlefields we discovered through the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area website. So I have pictures and stories dating back to January that I’m just getting around to telling, and one of those stories is about the town of New Lancaster.

But first, some history. If you’ve read Jeff Guinn’s wonderful book Go Down Together: The Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, you know that Guinn suggests that part of the infamous duo’s success had to do with two recent inventions: the Rand McNally highway map and the motor inn.

Yes, before the early 1920s, Americans apparently bumbled around the countryside, following vaguely pointed fingers and obscure directions like “turn left at the Smith’s barn,” only to find out hours later that they were supposed to turn where the barn was before it burned down 20 years earlier, and which, as people from out-of-town, they had no reason to know about. And after an exhausting search for the long-gone barn, their only option for rest would be to pitch a tent in the field next to the dirt track that passed for a road when they were too tired to go on.

You can imagine how maps and motor inns might have improved the traveling experience.

Anyway. Jim and I were wandering around Miami County and I was studying Google Maps on my phone when Jim reached behind the seat and pulled out the giant paper Delorme Kansas Road Atlas, circa 1997. Despite cellphones and GPS, we haven’t let go of our paper maps, but I was still surprised when Jim actually found where we were on the back cover page index and flipped open the atlas and said, “New Lancaster? Have we been there?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, so off to New Lancaster we went, using an 18-year-old map, whose road names did not necessarily coincide with anything in reality.

But then we found New Lancaster, a town so tiny that you can stand in one place and see the “Pavement Ends” signs on both sides of the community just by turning your head. The the really amazing find was the New Lancaster General Store.

New Lancaster General Store

The New Lancaster General Store.

The New Lancaster General Store’s roots date back to 1874. After the original building was destroyed by fire, the New Lancaster Grange, a prominent community organization, bought the land and built a new structure in 1903. During the next century, the building would be bought and sold a few times, serving as a general store, a co-op, and a distributor for cream separators and John Deere implements. At different times it housed a telephone switchboard and the post office and operated a creamery, an ice stable, a poultry house, and a livery on the property.

Stephen and Kristin Graue, the owners and operators of Middle Creek Winery, took over the property, and last fall, they reopened it as a general store that specializes in Kansas goods and honors its historic roots.

The New Lancaster General Store is an outlet for Middle Creek Wine, and Kristin is happy to pour you a sample to help you decide what to take home.

Kristin Graue pulls down a bottle of Middle Creek Wine.

So many of these types of false-front general stores have had their bones destroyed by constant repurposing. The New Lancaster General Store managed to survive the decades without too much carnage. The original floors, shelves, and tin ceiling are still in place, and I was especially charmed to see they still have a functioning rolling ladder that long-ago clerks would have used to reach the high shelves.

The rolling ladder at the New Lancaster General Store.

The rolling ladder at the New Lancaster General Store.

The Graues have also turned one of the back rooms into a country-chic meeting room that would be a lovely place for a getaway luncheon, bridal shower or baby shower.

The meeting room at the New Lancaster General Store.

The meeting room at the New Lancaster General Store.

Should you find yourself in Miami County, this little country store is worth a stop. And feel free to ask questions! The Graues love to talk about the products they sell and the process of restoring the store.

And the Graues’ next project? Restoring the town’s old church-turned-Grange Hall, which will some day be another great place for weddings and other events.

The old Grange Hall is a block away from the New Lancaster General Store.

The old Grange Hall is a block away from the New Lancaster General Store.

Read more:

New Lancaster General Store National Register of Historic Places Application

The Potawatomi Trail of Death and St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park

On one of our weekend drives to nowhere in particular, Jim and I found ourselves heading east on K-68 and circling the roundabout to exit onto the Old KC Road when we encountered a sign.

Potawatomi Trail of Death directional road sign.

These brown “Potawatomi Trail of Death” signs point the way.

We definitely would have remembered if we had previously encountered signs marked “Trail of Death.” Curious, we turned our destinationless drive into a quest to follow the signs.

We found ourselves at a pretty little green square in Paola, where, serendipitously, a staff member from the Miami County Historical Society happened to be enjoying the early evening sun. She outlined the story of the Potawatomi and how they ended up in Kansas.

Like many Native Americans in the 19th century, the Potawatomi held lands that encroaching settlers wanted. In 1838, two years after signing a treaty that gave away all of their land for $8,000 in exchange for transportation to their new lands, 660 Potawatomi men, women and children were forced to leave their homeland. Mostly on foot, the Potawatomi marched across Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri before reaching Kansas, a trip that would take two months. They lacked proper nourishment and shelter, and despite being tended to by a Jesuit priest named Benjamin Petit, many became ill and died.

When they arrived at the Sugar Creek Mission, they discovered that no houses had been built for them. It was November in Kansas, and the Potawatomi were forced to shelter they best they could along the creek banks.

Fr. Petit became very ill and ultimately died February 10, 1839 after returning to St. Louis.

“You should follow the signs to the park,” the woman from the historical society told us. “The memorial park is worth seeing.”

***

Generally speaking, the signs were easy to follow. They are, however, spaced just far enough apart that you start to worry you missed an important turn somewhere before the next sign appears to reassure you. Travel tip: If you happen to be using the GPS on your cellphone and your cell service is through Sprint, Virgin Mobile, or Verizon, be warned: you WILL lose your signal. Because of this lost signal, I couldn’t get this handy map to work for most of our trip. Also important to note: we picked up the trail near Paola, but the trail begins in Indiana.

We traveled through Osawatomie, which is a historic town that deserves attention all on its own and merits a return trip. A charming bridge takes you across Pottawatomie Creek on the south end of town.

Osawatomie bridge

The bridge at the southern end of Osawatomie.

As you approach the tiny town of Beagle, the lack of signage will sorely tempt you to continue following the smooth and silky K-7 Highway instead of continuing south on Plum Creek Road. DON’T DO IT. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself having this conversation:

Diana: Shouldn’t we go straight? There’s no sign that says to turn.
Jim: There’s no sign that says to get off of the main highway, so we should keep following K-7.

Ten minutes later…

Diana: Have you seen any signs?

Ten minutes after that…

Jim: I think maybe we should have gone straight back there.
Diana: I think you might be right.

After Beagle, the signs reappear and and reassure you that you’re on the right path and will take you into Parker before turning south again.

If you’re a taphophile, Goodrich Cemetery is a short detour off the marked path and worth the visit. The cemetery includes at least one CSA Civil War veteran and one likely War of 1812 veteran, as well as many great examples of Victorian hand art. We found it by accident when the Trail of Death road, 1077, was closed for repairs, and we had to detour. Take a left at W 1800 Rd and a right onto Evangeline and you’ll find it. Travel tip: this area is pretty isolated and the west end of the cemetery leads to a woodsy creek area.

At a crook in the road, you’ll turn onto W 1525 Rd. As you grind down the gravel, you’ll be startled by a tiny cemetery on the southeast corner of Flint Rd and W 1525 Rd. There are only three headstones, but they’re worth examining.

Sharp-Morrison Cemetery.

The Sharp-Morrison Cemetery on W 1525 Rd in Linn County, Kansas.

Another mile or so east, and you’ll see the entrance to St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park, which stands on the land once occupied by the Sugar Creek Mission.

Entrance

St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park.

Jim and I were gobsmacked by this park.

Owned by the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, this park honors the Native American, Jesuit, and archeological history of the land. The foundations and locations of buildings are carefully marked with informative signs. The park’s sainted namesake was once a nun serving the Potawatomi community at this site.

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha memorial

Beautiful memorials and art honor both the Jesuit and Native American men and women who once lived here. This memorial honors Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, an Indian princess who was canonized in 2012.

A nature trail winds through the eastern side of the park. A fabulous discovery: the only known portion of the original Fort Scott and California Road is preserved in this hiking trail. Travel tip: When we arrived at this park last summer, we discovered the words “Beware of Ticks” scrawled on a paper plate and nailed Roanoke-style to the meeting hall wall, so we stayed away from the hiking trail that day. Winter or early spring might be a better time to explore the area under the canopy of trees.

Fort Scott and California Road sign

This sign marks the post of the only remaining fragment of the original Fort Scott and California Road.

I was most moved by the burial ground. Each of the crosses lists the names of the more than 600 Potawatomi men, women, and children who died at Sugar Creek.

Memorial crosses

Memorial crosses mark the area where more than 600 Potawatomi are buried.

Memorial Cross, list of names, detail

The names of every man, woman, and child are listed on the memorial crosses.

As we followed the path back to the entrance of the park, we found two more surprises. The first was an archeological site marking what might be a rock pit originally constructed by the Kanza Indians.

Possible Kanza Indian archeological site

This rock pit may have been constructed by the Kanza Indians.

The second was the text of the diary of Jesse C. Douglas, enrolling agent, who documented the struggles of the Potawatomi on their long journey to Kansas.

Trail Journal Display

Jesse Douglas’s trail journal is preserved in a series of panels at the park.

The Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, has manged to create a spirtual space that honors the individual men, women, and children who tried to make a life for themselves at the Sugar Creek Mission. There is a serene quality here that I have not found in many Kansas parks. There is no charge to visit, but the park does accept donations. It is one of my favorite accidental discoveries and I recommend it whenever I can.

***

What happened to the Potawatomi?

Despite building a settlement, the Potawatomi would not stay in Linn County for long. Just ten years later, the Native American band would be forced to move again, this time to St. Marys, a small town near Topeka, Kansas.

Further reading:

Trail of Death, Miami County Historical Society

Potawatomi Trail of Death Assn.

Potawatomi Trail of Death, Legends of America

Sunday Snapshots: A walk on the prairie

Our weather station reported that today’s temperature reached 102.3 degrees. The air is thick with humidity, yet the ground is so dry the grass is brown and even the weeds are losing the will to live. But two weeks ago, parts of Kansas were blessed with heavy rains and mild temperatures, and Jim and I found ourselves at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

The movement of clouds create ever-shifting light and shadows on the prairie.

The TPNP is quintessential Kansas, one of the few places where you can experience giant views of native prairie. In addition to the original homestead and school, the park includes bison that graze in the pastures, and nearly 40 miles of hiking trails weave through acres of grasses and prairie flowers. The trails are open 24/7/365, and the lighting around the visitor center is thoughtfully designed to minimize impact on the night sky, making it a perfect place for stargazers and photographers.

Southwind Nature Trail.

Following Jim along the Southwind Nature Trail.

Because we didn’t have a lot of time that day, a park ranger recommended that we follow the Southwind Nature Trail and the spur to Lower Fox Creek School, a total of less than three miles of walking. Yet in such a short hike, we climbed hills, crossed a creek, spotted butterflies, and were surrounded by cheerful birdsong. It was good for the soul.

Wide Open Spaces

Appanoose Museum in Franklin County

JIm and I first noticed this charming school building on one of our weekend wanderings not long after moving to Franklin County a couple of years ago. It was only recently, though, that we discovered the building is still in use as a museum and community center.

Appanoose School continues to serve as a community center and museum.

Appanoose School continues to serve as a community center and museum.

The first thing we learned: this is not the original school building. The first school, designed by Ottawa’s own George P. Washburn, was built in 1919 and burned down in 1934. The current building is the second building, which was used as a high school until 1963, when the high school consolidated with Pomona. In its history, the building has also served as an elementary school and, at one point, the school taught kids from first through twelfth grade.

The original Appanoose High School, which burned down in 1934.

The original Appanoose High School, which burned down in 1934.

Today, the building serves as a community gathering place, a small free lending library, and a storage space for the new elementary school. The gymnasium floor is maintained and often used for practice. But Jim and I were there to see the museum, which is open on Sunday afternoons from Memorial Day through Labor Day. This is truly a grassroots museum, a collection pulled together by a group of local history enthusiasts who wanted to preserve the story of Appanoose.

Appanoose was never a town, but rather a rural community. The museum shares the story of those who were brought together by Appanoose School, as well as the small surrounding communities, some of which only exist today in a church or cemetery name, like Richter and Greenwood. Displays also showcase rural life in the early 1900s.

A model of the Richter General Store.

A model of the Richter General Store.

Though not high-tech by any means, the displays are thoughtfully and cheerfully laid out, and despite having lived in Franklin County for more than two years now, I realized I still had a lot to learn about some of the smaller communities in the county’s history.

I was particularly charmed by a room filled with technological odds and ends, including a wonderful set of old typewriters and a telephone operator switchboard.

A telephone switchboard that was once in use in Franklin County.

A telephone switchboard that was once in use in Franklin County.

The museum also honors area veterans, and there are several displays about the local men and women from the Appanoose community who have served. There is also detailed display about James O. Baxter, a Pomona man who was shot down over Germany during the Battle of the Bulge, but whose remains were not recovered until 1999.

Admission to the museum is free, though donations are appreciated. The volunteers are truly interested in local history and are happy to answer questions. The museum is worth a look, and it’s a lovely introduction to the history of the northwest corner of Franklin County.

Go read this book now: Waiting on the Sky by Cheryl Unruh

Waiting on the Sky: More Flyover People EssaysI try, really try, to articulate the soulful bond I feel with the Kansas earth and Kansas sky, but I doubt I will ever do it as skillfully as author Cheryl Unruh, a native Kansan whose second book, Waiting on the Sky: More Flyover People Essays, just hit the Kansas bookstore shelves earlier this month.

Unruh wrote a column for the Emporia Gazette¬†for more than a decade, and I rarely missed it. Even though her book is a compilation of those columns, she’s edited and arranged them in a way that makes them fresh and meaningful and provides a window into her own heart as well as the heart of every Kansan who knows what it means to pull over on a country road and look west because a sunset is too beautiful to ignore.

Waiting on the Sky is a biography, and Unruh guides us through her life and her relationship to the world around through carefully selected essays on community, death, childhood, and the act of being. Her pieces on lost family members, especially her father, are reverent, and I was particularly moved by her descriptions of the everyday moments with her father–maintaining the local cemetery, working in his woodworking shop.

Waiting on the Sky is also the story of the bond between Kansans and the earth and the sky, and why, once we have that connection, we’re loathe to want to live anywhere else because Kansas is part of who we are. Or, as Unruh writes, “The skies over Kansas have absorbed our stories, our conversations…Our existence here has been noted. This geography holds our biography.”

If you’ve ever felt a little weepy at the magnificence of the Kansas prairie, if you’ve ever felt your worries blow away while watching the the wind push the clouds across the sky, if you’ve ever found your inner peace driving down a gravel road without another soul passing you by–you’ll find your kindred spirit in Cheryl Unruh and Waiting on the Sky.