Exploring Small Kansas Towns

It’s interesting to drive into a small Kansas town for the first time. Is it thriving or just hanging on? Some have lost population and businesses and all that remains are the empty storefronts and scattered residences.

Victorian Rose in Whitewater KS

Main Street in Whitewater, Kansas. Take time to visit small towns across the state to find the old-time character that remains in these little towns. (photo by Virginia Allain)

In following this blog about Gail Lee Martin’s life, you’ve already seen some small towns mentioned like Hamilton, Reading, and Tyro. There are a number of posts on the now the extinct Teterville.

I’m searching out information about Kansas towns that in some way related to my family history. Along the way, I’ve found some other interesting small Kansas towns to feature as well.

A Touching Video about the Decline of Small Towns

My sister wrote about Emporia, Kansas, where our Martin grandparents lived. It’s not as small as Hamilton or Tyro. Emporia is a thriving county seat with a university.

If you like poking around small towns, there are plenty in Kansas to explore. There are also full-scale ghost towns where only shabby, collapsing buildings remain to show that people once lived there. Daniel C. Fitzgerald has a series of books featuring these ghost towns. To see what towns are included in each book, click through to Amazon on the VIEW DETAILS buttons below.

 Ghost Towns of Kansas: Volume One: 34th Anniversary Edition, 1976-2010View Details Faded Dreams: More Ghost Towns of KansasView Details Ghost Towns of Kansas: Volume ThreeView Details Ghost Towns of Kansas: 6View Details

Comments from Friends on Kansas Small Towns

William Leverne Smith – I was a Business School Professor at Emporia State University for 15 years (’94-’09) – went through Reading many times…

Teach – I’m originally from small town Kansas, now living in North Dakota but at long last will be moving back to the Yellow Brick Road soon…and looking forward to the time to poke around some of these great little towns!

Wednesday-Elf – I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Kansas despite the fact that I came from the East Coast (college [K-State], married a Kansas boy, two of my kids were born in Kansas and one now lives in Kansas City), and I’m partial to both small towns and the State of Kansas!

Grannysage – I’ve lived in several Kansas small towns, although I grew up in Michigan. My ex-husband is from Schoenchen which is south of Hays and where my children grew up. We also lived in Stockton which is north of Hays, Salina, and Larned. I also worked in Russell, home of Bob Dole. Right now I am living in Lawrence. There are a lot of historical towns in Kansas, and it is a different lifestyle.

Mary Beth Granger – I visited many small Kansas towns during my career as a regional director for H&R Block. Most of the offices I visited were franchises owned by local people…it was always interesting to get to know the people of Kansas small towns. Thanks for the memories.

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Kansas Heatwave

A family memory from 6 years ago today.

It gets pretty hot in Kansas but Gail and Clyde were adamant about not using their window air conditioner. Summers could reach 105 degrees during the summers when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. In 2011, knowing that Kansas was suffering through a heatwave even hotter than usual, I asked Mom how they were faring.

melting fan (artist unknown)

Melting Fan sculpture. I don’t know who the artist is.

July 10, 2011, Gail Lee Martin: “Depends on where you are in Kansas! We almost got rained on, which would have cooled us off. We have all the ceiling fans going and of course, we do have the great big pecan and oak trees on the south side of the house that cools the house. A cool shower now and then or a wet towel around our necks helps us get by. One of the benefits of being retired is we don’t have to get outside. Sitting on the porch swing is nice in the mornings.”

Apparently, my sisters were badgering them as well about turning on their air conditioner.

Mom sent us all an email on July 13, saying, ” OK, we give up. Tonda cleaned the wall-mounted air conditioner plugged in the unit. When it seemed to work, the girls shut all the windows. If Clyde throws a fit when we get the next bill, you will have to handle him. Mom”

Tonda and her daughters cleaned the folks’ house every two weeks. I’m guessing that consideration of their comfort while they worked overcame Mom’s scruples about using the air conditioner. 

I sent this message that day, “Well, good! Don’t save your money for your kids to inherit while you die of a heat stroke. Be comfortable and we’ll survive without anticipating getting your life savings. Ginger

PS – got so hot here in New Hampshire, that we even had our air conditioner on yesterday. We avoid using it but finally gave in.”

Her daughter, Cindy, messaged too, “We’re thinking our grandson may have gotten a touch of heatstroke from walking to the Park City pool, staying in the heat with the sun reflecting off the water & then walking back again.  To say the least, this summer has been hot-hot-hot.  Leaves are already falling off the trees.  The excessive heat makes me major grumpy & tired.

So Mom, don’t think of it as giving up, think of it as being wise.  Just know your kids are concerned for you especially after all the warnings we’ve heard on the news lately.  And if you/ dad think your electric bill is too high, then I’ll offer to trade you my bill.”

 Gail answered her daughters’ concerns with this message, “Thanks, everyone, but I think we will manage. Clyde is afraid we will lose our economy rating with the electric company.

One thing I miss is hearing the birds singing. Probably won’t miss hearing all the kid noise or the speeding cars. The unit does make a noise that I don’t like.

We were cold during the night, but Clyde is learning to adjust it to not be so cold. Yeah, I have socks and slacks on this morning. The kitchen and the writing room are the warmest places, but fans will take care of that.

We ate ham salad sandwiches from Susie’s last night, had Jerica go get them for us. We have lots of tater tots left over that will make good hashbrowns to go with fried eggs.”

The month of July 2011 averaged 102 degrees in the Wichita, Kansas area. The hottest day was 111 degrees. The heatwave continued on into August. Kansas was just one of many states suffering the excessive heat. According to Wikipedia, “The heat was blamed for at least 25 deaths across the Midwest and the Northeast.”

X is for eXplorer

Gail Lee Martin used to gallivant about the Kansas countryside with her daughters. She’d taught them in childhood about the delights of setting off on an exploratory road trip. Once they were grown, there were still new places to see and new adventures to try.

Here’s Gail’s description of such a day’s outing in May 2002. The event is called the Kansas Sampler Festival and it provides a showcase for performers, sights, foods, and anything Kansas related. Next week, May 6 and 7th, 2017 is the last time for this festival. This one is in Winfield.

“Well, I had hoped Cindy would tell her side of the weekend and maybe I wouldn’t have so much to talk about. But here goes, my great inspiring weekend. Cindy and I left El Dorado around 1:00 pm on Friday, May 3rd. We went to Independence by way of that new Highway 400, south of El Dorado.

We arrived and got checked in at the Lamplighter Motel (the cheap one), then we hunted up the Riverside Zoo and Park, where we found the festival tents all set up in a great, big oval. We were in #8 and were able to set up at the very front on the left side of the entrance. We unloaded and set up Cindy’s booth titled “Meet, Gene Stratton-Porter.” We should have pictures coming when Cindy gets caught up.

The group of Historic Performers in our tent included a complete covered wagon campout; a mountain man’s home, he is also a wagon scout, a fur trapper, and his wife is a schoolteacher who travels by wagon train; Amelia Earhart; Calamity Jane; Nolan Sump as a German-American farmer, and a group representing The Santa Fe Trail Experience. Talk about being in good company, these people are such fun.

After everyone was set up we adjourned to a Mexican food place and continued to share experiences while chowing down on good food. The next morning we were ready to greet the visiting public by 10:00, all 5,100 of them on Saturday and many more than that on Sunday. Kansas was very well represented from every part of the state. If you didn’t learn about it at the festival if probably isn’t worth seeing.

Both days the ones in our tent gave 15-minute performances off and on. Cindy performed 9 different times. Surprisingly, we saw people we knew. Robert and Vickie Griffith from Madison; Teresa Bachman and the Henns from El Dorado; Barbara Booth, a Kansas Authors Club friend from Clay Center; Mary Asher from the Fort Scott’s farmers market. I talked to everyone else as if I knew them and after visiting with them awhile I felt like I did know them. 

Kansas_Sampler_Festival_text_and_article_featuring_Cindy - Copy

I was honored by one of the golf cart volunteers with a ride to the food vendors area for lunch on Saturday. There were 250 volunteers of all ages that pitched in wherever you needed them. They unloaded and loaded our vehicles, hunted up electrical cords, brought us drinks or ice cream and just made the whole thing run like clockwork.

Each tent had a tent boss and ours was a friend of the group called the ‘cowgirl’, but she is from Oklahoma so couldn’t have a booth. And yes, I’m ready to go again next year. I think Cindy probably will get lots of program offers. You all should have been with us! Gail”

As you can see from her description, Gail loved exploring and trying out new experiences.

kansas sampler festival

Gail’s daughter, Cynthia Ross, also wrote about the festival.

“I made it through the weekend, meeting a lot of fans of Gene Stratton-Porter, plus two people that think they are related to her–which is very possible since she was the youngest of 12.   Two gentlemen visited my booth after they’d seen one of my performances then made a point to hear it a second time.   Many tell me they have all her books—which at one point I thought I did as well, then I found out she wrote more than just her novels.

My feet and knees hurt from wearing those old, lace-up boots for two days.  One neat thing that happened, the birdman was there on the festival grounds with his display and he allowed me to hold one of the owls to get my picture taken in costume.

One lady said she wanted me to have her whole collection of Gene’s books, some signed by the author.   I told her to let me know a price, although I’ll have to travel some distance to pick them up, but well worth it, that’s if she remembers to call me.Cindy_as_Porter_posing_with_feather

Something very special and meaningful happened before my 1st performance on Saturday—I’d gone into the tent to watch another from our group do her performance to start off the whole weekend, I sat down on one of the hay bales, then noticed a butterfly above me.   That small butterfly landed on my shoulder, then flittered right across my nose. Gene loved butterflies and moths about as much as she did the birds and I take that as another sign that she is aware and approves of what I’m doing in her memory!”

T is for Tornado Memories

Gail Martin saved not just her own memories of early days, but collected memories from her aunts and extended family as well. This is one she inspired her Aunt Bertha McGhee to write and send to ‘The Golden Years‘ magazine for East Central Kansas for Aging.   She was so pleased they published this March 1994.

In 1932, when they had the WPA, I worked for a year as a caseworker in Chase County. Once I was caught in a tornado and got stuck in a ditch.

The tornado, whose funnel cloud we could see north of us, picked up a farm house and set it back down on the other side of the barn with the lady of the house inside.

She said that when things settled down she found herself under the dining room table, in shock but unhurt. Her husband was in the barn and he and the animals were all OK. Outside the trees were stripped of all their leaves till they were as bare as December
even though it was summer.

Down the road about a quarter of a mile, an old rural school building, that was being used for hay storage, was blown away and only fragments could ever be found.

The ditch where I was was an unbridged ravine that only had water when it rained.   The WPA did put a cement crossing there later but not a bridge because it was a
back road that didn’t carry much traffic.

gail and mcghee cousins aunts

Gail Martin in the blue shirt. Her aunt, Bertha McGhee in front of her. A McGhee family reunion.

Homage to the Flint Hills

Hills in Kansas? Yes, Kansas has the rolling Flint Hills where you’ll see tall grass prairie, limestone outcroppings, and a sky that goes on forever. It’s in the south-central part of the state.

I grew up nearby, and my mother spent her childhood in the Flint Hills. We love the sweeping vistas and subtle folds of the Flint Hills area. It was always a treat to take a scenic drive through the Flint Hills and to watch for windmills, prairie fires and big thunderheads.

Photo by Virginia Allain of the Kansas Flint Hills.

Photo by Virginia Allain of the Kansas Flint Hills.

Anyone who thinks Kansas is flat and featureless has never seen the Flint Hills. In Mom’s book, she talks about the thrill of seeing a prairie wildfire at night sweep across the hills.

In her collection of books, there was one of paintings of the Flint Hills. Each featured artist wrote about how the region inspired them. Artist Judy Love of Manhattan, Kansas wrote this, “The changes of light and color through the day and through the seasons transform these ancient hills into an incredible beauty that leaves me speechless.” She said that painting was her way of showing a “bit of what my heart feels.”

Here’s that book:

She loved the prairie wildflowers and taught us the names for some of them.

This one is aptly named the butterfly weed. (photo by Virginia Allain) Its official name is Asclepias tuberosa.

This one is aptly named the butterfly weed. (photo by Virginia Allain) Its official name is Asclepias tuberosa.

The hardy wildflowers of the windswept prairie can withstand drought and harsh conditions. Give them a try in your yard.

It’s hard to capture the prairie with a camera. Somehow the hills just flatten out under that big sky. As you cruise along in your car with the windows down, pull over now and then at the crest of a hill. Get out and admire the wildflowers. Listen to the sound of the meadowlark and notice the scissortail flycatcher or the hawk on the telephone wire.

The Flint Hills Poster
The Flint Hills Poster by Kcstore

Let your eyes follow the road as it forms a ribbon through the curves and folds of the land. Note the sparse trees revealing the line of a creek wending through the hills.

Savor it. The Flint Hills are a special place much loved by Kansans.