Revel in the Wild West charm of Kansas, where tallgrass open prairies and stream-carved valleys compete for attention with small-town museums and fascinating, unexpected world treasures
It’s perhaps a typical Kansas scene — cowboys on horseback rounding up cattle, charging across verdant rolling hills as far as the eye can see, and then riding off into the waning sunset. Not so typical on this day, however, is that the cattle stampede thundering along the distant horizon is only a sideshow, thrilling the thousands crammed on lawn chairs and listening to Lyle Lovett’s Texas twang accompanied by the Kansas City Symphony.
The event is the annual Symphony in the Flint Hills. This is more than just a concert and instead is a tribute of sorts to eastern Kansas’ fragile tallgrass prairie, the largest remaining ecosystem of its kind in North America. It’s within a setting apropos for the Wheat State, where the state song is the iconic “Home on the Range,” and where scenic byways carve through hills and wind-blown fields that have inspired poets, songwriters and artists.
“The similarity of the waving wheat and prairie grass to the way the ocean looks with its waves has been here for a long time,” says Thomas Averill, an expert on Kansas literature and a professor at Topeka’s Washburn University. “It’s been a constant metaphor with the prairie grass waving and the different books or images that use the terms ‘sea of grass’ or ‘oceans of grass.’”
When it comes to such metaphors, however, the Flint Hills — one of the most endangered ecoregions of the world — commands special status. These rocky hills include a majority of the remaining tallgrass prairie surviving today — less than 4 percent of the 140 million acres that once blanketed North America’s heartland from eastern Kansas to Indiana, and from Manitoba to Texas. Because of flint rocks protruding from the surface, early settlers never plowed the land, which was instead used for cattle grazing, thus preserving its natural state.
My first Symphony in the Flint Hills concert and visit to this wildflower-dotted prairieland capped a five-day visit to central and eastern Kansas, a trip that took me from the brick streets of Old Town Wichita to the boyhood home of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Abilene. From the perky college town of Manhattan, I take a side trip to Wamego, a small town with a big crush on Kansas’ favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz. I then head south to the crossroads of the Santa Fe Trail in Council Grove and onto the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway along State Highway 177, before arriving at the concert grounds in Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve with its 11,000 acres accented by rare wildflowers.
Old Town Wichita
Cobbled streets intertwine through Old Town Wichita’s redbrick warehouses, filled with house shops, offices and restaurants. The district’s highlight is the must-see Museum of World Treasures with exhibits that include skeletons of a tyrannosaurus and a daspletosaurus, Stone Age fossils, a slab of the Berlin Wall, a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy and a bronze Illyrian helmet from 500 B.C. — exhibits one might not expect in central Kansas.
“We’re happy our museum serves that gap, allowing visitors the chance to see world artifacts in Wichita so they don’t have to drive to other major cities in the Midwest,” says museum spokeswoman Rachel Stanley-Williams. Original documents and letters from every U.S. president line the walls of one exhibit room, while pop culture exhibits include costume uniforms worn by Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington in the Civil War movie Glory.
In the evening, I visit Wichita’s most-photographed attraction and iconic city symbol, the Keeper of the Plains. Kiowa-Comanche artist Blackbear Bosin created the 44-foot-high sculpture of an American Indian warrior above a plaza where the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers meet. At sunset, flames shoot up from gas-fired jets, illuminating the figure with its headdress and tomahawk — symbolic of the tribes that once camped there, as Native Americans considered the confluence of the two rivers sacred.
In Wichita’s Old Cowtown Museum, I step back to the post–Civil War period — amidst old wooden cabins and creaking, planked sidewalks along dusty dirt streets — for a high-noon view of the Wild West. Nestled in a wooded area along the Arkansas River, Old Cowtown is actually a living-history museum with many well-preserved 19th-century buildings, more than 50 structures on 23 acres. Within a musty old jail, a primitive dentist’s office, a smoky blacksmith’s shop and other exhibits sit some of the museum’s more than 10,000 artifacts that bring the past to the present.
“You’re walking on the same floorboards that Wyatt Earp walked on when he was a policeman here for a year. During the night of the city election, he punched out his boss’ opponents,” says Tim McGill, an interpreter in Cowtown’s print shop and newspaper office. “We’re pretty sure that the press we have printed the first Wichita City Eagle. Many of the buildings are the same original buildings — this one was a grocery store in the 1800s.”
I walk past a simple, black-sided wooden coffin outside of Gill Mortuary, while a peek inside reveals a chapel and horse-driven hearse on display. Down the dirt street sits the swirling candy-cane-like pole of O’Hara’s Barber Shop and a simple boarded law office next door. But when I turn the corner, gunfire erupts across from Cowtown’s Fritz Snitzler’s Saloon. It’s a mock gunfight depicting many from Wichita’s yesteryear, brought on by simmering tempers between pistol-wielding criminals and stern lawmen.
Abilene, Manhattan and Wamego
From Wichita, it’s maybe an hour and a half drive north to the tree-filled town of Abilene, home of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home. A colossal bronze statue of the World War II five-star general and 34th U.S. president centers the 22-acre campus with its five buildings, including a visitor center and the churchlike Place of Meditation where Eisenhower; his wife, Mamie; and their first-born son are buried.
The Eisenhower Presidential Museum showcases some of his administration’s key accomplishments through photographs, movie clips and artifacts. They include eradicating polio, implementing the Interstate Highway System and NASA, and enacting the first Civil Rights legislation since the Civil War. “So many of the things that he put into place as president are really affecting our lives today, and we couldn’t be where we are without him,” says the museum’s curator, William Steiner.
The small, whitewashed family home where Eisenhower grew up sits on its original site where he lived with his parents and five brothers. Born in Denison, Texas, Eisenhower moved in when he was eight years old and lived here until he was 20. The modest 19th-century home, with small rooms and modest furnishings, is where he learned discipline and values. “Ike came from a very typical American home, and maybe a little hackneyed, but anyone can grow up to be president,” says Steiner.
Symphony in the Flint Hills
A tribute to the tallgrass prairie that once blanketed America’s heartland, the 11th-annual Symphony in the Flint Hills takes place June 11, 2016, on South Clements Pasture in Chase County, Kansas. General-admission tickets go on sale March 5 and sell out fast.
620-273-8955 | www.symphonyintheflinthills.org
“It was a hard life. There were six boys, they worked after school and had lots of fights,” says docent Beth Talbott. “[Eisenhower] wanted to go to Annapolis, but he worked for two years to pay for his brother’s college. By then he was too old for Annapolis, so he applied to West Point and got in, and that was the beginning of his life.”
Northeast of Abilene, Manhattan is home to Kansas State University and bustles during the school year — especially its Aggieville neighborhood, a shopping district with bars and restaurants catering to students. Because Manhattan skirts the Flint Hills, the so-called Little Apple is also home to the recently opened Flint Hills Discovery Center — a modern glass-fronted museum highlighting the history and science behind North America’s last remaining tallgrass prairie. Exhibits showcase actual prairie-grass samples with their tangled maze of roots, plants and animal life, and the importance of preserving this natural habitat.
Just outside Manhattan is Wamego, where I can’t help but notice a memory from my youth. It’s the Wicked Witch of the East’s legs — with her white-ringed black stockings and ruby slippers — darting out from under what looks like Dorothy’s house after it plunged back to earth during a fierce cyclone. It’s reminiscent of the scary scene for those of us who grew up watching The Wizard of Oz on television year after year. The house is actually the Wamego birthplace of Walter P. Chrysler, but moved from its original location.
Thanks to the extensive movie and book memorabilia collections from a local resident and others, Wamego’s Oz Museum has breathed renewed enthusiasm into what was once just a small prairie town. Since its opening in 2004, Wamego’s Oz fever has caught on with new businesses including the Oz Winery and Toto’s Tacoz, and with yearly OZtoberfest celebrations.
The Oz Museum houses first editions of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful World of Oz, figurines, plates with scenes from the movie, posters, mugs, autographs, photos, puppets and life-size wax replicas of the main characters. Original artifacts include flying-monkey miniatures and Munchkin gloves used in the movie. Scarecrow actor Ray Bolger’s actual passport is another collection highlight. Last year was the 115th anniversary of the novel’s publication, and 2014 marked the 75th anniversary of the MGM movie classic’s release.
I head south on State Highway 177 from Manhattan, passing grassy rolling hills with clumps of trees, and streams flowing through the nooks and crannies of the curving landscape. When reaching Council Grove, what looks like just an ordinary small-town intersection was actually once a 19th-century meeting point on the bustling Santa Fe Trail. Nearby are the Madonna of the Trail, a statue of a woman pioneer and her two children erected in 1928, and the Guardian of the Grove statue of an Indian Kaw (or Kansa) warrior, the tribe for which Kansas is named.
“This spot is very important, as they would rendezvous here and organize their wagon trains,” says Sharon Haun with the Friends of the Kaw Heritage organization. “There were two and three wagon trains a day pulling out of Council Grove, with each having up to 50 and 100 wagons pulled by oxen or mules.” The trail traversed 800 miles of open country from Missouri to Santa Fe, creating a Wild West superhighway through mostly unsettled land occupied by Comanche, Cheyenne and Kaw tribes.
At the junction of Highway 177 and U.S. Route 56, Council Grove’s Main Street and the actual Santa Fe Trail, a tree stump known as Post Office Oak remains an important marker today. In the 1850s, travelers left notes and letters at the foot of what was then a live tree. “There were mostly men on the Santa Fe Trail back then,” explains Haun, “and if you were going west and wanted to send a letter back to your sweetheart, hopefully someone coming back could pick it up and take it to somewhere where they could actually mail it.”
The Old Bell Monument sits a few blocks away. “The wood tower rotted, and the bell fell and rolled down the hill,” says Haun. “A woman used it to plant things in, but then schoolchildren donated pennies and nickels to restore it. But the day before the dedication ceremony, President McKinley was shot, so it was also dedicated to President McKinley — the first monument dedicated to him after his death.”
From Council Grove, the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway begins along Highway 177, and it’s just one of the state’s many country roads that carve around bluffs and grassy pastures. Locals say these byways showcase the state’s hidden beauty, and the tallgrass prairie is no exception.
“Once you get off the main roads, the clichés of flatness will be disproved,” notes Professor Averill. “A lot of people like the ocean — you go to the shore and look out and sort of contemplate the infinite and the vastness of space and the earth,” he muses. “And you can get that a little bit by standing on a rise and looking at the prairie grass waving. It’s a similar kind of feeling.”
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