Western Kansas Odyssey, Part I: St. Marys to Fowler

Fowler Travel Blog

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That's not a toupee, just the Kansas wind
A nail in my left rear tire delayed my departure but only for about an hour. The big trip I had originally planned for my Midwestern journey was at hand, and to the bewilderment of most of the people I knew, I embarked on a week-long road trip to none other than western Kansas. Of course I could have ventured to Mount Rushmore or even Carhenge in west-central Nebraska, but I decided on an extensive environmentally-unfriendly voyage across some of the most unpopular territory in the whole country. But that's what I do...go to places off the beaten track. Bring it on!

I wanted to quickly get to at least the middle of the state, so I took I-70 and I-135 to just south of McPherson and then started heading southwest on Highway 61.
This may have been my halfway point at Zenith
Then began my ritual of stopping at virtually every town or locale along the way, starting with the one-house town of Groveland and continuing on to Inman. While the former may have seen better days, the latter is somewhat of a rural Kansas success story. The credit for this largely goes to one of the Sunflower State's biggest champions, Marci Penner. As was clearly evident at the Kansas Sampler Festival, she does more to promote sustainable rural communities than any other single person. And her hometown happens to be Inman. The Kansas Sampler Foundation is located a few miles in the country outside of Inman, and I was hoping to visit it and say hello. Unfortunately my timing was off and no one was there, so I continued my journey on to the next town, which was Buhler in Reno County.
Downtown Belpre

Essentially my purpose in visiting each town was to take photographs of various buildings and scenes around the town more or less for historical and preservation purposes. Many places I'd visited years before are no longer the same, with many of the businesses gone or falling down, so this time I planned to document what I saw. Common themes in my pictures are historical buildings, post offices, water towers, welcome signs (or anything with the name of the town printed on it), cafes, city offices and anything else eye-catching or unique. Each town has something to offer, but only if the beholder is open-minded or interested enough to appreciate it. My mission could be just as mind-numbingly boring to an average city slicker than sports statistics or current trends in fashion would be to me. Diversity is to life what flavors are to the taste buds.

I bypassed Hutchinson because that would almost be a separate trip altogether.
Signpost for tiny Fellsburg (I've been there before but not this trip), between Belpre & Lewis
I'd been to the Kansas Cosmosphere and would like to go again, and I wanted to visit the relatively new Underground Salt Museum, but it would have to be saved for another time. After all, I really was on a mission. So I drove past the store-lined streets, malls and interchanges to the legendary coast-to-coast US Highway 50, stopping at each and every place along the westward way from Partridge all the way to Bellefont. Towns consisted of little more than a wide empty main street with abandoned buildings on either side, and a handfull of houses here and there, but the decadence of the American ghost town in the making is a captivating subject for me.
Inside the church at Windthorst
It's sad to think that some of these towns might not be around for much longer, but they all have an identity and a history that exists now. Most of these places have at least one annual event that draws former citizens, family members and neighbors. Abbyville has an annual rodeo and frontier days festival.

Passing through Plevna, I was greeted by a former high school and a couple churches. The next town of Sylvia also had a large grade school, but it was apparently still functioning. The cafe and several other buildings were abandoned. Up next was the tiny hamlet of Zenith, almost forgotten except for a church and a grain elevator.
Fowler Restaurant--closed on Mondays
At least Stafford proved to be worth a longer stop. I visited an antique store and walked around the main street, observing some of the building facades. North of the town is the Quivira Wildlife Refuge, an oasis of wetlands in the middle of Kansas. I didn't visit the place, but it remains on my list as one of the many anomalies in the state that I hope to see someday.

After the ghost town of Dillwyn, I headed through Macksville, which proved to have several quintessential rural Kansas architectural photo opportunities. The small town was home to a few more than 500 people, but was one of the larger communities I'd seen all day. One of my favorite stops, though, was at the town of Belpre, about 7 miles west of Macksville.
Standing tall in Fowler's park
The combination of the central city square--which was a nice sized park--and the few colorful buildings around it made for a particularly enjoyable visit. The postmaster diligently postmarked my postcards after several tries to get it perfect. She appeared to be the only one working downtown. Next door, the brightly colored restaurant was closed. The real estate office surely couldn't have maintained much business in this small town of 104. There was a library, a Catholic church and school, and a grain elevator I believe. The remaining trunk of the first balsam tree planted in Kansas remains in the city park as a testament to early settlers.

Lewis was large enough to support its own newspaper and bank, but most of the downtown businesses were silent. Kinsley bills itself as "Midway USA" for it is exactly 1,561 miles from both New York and San Francisco.
The artistic swimming pool in Fowler
I felt close enough to say that I drove halfway across the country for a picture of the sign that said that, even though I technically left from Rockville and not New York. I did some window shopping and actual shopping at the downtown shops, most of which were located on a cobblestone street. I also stopped at the rest area at the edge of town, which featured the famous sign as well as the Edwards County Historical Museum. Inside there was an elderly man who showed me the old sod house that the museum had been built around and turned on all the back lights. I was the only visitor for the duration of the time I spent there, but the museum was open and free of charge. I left a donation of a couple bucks and thanked the man for the benefit of being open. I bought a few pins that prooved I'd been there and went on my way.

Some five miles west of Kinsley was the old railroad siding of Ardell, notable now as the location of two historic grain elevator buildings that have managed to withstand western Kansas windstorms.
Escaping from the Fowler jail!
Other than the two eerie grain elevators, nothing exists at Ardell. The backdrop was endless flatlands and blue skies with the corrugated tin siding banging in the wind. I had actually been on this portion of US-50 in the mid-1990s and remember stopping at an antique store in Offerle. It seems to have survived along with several other businesses, including Offerle's Tacos. I already had lunch that I'd packed and wasn't ready for dinner, so I passed up the opportunity, but otherwise would have gladly tried them. It's not often you see a taco restaurant in such a small town.

At Bellefont I saw a field of wind turbines in the distance, whirring away and likely providing energy to a sizable portion of the county. I turned south to take a detour to the community of Windthorst and the location of another stately Catholic church.
Laia and I posing in front of the strange fireplace
The Immaculate Heart of Mary church was located in what would otherwise be the middle of a farm; its steeple visible from miles away. I was surprised to find a group of people tending to the adjacent gardens, preparing for the imminent construction of a new building. They payed me absolutely no attention, which I found odd considering the looks I usually attracted by driving through a town and taking random pictures. The church was nicely restored and even had some brochures on its history.

It was getting late and I still had a bit more to travel, so I ventured on through Ford and down to Kingsdown where I picked up US-54 and headed west through the near ghost town of Bloom. There I found the ruins of a storm-damaged school with the stone archway still intact. There was also a railroad station that had been converted to a residence, which I thought was a wise use of resources. Because of the time and the fact that I knew I'd pass through again the next day, I decided to skip Minneola and ended up at my destination of Fowler probably around 6:00. I met my host Laia and we chatted for awhile before going on a walk through the town. In fact, we walked almost the entire circumference within about 20 minutes, but there were a couple of interesting things to see.

Laia is from Spain and lives in Fowler but teaches Spanish in nearby Meade. She showed me the local swimming pool and asked if it was a typical American pool. Looking through the chain link fence at the bizarre circular pool, I had to admit I'd never seen anything quite like it. The diving board was smack dab in the center of the pool and there was no gradient towards a deep end. To get from one end of the pool to the other, it would be necessary to swim around in a circle. Anyone wishing to dive would simply have to get wet first! Then we went to the city jail, a small concrete cubicle better known as a calaboose. After some humorous photos we walked the remaining streets of town, noting that all the businesses along the main street were closed. It was Monday and this signaled an extension of the day of rest from the previous day. That meant that in order to eat, I would have to go out of town or forage for something in Laia's kitchen. She was getting ready to go back to Spain for the summer and offered me to take what I wanted out of her refrigerator since it wouldn't last the summer, so I cooked some pasta and canned vegetables and we chatted late into the night. Her house was a relic from the 1950s, complete with pastel formica countertops, deep shag carpeting, wood paneling and a gaudy fireplace of inexplicable architectural form. It was groovy, though. I fell asleep in the guest bedroom to the deafening sound of country silence.
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Thats not a toupee, just the Kans…
That's not a toupee, just the Kan…
This may have been my halfway poin…
This may have been my halfway poi…
Downtown Belpre
Downtown Belpre
Signpost for tiny Fellsburg (Ive …
Signpost for tiny Fellsburg (I've…
Inside the church at Windthorst
Inside the church at Windthorst
Fowler Restaurant--closed on Monda…
Fowler Restaurant--closed on Mond…
Standing tall in Fowlers park
Standing tall in Fowler's park
The artistic swimming pool in Fowl…
The artistic swimming pool in Fow…
Escaping from the Fowler jail!
Escaping from the Fowler jail!
Laia and I posing in front of the …
Laia and I posing in front of the…
photo by: sayohat