Sagebrush landscape in Clark County
Before leaving Fowler
I had to stop at Neon 57
, a 1950s-style diner-dessert counter-gift shop located downtown. It didn't open until 9:00, but I had come all this way and couldn't resist checking it out. Unfortunately they didn't have a wide breakfast selection so I settled on a cup of coffee and a warm cinnamon bun. It would have been nice to take advantage of the lunch menu, but I couldn't justify hanging out all morning in Fowler so after my morning snack, which was delicious, I jetted back east towards the all-American town of Minneola
I continued east through Bloom
again, then to Bucklin
, where I wandered about the wide main street for a few minutes before making a similar stop in Mullinville
Rural road near Springvale
The latter has a small chapter in the book of Kansas infamy with its controversial signs
by local artist M.T. Liggett
. Several of the metallic sculptures that blow in the breeze feature effigies of prominent politicians portrayed as Nazis. At least the old farmer is exercising his right to free speech, adding to the colorful quilt of diversity that makes our nation so amazing.
My next destination was alarmingly sobering, completely taking me off-guard from what I had expected to see. The county seat of Kiowa County
and former home to more than 1500 people, the city of Greensburg
was hit by a powerful tornado
on May 4, 2007, resulting in 95%
of its decimation.
Road sign to Willowdale
The damage was comparable to that of Hurricane Katrina
on a very small scale. Perhaps I had not heard much recent news and expected that the clean-up efforts had been completed, but despite two years having passed, the town looked as if the tornado could have occurred a few weeks ago. To be fair, though, there were some new developments that had been built, such as a supermarket and business incubator. But the sheer devastation still evident throughout the rest of the town was poignantly vivid. Sidewalks were littered with debris, foundations of buildings lay as open pits, and threadbare trees stuck out like shaggy toothpicks about random parts of town. A new road was being built on the main street, where only one building had remained intact. The courthouse was fenced off, still awaiting repairs from extensive roof and water damage. Meanwhile, FEMA trailers surrounded the building and provided a temporary place for business.
I stopped first at the site of what used to house the museum around the World's Largest Hand-Dug Well
, Greensburg's former claim to fame.
The well is still there of course, but has been damaged and the surrounding area was a testament to the shattering catastrophe that befell the town. A small temporary gift shop was rebuilt on the site, and I stopped for some souvenirs. According to the clerk, the tornado claimed 11 lives that night and resulted in most of the rest of the community's population becoming instantaneously homeless. About half of the former population moved back into or nearby the town, but others have resettled in Wichita
, Dodge City
or other communities. She also told me that in Greensburg, FEMA
did a great job of responding to the disaster.
The business incubator is a potential success story in the making. One of the businesses I visited was Studio 54
, featuring hand-blown stained glass art and jewelry.
The story of Lemon Park
The kind owners shared their tornado stories and suggested I visit GreenTown
, the local grassroots organization devoted to rebuilding the town in an environmentally sustainable manner. The staff there gave me lots of information about how they are planning to become the only town in the country with the largest percentage of LEED platinum
buildings per population. They have been featured on countless television shows and interestingly enough have their own show on Planet Green
(a subsidiary of the Discovery Channel
), called simply "Greensburg
." Behind the organization's small headquarters office was a display of four different prototypes of green engineering, such as a solar-powered water heating device, a composting toilet, a recycling center and a true greenhouse for growing plants.
Lemon Park, Pratt, KS
I was encouraged to visit the local art center, sponsored by the University of Kansas
, but unfortunately it was closed on Tuesdays.
I ate lunch at an unmarked cafe in a trailer on the west edge of the town. I would never have known it was a place for food unless I hadn't been told by the GreenTown folks. A new environmentally-friendly hospital building was being built nearby, as were several other projects. The existing hospital resembled something I'd expect to find at a military base in the Middle East, with trailers and large white tents. The schools were housed in a large warehouse-like building with several adjacent trailers. It was truly a surreal experience. Shellshocked but full after a relatively tasty lunch, I continued on my journey east. Greensburg has made a lasting impression on me, and I really wish for their success in rebuilding, possibly becoming a role model community for "green" building.Haviland
was much more sedate and typical of places I'd been seeing, aside from tiny Barclay College
Pond at Lemon Park
The formerly incorporated town of Wellsford
was notable for its flea market, nearly a full block littered with just about everything you can imagine: dishes, school desks, microwaves, toilets, televisions. All of it looked like it had been sitting outside through all the seasons. There was a narrow, winding pathway that led from the road to the front door. I was concerned that if I made a false move, a pile of stuff would crash down upon me and no one would ever hear from me again, so I passed on through.
If anything Cullison
did not lack a sense of humor. The welcome sign boasted "next 4 exits" and someone posted various signboards with messages from the "Dick Tator
," who possibly is the town's mayor. The messages weren't very welcoming, suggesting that newcomers should beware of this "communist-oriented" town. A building's hours of operation sign indicated it was "open when I'm here and closed when I'm not.
Crossing the lake
" This was a clear example of why I enjoy visiting random places: you never know what you'll find!
I then detoured off the highway and to even more rural roads to visit the southern tier of places in Pratt County
. In Croft
there was a farmhouse with about three vintage automobiles on the front lawn, including an old fire engine. The town of Coats
was barely hanging on, but still had a city hall in an old theater and a post office in an old Ford dealership building. Sawyer
was on the north-south highway to Pratt but not much was open when I passed through except for a gas station, where I picked up a bottle of soda. Isabel
was just over the line in Barber County
, and still had a general store.
, in Kingman County
, was just as tiny but had a couple vintage buildings across from a brand new post office.
Probably the most promising-for-its-size small town on the day's route was Zenda
. Its population actually grew from 90 in 1990 to 123 the next census. Functioning businesses included a library, restaurant, farm services store, telephone exchange, museum, post office, deli and grade school, not to mention the old jail (calaboose) similar to those I'd found in Wetmore
and Fowler. The Lumber Yard Steakhouse
was not open, but Blasi's Service Station
(the deli) was, although I wasn't hungry.
Lake 2, I didn't make it
I got gas at the co-op and headed north to Willowdale
. Saint Leo
was a small collection of houses and a church, but unlike Willowdale did contain a small tavern called Spike's Place
. One of the last stops was in Cunningham
, where there was a refurbished little train depot, calaboose and church. I then sailed west through Cairo
before hitting the brick main streets of downtown Pratt
. Home to the annual Miss Kansas
pageant, Pratt is a comfortable county seat town within two hours drive of Wichita.
Warren and Isaac, who moved to Pratt from California, were my hosts and admitted to being perfectly content in the town. They had bought a nice house with a large backyard for their dog. I noticed they had some unusual features in their house, like an actual tanning booth, a large telescope, keyboard equipment and a fallout shelter. The latter room was obviously built into the house, but served as an interesting version of a pantry. We had dinner and then they took me to the amazing Lemon Park
, a treasure that I would not have believed if I hadn't gone there myself. Apparently a benevolent resident donated land and a dowry to develop a lush wooded park and nature trail filled with native trees and grasses. Walking through the slightly hilly woods, I was surprised that I was still in a state whose reputation for plantlife was normally limited to sunflowers and short grass. There were several species of plants, trees and flowers as well as lakes and ponds. I seriously wondered if I had indeed been transported to the land of Oz. The guys had me climb up a fallen tree limb to cross one lake, a feat which was actually quite humorous. When a second lake and tree limb appeared, I surrendered and just walked around the tiny lake. We ended the night with a friendly game of Scrabble
. And that was a typical Tuesday in Pratt!