Western Kansas Odyssey, Part III: Pratt to Hays

Hays Travel Blog

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Lady Liberty in miniature, town square in St. John
On my way out of Pratt I stopped at an artsy coffee shop/craft store downtown, admiring the smooth cobblestone streets and quaint buildings in good shape. The legendary "hot" and "cold" water towers in the north section of town show this pleasant city has a sense of humor. My first stop of the morning was in Iuka, a small residential community not far north of Pratt. Other than the post office, grain elevator and city office, there weren't many businesses here, given its proximity to the county seat. I quietly continued north on US-281 into Stafford County again, passing by a sign to the Antrim United Methodist Church, a couple miles to the west on a dirt road. Shortly after the intersection with US-50 that I'd passed a couple days prior, I turned into the county seat town of Saint John.
Abandoned church, Kenilworth


I was impressed with the neatness and pride with which this town displayed itself. The town square featured well-manicured gardens and was surrounded by refurbished businesses where at least the facades were kept historically intact. On two juxtaposed ornate buildings, each window pane bore the names, dates and professions of the businessmen who occupied the premises. Small banners bearing the city's name decorated the light poles on each corner. Schoolchildren crossed the street next to the fire station as I caught a whiff of the sweet spring breeze flowing by. I wonder what makes St. John stand out from the other cities of similar size and status. People here must be happy to live here and want to show it.

It was a little off of the highway, but I detoured a bit east to the community of Hudson to collect another town and visit the local flour mill. The Stafford County Flour Mills Company, better known as Hudson Cream, started milling their well-known flour in the early 1900s.
Nekoma from Hwy 4
It was a fairly large operation, at least compared to the few buildings and houses in the town surrounding it. I purchased a couple sacks of flour, packages of cornmeal and some gravy mix to bring back as gifts and souvenirs from my home state. The lobby area looked brand new, so there was hope that it would be a functional business for years to come.

When I got to Seward it was still before noon, but after seeing the sea of pick-up trucks in the parking lot of Mom's Bar & Grill and realizing that I might not get a chance to eat for awhile, I decided to hunker down with the locals. I snagged the last available table in the restaurant portion of the establishment, and was greeted by a woman who may very well have been "Mom" herself. For lunch I got a heaping plate of roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans and bread--and that was the half order! And it only cost me five bucks! Of course I splurged on some souvenirs, including a t-shirt that said "Where the hell is Seward, Kansas?" on the back.
Post rock fences and Kansas sky, between Liebenthal and Loretto
Stuffed and ready for the next stop, I ventured west to tiny Radium and then on into Pawnee County.

The county seat town of Larned offered a couple antique shops worth visiting, but mainly is the gateway to nearby Fort Larned, a national historic site about five miles west of town along the banks of the Pawnee River. Established in the late 1850s, this fort was built to protect cross-country travelers along the Santa Fe Trail at a time when the United States was warring against various Indian tribes. There were about 10 restored buildings and construction was going on when I visited.
Bed & breakfast in Hays
The mess hall, sleeping barracks and mercantile buildings were the most interesting. Hearing the roaring Kansas wind bashing against the windows made me shudder at the thought of soldiers spending their winters in this bleak outpost. The buildings on the west perimeter of the fort were the officers' quarters and as to be expected, were fancy by comparison. Still, an assignment in a place that many people yet call "the middle of nowhere" was truly isolated 150 years ago!

Prosperous farmer and Pawnee countian, Edward Frizell and his family own much of the land around the historic site. There had even been a small community bearing his name, but is now nothing more than a farm building. The name Frizell is prominent in Larned and throughout the county. After checking out Frizell and Sanford, I continued on my roundabout journey to Hays and the next stop was Rozel.
Ellis County Courthouse, Hays
This was another example of small town pride on a microscopic scale compared even to Saint John. Several buildings proudly displayed the city name and occasional banners dotted the poles on the main drag. Bustling it was not, but more buildings showed signs of life than in many other communities of this size. Burdett was another town with an active downtown, and was also livelier. One of the local community groups must have been hosting a gathering, judging from the number of children and adults milling around. It appeared that some had ice cream cones, but I didn't stop to join them.

At that point it was clear I would need to start my northward journey soon, so I checked my reliable but old county maps and found a road that more or less connected Burdett with Alexander, a little over 20 miles north. It was partially paved for about six miles before turning to rough gravel all the rest of the way. Several curves and turns later I was in the near ghost town of Alexander.
Downtown Hays
The wide and dusty main street had only a few buildings with wide gaps between them like missing teeth. Next to the post office was the shell of an old grocery store, its roof caved in with weeds growing up where an aisle of canned goods must have been. The faded 7-Up sign on the front reflected a bygone era in this country when small towns could sustain family-owned grocery stores.

A more drastic example of a town on its deathbed was the next town of Nekoma. I recall driving through here with my parents in the late 1980s and although it wasn't much of a town then its main street had an insurance business, bank and post office along with a few other buildings. Having lost its post office one year ago, the only thing left is the grain elevator and a few residents. The bank name, however, lives on in La Crosse at the Nekoma Bank Museum, which is a testament to rural banking and the tenacity of certain businesses to hold out longer than many others in a state suffering from economic difficulties and changing times.
Gella's beer sampler before...


At the junction town of Rush Center, I turned north on US-183 and headed into La Crosse, the self-proclaimed "Barbed Wire Capital" and home of the notable Post Rock Museum. Also the county seat of Rush County, La Crosse fits into the hometown pride category with its banners and brick streets. One of my favorite towns happened to be tiny but prosperous Liebenthal, home to a majority of Volga German descendants and one of the dozen or so communities in this part of Kansas with a tall-spired Catholic church.
...and after :)
I was elated to find Pat's Beef Jerky--a store I had wanted to visit--open for business as late as 5:30 on a weekday. I purchased several packages of the renowned jerky, happy that I was able to support this small town business venture. Between the jerky store and post office was a tavern that was starting to attract its happy hour crowd. After walking around town and snapping pictures of St. Joseph's church, I made my final out of the way detour east to Loretto, a crossroads community also of Volga German heritage. Most maps and references spell the town "Loretta" but a plaque on a building in town confirms the authentic spelling ending in "o" but likely pronounced as the woman's name.

North from Loretto was yet another Volga German town of Pfeifer, noted for its historic Holy Cross church, also a "Wonder" of Kansas.
Gella's at night
The church is majestic but no longer used for regular services, considering its proximity to other churches and the dwindling rural population of central and western Kansas. I continued the loop north and then west, past road construction and on into Hays before 7pm, skipping other towns I'd wanted to visit, such as Schoenchen, Antonino and Munjor. I found my host Jeff awaiting my arrival, and soon we were walking from his basement apartment to downtown Hays and one place I had been excited about visiting, Gella's Diner and Lb. Brewing Company. Enjoying the sampler tray of refreshing microbrews and dinner from a German-inspired menu, we talked and plotted out our plans for the evening and next day.
The Brass Rail
We stopped at the Brass Rail for another beer before heading towards the campus part of town to a bar called Neighbars. Downtown was a bar called Sip-N-Spin, a former combination bar and laundromat that is now just a bar as well as a concert venue. In fact we learned there was a band playing and decided to check them out. The cover charge, which we had just arrived in time to be the first for, was only $3 for a pretty decent rockin' cover band from Rush County. It ended up being quite a night out and a spontaneous bar crawl of the city. Jeff and I got back after 1am and then listened to some music. In the morning we decided we would go to Castle Rock, the primary reason I wanted to visit Hays on this trip.
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Lady Liberty in miniature, town sq…
Lady Liberty in miniature, town s…
Abandoned church, Kenilworth
Abandoned church, Kenilworth
Nekoma from Hwy 4
Nekoma from Hwy 4
Post rock fences and Kansas sky, b…
Post rock fences and Kansas sky, …
Bed & breakfast in Hays
Bed & breakfast in Hays
Ellis County Courthouse, Hays
Ellis County Courthouse, Hays
Downtown Hays
Downtown Hays
Gellas beer sampler before...
Gella's beer sampler before...
...and after :)
...and after :)
Gellas at night
Gella's at night
The Brass Rail
The Brass Rail
Sip-N-Spin after sipping and spinn…
Sip-N-Spin after sipping and spin…
Hays
photo by: sayohat