Western Kansas Odyssey, Part VI: Oakley Loop

Oakley Travel Blog

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Oakley City Limits

What do dinosaurs and sunflowers have in common? That may be a stretch, but the answer rests at Fort Hays State University’s Sternberg Museum of Natural History, one of the most impressive museums I’ve seen. Its most famous residents, Xiphactinus audax and Gillicus arcuatus, form the unique “fish-within-a-fish” fossil. Carefully plastered together by a meticulous team of paleontologists led by George F. Sternberg of the fossil-collecting Sternberg family, this specimen has drawn media attention worldwide for its uniqueness. But the Sternberg museum was more than just a noteworthy fossil; it contained a variety of exhibits ranging from dinosaur replications, fossils representing several geochronologic spectra, and special exhibitions on giant squid, taxidermy and an African expedition.

"May I take your order?"
A hands-on children’s learning laboratory featured books, classes, interactive demonstrations and an insect zoo. It’s been established that much of Kansas had been covered by a shallow inland ocean, but I didn’t realize the ocean levels had undergone cycles of retreat and resurgence, resulting in a variety of marine life over the course of geologic time.

 

Stocked with educational toys, scientific games and t-shirts plastered with a T. Rex or the fish-within-a-fish image, the gift shop depleted only $30 of my funds before I was back on the road west to Park. Formerly known as Buffalo Park, this tiny community of about 140 has a liquor store, two bars, Knights of Columbus hall, post office, gas station and Catholic church known as the “Cathedral of the West” here. Aptly named Grainfield is home to ornately gray opera house as well as a bank, grocery store, restaurant and several other businesses. Grinnell mimics with much of the same, replacing the opera house with a hotel and a large tank in its city park.

Downtown Oakley
On back roads of southwestern Sheridan County—now tallying 101 (out of 105) in my count of Kansas counties I’ve visited—I found Angelus. With its obviously Catholic name, this rural village contained a Knights of Columbus, St. Paul’s Catholic Church, a rectory, school and cemetery in addition to about 10 houses. I found my way back to I-70 at Campus, the home of a large agricultural plant, possibly producing ethanol.

 

While lunching in Oakley at Don’s Drive-In, I realized I had better secure a hotel room for the night. I called several places in northwestern Kansas, but all were full for the Memorial Day weekend. Considering the unlikelihood that I would be able to find something on the fly, I booked a $65 room right there in Oakley and proceeded on north through Halford.

I-70 at dusk
Without concerning myself about a return time, I continued north to Gem only to discover that it had lost its post office, presumably within the last year. Dark clouds in the distance hovered over paint-stripped remnants of a church, confirming the town’s spectral doom. Driving east along Highway 24, I stopped at Menlo on the Thomas-Sheridan county line and continued to Seguin, where I was surprised to find the adobe Saint Martin’s Catholic Church. I stumbled around Hoxie, the county seat, and to deserted Tasco before lingering at the Cottonwood Ranch in Studley. Fortuitously arriving before the end of the workday, I soon learned that the site would permanently close in September due to state budget cuts, thereby becoming a drive-by attraction only. The ranger explained in detail the history of the estate’s original owner, the house and surrounding grounds. In his 25 years working there, he had discovered meticulous records of everything the owner had purchased, thus allowing him to make an accurate assessment of the costs of materiel at the turn of the century in western Kansas. John Fenton Pratt, the Yorkshire native who built the ranch, had even kept all of the leftover wallpaper rolls, which at this point were vintage artifacts. An oval stained-glass window in the study, two gables, and spindled porch hinted at the ranch house’s Victorian influence, but the construction was slightly haphazard and many facets of the architecture did not line up.

 

After spending a good hour there, I traipsed around Studley itself before continuing to Morland. Cars littered the streets—including the middle—for some type of local function at a downtown restaurant. As I left town, I saw a herd of bison calmly grazing in a field. Morland had been the site of a short-lived “bison husbandry” institute, so perhaps these mighty creatures stood as a symbol to its memory.

 

In Penokee, the sun was dipping low in the sky and I was nearing a point where I would turn south to begin my return to Oakley. At Hill City, I noticed a limestone courthouse and an old hotel building before heading south out of town. In an attempt to find the former town of Happy, I turned off on a side road and found an elderly couple attending the grave of a loved one, so without a way of avoiding contact, I dove right in.

 

“Is this Happy?” I asked, realizing the potential oddity of my question, especially if the man was not familiar with obscure ghost towns of Kansas.

 

His face screwed up in the approaching twilight, “what’s ‘at?” he mustered.

 

I thought I’d try another approach. “Do you know where the town of Togo was?” I enquired. “I have a map that shows a place called Togo, and I know there was a place called Happy at some point in the past.”

 

“This is the Prairie Home church,” he muttered, “but my grandmother used to talk about stopping at Togo on the way to WaKeeney from Hill City. She said it was half way and they would stop to get some candy from the market there. I’d guess the store was over there where that grove of trees is.”

 

I thanked him for the information and I turned around on the dirt road, him scratching his temple before returning to his wife at the grave marker. In the distance a farmhouse nestled along the banks of a creek, while a white barn across the road reflected the low sunlight. As with many places I’d seen, this could just as well have been a town. As for Happy, it is only a township name now.

 

Soon enough I was in WaKeeney and it was nearing dusk. I pulled over to take a picture of the entrance sign and a good looking young man getting ready to turn onto the highway saw me. He smiled and asked, “aren’t ya gonna take my picture?”

 

“Seriously?” I questioned. He just smiled wide and held up a can of Bud Light. I zoomed in and snapped a photo, but couldn’t help wondering why he wasn’t concerned that I could have reported him for drinking and driving. “Only in Kansas, buddy!” he yelled as he drove off, presumably to nearby Cedar Bluff Reservoir to celebrate the holiday weekend.

 

“Supper” time came and I was back in WaKeeney, where Jeff and I had nearly starved a few days ago. Luckily this time the steakhouse was open and ready for my growling stomach. Fitting to its name, the Western Kansas Saloon & Grill, with its stories-tall ceilings and worn wooden floorboards, resembled an 1880s saloon that one may expect to see in a spaghetti western (as long as the paneling could be ignored). I treated myself to a steak dinner and a Kansas microbrew to celebrate my last night on this grand tour of the western third of my home state. Returning to my car in the fading twilight, I saw North Pole alley and the Always Christmas store across the street, which explained the “Christmas City of the High Plains” moniker the city had adopted. As I drove back to Oakley, I watched the streaks of lightning silently pierce the distant night sky. It was a peaceful, soothing sight that reminded me of how much I treasure being from this land that so few people truly appreciate.

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Oakley City Limits
Oakley City Limits
Dons Drive-In
Don's Drive-In
May I take your order?
"May I take your order?"
Downtown Oakley
Downtown Oakley
I-70 at dusk
I-70 at dusk
Oakley
photo by: esterrene