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“I have heard people rant and rave and bellow, 
That we're done and we might as well be dead,
But I'm only a cockeyed optimist
And I can't get it into my head.”

From the song, “A Cockeyed Optimist,” in the musical, “South Pacific”

Land of the Cockeyed Optimists

by Edward M. Richstone

(photo credits: Marci Penner)

Writers, like other artists, are blessed with the predisposition to notice, ponder, appreciate, and re-live what really matters. I enjoy writing about my most meaningful experiences with people and places. My writing is one of many aspects of my life that have been enriched by my having resided in seven states and abroad. These influences have motivated and informed my leisure writing for organizational newsletters and a city newspaper. It has been a pleasurable respite from the more tedious technical writing that I have done professionally as an educational program evaluator, clinical social worker, and school psychologist.

     When I saw the 1958 film version of the musical, South Pacific, at the tender age of ten, I could not begin to imagine what a thoroughgoing “cockeyed optimist” would look like in real life.  On Long Island, NY, where I was growing up, nothing came close, at least not in normal people. Any form of unflappable composure, cockeyed or otherwise, could be found only in someone who was psychotic or totally transcendental, nothing in between.

     Then came a volunteer writing assignment, just a few months ago, with an organization dedicated to cultural heritage tourism. Of all places, rural Kansas would be the venue.  I would have to develop an insider’s appreciation of this faraway but most assuredly un-exotic place via phone interviews and Internet research. As for cockeyed optimism, follow this story—you’ll see.

     Fortunately, I was provided a clear path to enlightenment from the very start.  My guide would be Marci Penner, founder and director of the nonprofit Kansas Sampler Foundation (KSF). Her mission seemed plausible enough: provide technical assistance to rural community organizers and promote communication among them, and also educate the general public about rural Kansas, encouraging cultural heritage tourism.

    Not until I probed further, did I realize how daunting a challenge all this was for KSF.  Consider, for example, Marci Penner’s monumental Kansas Guidebook for Explorers (2005).  It was the product of her visiting every one of Kansas’ 627 incorporated towns, plus dozens of unincorporated towns and a handful of ghost towns (across eleven geographical zones), which all together required over 40,000 miles of travel!  Small wonder when you consider how sparsely populated Kansas is, with only about one-third living in towns of at least 15,000 (and half of these concentrated in the two largest cities of Topeka and Wichita).  Even more amazingly, out of Kansas’ 627 incorporated towns, about three-quarters have fewer than 1,500 residents and approximately half have fewer than 400 residents.  Typically run by volunteers, communities of fewer than 1500 residents are of particular interest to KSF.

     The challenge of networking rural Kansas is as urgent as it is daunting. One historian by the name of Daniel Fitzgerald, obviously not in the business of spreading cheer, estimated some 6,000 ghost towns in Kansas by the early 1990’s. Depopulation now continues with the consolidation of family farms by corporations, especially in the drier, less sustainable areas of western Kansas. With the disappearance of farms, go other businesses, plus schools, places of worship, and even post offices. Young adults flock to cities whenever their hometown is too far to serve as a bedroom community or at least a satellite.  Kansas is not unusual in this regard. Nationwide, U.S. farmers are growing older as a group, not being replaced by the younger generation. The trend was first noticed in the 1970s, and, in the 2002 census, the average age was 55, with 26% of the total being 65 years or older. 

     Heck, the situation became so dire by the early 1990’s that Frank Popper and Deborah Popper of Rutgers University (New Jersey) had the audacity to propose that areas of the Great Plains like western Kansas be “de-privatized,” that is, left for the government or nature to return them to the original short grasses and buffalo herds. Cockeyed optimists who have stayed put on this fertile, abundant, and affordable land, despite the harsh and unpredictable climate, have included groups as disparate as Russian Mennonites and manumitted African Americans.  Such stalwarts would be damned if they were going to be driven off by the jeremiads of Northeastern eggheads.

     Besides, the prairie landscape, as stark as it might seem at times, also offers up splendors that have helped inspire generations of Kansans to stay. No, Kansas is not as uniformly flat as a pancake. Comparing one-kilometer sections, changes in elevation are greater in Kansas than that found in eighteen other states. Why, bluffs as high as 100 feet surround Cheyenne Bottoms-- which, by the way, is the largest marsh in the interior of our country, accompanied by two other wetlands in Kansas (all three in its Great Bend region).  So, with all this diversity, it is not surprising that over 250 species of grasses exist across four ecosystems in Kansas.

     With no shortage of selling points for her state, Marci Penner had good reason to be optimistic when she boldly launched her Kansas Sampler Foundation without formal knowledge of tourism or fundraising. At the same time, she was well aware that the task of identifying and networking community organizers in rural Kansas would be complicated by not only vast distances but also scant financial resources, hers and the towns’. Marci Penner would have to keep her organization small-scale and efficient, so she could empower communities with sufficient doses of education and inspiration.

     Realistically, the primary focus would be encouraging Kansans to visit within their state, venturing off the beaten path to explore rural culture, up close and personal. Marci would steer clear of expensive mass-marketing, which is geared more for big-city, commercialized attractions that aim to lure out-of-state spenders. Marci’s KSP “Explorers,” as she calls them, would be primarily Kansans (but out-of-staters are welcome everywhere), informally interacting with the people of towns that they would visit. Here local culture is not altered for purposes of tourism. There are no reenactments, no sales pitches, generally no appointments necessary (except for special circumstances, such as a tour by a local historian). Visitors eagerly patronize local businesses and donate to local charities, knowing they are helping keep small towns alive.

    If they wish, Explorers can time their visits to small towns to coincide with KSF’s itinerant events, such as its annual festival, forums, live game shows. What awaits true Explorers is not splashy theme parks, luxury resorts, snobby museums, regimented bus tours, but, rather, living rural heritage, often quirky in ways that often reflect inventive, homegrown approaches to both survival and entertainment on the prairie.

    Highlights of an Explorer’s trip can be quaintly unprepossessing. Mount Sunflower is a prime example. At 4,039 feet, Kansas’ highest point of elevation is not lofty in its presentation. Here a visitor finds only a picnic table, a sunflower sculpture crafted from railroad spikes, and a sign that matter-of-factly states, “nothing happened here in 1897.”

     For further evidence of funkiness, an Explorer can visit Cawker City, KS, where Frank Stoeber’s “Biggest Ball of (unwasted) Sissal Twine” attests to his lifetime of frugality.

    A miniature of Stoeber’s creation is one of many built by Erika Nelson and displayed in her mobile van, containing “The World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things.”

     Distances between prairie towns are generally too great to leave adventure to chance. For the most part, exploring is not random roving. Some Explorers even make what might be called “pilgrimages.” One such Mecca is Lizard Lips Grill and Deli (also convenience store and bait shop) near Toronto, KS. There Explorers still reminisce about the one-year campaign once waged by the KSF to encourage patronage, so that this establishment could meet payroll without taking out a loan during the slow winter season. While there, Explorers get the usual heaping of sandwich fillings and area information.    

     Some locales are worth a pilgrimage across the vast expanse of prairie if for no other reason than the variety of their attractions.

     One such place is Waterville, KS, whose centerpiece is arguably the Weaver Hotel, first built in 1905, now being restored, replete with Victorian features that show a curious restraint, reflecting both the fading of an era and local rural influence. The hotel is slated to reopen in late May of 2009. Across the street is the historic railroad depot, now operating strictly as a museum. 

     From there, a steam locomotive, catering to tourists, follows two short but impressive routes: to the east, a stopover at a bridge provides a view of the 90 foot-drop over the Big Blue River, and to the west, a panorama gives a glimpse of wheat farms.  Also nearby is Alcove Spring, where cold water runs over rocks that still bear the dates of arrival and the names of pioneers in covered wagons passing through, including members of the ill-fated Donner Party. For lighter moments, the Waterville Opera House offers plays and concerts (sorry, opera no more), all in the original exterior and interior, with reputedly excellent acoustics.

     Another convenient locale in rural Kansas, offering a smorgasbord of attractions, is Washington County. Bus tours stop at the Kansas Specialty Dog Service to see the housing and training facilities for the special canines that will serve persons with visual and other physical handicaps.

     One also gets that “warm feeling” at the factory of Marcon Pies Company, which ships over forty kinds with that “homemade” style throughout the U.S. More gastronomic delights are found at the Ohlde Dairy, home to 1200 head of cattle, offering tours and cheese (processed elsewhere) for tastings and sale. 

     History buffs can appreciate the Hollenberg Pony Express Station in Hanover, KS, which doubled as a way station for pioneers on the California and Oregon Trails. It is the only such remaining structure between Sacramento, CA and St. Joseph, MO. This national historic landmark, managed by the Kansas State Historical Society, has a modest visitor’s center with a one gallery-museum, small gift shop, and a theater showing two videos, lasting a total of 45 minutes. Other historical points of interest are the Washington County Historical Museum, specializing in genealogy and antique cameras; Herrs Memory Lane, showing restored retro vehicles and windmills; and the LCL Buffalo Ranch and Heritage Museum, which displays old-time farm equipment and sells buffalo meat, hides, and mounted heads.

    Some locations offer variety within a specialized domain. Barton and Stafford Counties, blessed with the National Scenic Byway, sit on rare prairie marshes. The Great Bend region boasts all three of Kansas’ wetlands, attracting migratory birds that thrive on a combination of salt marshes, fed by springs, and freshwater marshes, fed by rivers and their feeder creeks. Tourists are required to view from the edges of the marshes with their binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras, so as not to disturb the plants and animals.  Besides viewing wildlife, another interpretive theme is the story of Native American life on the Great Plains, with their medicinal plants still very much in evidence. Two of the three wetlands are named after Native Americans, the Cheyenne and the Quivira. The Great Bend region also hosts a bi-annual birding festival, Wings and Wetlands, which offers educational seminars and guided field trips to all three wetlands and also trips to private lands for viewing of prairie chickens from blinds only under special conditions like mating rituals.  The Great Bend Zoo includes the Kansas Raptor Center, which educates the public about the rehabilitation and release of birds of prey.

     Traveling far and wide, Explorers are rewarded with rare sights. For example, an enthusiast will be delighted to find a round barn, harking back to a fad in cattle-raising areas during the second decade of the twentieth century. This design was labor-saving because of the centralized distribution of feed. However, their existence was short-lived because of the costliness of building them. Along the way, the explorer, with a “life list” of barns in hand, might have a chance encounter with an “incorporated silo” or, rarer still, windmill-driven equipment for grinding grain. Vintage barns showcase now vanishing forms of artistry, such as mortise and tenon joinery, and later innovations like roof trusses.

     Perhaps even more emblematic of rural life than the barn is the scarecrow, for the latter bears a silly look, never mind its serious purpose: some whimsy is balm for a fundamentally hard-bitten outlook on the prairie.   

      Kansans seem bemused how societies elsewhere take themselves too seriously.  Kansans figure that as long as you manage to survive another day, partly by cutting out all excess and pretense, it is time to let loose a little.

     To experience such lighthearted relief, visit Lucas, KS.  Besides being the home of the aforementioned miniaturist Erika Nelson, one finds in Lucas the Grassroots Art Center, which preserves sites and displays objects, ranging from wood carvings to imaginative machines. Often the artwork is not available or even discovered until its creator has died.  Usually during their lifetimes, the artists are not interested in parting with their art or educating others about it, explains Rosslyn Schultz, director of the center. The artwork is a quiet even if expressive part of their lives, often begun in retirement, tapping a lifetime of learning and, well, detritus.


     The most famous of Lucas’ grassroots art is found at the Garden of Eden, built by Samuel Perry Dinsmoor. It is one big illusion. The “garden” and exterior of a “log” cabin are made of limestone, and the garden is a surrealistic jumble of biblical and political statuaries. The very name of the garden is a commentary on the myth of an agricultural paradise existing in Kansas, which was bravely settled, thanks largely to the boosterism of railroad magnates, land developers, and journalists. Ever the anti-establishment Populist, Dinsmoor, just before his death, was working on a sculpture called “The Crucifixion of Labor,” a Christ-like figure of a worker, surrounded by a complacent-looking (complicit?) lawyer, doctor, banker, and preacher. Counteracting some of the austerity of his silent sculptures, Dinsmoor, a Freemason, would theatrically play God by talking to visitors from a pipe in the house that led to an outdoor sculpture, the “All Seeing Eye” on the Tree of Life. 

      At the age of 64, Samuel Perry Dinsmoor started building the Garden of Eden as a tourist attraction that would make money in his retirement. The project took twenty-two years. This architect/artist had also served as a soldier/ nurse, teacher, farmer, insurance salesman, governmental official (postmaster, mayor, city council member). At the ripe age of 81 years, S.P. was apparently not spent, for he married his second wife, a 20 year-old housekeeper, then had two children with her. (He died at age 89)

     Above a mantel in Dinsmoor’s residence, a plaque declares: “Home is what you make it.” The people of the hinterland have managed admirably, far removed from the advantages of a temperate shore or bustling international border. Although most inlanders are not nearly as vibrant as Dinsmoor (who is?!), they are not absolute bumpkins, either.  These folks practiced survivalism and formed social compacts long before urbanites invented corresponding terms. Small, self-contained, remote communities have always known the value of resourcefulness and altruism. If they are a vanishing breed, then we all are diminished if not doomed. When the final chapter is written, let it be said that rural Kansans and their kind were the last of the cockeyed optimists.

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