Destination Kansas! (Part 2)

Part 2: Maybe I am from France… tourist or local boy?… no disputes about barbed wire… post rocks and mushroom rocks… this salt museum is not no nonsense… Velveeta the health robot… symbol of patriotism with a side of cereal grains.

 

A reconstructed Old West town and museum in Dodge City, Boot Hill offered about 20 false-front buildings and over 60,000 objects, photos, and documents from the 1870s to 1920s. Its name comes from a common moniker for Wild West cemeteries, like the one underfoot, where gunslingers were said to be buried with their boots on.

The museum documentary celebrated the simple and heroic times of early Dodge City, including the strategic slaughter of the Buffalo, which was designed to stop the terrible bloodshed of the Indian wars. We leave the theater feeling like we’ve been unwitting guests at a Manifest Destiny booster event.

Wandering the exhibits, we toured a recreated frontier home. We viewed an old beauty parlor with water-stained corset that could strangle a swan. A collection of posters demonstrated Hollywood’s fascination with Dodge City as a setting for westerns, including Gunsmoke, which coined the phrase, “Get the hell outta Dodge.”

In the replica saloon, the barkeep told me he’s a 5th generation purveyor of spirits and ales, though the museum’s top offerings were now sarsaparilla and Budweiser. He explained Dodge City started as a watering hole for the dry Fort Dodge, nearby. The barkeep suggests we visit old Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts 10 miles west. But our intended direction is northeast, toward the state capitol in Topeka—a choice I once would have considered crazy. This close to Colorado, we’re turning back into the heart of Kansas.

I asked about Fort Larned, pronouncing it lar-NED. He gave me a look, like I was from France.

“LARN-ed,” he spat, like tobacco into a spittoon.

Despite my foreign mispronunciation, the barkeep continued our conversation, explaining Dodge City is known all around the world—not so much for things that actually happened here but more for things that didn’t.

Across the street, the combo Kansas Teachers Hall of Fame and Gunfighters Wax Museum is sadly closed. On the drive outta Dodge, we passed oversized trucks transporting 116-foot windmill blades to the spreading wind farms that rise from the fields like a new form of row crop.

At Fort Larned, we wandered the grounds and stone buildings, now managed by the National Park Service. Operating from 1859 to 1878, Larned today is the best-preserved fortification on the Santa Fe Trail, a 900-mile route between Missouri and New Mexico. The forts were built to police the bloody conflicts between settlers and natives, as America increasingly claimed territory west of the Mississippi. Eventually, the forts were used in post-Civil War military campaigns against Indian tribes. Later, as distribution points for tribal annuities. And with the relocation of Native Americans to reservations, plus completion of the railroad, they were no longer needed and abandoned.

In the gift shop, I ended up the third wheel in a conversation between a local woman chatting with a ranger about how travelers that detour south from I-70 discover how much history there is in Kansas.

“But they don’t even know what milo is!” The woman laughed haughtily, like it was the funniest thing in the world. The ranger rolled her eyes, and I shook my head.

“Tourists,” I joked, like a local boy. “Just a feed crop.”

They both replied with knowing nods.

The woman at our next stop seemed surprised when we entered, the only visitors of the day. Not only was LaCrosse home to the Barbed Wire Museum, it was also the headquarters of the Kansas Barbed Wire Collectors Association and the undisputed—who would dispute this?—Barbed Wire Capitol of the World.

The museum housed over 2000 types of barbed wire. Many were used for inexpensive fencing during American settlement of western Kansas, which offered little in the way of natural materials. Highlights included a display copy of Barriers: An Encyclopedia of United States Barbed Wire Patents, a glass case of wire cutters from around the world, and a whole wing devoted to fence stays.

In one corner, I found the Barbed Wire Hall of Fame, established 1974, to honor hobbyists who have made major contributions to the collecting of barbed wire. Near the lobby, there was an installation of artwork made from barbed wire, including a chess board, a tornado, and a sunflower, the official state flower.

We wandered next door to the Rush County Historical Museum. Waiting for us inside was a lifelong resident, an avid barbed wire collector, and the friendliest, most endearingly nervous museum curator. He toured us through a collection of frontier antiques, ladies’ dresses, military uniforms, and buffalo skins. Plus, black and white photos showing dusty pioneers in hats posing next to brick buildings against an empty horizon.

We followed the curator to another building, the Post Rock Museum, the most popular local attraction. We learned that American settlers arrived to central Kansas, finding a treeless land of prairie grass. Seeking supports for grazing fences, they dug under the grass to cut posts from bedrock limestone. I’d noticed these weathered rock posts on the drive in, interspersed with more typical steel stays and cut branches. But at one time, the post rocks alone lined up like angular chessmen stringing barbed wire across a landscape about to be forever transformed.

Some places yield exactly what’s expected, and so it was at Mushroom Rock State Park near Brookville. Here, a pair of giant mushroom rocks bathed in setting sunlight. Glancing at a green landscape more typical of the east, I realized we’d re-crossed the 100th meridian. A form of hoodoo, the upper formations are concretions of highly-resistant Dakota sandstone cemented by calcium carbonate, with the biggest cap being 27-feet wide. The underlying stalk eroded from a softer, whiter sandstone, now covered with carved initials and dates.

At five acres, this was the smallest state park in Kansas. The formations were often used as a landmark and meeting point for Native Americans and European pioneers. A wooden sign explained the Fremont trail passed nearby along with the first overland stages, “until they were forced to a northern route by”—and here the world “hostile” was scratched out—“Indians.”

One morning, we departed our shoreside campground at Kanapolis Lake and headed south. Just outside McPherson, we passed through an industrial campus filled with elbow pipes,  chemical tanks, and railroad tracks. Glancing at my fuel gauge, I realized we were almost out of gas. In the middle of an oil refinery. I scanned for an outlet hose to beg some gas from, but no luck. We coasted with a welcome tailwind into town.

At the Strataca Underground Salt Museum in Hutchison, the cashier told me that Strataca is a nonsense word invented by management to re-brand the Kansas Underground Salt Museum. The rebuilt 2007 facility had the feel of an amusement park, plus it’s an active salt mine and climate-controlled vault and storage facility. Nearby posters promote Murder in the Mine, an interactive mystery dinner theater presented 650 feet underground. We purchased the Blast Pass for three underground adventures.

Wearing hardhats, we descended in complete darkness while our jovial tour guide explained we were in a hoist. “Not an elevator, not a lift, a hoist.” No one argued. “Raise your hand if you want the light on,” he joked.

Our first adventure was a self-guided tour of the cavernous space with striated walls and ceilings of highly-compacted sodium chloride deposited 275 million years ago. We can touch the salt, but don’t lick, climb, or pick, we’re told. Our second adventure was a tram ride through dark mine passages. Occasionally, the driver shined a flashlight on points of interest, like a collapsed ceiling or abandoned front-loader. The third adventure was a ride on an old narrow-gauge railway which once transported rock salt ore and miners. Today, it took us through parts of the mine as they appeared 60 years ago, including a trash pile—mostly fast food packaging from the 1950s.

Because the mine’s atmosphere is always 68º with 40% humidity, everything is preserved as left. For that reason, unused portions of the mine were converted to vault storage in 1959. Salt mines are often considered for nuclear waste disposal, or, conversely, as safety bunkers from nuclear apocalypse. We completed our tour at the vaults gallery, where Hollywood film reels lined the shelves. Rest assured, if ever a war destroys America, our culture will be preserved through the timing print of City Slickers 2 and the extended cut of Striptease.

The Kansas Learning Center of Health in Halstead, home of Valeda: The Talking Transparent Woman, was the next stop of our whirlwind afternoon. “Why’s there a health museum in the middle of nowhere?” I pondered aloud, realizing a town of 2000 in a sprawling rural county is probably where it’s needed most. Still, this was a perfect set-up, given our trip had finally devolved into endless one-line banter. “It’s Kansas,” replied my wife. “Everywhere is the middle of nowhere.”

On the lawn, the center’s neon sign flashed valuable messages toward an empty intersection. “Fresh fruits & veggies are 74 to 96% water!” “Adults should aim for at least .5 hr of physical activity per day.” “Monday is Memorial Day.”

Inside, we sat for a presentation by Velveeta—excuse me, Valeda—one of only three transparent talking female health robots in the world. Rotating on a pedestal, the anatomically correct Velveeta—excuse me, Valeda—displayed 6.25 miles of glowing wiring that simulated 60,000 miles of veins and arteries. One by one, Velveeta—crap, I’m sorry, Valeda—described her inner organs, which illuminated in a colorful representation of the human body. An employee explained that Valeda offered two programs: one for adults, another for children, with the latter excluding all discussion of the reproductive organs.

At the Mennonite Heritage Agricultural Museum in Goessel, home of a Liberty Bell Made of Wheat, a curious door sign explained: “THE MUSEUM IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ACCIDENTS.” Despite the warning, we forged fearlessly ahead into a remarkably safe museum depicting stories of Low-German speaking immigrants from Russia who settled nearby in 1874. We toured preserved Mennonite homes and displays of frontier cabins, period dress, and homestead certificates. A wall mural depicted Mennonite farmers hurriedly containing a grass fire as a tornado crested the horizon.

Made of turkey red wheat straw, the replica Liberty Bell was commissioned by the Smithsonian Institute for the 1976 Bicentennial.  Taking 2000 hours and 80 men, aged 10 to 80, to complete, the bell is 6′ by 6′, weighs 80 pounds, and cost $51.

An evening hike in Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, near Strong City, provided vistas of how the plains once looked. At one time, tallgrass prairieland spread for 170 million acres. During the first generation of white settlers, most was plowed and developed. Today, only 4% remains, with much of it found here in the Flint Hills. The reason for the preservation is revealed by the region’s name. Flint is a sharp, hard variety of chert, which speckles the landscape and destroys plow blades. A bonus. As we returned to our car, we spotted a rare yellow Cardinal flitting among some bushes.

 

The Destination Kansas! adventure concludes in part 3, with:

The art at Truckhenge has matured… So, it’s not a museum about famous buses?… The world’s biggest critics of the world’s largest ball of twine… we meet Mr. Pigsley… Mr. Pigsley meets calamity… Symbolic realizations at the geographic center of the United States.