07 Nov Kansas’ Fascinating Culture Along I-70: The cultural heritage of America’s Heartland
Many courageous pioneers traveled westward, and when they arrived on the Kansas prairie, they decided this would be the place to call home. They brought their traditional recipes, religions, and strong work ethic as well as their inherited cultures. These can be seen today in museums, architectural styles, and the arts, and on our 15 days/15 cities tour along Interstate 70 in Kansas.
A visit to the eclectic Prairie Museum of Art and History in Colby will keep a visitor occupied for hours, especially with Joe and Nellie Kuska’s collection, which includes jewelry, coins, world-class glassware, furniture, musical instruments, clocks, stamps, vintage toys (28,000 dolls alone), and clothing. Travel back in time at the museum’s 24 acres of outdoor exhibits, including a restored country church, the 1930s furnished farmhouse, a pioneer sod house, a one-room school, and the 7,000 square foot Cooper Barn— the largest barn in Kansas containing vintage machinery, tools, and photographs.
The Spirit of the Prairie sculpture stands proudly in front of Colby’s historic county courthouse. Dedicated in 1985, it is a fine representation of the hard-working pioneers who laid the agricultural foundation of Kansas. The courthouse, built in 1906-1907 by James C. Holland and on the National Register of Historic Places, contains a Seth Thomas clock in its 5-story tower.
Colby’s cultural scene also includes an annual bluegrass festival, theatrical and classical music performances, and art shows.
Abilene is a beautiful, clean city with dozens of immaculately cared for Victorian homes. We stayed at the recently opened Engle House Bed and Breakfast, an Arts and Crafts style home listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The hospitable owners, Scott and Chris Ostermann, have meticulously restored the house and grounds to their original splendor.
An easy stroll a few blocks south from the Engle House will bring you to the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home, which is also where the President and First Lady are laid to rest. On display are many important WWI and WWII artifacts, and exhibits are rotated every several months so there are always new things to see.
The Seelye Mansion was built in 1904 by Dr. Seelye, who made a fortune from the patent medicine business at the beginning of the 20th century. Mr. Terry Tietjens bought the 11,000 square foot home and promised the two Seelye daughters that he would keep it all in pristine order and share it with the public as they wished.
The Dickinson County Heritage Center contains a vast collection of vintage telephones and switchboards, and behind the center is a 1901 C.W. Parker carousel, still in operation.
Abilene is also home to the Greyhound Hall of Fame. Visitors can watch a short video explaining the raising and care of these gentle, gregarious creatures, a couple of whom make an actual appearance.
Abilene has a fascinating history of pioneers and cowboys (including Rittel’s Western Wear’s World’s Largest Spur, certified by Guinness World Records), and it even helped raise a U.S. president, plenty to do and see indeed!
Salina is a little city big on arts and culture. You name it, they have it: festivals, art, music, and dancing. For 42 years, the community has pulled together to produce the 4-day Smoky Hill River Festival. Art exhibits, food vendors, and arts and crafts along with kids’ crafts are offered. Professional musicians provide a variety of music from bluegrass and country to rock n’ roll.
The Rolling Hills Zoo, open daily, has a wonderful collection of animals, including giraffes, lions, and endangered species like the rhinoceros. The zoo has traveling exhibits year round, a children’s exploration room, and a restaurant.
Santa Fe Avenue, Salina’s main thoroughfare, has a free self-guiding tour sponsored by Sculpture Tour Salina. This organization annually invites sculptors to submit their work for public display. The City of Salina also purchases the work of the winner of the People’s Choice Award to join Salina’s permanent art collection.
At the Salina Community Theatre, popular productions are staged year-round, and everything is created at this beautiful entertainment facility, including sets, props, and costumes. Actors are volunteers, and over 300 registered students learn all aspects of the intriguing world of theatre.
In what was once a grand Art Deco era movie palace, the Stiefel Theatre for Performing Arts brings in big star acts as well as the Salina Symphony, the Youth Symphony Orchestra, ballets, and Christmas programs.
The Smoky Hill Museum now resides in the previous post office. This unique Art Deco building displays both temporary and permanent exhibits, and a roomful of hands-on activities will appeal to children.
On the grounds of Fort Riley, there is a location that has the distinction of being Kansas’ First Territorial Capitol, which existed for only a few short days. Period costumed tour guides will lead you through a replica of General Custer’s house, which is furnished with period pieces from the 1880s and 1890s. On Fall Apple Day Festival, historical society volunteers raise funds by selling apple pies baked using Mrs. Elisabeth Custer’s personal recipe.
Original limestone homes and mansions from the 1890s are scattered throughout the fort’s acreage, and the former hospital is now the U.S. Cavalry Museum. Many artifacts and visuals present the history of the U.S. Cavalry from the Revolutionary War to the Cavalry’s inactivation.
At the Milford Nature Center, visitors can observe prairie dogs in their natural setting, several species of owls, an impressive bald eagle, and a greenhouse filled with foliage and butterflies.
The Geary County Historical Museum is located in a 2-story limestone building and contains the popular exhibit, Main Street. This showcases six replicas of typical businesses of the 1900s with period authentic artifacts and clothing. Upstairs is a display of vintage photographs and personal letters as well as uniforms from Civil War, WWI, and WWII soldiers. Behind the museum, in its original location, is the fully furnished 1930s era Starcke House Museum.
Definitely the most unique historical city adjacent to I-70 is Lecompton. Known as the Civil War Birthplace and Where Slavery Began to Die, Lecompton played a big role in the history of America leading to Abraham Lincoln’s election as the 16th President of the United States. Constitution Hall, built in 1854, is the oldest wood frame building in Kansas, and here, 45 delegates met to write a pro-slavery constitution for the state even though the majority of Kansas was against slavery and wished to be a free state.
Political and physical brawls broke out among some U.S. House members in Washington over the turmoil, and many violent incidents gave this period the moniker of Bleeding Kansas. The 1861 end result was that Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state. J. Howard Duncan’s play, Bleeding Kansas, is expertly performed by a volunteer group, the Lecompton Reenactors, in full period costume. Don’t miss the Territorial Capital Museum, which contains donated artifacts and antiques meticulously displayed on two floors.
Finally, take a peek into the one-man Lecompton City Jail, built in 1892, and stroll a short block down the street to the United Methodist Church where a beautiful 1885 Chickering grand piano sits majestically.
Our day in Lecompton and the end of our five cities tour culminated in a visit to the popular Aunt Netters restaurant on Elmore Street. As we dug into the best peanut butter pie we’d ever tasted, we reminisced about our recent travels along I-70 in Kansas and the rich, cultural heritage we’d discovered along the highways and byways of America’s Heartland.
Where to Stay:
Colby: Colby Comfort Inn
Abilene: Engle House Bed and Breakfast
Salina: Courtyard by Marriott
Junction City: Hampton Inn
FTC Disclosure: This was a sponsored visit, however, all opinions herein are the authors.