Preserving and Sustaining Rural Culture
Article written for a publication
of the National Trust
for Historic Preservation
Summer 2006, Vol.20, No.4
Looking at Kansas with New Eyes through "Explorer Tourism"
by Marci Penner
Newsflash! Kansas is one of the top tourism states in the nation! For explorer tourism, that is. Kansas may not be one of the top traditional tourism destination states in the country, but, without changing one thing, the Sunflower State is one of the top states to explore. Once a person understands what it means to explore, then every town of every size becomes a potential destination for explorer-types. Exploring is about enjoying the journey, about becoming engaged in the search, and about not judging a town on first appearance but appreciating the culture and ongoing drama of daily life. You'll not see mountains, oceans, or many commercialized attractions -- just the real thing. Rural Kansas exemplifies a simpler and slower life--the kind of life many people crave.
First, Some Background
In 1990, I traveled through Kansas with my father, Mil Penner, and co-authored a book called Kansas Weekend Guide. What we saw and heard on our travels inspired us to form the Kansas Sampler Foundation. It seemed that Kansans didn't know their own state very well and that, furthermore, there wasn't a way to share grassroots successes or common needs from one small town to the next. Thus, the formation of the Kansas Sampler Foundation (www.kansassampler.org). The mission of the Foundation is to preserve and sustain rural culture.
The Foundation established the We Kan! network to bring rural communities together to share common issues, common solutions, and excellent resources that work for grassroots- level efforts. This network is geared toward the majority of towns in Kansas that are volunteer-led, mostly towns with populations of 1,500 or less. Information is exchanged through the We Kan! newsletter and a variety of gatherings. The rural culture elements (see below) are used as a tourism assessment tool.
Kansas Explorers Club
At the same time that the Foundation was helping communities see themselves with new eyes through the We Kan! network, it also made sense to grow and develop an audience for these towns. At an annual Foundation Retreat for Rural Leaders in the mid-1990s, the group endorsed and helped to create and launch the Kansas Explorers Club (www.explorekansas.org--a club designed to inspire, educate, and encourage the exploration and appreciation of Kansas... and to have fun doing it! Since that time more than 4,500 people have joined the club. They receive a bimonthly newsletter packed full of things to see and do in lesser-known parts of the state, to help them plan individual and family day trips or group adventures. It also encourages members to see Kansas with new eyes and employ concepts like 1) dare-to-do-dirt, 2) feel good about spending money in small towns, 3) enjoy the journey, and 4) make a difference. Even the membership fee is designed to be fun: It's $18.61, the year Kansas became a state.
The Concept of Exploring
To make "tourism" an applicable tool for rural development, it makes sense to look further into this notion of exploring. Some people want nothing more than to get off the beaten track for an afternoon, a day, or even a week and enjoy dare-to- do-dirt drives, small town main streets, and the search for some oddity or gem. These people prefer something real (authentic) in a small town as opposed to something specifically built to attract tourists. Some small towns surprise people with architectural treasures including courthouses, residences, downtown buildings (even abandoned ones), bridges, churches, or historic jails. Public art might consist of an unusual gravestone in the cemetery or a downtown sculpture or mural. Some small-town grocery stores, old-fashioned hardware stores, specialty stores, and post offices offer nostalgic shopping experiences. Exploring is also about engaging in conversation in post offices, libraries, or local cafes. And it's about understanding the importance and impact of dollars spent in small towns. Subtle features and assets of a town are especially appreciated by explorers, perhaps because the leisurely search for them balances the frenetic pace that has overtaken American culture.
Rural Cultural Elements
To help towns see themselves with new eyes, the Foundation came up with the eight elements of rural culture: architecture, art, commerce, cuisine, customs, geography, history, and people. The Kansas Sampler believes that every town, no matter the size, has a story or evidence about each of the elements and everything in a town fits into one of these categories. When you ask someone what their town has to offer, it's a difficult question for many to answer. When you ask about one of the elements it helps people focus and see their town more clearly.
Once a town has identified its own unique cultural elements, it can promote them in a collective effort with other rural communities.
Here are Kansas examples of each rural culture element. These would all be of great interest to explorers.
Architecture: Fromme- Birney Round Barn, Mullinville, pop. 271
The 1912 Fromme-Birney Round Barn (NR) sits like a lonely vestige out in the country on its original location. It was restored in 1995, and the public can enter at any time and read the storyboards and see the photos that explain the function and history of this barn.
Art: Grassroots Art, Lucas, pop. 480
Samuel Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden is commonly known in Kansas as the most bizarre sight in the state. This small town has capitalized on the grassroots art theme, and you can find everything from a life-size motorcycle made out of pop can tabs to the Kansas version of Mount Rushmore. Renowned artist Eric Abraham has put his Flying Pig Ceramic Studio on Main Street in an old auto dealership, and Erika Nelson has brought in her mobile "world's largest collection of the world's smallest versions of the world's largest things" to town, too.
Commerce: Richardson Organs, Downs, pop. 978
Visitors are invited to step inside this former church and watch an Old World craftsman at his trade, building pipe organs.
Cuisine: Buster's, Sun City, pop. 77
As you enter through the double screen door under the tin awning, it's easy to imagine all the cowboy boots that have crossed this wood floor and rested on the bar's brass foot rail. Smoked ribs are the most popular item on the menu but hamburgers are the main staple in this well-known but out-of-the-way stop in the Red Hills country.
Customs: Bean Feed, Erie, pop. 1,178
A large free bean feed has always been held as part of the annual Old Soldiers and Sailors Reunion. Members of the American Legion Post set up on the courthouse lawn and cook more than 1,400 pounds of beans in 50 iron kettles. The pipes where the black iron kettles will hang are found year round at 1st and Butler. At 1st and Main a black kettle is dedicated to all veterans and stands under a shelter.
Geography: Mount Sunflower, near Weskan, Unincorporated
You have to cross the cattle guard into Ed Harold's pasture to get to the highest point in Kansas. A sunflower sculpture made of railroad spikes lets you know you've found the highest elevation, 4,039 feet above sea level. Keep your eyes open for jackrabbits, coyotes, antelope, deer, pocket gophers, and foxes. If you time it right, you can look toward Colorado and watch a sunset explode into rich colors against the western sky.
History: Beecher Bible and Rifle Church, Wabaunsee, Unincorporated
During the territorial days New Englanders migrated to Kansas to support the free-state cause. At a meeting in New Haven, Conn., Reverend Henry Ward Beecher announced that his congregation would purchase 25 rifles to send to Kansas if the audience would purchase another 25. The agreement was made, and a shipment of Bibles was sent with the rifles, both placed in crates marked "Bibles." The emigrants became known as the Beecher Bible and Rifle Colony. The name is etched in concrete near the peak of the church roof in this tiny town. Residents have taken good care of this 1862 historic landmark.
People: Wilbur Chapman, White Cloud, pop. 239
A plaque tells a most unusual story about 10-year-old Wilbur Chapman and his pig, Pete. In 1913 Wilbur sold his prized pig to raise money for a leper colony. The news spread throughout the nation and soon schoolchildren everywhere were collecting money for this worthy cause and saving it in a little iron bank shaped like a black pig.
A Journey to Every Incorporated City in Kansas
By the early 1990s I had written three Kansas guidebooks with my father. It was time to update them, so the Kansas Sampler Foundation board of directors and I decided that I would go to every incorporated city in Kansas (all 627) to conduct research for a comprehensive guidebook. It took two years and 40,000 miles to visit every city plus some unincorporated towns and ghost towns. The primary outcome was a 432-page, spiral-bound, glossy guidebook with 400 color photos. The Kansas Guidebook for Explorers features 3,597 entries that tell what there is to see and do in 500 towns, including dining at 672 non-franchise restaurants and cafes.
The journey resulted in more than just a book. It also convinced the Kansas Sampler Foundation that the state is a fabulous environment for an exploring audience and that this is an audience that can be grown and expanded. Through conversations at book signings and from feedback from those using the book, it became clear that there is a great desire among a certain audience to find and experience out-of-the-way places. The upside for small communities is that they feel buoyed by the attention and the economic impact, and it helps them see that all they really have to do to attract visitors is be the best they can be at being themselves.
Being the Best
Every rural community must face up to the fact that it is in a transition period and it is time to be proactive about how to convert from a total agrarian economy to a more diverse one. Each town has different assets and natural resources, including the chemistry of the people, and this must be taken into account when planning the direction a town should take. But the one rural development tool that can be most readily put in place is the one that caters to explorers. Explorers are curious about all aspects of a town, but junky and unfriendly towns will probably move an explorer down the road quicker than anything else. Towns that have friendly, welcoming, and preferably knowledgeable front-liners, people on the street, or eye-raising town characters can keep an explorer in town longer. Clean or historic buildings make a difference too. Primitive or professional signage that helps describe a building, historic site or event, or a custom is a plus.
Being the best it can be at being itself isn't always easy but it gives an achievable standard for every town. The best it can be might change from year to year but it is a goal the town can set and strive for. Communities have the chance to progress incrementally, at a pace that is comfortable for them.
It is not the purpose of this article to look at all the difficulties that are present in the struggle to keep rural communities viable. Instead, the point to be made here is that there are some low-budget things that can help a town of any size and budget to become even more attractive to explorers, things that capitalize on rural heritage.
Making Exploring Important--and Satisfying
Several years ago the Kansas Explorers Club decided to urge 1,000 explorers to go to Lizard Lips (a combination convenience store, grill and deli, bait shop) near Toronto (pop. 300) and spend $5 so that Lizard Lips wouldn't have to take out an annual loan just to pay employees during its slow time. The campaign became famous and ended up on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Money even came in from Japan, and a multitude of adventures happened in supporting Lizard Lips. The goal was met and people still go to Lizard Lips to spend $5.
The observation made during this time was that people (explorer-types) really felt good about making a difference and being able to share in the collective and successful result. It didn't tax anyone very much to contribute $5 yet everyone felt very gratified to help keep this store viable. The group dynamic and effect made it a legendary explorer club activity. From that point on, explorers have stepped up their efforts to buy stamps in small post offices, buy groceries in small stores, and just make small contributions in numerous places that could be part of a larger positive result. This is a win-win for the community and the explorer.
Local residents are also planning unique projects and events that have had fun and meaningful results, using their own passions and creativity to find ways to showcase their rural communities. One launched a contest for Garage Sale Art. Since so many communities have garage sales he thought it would be fun to have contestants go around to sales and buy all sorts of pieces and parts and then come back to a common site and create something artistic from the garage sale items. Even the trophies were created from items purchased and put together.
One small town is staging a clever clean-up drive and is calling it a Junk Funeral. A hearse will lead all the trucks full of junk out to the cemetery (landfill) where a service will be held. A barbeque luncheon will follow. Others have developed Mystery Tours and turned some of the most obscure places into fascinating spots to visit.
Producing these kinds of activities can empower local residents, demonstrating how easy it is for individuals to make a difference in their communities.
The Bottom Line
Everything we do in rural communities needs to be part of keeping the community and its heritage viable--even explorer tourism efforts. To think about these efforts as part of the community development strategy brings an importance and a focus. For most Midwest rural towns, explorer tourism makes sense and fits. Small towns should finally realize that the more hectic the world gets, the more people will crave who we are and what we have to offer. The Kansas Sampler Foundation and a team of We Kanners and explorers from around the state will continue to work on the template for explorer tourism.