Our History


The Kansas Sampler Foundation began with a love of traveling and experiencing Kansas. Marci Penner and her dad, Mil, traveled around the state to research a guidebook of fun things to see and do in the summer of 1990. 

That trip shaped the future of the organization.

Marci, who had graduated with degrees from the University of Kansas and the University of Wisconsin, had been working as an elementary guidance counselor in the Philadelphia area before a weight-room accident led to her return to Kansas. Mil had shifted from the earthmoving business that he started in the 1960s to selling irrigation systems and writing, photographing, and recording images and sounds of Kansas. He and Carol Schmidt had published two photo-essay books, Kansas Journeys and Prairie: The Land and Its People, through his company, Sounds of Kansas. One of the most often-asked questions from people looking at those books was how to get to the places in those books. 

During the early 1990s, Marci and Mil researched, wrote and published Kansas Weekend Guide, Kansas Event Guide and Kansas Weekend Guide 2. These books were a family enterprise: Marci’s sister, Liz King, designed them and Marci’s mom Verna Lee did the bookkeeping and was the glue behind the operation. 

They captured images with film photography, which they used for slides in slideshows; wrote copy with typewriters; mailed paper drafts to their editor; and contacted people with a rotary phone or through the mail.

Because of the time Marci and her dad spent on the road, talking to Kansans in their own environments and listening to what they had to say, these things happened: 

  • They were asked to present informational programs all over Kansas. People were hungry to learn what the state had to offer. 
  • When Marci and Mil would go to a town and ask what they had that could be listed in a guidebook for free, too often the answer was that the town didn’t have anything special and they should go on to the next town. They came up with a formula to help communities identify what they had and who they were. These became the eight rural culture elements: architecture, art, commerce, cuisine, customs, geography, history and people.  
  • They established the Explorer concept. Even the smallest, quirkiest things could be of interest and when all those “explorer-y” things came together, there was something to see all across the state. 
  • They became aware of how volunteer-led communities (no paid chamber or economic development person or city manager) had unique challenges. 
  • They witnessed some true difference-making efforts in communities of every size. At the time, there wasn’t an effective way to share these efforts with others who were searching for ideas.

After publishing their first guidebook in 1990, the Penners held a book-signing party on the family farm near Inman. They invited some of the Kansans who were in charge of the attractions listed in the book to set up a booth under a tent. It was a cold, sleety Saturday in November but, still, almost 1,000 people came to buy the book and find out what there was to see and do in Kansas.  

That first event led to the creation of the Kansas Sampler Festival, which continued annually for 27 years (see host sites below in timeline). The festivals made it possible for any size of town to have a presence, to talk about the attractions and offerings of their communities in a fun and interactive festival environment. After the alfalfa field at the Penner farm, which served as the parking lot, needed to be rotated to a new crop, the event moved to 10 cities in Kansas over 20 years. The spirit of the event still lives on in the annual Big Kansas Road Trip, which the Kansas Sampler Foundation continues to organize each spring. 

In 1993, Marci and Mil decided to start a non-profit to find and share what there was to see and do in the state and to help connect communities and share successful efforts. The name of the Kansas Sampler Foundation was chosen to indicate that the non-profit would provide a sample of what there is to see, do, hear, taste, buy and learn in Kansas. (The 501(c)3 organization is not related to the Kansas Sampler stores.) Thanks to Menno and Doris Schmidt and Marci’s parents, the Kansas Sampler Center was built on the Penner Farm in 1994 to be the offices and auditorium for KSF.   There is no better way to understand the complexities and opportunities of rural communities than to go, see, ask questions, and experience them first-hand. KSF staff travels the entire state of Kansas about every 10 years to understand the current opportunities, challenges and offerings of all towns and cities in Kansas. 

These trips inform our work. They have resulted in the Kansas Guidebook for Explorers by Marci Penner, published in 2005 and the Kansas Guidebook 2 for Explorers by Marci Penner and WenDee Rowe in 2017. They influenced projects like the Rural Grocery Initiative housed at Kansas State University, after Marci met many rural grocers who shared similar concerns about the futures of their unique businesses. Understanding that Kansans didn’t always know very much about their own state, Marci and WenDee Rowe created a statewide contest that asked Kansans to vote for the Eight Wonders of Kansas, using the eight rural culture elements as a guide to the categories.  

The trips also helped with the creation of the Power Up Movement to support Kansans ages 21-39 who are Rural By Choice and provided the early background for the Kansas Power Up and Go! Action Report commissioned by the Kansas Office of Rural Prosperity. We believe the work is critical to the future of rural Kansas, and, in 2023, hired Simone Elder to be our first Power Up and Engagement Manager to expand the movement’s impact. 

In 2023 - KSF’s 30th year as a non-profit - Marci started her third trip around the state, but her first trip as a co-director of KSF. She is sharing the experience with fellow co-director Sarah Green. This trip will help Marci and Sarah understand what’s changing and what’s possible for the future of Kansas. 

With an Explorer spirit, the state offers endless things to see and do and ways to make a difference. The secret of exploring is “you get out of the journey what you put into it.” We are grateful to the Kansans who have been on this journey with us and for those who we’ve yet to meet along the way.



1986 – Kansas Journeys by Mil Penner & Carol Schmidt, published by Sounds of Kansas. 

1990 – Prairie: The Land and Its People by Mil Penner & Carol Schmidt published by Sounds of Kansas. Mil and Marci research and write Kansas Weekend Guide. Published by Mil’s Sounds of Kansas. Book-signing party on the farm. 

1991 – Mil and Marci write Kansas Event Guide. Kansas Sampler Festival held on the Penner Farm. Sponsored and organized by Penner Family, relatives and locals. 

1992 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Penner Farm

1993 - Mil and Marci write Kansas Weekend Guide 2, published by Sounds of Kansas.


1993 – Kansas Sampler Foundation started by Mil Penner and Marci Penner. Incorporated as 501c3 by IRS. Rural culture elements created. Retreat for Rural Leaders starts as Non-Metropolitan Tourism Seminar. We Kan! name coined. We Kan! awards start. Kansas Sampler Festival, Penner Farm. Marci Penner is director. 

1994 – Kansas Sampler Center built. Kansas Explorers Club starts. Kansas Sampler Festival, Penner Farm. Betty Van Osdol on staff. VLee Penner is volunteer bookkeeper.  

1995 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Penner Farm. 

1996 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Penner Farm.  

1997 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Penner Farm. 

1998 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Pratt 

1999 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Pratt

2000 – Lizard Lips Campaign. Kansas Sampler Festival, Ottawa 

2001 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Ottawa 

2002 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Independence. First We Kan! Conference.  

2003 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Independence 

2004 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Newton 

2005 – Kansas Guidebook for Explorers by Marci Penner. Kansas Sampler Festival, Newton 

2006 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Garden City. WenDee Rowe starts working at KSF.  

2007 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Garden City.  8 Wonders of Kansas contests begin.

2008 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Concordia.  Governor Kathleen Sebelius announced the top 8 Wonders in a Kansas Day ceremony in the state capitol rotunda. 

2009 – PowerUp Movement starts. Whiting Café Makeover. Kansas Sampler Festival, Concordia.  

2010 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Leavenworth 

2011 – 8 Wonders of Kansas Guidebook by Marci Penner. Kansas Sampler Festival, Leavenworth.  

2012 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Liberal. First Big Rural Brainstorm. Kim Clark, bookkeeper, starts working at KSF. 

2013 – Incorporated We Kan Network. World’s Largest Baseball work day, Muscotah. Kansas Sampler Festival, Liberal

2014 – Launched Project WeKan (crowdfunding site). Kansas Sampler Festival, Wamego 

2015 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Wamego 

2016 – Kansas Sampler Festival, Winfield 

2017 – Kansas Guidebook 2 for Explorers by Marci Penner & WenDee Rowe. Final Kansas Sampler Festival held in Winfield 

2018 – The first Big Kansas Road Trip is held in Barber, Comanche & Kiowa counties 

2019 – Big Kansas Road Trip, Cheyenne, Sherman & Wallace counties 

2021 – Kansas PowerUp & Go report published. Big Kansas Road Trip, Brown, Doniphan & Nemaha counties.  

2022 – Big Kansas Road Trip, Bourbon, Cherokee & Crawford counties 

2023 – KSF 2.0 begins with co-directors Sarah Green and Marci Penner; WenDee Rowe, Project Manager, PowerUp & Engagement Manager Simone Elder start at KSF, Kim Clark bookkeeper. Big Kansas Road Trip, Jewell, Republic & Smith counties. 


Stacy Barnes, Greensburg

Phil Fishburn, Haven

Debbie Divine, Salina

John Divine, Salina

Simone Elder, Leoti

Lynda Fort, Ulysses

Anita Grinis, Hutchinson

Marci Hess, Wichita

Christy Hopkins, Tribune

Julie Irish (Torseth), Peabody

Shelia Lampe, Piqua

Luke Mahin, Courtland

Shannon Martin, Dexter

Gene Merry, Burlington

Mel Miller, Inman

Eric Montgomery, Lawrence

Ellen Morgan, Salina

Martha Slater (Farrell), Hutchinson

BJ Smart, Washington

Andrea Springer, Hutchinson

Dave Procter, Manhattan

Murray Reimer Penner, Wichita

Lea Ann Seiler, Hanston

Sarah Werner, Winfield

RJ Wilson, Shawnee

Shari Wilson, Kansas City