I arrived in Kansas last summer with very little idea of where I was or what I was doing.
I still don’t always know what I’m doing, but I have built up a stockpile of knowledge about northeast Kansas, a place I never expected to visit and certainly never expected to call home.
Next week I’ll be leaving Kansas the same way I came — squished into a nearly overflowing station wagon accompanied by my mom and all my material possessions — and moving to Reading, Pennsylvania for a new job.
Of course I’ll have a lot to learn about my new home. But on the off chance that my new editors ask me to write a feature series about small towns in southeastern Pennsylvania, I’ll at least have a foundation of middle school history lessons to build upon.
Growing up in Massachusetts,I learned plenty about the pilgrims and their New England colonies but not as much about the westward expansion that gave rise to Kansas and its neighbors.
Over the past six months, however, I have unexpectedly become an amateur historian specializing in the rise and fall of small towns within the Mercury’s coverage area.
One of the things I noticed while researching the 19-part biweekly series called ‘About Town’ is that residents often strive to highlight their town’s unique features in an effort to attract visitors. In that vein, I would like to present a list of small town superlatives.
• Most likely victim of arson: Fostoria Fostoria’s demise can almost be plotted according to a series of mysterious fires that destroyed most of Main Street. Despite clear suspicion and an apparent abundance of evidence pointing to arson, no one was arrested.
• Most summertime algae growth: Wakefield Recreational opportunities abound in Wakefield thanks to its location overlooking the largest man-made reservoir in Kansas. But during summer months, residents often look out the window instead of venturing outside because of foul smelling blue-green algae that oozes across the water’s surface and fills the air with its stench.
• Largest undercover hippie population: Frankfort A farm a few miles outside Frankfort served as a hideout for members of a Boston- based commune whose leaders faced accusations of drug abuse and violence in the early 1970s. Rather than remain in the spotlight, some community members left Boston and settled in Frankfort, Kansas.
• Most enthusiastic about black squirrels: Marysville Signs of Marysville’s unofficial mascot are all over town, but the squirrels themselves are more elusive. Either they have become adept at hiding from members of the media or they simply don’t exist.
• Largest concentration of antique woodstoves: Paxico Bud Hund now owns one of seven antique shops in Paxico, which together have turned the town into a tourist destination. It all started when Hund bought an old woodstove to heat his home during the 1970s energy crisis, igniting his passion for restoring antique stoves.
• Most legendary bartender: Randolph Rabern ‘Possie’ Vawter opened a bar in 1955 to give Randolph residents and Tuttle Creek Dam workers a local watering hole. Six decades later he has yet to retire, but living downstairs means a short commute to work.
• Most opportunities to drive around in circles for no reason: Blue Rapids Blue Rapids is home to a few unsettling features, including a round square in the center of town. Residents say a fun activity is to drive down an adjacent hill, cut your engine and see how many times you can coast through the roundabout.
On that note, I would like to clarify that the above superlatives are entirely subjective and based solely on my own personal impressions, most of which are expressed more seriously in the Mercury’s ‘About Town’ series.
The project led me to explore places I didn’t know existed and introduced me to countless people who gave me a glimpse of what Kansas is all about.
I’m not sure when I’ll be back to visit, but I won’t soon forget their stories.