Kansas: East, west, & central

By Bill Felber

Not even 48 years in the news business — 44 of them in one place — teaches you everything. Why is it so cool to get wretching drunk in Aggieville in March? Why is there air? Why do perfectly qualified young adults attend KU? Why can’t the Cubs win one lousy pennant in a century? What is the meaning of life? Still researching.

Questions of that profound and puzzling sort erupt from time to time in the newsroom, as one did this past week, and I realized that for the life of me I’ve never been able to provide a clear, concise answer. This was the question: Is Manhattan in central Kansas or eastern Kansas?

There was a time — it was years ago, but then at my age so was everything — when the answer was clear. Manhattan High School played in the CENTRAL Kansas League.  Duh! But then the CKL, presaging the demise of the Big Eight and the near-collapse of the Big 12 — was made to go away and MHS fled to whatever port it could find, which happened to be the I-70 League. I-70 is neither east, central nor west; it is omnipresent. So no help there.

If you asked most Manhattanites where their natural affinities lay, my guess is they’d identify with eastern Kansas, by which they would predominantly mean Topeka and Lawrence. The former is laden with politicians, the latter with highbrows, and we have an abundance of both breeds.

I’m just going to venture a guess, however, that if you asked 1,000 Topekans and Lawrencers (or Lawrencians or Lawrenciates or whatever they call themselves) whether they affiliate emotionally with Manhattan, 900 would deny the intimation, citing as grounds that borough’s pervasive eastern snobbery. Most of the other 100 would say they do identify with Manhattan, but only when it has extra bourbon.

Central Kansas is a more amorphous description, including as it does the cities of Salina, ____________, and ___________. (The spaces are provided for you to fill in your own candidates.) Yet anybody with access to an automobile knows that Manhattan is only a few miles closer to Topeka than it is to Salina. Beyond that, K-State’s inherent connection with the small towns of the central and western part of the state draws the larger community’s relationships westward, while the inverse is true of Topeka and other cities near Lawrence.

The best case, I think, for viewing Manhattan as part of eastern Kansas is the simplest: geography. The state is 442 miles wide; divide that by three and east, central and western Kansas each range across a hair under 150 miles. Voila! The dividing line between eastern and central Kansas is just west of milepost 300 on the interstate — Junction City. The border between central and western Kansas is milepost 150, which is a few miles west of Hays. Yet I’d bet a dollar that nobody in Manhattan — at least nobody who’s ever driven there — thinks of Hays as central Kansas Topography also works, although using that descriptor one is forced to shrink the state to two classifications, the hilly east and the flat west. By that standard the Flint Hills must be incorporated into the east, which stops at Salina. From the western edge of Salina, you may know, it is possible to see Ness City.

All of the above fails to consider where to place the state’s largest city, Wichita. I have never heard it described as being either east, central or west. South-central, yes. On the other hand south-central is so wishy-washy as to defy practical consideration. Then there’s “southeast Kansas,” by which Kansans generally refer to the featureless area that reminds them of Missouri.

A reader once wrote a letter that may have provided a way out. A West Virginian, he took pen in hand decades ago to protest the ramblings of a predecessor editor of this very paper regarding the features — or lack of same — of the letter writer’s home state.

In brief, so as not to offend still-sensitive West Virginians, that editor had observed that in his view there not only a scarcity of physical or commercial attractions in West Virginia, but there were also a scarcity of intelligent people to enjoy them. He wondered why anybody would want to travel to such a hilly, god-forsaken place, much less live there. The respondent directed his ire and outrage — yes, he felt both — to the editor via this greeting:

“Dear Flatlander.”

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