Small towns, big character

By Megan Moser

My husband and I have kind of a running joke about small towns in Kansas.

We’ll say, “That town is so small, it was just a grain elevator and a church.” Or “That town is so small it’s just a grain elevator and a school.” Or “a grain elevator and a bar.”

It’s not really a joke, because there are lots of towns in Kansas where this is completely true. The joke, I guess, is that there’s always a grain elevator.

I didn’t grow up in a small town, at least by Kansas standards, but I have a special affinity for them. I always loved visiting my grandparents in Oakley and Grinnell in northwest Kansas. I went to school in Holcomb, a little hamlet in the southwest part of the state. And my husband is from Claflin, a town of 648 residents near Great Bend.

And despite the grain elevator joke, I think those places have a lot to offer. I love how personal they are.

When I go to Oakley, for instance, there’s a good chance that someone who knew my parents or grandparents will recognize me. Last time I was there, I just stopped for 5 minutes on the way to Denver to buy a magazine, and I ran into an old friend of my mom’s.

But even people who don’t know you are likely to ask you about your day or give you a friendly wave from their cars. In small towns, it feels like there’s more human connection.

I also admire the way that small towns adapt and survive in a world that’s increasingly metropolitan.

Claflin, for example, doesn’t have a newspaper, but it does have a barrel. When residents have news, they pull the barrel out into the middle of the main street and staple the paper onto it. Everyone who sees the barrel out stops to see what’s going on.

Other places use their libraries as coffeeshops. Or they have high school classes run the movie theater. Or they serve hot lunches at the grocery store.

Just as the grasses on the prairie developed long roots to find water and withstand winds over time, small towns find ways to change and persevere.

It’s the character and charm of such towns that inspired me, over the month of September, to take a series of four Weekend Getaways, mostly through small towns within driving distance of Manhattan. (If you missed them, you can find them on our website.)

Lots of people go to Wichita or Topeka or Kansas City, but I wanted to explore the lesser-known places and see what they had to offer.

These small towns boasted some amazing attractions. Have you seen the modern art gallery at The Bank in Matfield Green? Have you tried the upscale Italian food at The Renaissance Cafe in Assaria? Have you shopped for home goods at the sophisticated Feathered Nest in Belleville? The few stoplights Belleville has go off-duty at 6 p.m, blinking yellow at the same time most cities would be in the midst of rush hour. But they have a store any city would be proud of.

I think many people would be surprised to see the ways in which small towns stack up with bigger cities. Sure, there’s not as much to see as far as culture and commerce, but it’s there.

And I would argue that small towns have something cities don’t. I’m not sure what to call it, exactly, but I saw it on my travels.

It’s when a waitress in Council Grove, having heard an ambulance siren, stopped and worried aloud where her children were. City folks don’t notice sirens, but in small towns, they’re rare, and every call could be someone you know.

It’s when, at a produce stand just past Wamego, you pay for your watermelons and tomatoes on the honor system. Just put your dollar bills in the bucket.

And it’s when, in many rural areas, people will give you a friendly little wave, lifting one finger (the index finger, I should probably specify) off the steering wheel as you pass each other in your cars.

Whatever you call that, most of us could use more of it in our lives. So please, go explore small-town Kansas. Look around. Spend some money there. Just be sure to bring cash.

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