Spring Break in Western Kansas with Friends

While K-State students searched for their Spring Break refreshment, the Chapman Center’s Executive Director, Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, and KSU’s Kansas History Professor, Jim Sherow, headed west to forge new connections on behalf of Chapman Center for Rural Studies’ research.

Wayne Ehmke, Lane County Courthouse

Vance Ehmke, Lane County Courthouse

Our goal is to have at least one researched place name per Kansas county in the Chapman Center’s digital archive.

While the archived student work continues to grow each year, it is more difficult to find students who are willing and able to travel far to research. It is crucial we make contacts in these distant Kansas counties to support future students’ interviews and search for elusive histories not found online or in books.

This is especially true of western Kansas’ Lane and Ness counties which are among the least populated counties in the high plains. Many former town sites are found in these western counties and are quickly being lost to memory. Our Chapman Center contacts, Louise and Vance Ehmke, make their home in Lane County. They own and operate Ehmke Seed, a large and going concern dedicated to wheat, Tritricale (a wheat-rye hybrid), and their regional heritage. Over the years, the Ehmke’s have hosted an army of researchers looking for paleo Indian artifacts and stories of Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holiday.

Lane County Courthouse Art Deco Detail

Lane County Courthouse Art Deco Detail

The Ehmke’s know much about the small surrounding communities which have seen better times: Ravanna, Eminence, Beersheba, Farnsworth, Nonchalant, Denmark, Hanston, and Speed. Each community has its own unique histories. Vance and Louise also know who have continued to care for the memory of these places—people like K-State alum, Amy Bickell, who writes a regular column about lost places for KansasAgland. Swing by www.kansasagland.com/agblogs/amybickel to read her many stories. Yeah Amy!

After an enjoyable conversation in the Ehmke’s guest house, a beautifully renovated round grain bin known as the Scale House (1), it was off to supper at the local bowling alley diner before attending the storm spotters’ meeting at the Lane County courthouse in Dighton. There, the Weather Service staff offered a lively presentation (to an appreciative and wisecracking audience) of what not to do in case of flash floods, severe thunderstorms, extreme winds, and TORNADOES.

George Washington Carver Historical Marker

George Washington Carver Historical Marker

One look at NOAA’s 2015 map of reported tornadoes, hail, and thunderstorm wind gusts makes it obvious Kansas remains a center of tornadic activity. There was plenty to learn about how to spot a tornado. We learned more about cloud walls to the beaver tail formation; clear signs an updraft and a downdraft are working together to form funnel clouds.

Early the next morning, a look through the Scale house window showed how important weather spotting is to residents of the high plains “where it takes three days for your dog to run away.”

Soon, on their way with no breakfast in Dighton, Jim and Bonnie headed to Ness City for a Cuppa Joe. Along the way, they stopped to read the KSHS marker in honor of the homestead of George Washington Carver as he left Missouri for Kansas in search of an education. Carver later developed over 500 products from his agricultural-based research of sweet potatoes and peanuts alone!

Tumbleweed Hitchiker

Tumbleweed Hitchiker

A great breakfast in Ness City and a conversation with the owner and it was home again (with a hitchhiker tumbleweed).

Until next time western Kansas!

(1) The Ehmke Scale House is well known for hosting visitors to the region, from Governor Kathleen Sebelius and Ag Economist Barry Flinchbaugh to local school children and families. Guests are encouraged to sign the main floor wall as record of their visit which serves as an informal who’s who of Kansas.


Student Determination Opens Doors in Research

By Emmalee Laidacker, Chapman Center for Rural Studies Intern

Each semester, Dr. Morgan’s Lost Kansas Communities class researches and writes a study of lost Kansas towns in order to preserve each community’s memory. One recent student, Rachel Tucker, chose the Pearl Opera House, located in Alta Vista, as the subject of her study. Built in 1904 by a married couple who were early settlers in the town, the theater was an instant success with over 300 people in attendance opening night. The Pearl featured live performances as well as motion pictures, allowing residents of small communities to enjoy a new form of entertainment.

“When I was talking to Dr. Morgan about a research paper, I was telling her about my interests and I mentioned theater…she mentioned doing a small town opera house and as soon as she said that it just kind of clicked with me and I just knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Rachel Tucker, KSU-Chapman Center for Rural Studies

Rachel Tucker, KSU-Chapman Center for Rural Studies Student

Rachel is a junior studying journalism, but is also working toward a minor in theater which provoked her interest in studying the opera house.

“I followed when it first opened and everything that went in there, not only theater productions, but since it was in a small town, a lot of times they used those spaces for all different kinds of gatherings. They even used it as a skating rink for part of the time; it’s very interesting to see what the community can do with a space like that.” said Rachel.

During the lengthy and complicated research process, all students are faced with obstacles of some form, but the roadblock Rachel surmounted was quite significant. She visited the Pearl three times with the hopes of getting to view the inside of the theater. The first two attempts, the store on the first floor was closed. “When I went to Alta Vista and saw the outside of it, it was just so exciting and I really, really wanted to try to get upstairs.”

Vintage Ad for Wrestling Tournament at Pearl Opera HouseFinally, the third time she visited Alta Vista, the store owner was present and allowed her to come upstairs to the second floor and finally look inside of the theater she had been studying throughout the semester.

“It was weird to be able to go into the space and see where everything that I was writing about had happened and taken place, so it was really surreal to see that…I was so glad that I had tried the third time to go, because it was really incredible.”

Rachel decided to take the class because of her long-time passion for history, but also because she found the title of the course very intriguing. Click to read Rachel’s paper, “Pearl Opera House: Phantom of the Flint Hills, Alta Vista, Wabaunsee County, Kansas, 1880s – 1970s“.