Travel America: Land of wheat and rodeos
Saturday 09 May 1998
"One Kansas farmer feeds 101 people - and you," declared a sign on the state's main road, Interstate-70. And if you're looking for a holiday destination that combines cowboys and history with giga-bushels of wheat, there's no place like Kansas. Kansas City, a farmer told me, "is the breadbasket of our nation, ma'am".
As you drive west on I-70 through the Flint Hills, a spectacular landscape of rolling hills, wooded river valleys and tall-grass prairie stretches to the horizon. From the interstate road, cowboys can be seen moving their herds across this quintessential American countryside. And south of I- 70 is the Homestead Ranch - a women-only cattle ranch. If you fancy yourself as a hard-riding wranglerette, you can brand, rope and herd here.
Pioneers streamed across Kansas in the mid-19th century on the Oregon, Santa Fe and California Trails. Near Topeka, there are antique ruts gouged into the prairie by wagon wheels. Fifty miles farther west stands Fort Riley, built to protect "pilgrims" on the Oregon Trail from marauding Indians. Now it is one of the US Army's most important bases. It also offers the excellent US Cavalry Museum, a buffalo herd and Quarters 24 (better known as the Custer House) which provides a glimpse of the romance and trials of military life after the Civil War. George Armstrong Custer commanded Fort Riley, before riding away to the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Off the interstate road are towns such as Industry, Cottonwood Falls and Enterprise, with streets lined with reminders of frontier days - hitching posts, jailhouses and old false-fronted stores. At Longford, the sign on Slim's Place reads "Hamburgers & Ammunition". These are tiny communities, and their young people are leaving for the cities. At Hope - on a seat bearing the town's name - someone has added "less" in black paint.
We stayed in Abilene, featured in a corralful of Westerns. Once it was a wild cowtown, the terminus of the Chisholm Trail. Cowboys drove millions of longhorns up from Texas, to be shipped by rail to Chicago. Even now, immense, moaning Santa Fe trains rumble through the "dee-po".
A whiff of gunsmoke lingers in Abilene. In the 1860s it was a gaudy mix of gambling halls, brothels and saloons. The town hired Wild Bill Hickok to impose law and order, but one night he killed a drunken gambler in a gunfight before accidentally gunning down his own deputy. The townspeople were aghast - a lawman who couldn't tell the good guy from the bad guy was a danger to everyone. They got him out of town fast.
In "Old Abilene Town", original structures stand beside replicas. In summer there are strutting saloon girls, fast-draw competitions and a cowboy encampment where cowboy poet Jack Dewerff drawls stories about spooked herds and round-ups. Rodeos are held all over Kansas; the best is probably Abilene's Wild Bill Hickok rodeo, which opens with a parade. It is part of a week-long county fair, a showcase for quilting, canning, horseshoe-tossing and, inevitably, wheat. It's a chance to mingle with folks wearing cowboy boots, big belt buckles and Stetsons, and load up with calorie-busting fair food: corn dogs, hog wings, funnel cakes and root beer floats.
Abilene has two historic homes open to visitors. The Seelye Mansion was built by a patent medicine manufacturer enriched by Wasa-Tusa, "health restorer for man, stock and poultry". Dr Seelye and his spinster daughters had one house rule: never throw anything away. The result is a time capsule of Midwest turn-of-the-century ephemera.
President Dwight Eisenhower's boyhood home is nothing fancy - a simple house on the wrong side of the tracks. His mother was proud of her small parlour: its dime-store vases, the patchwork cushions she embroidered with her seven sons' names, and her books. Beyond her net curtains is something that made her prouder still - her son Dwight's presidential library. House and library are part of the Eisenhower Center. There's an Ike statue - a typical pose in uniform, hands on hips. There's a museum stuffed with memorabilia: the "lucky coins" Ike carried throughout the Second World War; "I Like Ike" presidential campaign buttons; and Mamie's hats - feathered, beaded and frisbee-like. Ike and Mamie are buried here.
Leaving Abilene, you may go west to Dodge City and the Rockies, but we went east, to Lawrence, an attractive town that's home to the University of Kansas. Lawrence was founded by New England abolitionists. In the 1850s it was an underground railroad stop, an improvised route for runaway slaves escaping to freedom in Canada. In Old West Lawrence, you can take a self- guided tour of the sites where townspeople courageously clothed, fed and hid these black Americans.
Fascinating stuff, and you'll have the place pretty much to yourself. Kansas, after all, isn't famed as a tourist magnet. But I'll be going back - if only to see the monument to its farmers. America's agricultural hall of fame is in Bonner Springs: sodbuster ploughs, barbed wire - and endless varieties of wheat.
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