Railroads, Blue Sky and the Antique Mile of Newton, KS

January 28, 2012

It seems Brad’s business is delegating our Kansas road trips, but that’s okay with me. A day of sightseeing, tasting local fare, spending the day together, plus a new contract for Concrete Colorscapes is definitely a day well spent.

Today’s adventure is Newton, Kansas. Now, I’ve been to Newton plenty of times through the years, but when I stopped and thought about all of my visits, I realized they’ve been isolated to one area of Newton. My dad has two sisters who live in Newton, so much of my time as a child was spent on Second and Glendale with the Garcia families: my two aunts who married two brothers and their combined 13 children. Today, the family has grown so large we’ve lost track of how many second and third cousins, but the majority are still living in Newton. These days I only see them at weddings, milestone birthdays or anniversaries or sadly, funerals.

So, today I want to experience the Newton I’ve never known outside the Garcia neighborhood and the Amtrak train station, where I’ve taken many a train at 3:00 am to Kansas City or Chicago. I’d asked a KMUW co-worker for some advice on places to eat, Zack having been a resident of Newton for some time, so I felt confident our visit would be positive. How it could it not be?

As with our Ellsworth visit, I’m typing my opening paragraphs while waiting in the driveway of a two-story house in a remote area of Newton. Their yard is home to multiple birdfeeders, a few water fountains and what looks like a nude torso of a man or woman leaning against the trunk of a (tree). It is so weatherworn there is no determining the sex of the statue, but its headless presence seems strange adjacent to the ten newly planted trees. The ten trees do not include the six older trees guarding the perimeter of the side/back yard or the eight in the front yard towering over the five, I’m guessing, 2-3 year old trees. One day this home will be hidden from the dirt road during the spring and summer months, protected by generations of trees whose leaves will fill the yard with their yellow-brown burden in the fall and stand at stick figure-like attention in the winter. I wonder if quite a few trees were lost at one time during a severe Kansas storm, and it’s then I notice the three large mounds of mulch, the gold-gray piles of dead leaves and broken branches, a tree cemetery of sorts, and I understand the need to fill the yard with the hopes of towering sycamores and maples.

Time to head to town. Mike Wood, the executive director of the Media Resources Center at WSU, has loaned me a book, 8 Wonders of Kansas! Guidebook, written by Marci Penner and the Kansas Sampler Foundation. I told him of our Kansas resolution so he brought me the 272-page guide with its “216 Great Places to Explore in Kansas.” I want to see the Blue Sky Sculpture located at Centennial Park. Dedicated in 2001, it is the joint effort of Phil Epp, painter and designer; Terry Corbett, ceramist and designer; and Conrad Snider, ceramist and designer. It is one of the Top 8 Wonders of Kansas.

The sculpture looks amazing against the clear blue sky and while I wanted to sit and enjoy it from the blue viewing benches, the Kansas wind thought otherwise, obviously.

I decide I enjoy the sculpture much better from a distance, which I’m assuming was the intent. We drive through Centennial Park with its clean and groomed baseball fields, gazebos and children’s playground. Brad gets excited when he notices a freshly poured tee box for a disc golf park. Add this one to his list.

Our next stop was Main Street, where we perused the aisles of Prairie Harvest. We lost ourselves among the teas, spices, healthy snacks and Kansas products. We’d planned to eat lunch, but they’d had quite a crowd during the lunch hour and were out of many of their items that are made fresh daily. We decided to purchase some sesame seed sticks and yogurt-dipped almonds. Yummy. Within the same building that houses Prairie Harvest are other interesting boutiques: Main Street Company, Kitchen Corner, plus a small bookstore/coffee counter and an incoming tea shop. Along Main Street were other unique stores, such as Ten Thousand Villages where we sampled coffee from Africa and I tried on a few leather bracelets. At the recommendation of their staff, we decided to eat at Karen’s Kitchen. An eclectic place with an old red barbershop couch in the sitting area, shelves full of nostalgic toys, candy and memorabilia, and a deli counter where we ordered the veggie-beef soup, chili, a bierock, and a turkey sandwich. The meal was average, but we admired the old tin ceiling, the plastic-covered green tables each adorned with a quirky set of salt and pepper shakers, and the fact that Karen herself was wiping down tables and talking to customers.

Our bellies lightly filled, we decided to hit the many antique stores lining Main Street, beginning with Wharf Road Antiques. If you love antiques, the history behind the pieces and have hours to spend, I highly recommend Wharf Road. The tiny woman who led us through the tightly packed former hotel truly loved her job of collecting, restoring and sharing the stories of her antiques. She was amazing and so were the items. Brad immediately fell in love with an old mission-style chair and we discovered two light fixtures that would be perfect with our remodel. But, the highlight was an old parlor cabinet. It was made of walnut, taller than Brad, and had to weigh a ton! Hidden within the monstrous cabinet was a hideaway bed for guests. The closest piece I’ve been able to find online is the Higgins Parlor Cabinet built in 1870, and while it does not look exactly like the item at Wharf Road, it is very similar. In case you are wondering, the asking price was $5,500. There were three stories to the antique store, and each was floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall with the most interesting furniture I have ever seen: Victorian coffee tables, a huge exterior sconce, a player piano and an old wooden child’s swing. It was difficult to leave, but we promised to return, more than likely for the bright colored, petal-shaped light fixtures.

Next door to Wharf Road Antiques is Road Runner Sales, a shop filled with garden/lawn art made from cast iron, as well as a few scattered antiques. I was captured by the mermaids, the four-inch tall green figurines, the one-foot long detailed white sirens to the four-foot tall bronze water goddess lounging in a handmade iron chair. The statures were heavy, their scales rough, their features strong, and they were amazing. Did I mention my birthday is fast approaching?  The other lawn ornaments were brightly colored and we could imagine a few of them placed about our back yard and near the lower patio, especially the tall birdhouse with sunflowers. Two stores we will definitely return.

Since we were in the antique mood, we decided to browse most of the shops on Main Street, including Metcalf Sisters and Layman’s Antique Mall and Flea Market. Oddly, the only item I purchased was a Santa figurine, Babbo Natale –  Italy’s Santa,  to add to my international collection. For two hours we squeezed through the crowded aisles of old furniture and dishware, maneuvering between the toys and clothing. Brad even clocked his forehead on a low-hanging beam, probably in search of one of the many monkey lamps he kept finding and wanting to purchase (no, no monkey lamps came home with us).  We worked up quite a thirst so we decided to check out the Iron Horse Pub for a cold beer and a snack, just a few doors down.

The only ones in the bar, we struck up a conversation with our bartender who was formerly from Wichita and the owner. She and her husband bought the bar five years ago, and while she enjoys running the place, she says she is still adjusting to Newton life. The bar was clean, with a decent selection of beers, plus a small menu of traditional bar food. A few regulars began to arrive, some sitting at the bar, two playing pool and slipping money into the satellite jukebox. We finished our beers, draining the last cold drops listening to Black Sabbath and David Allen Coe. I snapped a photo of the odd animal mascot on the wall, which even the owner was unsure if it was a wild boar, maybe a werewolf…

The sun was setting and the evening air was chilly as we left the bar. It had been a full day and we were ready to go home and rest a bit before watching the Shockers on television, then attending at 50th birthday party for a friend of Brads. What I realized on the drive home is no matter how we try to plan the day, plot each hour, there is never enough time to see everything in the chosen town. While we got to take pictures of Warkentin House, we didn’t make it to the campus of Bethel College or stop and say hello to the aunts. Unless we plan to stay a weekend, even a small town like Newton, with its 11.73 square miles of city, leaves us wanting more. Until we meet again…


Aliens and Cowboys in Ellsworth, Kansas

Our Kansas adventures began on Saturday, January 13.  

9:48 am: We leave the Starbucks at 21st and Maize Road, a bag of freshly ground Italian Roast, two breakfast sandwiches, a blueberry scone and two hot coffees in hand. Brad has landed a job with the Post Rock Wind Power Project in Ellsworth County, so it makes sense that Ellsworth and its surrounding area is the first on our list of towns in Kansas to visit in 2012. I plug in the IPod, select the playlist titled “Jed Clampett Dancing,” and we hit the road. “Wichita” by Gillian Welch and the smell of chicken sausage and Gouda fills the cramped Ford Focus.

 Brad reminds me I’ve driven to Ellsworth. He was returning from the worst snowboarding trip of his life. The Explorer engine light kept coming on as he frantically drove back to Wichita with then twelve-year-old son Ian in a pain pill induced coma in the back seat. Ian had broken his femur against an unfriendly tree during his first snowboard run. I met them at Ellsworth and followed them to Wichita. All I remember of the drive is wanting to get them safely home, so it’s not surprising I don’t recall the meeting point being Ellsworth, Kansas.

 Brad needs to stop at the Keller construction site before we actually visit Ellsworth and I admit I was a little disappointed he had to work the first hour of our trip, but as we enter Ellsworth County, the disappointment turns to awe. We come over a slight hill on I-70 and are greeted by the first of the giant pinwheels of the wind farm. They are amazing and as we continue to drive I am mesmerized by their height, their breadth, their unending rows that stretch for miles across the blonde-brown fields, like an alien second-line they dance against the bright blue sky.  And when the horizon suddenly covers their stem-like towers and all we can see are those magnificent blades cartwheeling slowly across the Kansas plains, we are silent.

 As I am typing these opening paragraphs, I’m sitting in the dirt lot of the new facility for the Post Rock Wind Power Project where Brad is inside test-staining an area of the floor. Five minutes ago, three large semis passed by, each carrying one blade of a soon-to-be constructed wind turbine. One semi, one blade. In the distance is the wind farm and I wonder if they make any noise as they gather the wind. Is there a constant whirring, a subtle roar or are they silent, the latter being the spookiest. It’s hard to imagine such great structures silent in their work. All I can seem to think is how alien and alien-like they are and what it would be like to stand at the base and look up at these gigantic creatures. Suddenly, I’m imagining Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind as he approaches the mother ship. So, when it’s time to leave I ask Brad if we can get closer to the wind farm.

 We cross I-70 and enter a dirt road. Along the bumpy road, shaggy black cows curiously watch us pass, their coats thick and unruly. I believe they are Galloway cattle, a hardy breed with insulated fur for harsh climates. As we slow down, the cattle watch us intently, a few shaking their great heads and returning to graze on the dry fields, while others stand at the ready to either charge the short fence or run the other direction.  I snap a photo of the furry beasts with the man-made beasts looming behind them.

About ten yards from the grazing cattle, we pull over and turn off the engine.

There is a distinct hum coming from the massive generator and while I’m certain it is deafening at the top of the turbine, here on the ground the noise descends in gentle waves. My curiosity satisfied, we head to the town of Ellsworth, but not before having to pull to the side of the dirt road to allow two more semis to pass.

 Ellsworth is a community of 3,000 and was once known as “the wickedest cattle town in Kansas.” As we enter the city, there is a disc golf park and playground. So much for gunslingers in the streets, but Brad is happy.  He’ll pack his bag of Frisbee discs along with his equipment for the job. The Main Street area is quiet for a Saturday afternoon, holiday décor still adorns the light posts and right away we notice the shadow-like historical markers set about the town. There are seventeen markers  providing a history of the daily life in “Old West” Ellsworth.

 Since much of our day was spent at the wind farm, we decide to grab lunch at Paden’s Place, a restaurant and bar established 25 years ago. The place is long, with the restaurant and bar divided. We sit in the bar area where the booths are squeaky and slightly slanted, but there are three televisions (cable-ready but not flat screens) and the prices listed in black magic marker behind the bar are perfect. A few regulars  sit at the bar watching the K-State/Oklahoma basketball game,  while two men in dark cowboy hats occupy a nearby booth.  We order two drafts, rather large mugs for only $2.00, and decide to try the chicken-steak sandwich with fried cauliflower on the side (Brad) and chicken livers with fries (me). Our meals are less than $5.00 each and are served quickly.  The batter is thin but crusty, not overpowering the livers, which are good-sized and very satisfying. Brad says his sandwich has great flavor but it’s a  very small portion for a mid-day meal.

 It’s getting late so we finish our meals and beers and take a walk down Main Street. We visit the Antique Mall that houses a deli, ice cream shop and various booths, plus the large Rene Pennington mural. Down the street is the museum and historical walking tour describing the early days of Ellsworth, but the museum looks deserted so we decide to walk adjacent to the train tracks and the co-op, reading some of the markers, taking a few pictures.

The January sun is slowly descending and the air chills the back of our necks and faces.  We decide to drive through the town, past the high school, winding our way through old neighborhoods and stop to gas up the car. Next to the gas station is the relatively new Ellsworth Steak House, which is adjacent to the only motel in town. The motel reminds me of traveling as a kid, our car packed with pillows, a cooler full of sodas and books and toys to keep us occupied. I used to love to stay at the motels, our car parked just outside our door so dad could peek out the dusty room curtains, “just checking.” And there was always a pool and a vending machine, not to mention the ice maker. I would tumble into the double bed, my hair still damp from the evening swim, and watch television while snuggled next to my little brother. I can still smell the chlorine in my hair and the bleach of the scratchy sheets.

 It’s been an interesting, educational and relaxing day and we make one more stop in Sterling for coffees at the Broadway Market of Sterling-Flowers, Coffee, Food, Gifts. It is locally owned by David and Lynn Landis. We order chai tea and Lynn gives us a sample of their daily roasted red pepper and wild rice soup. We promise to return to Sterling to have lunch, as well as visit the beautiful campus. The business card she hands me reads “Flowers celebrate all of life’s moments, coffee ensures that you are awake for them.”

 Ironically, when we arrive home the Kansas Travel Guide is waiting for us in the mailbox. While Brad naps on the couch, I review my new Kansas map, browse the listings of Kansas towns and events, and peruse the Kansas Cowboy, “The Official Publication of the C.O.W.B.O.Y. Society  (cockeyed old west band of yahoos), the small newspaper I picked up in Ellsworth. The paper filled with the daily diary entries of a cattle drive, the history of Sheriff  Shenneman, and the Saddle Tramp schedule of events. But as I close the paper, an ad catches my eye:“The Kansas Explorers Club is created to inspire, educate, and encourage the exploration and appreciation of Kansas, and to have fun doing it!”

 Funny, that’s  just what we’re planning. I mark off Ellsworth from list.

A (Wu) Shocker in Allen Field House

Again, a busy sports week. Or two.  I was disappointed to see Jerry Sloan leave the Utah Jazz. How can you not respect Coach Sloan? One of my favorite playoff rivalries were the Bulls vs. Jazz. Jordan and Pippen vs. Malone and Stockton. Very sad to see the end of an incredible era.

MLB spring training has begun, complete with Brian Wilson sightings and, of course, the will-he-will-they contract negotiations (or not) between Pujols and the Cardinals (trust me, he will not play for any team but the Cardinals).

But, I have a story to finish. I finally got over the Bird flu, my Shox destroyed UNI at home (without the brutish, but smart O’Rear) and continued their 7-0 record on the road against Evansville last night. Next, VCU at Koch Arena as part of the ESPN Bracket Buster weekend. We are nearing the madness of March and I can hardly wait.

So what of my trip to Lawrence? I confess, I enjoyed it. From the Free State Brewery to The Wheel; Allen Field House and the Rock Chalk Chant;  perusing the museum of KU history, including a moment of honor for the Kansas Comet himself, Gale Sayers;  Jayhawk popcorn and a history lesson in “why we hate Mizzou” (thank you, Mr. Ochs); and a lovely stay at The Halcyon Bread and Breakfast.

It was a whirlwind, worth it, wild and wacky trip. Words cannot begin to describe it, so I’ll toss in some pictures for good measure. Final thought, whether you are a KU Jayhawk fan or not, if you get the opportunity to see a game in Allen Field House…GO! If you love college basketball, you will not be disappointed. You will be in awe. You will get goose bumps. You will smile. And if you’re like me, feel a little guilty about “cheating” on your home team. But I promise, you will enjoy every moment. And if you don’t, you’re not a college basketball fan. At least, not in my book.

(the culprits responsible for the attempted ‘Hawk conversion: Scott and Carole Ochs)

After The Wheel, we headed to the Jayhawk Cafe which houses a very scary basement bar. A true fire hazard.

Gale Sayers, the Kansas Comet. This alone was worth the trip.

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