By Diana Staresinic-Deane, Unearthing Stories on the Prairie
A few months ago, I started a new job: managing our local county history museum. For a local history junkie like myself, it’s a dream come true, and I feel giddy every time I start a shift in the 1888 two-story limestone depot-gone-museum.
But I’ve discovered something interesting.
Many people from Ottawa have never been inside the Old Depot Museum.
“I have been driving by this building for 40 years, but I’ve never been inside it before,” a recent visitor told me. “I don’t know why, but I just haven’t.”
My husband and I are both native Kansans, but it wasn’t until we were adults and actively exploring the state that we realized how little we knew about it. Shortly after we married, our newly formed family was going through some tough times. My mother-in-law was dying of cancer; my own mother was in a terrible downward spiral with multiple sclerosis. One weekend, my husband, Jim, said, “Let’s just go somewhere.” We filled a cooler with food, packed some clothes, and headed southwest.
We peered over the edge of the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well in Greensburg (this was before the 2007 tornado, mind you), and we looked at the Santa Fe Trail tracks near Dodge City. We stood at the feet of Monument Rocks and visited the dinosaurs at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History. We had a chance to see how amazing and big and beautiful the state really was.
And then we started to wonder about what we hadn’t yet seen in our own backyard.
The lovely thing about exploring your own county is that it doesn’t have to cost much more than a tank of gas. We drove all the gravel roads and a few of the minimum maintenance ones. We visited the cemeteries and got a feel for the different ethnic groups and cultures that settled the area over the years. We saw the remnants of old houses and wondered who lived there. We visited all of the little towns, stopped at mom-and-pop shops, and read all of the historic markers. And then we looked at historic maps of the area and went back over those same roads again, understanding a little more of what we were seeing with every trip. Our mostly rural county began to overflow with history and people and stories.
I usually find myself chatting with first-time visitors to the museum, and I find myself suggesting other places they should see. And that’s when even people who have lived their whole lives in the same place realize how much they have left to see.
Drive, bike, or walk around your own town. Go down the streets that aren’t on your usual route to school or work or the grocery store. Park downtown and get out and walk around. Try a local restaurant that’s new to you and browse stores you’ve never visited before. Tip: When you’re downtown, don’t forget to look up. Many older main street buildings are amazing works of art, but we’re usually driving by too fast to appreciate them.
The 1879 Hamblin Building, one of my favorite buildings in downtown Ottawa.
Go for an old-fashioned Sunday drive on any day of the week. You will find hills overlooking valleys, fields of wildflowers, and gothic abandoned houses. Driving down the same roads at a different time of day or a different time of year will reveal even more. Tip: You may not have cell service in some rural areas, so consider printing out a detailed county map before you go. Always proceed with caution on the marked minimum maintenance roads, especially after heavy rain.
A rise known as Pork Chop Hill gives you gorgeous views of the sun setting over Franklin County.
Are you near a bike trail? Many miles of old railroad beds have been converted to bike trails in Kansas. The Prairie Spirit Trail and the Flint Hills Nature Trail both cross through my town, and hikers and bikers from all over the country come through to ride them. It’s easier to take in the scenery from your bike, and you’re traveling the same path that people who took the trains from town to town would have used 150 years ago. How awesome is that? Tip: Check trail websites for information on trail conditions, access to supplies, and trail fees before you go.
Check out your county lakes and parks. Most counties have lakes and parks with walking trails, bike trails, campsites, and picnic sites. And if you’re a history buff, you’ll discover that many local man-made lakes have stories. Clinton Lake in Douglas County, for example, has a museum and monuments around the lake honoring the ghost towns once in the area.
Take in a festival or two. Small Kansas communities love festivals, and from now through the fall, you’ll find something going on every weekend. From art festivals to rodeos to history days to car shows, you can count on finding some combination of great food, live music, historic reenactments, local artists, and something fabulous that is completely unique to that community. Tip: Check your local Chamber of Commerce or visitors’ center websites, which usually post events on their calendars.
The Ol’ Marais River Run Car Show brings 2,000 antique cars and thousands of tourists to Ottawa each September.
Visit your local library and arts center. Libraries and arts centers plan all kinds of events and programming for adults and kids. Crafts, music, plays, guest speakers, and even field trips are available all summer long!
Travel back in time—virtually. Once you start exploring your county, you’ll find yourself wondering about old buildings and communities. Fabulous websites like Kansas Memory, Historic Mapworks, and KU’s online collection of Sandborn Fire Insurance Maps will help you uncover the history of old spaces.
Remember, there’s no wrong way to tour your own turf. All you have to do is step out your front door and you’re on your way!
Diana Staresinic-Deane is a Kansan-gone-Californian-gone-Kansan, former part-time library assistant, writer, history junkie, museum manager, cemetery photographer, and guinea pig enthusiast. She blogs about Kansas history and Kansas places and is the author of Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder.