KANSAS, November 5, 2017 – A road trip along I-70 is an ideal way to discover the best of Kansas culture. An abundance of attractions here ranges from the arts through entertainment and history. Here are five cities adjacent to the Interstate that offer a vivid glimpse into America’s past and present.
Colby: Folk art and Kansas Culture in the “Oasis on the Plains”
Located about 3.5 hours east of Denver, Colby is known as The Oasis on the Plains. This little respite offers weary travelers food, rest, accommodations and some interesting cultural diversions.
Colby, like many cities in Kansas, was built by pioneers pushing west across the Great Plains. Life then was hard and not for the faint of heart. A statue dubbed “The Spirit of the Prairie” sits in front of the historic Thomas Courthouse and pays tribute to these early settlers.
The striking courthouse was built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style with its tower capped by a gorgeous 5-story Seth Thomas clock. It was constructed in 1906-07 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
In addition to agriculture, the locals are extremely proud of their Prairie Museum of Art and History, featuring the private collection of Joe and Nellie Kuska. Over the years, the Kuskas amassed a huge inventory of valuable items that are on display. Their gallery is so impressive, it has been nicknamed The Little Smithsonian of the West.
The Prairie Museum sits on 24 acres and houses a collection featuring more than 28,000 dolls, furniture, clothing, quilts, retro toys, glass, ceramics, souvenirs, household items, pioneer tools, musical instruments, and coins.
Stroll the grounds and see an authentic 1930s sod-house; a one-room schoolhouse; and the immense Cooper Barn, the largest in Kansas.
If you get hungry, stop by the J&B Meat Market. They have excellent burgers, shakes, and unique sweet potato fries topped with marshmallow sauce.
Abilene: Do you like Ike?
Named one of Smithsonian Magazine’s Top 20 Best Small Towns to Visit, Abilene should be your next cultural stop along the Interstate. Also dubbed The Cowtown That Raised a President, Abilene was the boyhood home of President Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower.
The Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home attract more than 200,000 visitors each year, and the multi-building complex is easy to navigate.
There are numerous exhibits and historical displays here from WWI and WWII. Be sure to take a selfie by the 11-foot sculpture of the president in front of the library.
The Seelye Mansion offers tours of their 11,000 square foot home, one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Architecture. The interior was remodeled by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1920s, and most of the original furnishings were purchased for $55,000 at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
The home was featured on The History Channel’s Mysteries at the Mansion.
Take a photo of The World’s Largest Spur in front of Rittel’s Western Wear and enjoy a fabulous lunch at Mr. K’s Farmhouse where Ike once liked to eat.
At the Dickinson County Heritage Center, learn about the fascinating history of Abilene. One of its former residents, Marshal James “Wild Bill” Hickok, put Abilene on the map by bringing in hundreds of thousands of cattle, which marked the end of the Chisholm Trail. Before you leave, be sure to take a ride on the oldest operating carousel designed in 1901 by C.W. Parker.
Finally, stop by the Greyhound Hall of Fame to learn about these amazing dogs. And, of course, these friendly animals will come right up to you with tails a wagging.
Salina, Kansas Culture and Arts
Only about a half hour from Abilene, Salina has been called by some “The Little City Big on Arts and Culture.” With an entire city department dedicated to the arts and humanities, everyone, it seems, gets into the act through volunteering and coming up with new ideas for art installations and various festivals, such as the popular Smoky Hill River Festival.
Walk around downtown for a sculpture tour of their annual exhibition, which features the works of various artists from across the country. The People’s Choice Award winner’s artwork is purchased by the city for permanent display.
The Salina Community Theater showcases local talent through their headliner performances such as Mama Mia, Annie, and Beauty and Beast. Innovators in the field, the theater crew creates all their own costumes and sets on site.
What started as a humble private collection of animals has turned into the Rolling Hills Zoo, which features endangered species, a museum, and educational programs. Employing natural barriers, with no glass barriers to obstruct your view, the zoo allows you to gaze up close at lions, tigers, giraffes, leopards, bears, rhinos and monkeys as well as many rare species.
One of the biggest cultural treasures here is the Stiefel Theatre for the Performing Arts. This beautifully restored 1930s movie palace once hosted vaudeville shows. Now it showcases some of the biggest names in the industry. The concert hall is simply magnificent, with its red-hued seats, a balcony and modern lighting. The Stiefel, in fact, rivals many big city concert venues, so be sure to catch a performance here if you are in town.
Junction City: Fort Riley, military culture, and the Big Red One
Junction City, known as Fort Riley’s Hometown, is so named for its location at the confluence of two rivers, which together form the Kansas River.
Small-town charm doesn’t mean that residents aren’t into big-time culture here. Kansas culture can be seen in the city’s numerous local historical buildings and monuments. The imposing Civil War Memorial Arch sits on a corner of Heritage Park, where there are also memorials to the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Vietnam War and Desert Storm.
What was originally a lone outpost on the frontier, Fort Riley is an important part of the community. Many well-known names are a part of the fort’s fascinating history, including legendary General George Patton. Still active today, the fort is currently home to the 1st Infantry Division known as the Big Red One.
Stop by the Visitor’s Control Center to gain access to the grounds. Then, drive around to see buildings, monuments, and museums, including the U.S. Cavalry Museum, a building originally constructed in 1855; the Custer House, believed to be where the ill-fated General George Custer lived for a time; St. Mary’s Chapel; and “Old Trooper,” a sculptural tribute to the proud tradition of the U.S. Cavalry.
At the Geary County Historical Museum, you’ll see a re-created street featuring 6 typical turn of the century businesses, period clothing exhibits, Plains Indians artifacts and an exhibit illustrating what life was like on a 1920s Kansas farm.
Lecompton: Where slavery began to die
Your final city along the cultural route is found by taking exit 197 off I-70 to Lecompton. This little town with a population under 1,000 actually played a big role in the history of America.
In fact, it was the real birthplace of the Civil War and where slavery began to die, arguably causing America’s political culture to change forever.
Lecompton was the Territorial Capital of Kansas from 1855-1861. Back in 1857, 45 delegates met at Constitution Hall, which is preserved and can be toured today. The purpose was to write a pro-slavery constitution for the state. If approved, Kansas would have been the 32nd slave state in the nation.
Many in Kansas saw this as a fraud being foisted upon them. In Washington, the U.S. House rejected the constitution but the Senate approved it. This then sowed the seeds for a major political fight and even physical brawls among some U.S. House members. It also figured prominently in the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.
As a consequence of this escalating party quarrel, the National Democratic Party divided into three factions running up to the battle for the presidency in 1860. The party’s factional splintering effectively split the vote, paving the way for the victory of the first Republican presidential candidate in U.S. history, Abraham Lincoln. As one major result, the Lecompton Constitution was rejected, motivating slave states to secede from the Union as Kansas was formally admitted to the union as a free state in 1861.
All the turmoil inspired many violent incidents throughout Kansas, causing the state to be known during this period as “Bleeding Kansas.” Today, the Lecompton Reenactors, a group of amateur historians, bring history to life and expertly perform historical plays at Constitution Hall. Check the Lecompton website for their schedule.
Where to Stay:
Colby: Colby Comfort Inn
Abilene: Engle House. A B&B just up the road from the presidential library, it offers beautiful and comfortable accommodations.
Salina: Courtyard by Marriott
Junction City: Hampton Inn