The Undiscovered Culture of America’s Heartland
A road trip along I-70 is an ideal way to discover the best of Kansas culture. From the arts, entertainment, and history, there are an abundance of attractions. Here are five cities adjacent to the Interstate that offer a glimpse into America’s past and present.
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, The Spirit of the Prairie, sits in front of the historic Thomas Courthouse and pays tribute to those early settlers.
The courthouse was built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style with a gorgeous five-story Seth Thomas clock. The building 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 to display. Their gallery is so impressive, it has been nicknamed The Little Smithsonian of the West.
The 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. It has excellent burgers, shakes, and unique sweet potato fries with marshmallow sauce.
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 is the boyhood home of President Dwight D. 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 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 the 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 an episode of 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 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 to the town, 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.
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 the annual exhibition, which features the works of 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 its 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, featuring endangered species, a museum, and educational programs. With no glass barrier, you can gaze up close at lions, tigers, giraffes, leopards, bears, rhinos, and monkeys as well as many rare species.
One of the biggest cultural treasures is the Stiefel Theatre for the Performing Arts. This beautifully restored 1930s movie palace once hosted vaudeville shows and now showcases some of the biggest names in the industry. The concert hall is simply magnificent with red seats, a balcony, and modern lighting. The Stiefel rivals many other bigger city concert venues so be sure to catch a performance if you are in town.
Junction City is named for its location at the confluence of two rivers, which form the Kansas River.
The small-town charm doesn’t mean that the locals aren’t into big-time culture here, and that is evident by many local historical buildings and monuments. The imposing Civil War Memorial Arch sits on a corner of Heritage Park, which also has 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 names were a part of the fort’s history, including General George Patton. The fort is now 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 US Cavalry Museum originally constructed in 1855; the Custer House, believed to be where George Custer lived for a time; St. Mary’s Chapel; and Old Trooper, a sculptural tribute to the proud tradition of the US Cavalry.
At the Geary County Historical Museum, you’ll see a re-created street featuring six typical turn-of-the-century businesses, period clothing exhibits, Plains Indians artifacts, and explanations about what life was like on a 1920s Kansas farm.
Your final city along the cultural route is located at exit 197 to Lecompton. This little town with a population under 1,000 actually played a big role in the history of America. In fact, this was the birthplace of the Civil War and where slavery began to die.
Lecompton was the Territorial Capital of Kansas from 1855 to 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 House of Representatives 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, the National Democratic Party divided into three factions for the presidency in 1860, effectively splitting the vote and paving the way for the victory of the first Republican presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln. In the end, the Lecompton Constitution was rejected, slave states started to secede from the Union, and Kansas was admitted as a free state in 1861.
All the turmoil saw many violent incidents causing this period to be known as Bleeding Kansas. Today, the Lecompton Reenactors, a group of amateur historians, bring history to life with expertly performed plays at Constitution Hall. Check the Lecompton website for the 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
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