Visiting Friends in Olathe, Part II

I woke up to thunder and a bright horizon. Dark clouds paralleled a shiny sunrise in a typical but strange Kansas spring weather phenomenon. Considering it was a typical workday for Ann and her husband, I left early and began my drive back to St. Marys. The skies were both bright and dark simultaneously, but eventually the storm clouds drifted further east and it the weather became less foreboding.

First and foremost I needed to find coffee. As always, I try to find a local establishment rather than the ubiquitous chains. Besides, I’m not really a big fan of bitter Starbucks coffee and I don’t want to spend $5 on a frappamacchajavespressiatto, or essentially half coffee and half pure sugar and whipped cream. But after driving around Olathe for over a half an hour, the best I could find was a gas station. It was uninspiring but it did the trick and I was on my way. I’d planned to head west through Gardner to Baldwin City, but instead drove through the rural western portion of Johnson County. I was surprised to find that there was such a thing, as I’ve come to associate nauseating suburban sprawl with the county, but was pleased to find some actual farmsteads and bucolic subdivisions.
Before entering Douglas County, I passed the southern fringes of the Sunflower Ordnance grounds, which was quite eerie. To my right I could see evenly spaced rusted smokestacks surrounded by overgrown trees and brush. It was like the former Soviet Union without as much concrete. Once I crossed the county line, I quickly returned to typical rural Kansas with its perfectly symmetrical rows of milo interrupted by the occasional farmhouse and a gravel road intersection forming 90-degree angles on each corner. I drove to a little country church a found a bell with a plaque indicating it had been part of the Hesper Friends Academy from 1884-1912. Little had I known that out there in the cornfields nearly a century before there had been an institution for higher learning.

Clearfield was the next place I passed through, but I stopped at the cemetery to see if I could find anyone with the last name of “Schopper,” the name of my grandmother on my mom’s side. Many of her siblings had been born in a farmhouse near this hamlet, so I thought perhaps I’d find a name, but no such luck. I called my aunt who had written an extensive genealogy of the family, but she said there probably wouldn’t have been anyone buried there with that name. However, she recognized some of the surnames I read to her from the gravestones. Across the street was a Methodist church and otherwise pristine farmland surrounded the rural intersection.

My next stop was Vinland, a small community north of Baldwin City noted for the oldest library in Kansas, dating from 1859 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It wasn’t clear whether the tiny building was a regular functioning library, but it was clearly maintained. A few other abandoned buildings dotted one side of the half-block long main street. Next to one was a rust colored vintage pick-up for sale. Differing from some of the other small towns I’ve visited, this one had some historic preservation efforts going for it. It was still a sleepy town, despite its having a small airport.

Baldwin City, by contrast, was much more vibrant and interesting. First off, it’s home to Baker University, the oldest university in the state. Downtown the streets are paved with nice red bricks and lined with antique shops, boutiques and other mom-and-pop stores. I stopped at the newly built visitors’ center and was greeted by a friendly woman who gave me a map and some brochures. Next to the police station is a cute shop called Kiss Me Kate’s, featuring Scottish and Irish specialty items and sandwiches. The proprietor was very nice and had the authentic accent to boot. I couldn’t resist buying a pair of Guinness socks since I was too early for lunch.

The map I picked up showed several historical points of interest, some of which were purely historical and others that could be visited. I drove around town for a bit trying to find the former settlements of Prairie City and Palmyra, but other than a dusty crossroads at the former and a historic well at the latter, there was nothing to commemorate the sites other than what was printed on the map. I had planned on eating lunch there, but it was still too early so I ventured back east to visit the nearby battle site of Black Jack.

The small park and historic site there proved to be informative and serene. The battlefield marks an important place in the history of Kansas when in 1856, John Brown fought and won a battle here against pro-slavery forces led by General Henry Pate, thereby paving the way for Kansas to become a free state. There used to be a town in the area as well, but as was the case with the other two, it’s a complete ghost. Ruts from the Santa Fe Trail still exist at the park and in a nearby field.

In Wellsville, I stopped at an antique store. An elderly woman with bouffant hair and a cockatiel on her shoulder eyed me as I meandered through. She made some small talk and the bird bobbed its head up and down and make a semi-intelligible squawk that could have passed for a greeting. She suggested I visit the large flea market in Le Loup, south and west of town near I-35. Outside I noticed some distant clouds growing a darker shade of gray.

I first drove through the lonely town of Le Loup, no more than 10 houses if that and no apparent businesses. Ann’s sister Sherry used to live here, and I probably could have asked someone where if I’d seen anyone. I continued south from there a few miles to the lonely flea market. It was housed in a former restaurant like a Nickerson’s and had an expansive parking lot that was empty except for one car, soon to be joined by my car. I browsed through the place hoping to find something, but could not justify purchasing anything. I thanked the clerk for allowing me to walk through, but I’d bet he was just as happy to see someone with a heartbeat pass through the door.

I detoured on a couple country roads to get to US-59, passing through the hamlet of Norwood with its remodeled train station built for the recreational passenger train ride from Baldwin City to another stop called “Nowhere” somewhere beyond Norwood. The next town was Centropolis, a few miles west of the highway. It was small but had more homes than most of the towns I’d been through, and a few churches. Before reaching Lawrence, I had gone through a few more near-ghost towns like Worden, Willow Springs and Pleasant Grove. Each had something to note its existence, but not much else.

By the time I got to Lawrence, I was starving. I found the 23rd Street Brewery and sat down for a big sandwich and a sampler tray of all their beers. It was a refreshing way to wind down the two-day adventure, although it wasn’t quite over. I picked up a growler to take home to the folks and headed west on another slow route home.

Being this close to Lawrence, I couldn’t resist stopping at the legendary village of Stull, best known as the infamous location of one of the seven gateways to Hell. The cemetery where the ruins of the supposedly haunted church sit atop a hill is fenced-off and inaccessible, after years of vandalism and otherwise thrill-seeking college students descended upon the town to wreak some prankster havoc. The town itself is at the foot of the sinister hill and consists of two poltergeist-free churches. Perhaps the citizenry felt the need to expand their congregation to fight off the evil forces lurking nearby. Otherwise Stull was an ordinary farm town that is being encroached by the suburbanization of Lawrence.

Big Springs was the last community I passed through before entering Shawnee County. A former stop along the Oregon Trail, it is now a sleepy bedroom community that has nearly lost its identity. Tecumseh‘s claim to fame could perhaps be the Topeka Steak House, which was already drawing an early evening crowd. My grade school music teacher used to live in this rural suburb of Topeka.

My second to last stop was to a place I’d seen on maps but had never been to, despite its being so close to home. When I arrived at Watson, I realized it was nothing more than an extension of Topeka. Even the school district, which I had heard of, bore a different name–Shawnee Heights. No small town charm, just houses, the school and a couple shops. In the distance I saw very dark clouds and heard on the radio that a tornado warning had been issued for a part of the county I had been in earlier in the day. It was time to head home anyway, so I turned around and started back. Of course, one last town remained on the way: Berryton.

I had been there before, but since it was more or less on the way, I drove through. If it hadn’t been for the church sign, the street named “Berryton Road” and the fact that I knew it had a post office, I would never have known it was anything other than Topeka. Even the post office didn’t have a name on it! It was a sad little suburb, but still clinging to some form of identity. Soon I found my way to the Topeka beltway and on to US-24 and back home to my parents’ house. It was a great visit that provided a wonderful excuse for more road tripping and Kansas town hopping, although it was only a taste of what was to come.

Note: this content was originally posted on my old Blogger site “The Nystagmus Zone, Volume 3.”

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