Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Kansas Explorers - BYOLC - Elk County

Visits to Elk and Chautauqua counties are a sort of homecoming for me, even though I was born and raised in Wellington. I just have a warm feeling for the area, a fondness. My dad was raised there, met my mother in Sedan, and many kinfolk lived in Howard, Cedar Vale, and Sedan. My family often traveled to the area during my childhood days, to visit cousins or to fish with my dad on Caney River, Otter Creek, or other forgotten tributaries . Living in the flat wheat lands of Sumner County, a drive to dad's old home place, or Aunt Livona's farm seemed like a trip to the mountains to me. I vaguely remember them being referred to as the Chautauqua Hills or the Black Jacks, a reference to the oak trees which at one time covered the hills, at least in some areas.


When I saw that the Kansas Explorer Club schedule included a BYOLC (Bring Your Own Lawn Chair) event for Howard, I vowed to not miss it. About 60 of us met as a group in front of the Elk County courthouse. I must say that, in spite of a missing "U" in COURTHO SE, it was was in considerably better condition than the last time I had seen it, with a completely restored tower clock - faces on all four sides showing the exact time. In addition, the county has been awarded a Heritage Trust Fund grant for roof repairs.

On my brief visits to Howard in recent years, I had developed a strong feeling that this was a town just waiting to roll up the streets and die. The condition of the county courthouse and a beautiful but abandoned bank building in a sad state of disrepair probably contributed most to my developing that opinion. What I heard was an eye-opener for me.

Several townspeople spoke to the Explorers regarding the tasks at hand in revitalizing their town. They as community leaders and the reports they shared with us were a source of encouragement. I was personally surprised and impressed to hear of families moving into Howard, opening new businesses such as a pizza shop, a tailoring enterprise, and a bed and breakfast. One man spoke of developments regarding the purchase and renovation of the previously mentioned bank building .

Local girl Julie Perkins [shown below], a registered pharmacist, had vowed to not return to her hometown, but after several years working within a corporate pharmacy setting, purchased Batson's Drug Store (including a soda fountain) and moved her family back to small-town Kansas. Five years ago, Howard's only grocery store closed its doors, meaning townsfolk would have to drive a minimum of 30 minutes to reach even a small grocery store in Sedan, time-consuming for a busy family, difficult for a senior citizen. So the pharmacy was enlarged, and Julie went into the grocery business, including meat and produce. For two years she and her children drove back and forth to the city to purchase stock for the store, until the volume reached a point where the wholesaler would deliver. (We later learned that means a wholesale purchase of $7500 a week! For a town of 742 folks plus those in the surrounding rural areas, that is an incredible commitment.) Julie reported the grocery business was being well supported by the community.

I'll not go into more detail regarding the uplifting reports we heard. Cheryl Unruh's Flyover People Daily News gives a more complete accounting for those who are interested.

Is there anything to see in Howard? I'm glad you asked. For fans of roadside art/grassroots art/outside art or whatever you want to call it, there is always Hubble's Rubble, which I have photographed on several occasions, so did not spend any time there on this trip. Here's one shot from an earlier visit - Hubble's vision of a flying purple people eater:

History buffs, museum fans, and those who enjoy a piece of nostalgic Americana will find the Benson Museums complex to be of interest. Exhibits include the preserved one-room school house and the corner gas station shown below.

I stepped inside the Red Barn Soap Company for a few minutes. Specialty soaps are hand-made in this late 19th century native stone building.

Before leaving Howard, I wanted to check the local cemetery to see if I could find the burial plot of my great-grandparents, John Bowman Thompson and Sarah Elizabeth Brewer Thompson. John Bowman was the first of my Thompson ancestors born in the USA (1835 in Ohio), and Sarah is the most enigmatic person in my family tree. Genealogists would call her my "brick wall." Thanks to an up-to-date and well organized grave finder book at the cemetery, I was able to find their graves quickly.


After lunch, the group gathered at nearby Elk Falls. Before you have a chance to even ask: Yes, there are falls on the Elk River, seen below in a photo from April of 2006. These are best seen and photographed from an 1893 iron truss bridge listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Elk Falls is noted for its "collection" of outhouses and its annual outhouse tour (more info at, but I was equally interested in this classic old country church, owned by the local Methodist congregation. Looks like it was taken directly from a Grant Woods or Norman Rockwell illustration. How old? I hope to find out from one of my readers.

Elk Falls Pottery Works was the main reason for our visit to this village. Steve and Jane Fry fashion beautiful works of pottery (stoneware and earthenware) from clays personally dug in Barton County, Kansas. It was fascinating to watch Steve work on the 19th-century style, foot-powered wheel, a made-from-scavenged parts work of art in itself. Jane was at work on mugs especially designed for the (then) upcoming 2009 Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield. Nancy and I purchased one at that event. More about Elk Falls Pottery Works:

Fry called on Kansas Sampler Foundation's Executive Director, Marci Penner, to help with a demonstration, and with his guidance (and steady foot to keep the wheel moving), she was able to fashion the bowl shown below - Good work, Marci!

Many of us then had an opportunity to visit a work of restoration in progress. Five years ago, the Frys purchased a property on the north edge of Elk Falls, right on US 160, that contained a fine old barn (suitable for studio and sales gallery), a farm house in a sad state of disrepair but with lots of potential as a home or B&B, and a rock garden overgrown with weeds. The rock garden was created during the Great Depression, and many say its fabrication provided work for unemployed locals. Fry is in the process of clearing away the years of growth to make the garden visible to visitors.

One more instance of small-town folks with vision and determination who will ultimately make their communities a nice, more prosperous place in which to live. Several views of the garden are shown below:

One last view of Elk County, seen and photographed from the highway as I began my trip home. I love the beauty of this area! Click on image for larger view.


Coming Soon - SHOT IN KANSAS! - Photo Exhibit
October 1 -31, 2009
Black Dog Coffeehouse

12815 West 87th Parkway, Lenexa, Kansas

Invitation: There will be an exhibit kick-off (sort of my own First Friday without wine) on Friday, October 2 from 7 to 9 pm. In addition to viewing these Kansas photos, join us in the meeting room of the Black Dog for brewed coffee and treats.


  1. Great stuff, Frank.

    With my broken foot, I didn't get to do the real exploration of Howard, didn't go on to Elk Falls, so it's nice to see your report.

  2. And that a beautiful use of sky in your old limestone home photo. It adds a strong feeling of atmosphere and openness.

  3. Frank! I have been anxiously awaiting this update! Thanks so much for coming and visiting us! If you get a chance, come see us for the Outhouse Festival!

  4. You captured everything so beautifully. It brought back wonderful memories of that day. One I'll not soon forget! Was fun to have you there! Thanks Frank!

  5. What a incredible photos I got a lot of memories with that because the sixth photo reminded me when I went to Central America and I saw something which they called Saprissa monster it looked very similar.

  6. This is excellent seeing all those Kansas images specially the church because I like so much visiting different churches and I can see this one is really beautiful.