Monday, March 29, 2010

The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum - Chanute, Kansas

I remember hearing my mother talk about Martin and Osa Johnson. Maybe she thought I would enjoy their travel and adventure books; perhaps she had heard them speak. I don't know for certain, but their name has stuck in my memory bank through the decades. Recently I drove to Chanute to visit the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum.

Who were Martin and Osa Johnson? Although virtually unknown today, this handsome young couple from Kansas were household names during the 1920s and 30s whose images could be seen on product endorsements in the most popular magazines of the day. Their adventure and wildlife films had movie-goers queued up all over the world, and their books were top sellers.

Stricken by "wanderlust," 23-year old Martin talked his way into a position of cook on an intended round the world sailing voyage led by author Jack London. (Martin was not a cook, but took a crash course in a restaurant). Using skills he picked up at his father's Eastman Kodak and jewelry store in Independence, Kansas, he also documented the journey, which ended prematurely in the islands of the South Pacific, on film.

Back in Kansas, Martin traveled about the lecture tour, thrilling audiences with tales and images of frightening encounters with the wild natives of those mysterious, far-away lands. One of his most rapt listeners was a vivacious 16-year old girl in Chanute. A week later, Martin and Osa eloped.

Together they worked the vaudeville circuit with the likes of W.C. Fields and Will Rogers, until gathering enough money to finance the first of what would be numerous journeys to some of the world's most remote and (then) mysterious locales.  Their goals were adventure and the documentation for future generations of our vanishing natural and cultural world; books and films became the means by which they could finance these efforts.

It is doubtful they could possibly have realized the full impact of their influence on future generations of naturalists, conservationists, anthropologists, and film-makers. Naturalists and anthropologists alike owe a debt of gratitude for their early documentation of the native peoples and wildlife prior to the coming of white explorers and sports hunters.  Martin was one of the first wildlife cinematographers, and a pioneer in the use of multiple synchronized cameras, slow motion, and remote control cameras which were especially useful in those day before zoom lenses.

Another first for the Johnsons which I found interesting - product placement, a practice we now take for granted. The leading cola drink manufacturer paid a handsome sum to have Martin and Osa relaxing on the African veldt with a particular soft drink in hand; natives could be seen wearing American kitchen aprons with the name of a leading coffee; etc. They were clever in coming up with new marketing angles to finance their operations. 

The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum occupies half of Chanute's 1902 Santa Fe Railway Depot - a superb re-cycling of this grand old building. (The other half is a public library.) The ground floor includes the Snark Theatre showing a long but very interesting video presentation, The Explorer Library, a museum gift shop, and The Imperato African Gallery, an impressive collection of primitive artworks and artifacts. As a rule, I find little of interest in the traditional folk art of Africa, but there were a number of fascinating and unique objects which caught my eye, especially the ceremonial masks. I'm guessing many of the ladies will find two display cases of jewelry and necklaces to be of particular interest.

The second floor contains meeting rooms and the Selsor Art Gallery devoted to artistic forms featuring natural subjects. The main attraction of the upper level is the Johnson Exhibition - a gallery dedicated to Martin and Osa. Rather than filling the hall with as many artifacts as possible, the bane of many local and regional museums, the curators have been careful to create a visually pleasing space that leaves a memorable impression while telling the Martin and Osa Johnson story. I left the museum inspired to learn more about this adventurous couple, not weary. Rarely does a museum visit take me to that place.

The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum is a private, non-profit Public Trust funded by memberships, contributions, admissions and museum shop sales. 

The Octave Chanute Memorial - a mobile sculpture replicating the Wright brothers' flying machine, commemorating important relationship between the town's namesake and and the birth of flight. French-born Octave Chanute never was a resident of Chanute, Kansas; however, one of the four railroads he built through Kansas made the town possible.

Chanute was an engineer by profession, credited with building several important railroad bridges (including Kansas City's Hannibal Bridge) as well as the stockyards in Chicago and Kansas City. He also developed an interest and expertise in the developing science of aviation. His book on the subject of gliders caught the attention of Wilbur and Orville Wright, who contacted him. Chanute served as a mentor to the young aviators, and the shape of their Kitty Hawk flying machine frame was strongly influenced by Chanute's successful glider design. [This is the same Octave Chanute who platted the city of Lenexa.]

A real, honest-to-goodness, old-time soda fountain: Drop into the Cardinal Drug Store (on the main drag downtown) for an old-fashioned soda fountain treat, and a look at one of the dwindling number of such fixtures in use. The soda fountain was not originally part of this store, but purchased, restored, and moved to this location by the owner. The back bar dates to 1914, and the counter portion with soda fountain to 1937.  

Images and text copyrighted © 2010 by Frank Thompson. 

The Martin & Osa Johnson Safari Museum:
Martin & Osa Johnson biography (Kansas State Historical Society):
Octave Chanute Biographical Information: 
Chanute Area Chamber of Commerce & Office of Tourism:

Simba - 1928 (excerpt):
Congorilla - 1932 [the first sound movie made entirely in Africa] (excerpt):
Osa Johnson jazz dancing with pygmies (excerpt from Congorilla):


Coming Soon to a Leavenworth Near You!! 
The Kansas Sampler Festival features more than 300 booths providing a sample of what there is to see and do in Kansas - whether you are looking for hiking trails, historic sites, natural landmarks, unique restaurants, off-the-beaten track eateries, architectural gems, hole-in-wall performing centers, artists-at-work, specialty shops, or have-to-be-there Kansas events! May 1-2 at Ray Miller Park (next to K-7 at the south edge of town) More info at:

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Lucas, Kansas - More Than a Side Trip

When folks ask me about short side trips along Interstate 70 en route to Denver and other points west, I usually mention Lucas, Kansas, the Grassroots Arts Capital of Kansas as a prime option. In reality, this quirky little burg's status transcends that of a brief diversion from the four lanes of endless concrete, and should be considered a full-fledged destination on its own.You can't see or fully appreciate Lucas in an hour or less.

Located in the heart of central Kansas' rugged Post Rock Country, Lucas attracts thousands of curious visitors each year. Most are drawn by the lure of S.P. Dinsmoor's iconic Garden of Eden, then discover so many other sites of interest that they devote half a day or more to Lucas. In this blog, as lengthy as it is, I haven't even covered all the sights.

Click on images to see full size...


Grassroots Art Center ~ Lucas, KansasI like to start a Lucas visit at the Grassroots Art Center, a museum dedicated to collecting and preserving the creations of eccentric and talented, yet untrained artists. Some call these works outsider art, some call it trash art or roadside art, art brut, primitive art, raw art, and on and on. Many of these artists just create for the fun of making something unique, while some use their craft for serious social or political commentary.

There is a surprise around each corner at the Grassroots Art Center. Since 1995, Director Rosslyn Schultz and her volunteers have been assembling a wide variety of artworks created from a virtual "garbage dump" of materials/media: nutshells, chewing gum (used of course), computer parts, rocks, barbie dolls, or aluminum can pull-tops.

Shown above is a portion of the Inez Marshall Gallery, carvings from Kansas limestone.

This two-seater car was made entirely of aluminum can pull-tabs by Herman Divers of Topeka, Kansas.


Above is a portion of the display of "totem pole art" done by M.T. Liggett of Mullinville, Kansas. Hundreds of these scrap metal art works line his property along US Highway 400 on either side of Mullinville. From personal experience, I can relate that Liggett is every bit the cantankerous old coot his art would lead you to believe. (Liggett is one of the folks featured in a recently released documentary film, "What's Wrong With Kansas?")

[Note - The Grassroots Art Center is open during winter months, but with an abbreviated schedule. Be certain to check their schedule before loading the kiddies into the SUV.]


This is where it all started - Lucas' grassroots art movement, that is. Samuel P. Dinsmoor, a retired school teacher, Civil War veteran, farmer, Free Mason, free-thinker and Populist politician came to Lucas from Ohio. In 1907, at the age of 64, he began constructing his limestone "log cabin" and the first of his 50 ideology-espousing, concrete sculptures which became a profitable attraction even before their completion 23 years later. That is not say it was always popular with neighbors while he lived.
Adam and Eve in the Garden with the serpent and the fruit of knowledge.
The death of Abel.

Care to view Mr. Dinsmoor, himself? Macabre as it might seem to some, that is another of the attractions at the Garden of Eden. His mummified remains may be seen through the glass top of his coffin, which rests inside the immense mausoleum he built in the corner of his garden.


As a little girl, Florence Deeble watched with amazement as her neighbor, Mr. Dinsmoor, built those fascinating images. Decades later, as a retired high school teacher, she created her own concrete environment, remembering favorite places from her travels. Many of the rocks in her garden were collected in 50 years of travels.

Readers interested in viewing more photos of these rock gardens might wish to check out Dave Leiker's excellent images at

After Florence Deeble's death, the home and rock garden became the property of the Grassroots Art Center. The house itself remained empty prior to the unexpected arrival of visionary artist Mri-Pilar, who has created one of the most surprising places in the entire state. After covering the walls and ceilings of seven rooms with a silver insulating material, Mri-Pilar began filling those spaces with numerous small pieces assembled from recycled materials of every type, most notably discarded Barbie Dolls and computer mother boards.

[Note - Florence's Rock Garden and the Garden of Isis are included with admission to the Grassroots Art Center.]

Eric Abraham is the World Renowned Professional Professor of Porkelain Proficiency. Most of his work is in porcelain, but if you are thinking Hummel or LladrĂ³ or Precious Moments figurines, do a mental control-alt-delete and start again from scratch. My own introduction to his inventive art was this past fall, while leading a group of friends on a tour of Lucas. Mr. Abraham was out of town, but had left a key to the gallery/studio with the folks at the Grassroots Art Center. What fun we had!

Unlike the majority of grassroots artists represented in Lucas, Eric Abraham is a degreed, "classically-trained," highly-skilled, master artist and craftsman. In common with the "outsider artists" of Lucas, his work can be described as inventive, off-beat, witty, etc. Rather than waste further space in a vain attempt to describe his creations, I'll post a couple of photos and recommend that you visit the Flying Pig Gallery.

Friends Jolene and Howard in mirror.

There once was an empty lot next to the Ford dealership on the main street. Empty until Mri-Pilar dreamed up the idea of filling it with American Fork Art (yes, fork, not folk art) in the spot, and a new "sub-genre" of outsider art took hold in Lucas. Folks all over town began sticking forks in things. In addition to a fork art gallery, the good folks in town are now constructing a new public restroom in that lot for all the visitors. I can't wait to see what that will be like!

I now have a new respect for bologna, realizing what it is like to eat the real thing, not the pre-packaged stuff we buy in the super market. Brant's Meat Market has been in business for 88 years in Lucas. Signature products are the smoked bacon, smoked home-made sausage, and their own Czech-style ring bologna. (We purchased some of the ring bologna, but not nearly enough.) Third generation owner Doug Brant will proudly tell you about the store's history and products or discuss the advantages of small-town life.



I first viewed this attraction at the Belger Art Center in Kansas City's Crossroads District, part of a temporary exhibition of "Detour Art." Or maybe it was on public television's "Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations." Anyway, if this mobile collection is not on the road, it can be seen in the Lucas back yard of its creator and curator, Erika Nelson. That just happens to be next door to Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden.  Read more about this traveling roadside attraction and museum at: While there, take a look at the "chairy" tree, and if you are extra-fortunate you might just catch sight of her demons vehicle.

Located a the south edge of town on state highway K-18, across the road from Lucas International Airport. It's made from a 14 foot, decommissioned satellite dish, another Erika Nelson, this one commissioned by the Grassroots Art Center.


If you are making a weekend out of your visit, or just want a change of pace from the mind-bending art you've seen, here are a couple of ideas. Those who have driven to Lucas from the south (K-232 to K-18), have already been on the Post Rock Scenic Byway, with a rugged beauty which surprises those accustomed to only seeing Kansas from the nearby interstate. Get off the road and visit Wilson Lake, as well.  It has great fishing, camping, water sports, and hiking trails through the rocky hills.... Shop for quality artwork, crafts and Kansas souvenirs at Kansas Originals, at the south end of the Post Rock Scenic Byway, where it intersects with I-70.... Just a few miles further to the south is Wilson, the Czech Capital of Kansas. In spite of the recent tragic fire which destroyed its historic opera house, Wilson has several sites of interest including the hotel where scenes of the movie "Paper Moon" were filmed, and a unique round, native limestone jail building.


If your trip to Lucas and surrounding attractions includes an over-night stay, there are several lodging options, including several motels in nearby Russell and the highly-rated Stone Cottage Farm along the Post Rock Scenic Byway. Camp sites available at beautiful Lake Wilson State Park.

I can personally recommend the Simple Haven Bed and Breakfast (shown left)  in Wilson, sixteen miles south of Lucas and close to the interstate. The 1886 limestone farmhouse is a charming B&B operated by Joe and Susan Curtiss.  Quaint, but modern and comfy rooms, reasonable prices, and a full home-made breakfast, including Susan's amazing, baked apple-cinnamon french toast.


Eric Abraham's Flying Pig Studio & Gallery:
Grassroots Art Center:
Post Rock Scenic Byway:
Kansas Originals:
Simple Haven B&B:
Stone Cottage Farm B&B:

Comments? - Feedback is welcome and encouraged: positive, negative, questions about the sites I've visited, whatever. They all help me know that my reports are being read, that I'm not just entertaining my ego by posting my photos and comments on the internet.

All content copyright (c) 2010 Frank Thompson.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tiffany in Kansas

    The Ascension (Luke 24: 50-51)

Stained Glass Windows by 
Louis Comfort Tiffany

The Windows of Comfort
First Presbyterian Church, Topeka

One of the few television shows I try to watch on a regular basis is PBS' "Antiques Roadshow."  Fans of the Roadshow can expect to see Tiffany items, whether lampshades or vases or fakes, show up on a regular basis. On a recent visit to Topeka's First Presbyterian Church, I had the opportunity to experience and photograph some of his larger works - a spectacular set of stained glass windows.

Louis Comfort Tiffany himself traveled to Topeka to visit the church in order to create a design appropriate for that specific sanctuary. The windows were completed and installed in 1912.

Tiffany windows are characterized by a rich color saturation unmatched by his imitators who merely painted on glass. In contrast, Tiffany's unique "favrile" glass was fabricated without paint, enamels, or stains, the colors being embedded in the glass itself. His proprietary formula included metallic additives (copper, magnesium, cobalt, gold, etc.) which produced the vibrant colors, further enhanced by using using layers of glass, and/or altering the surface texture. Tiffany ordered his formula to be destroyed after his death.  

The Ascension, shown above, is quite large in scale, and located above the balcony at the rear of the sanctuary. Below are some of my other favorite windows in the collection:

Christ Blessing the Little Children  Matthew 19:14 "but Jesus said, 'Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.'"

Detail shot of Christ Blessing the Little Children (shown above)

Christ and Nicodemus  John 3:2 "This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, 'Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.'"

Christ and the Valiant Woman (now commonly translated "virtuous" woman) To the woman representing the utmost in Christian love and charity. Proverbs 31:28 "Her children call her blessed, her husband praises her."

Landscape Window  Psalm 42:1 "As the (deer) pants for the water brooks, my soul pants after you, O God."

Medallion, or Jeweled, Windows  Underneath the two sets of balcony stairs are windows similar in color and design, each reminiscent of 13th century designs, and containing different ecclesiastical symbols. 

View of the church sanctuary as seen from under the balcony toward the altar. The rose window above the chancel is not a Tiffany, but still a beautiful stained glass work.
The First Presbyterian Church is located at the corner of 7th and Harrison in Topeka, across the street (west) of the state capital building. The sanctuary, and The Windows of Comfort, are open for public viewing Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

The church's web site:

Also on the day's agenda: 
  • Lunch at Porubsky's in Little Russia, a one-of-a-kind Topeka experience.
  • A visit to Wolfe's Camera Shop to pick up a couple of camera accessories. For my money, Wolfe's is one of the best camera shops around (not affiliated with the Wolf/Fitz camera chain)/
  • A brief stop at the Great Overland Station, the Union Pacific Passenger Terminal turned railroad museum, for a couple of exterior shots.