Monday, April 26, 2010

Wamego Tulip Festival

I like Wamego.

If I had a published, written-out list of favorite small towns in Kansas, Wamego would be high on it - maybe not at the very top, but a long way from the bottom. Its downtown appears to be alive and thriving, and the residential areas I've seen are welcoming and well-maintained. The city park is graced by an authentic Dutch Mill, a historical museum, and a picturesque pond. Equally important, Wamego has several very nice, locally-owned places to eat.

This was my first visit to Wamego's Tulip Festival, and the city fathers could not have scripted a more pleasant day for this event. As a result, the town was flooded with visitors to the point that available parking was far from the park and the downtown district. I noted car tags from numerous Kansas counties and about a half-dozen states.

First and foremost, the Wamego Tulip Festival is a celebration of spring, a Chamber of Commerce type of event to bring people into town for fun, fellowship, and to spend a little money. Good marketing. There were quite a few tulips in bloom, including some varieties unfamiliar to me, but in all fewer tulips than I saw while driving to church the next day. One Prairie Village couple I spoke with had driven in just to see the tulips and were they rather disappointed. I personally was not disappointed, as I saw the tulips as just one colorful aspect of a very pleasant small-town social event.  

Much of the festival takes place on the shaded grounds of the city park. There are the ubiquitous craft booths, a petting zoo and games for the kids, a
horseshoe tourney, and local and regional entertainers at the band stand. Some of the music I heard was quite good, but there was some old guy in time-warp reading poetry that sounded like Greenwich Village in the 50s without the bongos. Food? Absolutely - turkey legs, bison burgers, funnel cakes, and the rest of that standard, but irresistible, "fair fare". As for me, I chose to pick up a bierock from The Friendship House (a terrific local restaurant), then stop by the history museum for home-made ice cream and cake. The much sought-after pie was already gone by the time I got there. 

A highlight of any visit to Wamego is The Old Dutch Mill - a familiar Kansas landmark often seen in calendars, photo books, tourism pamphlets, etc. Now the centerpiece of the peaceful city park, it was originally erected in the 1870s by Dutch settler John Schonhoff using the area's most plentiful resource - post rock limestone. In 1924, it was dismantled, stone by stone, hauled to Wamego's city park on 35 horse-drawn wagons, and reconstructed on a site next to the historical museum. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is the state's only working stone windmill, still used on occasion to grind wheat.

One of downtown Wamego's premier attractions is the Columbian Theatre. In its early days this theater hosted drama, vaudeville, masques, balls, concerts, and a variety of community events. At the close of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, Wamego banker J.C. Rogers purchased a number of valuable paintings and artifacts to be displayed in his theater. The Columbian remained open until 1950, and eventually the ground floor became the home of a furniture dealership. In 1989, concerned, progressive city leaders began the massive task of renovating the Columbian to its 1890s grandeur, a feat which completed in 1994. The work included cleaning and restoration of the valuable paintings obtained a century before. Unfortunately, I have yet to take any photos of these impressive works.

The Columbian is currently home to periodic dinner-theatre and other productions, and is available for meetings, banquets, and other private functions. It is also open for tours.

"There's No Place Like Home." Probably the best-known of Wamego's attractions is the Oz Museum - dedicated to all things Oz: the books, the movies, board games, souvenirs, etc. I have made a brief visit to the museum gift shop, not yet toured the museum's exhibits.  I think it would be ever so much more fun to see it with granddaughter Sydney. I've heard numerous great reports from kids of all ages who have toured this unique and highly-rated Kansas attraction. 

One of the city's newest, but most colorful and inviting, attractions is the Oz Winery, established in July of 2007. The Oz Winery produces five thousand gallons of table wines annually, a majority of the grapes used having been cultivated under the Kansas sun. I did not avail myself of the opportunity to taste any of their products, but I certainly did enjoy looking at some of the names and clever labels: Run, Toto, Run; Witch in a Ditch; O.E.O.; Yellow Brick Road; Auntie Em's Prairie Rose, etc. Whether you are a vinophile or not, you will enjoy perusing the store's variety of wine and dining accessories.


Historic Facts: In 1838, the Pottawatomie Indians were forcefully removed from their lands in Indiana and moved to Kansas, a journey now known as the Trail of Death. Chief Wamego was among those transported to the west... Walter P. Chrysler was born in Wamego; his birthplace is being restored and will house the Pottawatomie County Tourist Information Center... Nearby Wabaunsee is site of the famous Beecher Bible & Rifle Church... East of Wamego near Belvue is an area of special historic interest on the Oregon Trail (to be covered in my next Kansas Journeys blog).

Trivia: From 1885 to 1917 Wamego was the sweet potato capital of Kansas.

Getting There:  Ten miles north of I-70 on state highway K-99. Makes for an easy day trip from KC Metro, Wichita, etc. There are numerous other places and attractions in the are worth a visit. For more info, see the state's tourism web site, one of the available guide books, or send me an email asking for my recommendations based on your personal interests.

Some Links of Interest:
Wamego Tourism:
The Columbian Theatre:
Oz Winery:
The Oz Museum: