The drive south from Grand Island, Nebraska, we never touched the interstate. We drove out of our campground, turned left on Highway 281 and two hours forty one minutes later we turned into Sylvan Park by Wilson Lake, half way between Lucas and Wilson, Kansas. Grocery stores can be a town’s bellwether — does it have a newer name brand supermarket with great deli and produce sections? A micro-regional grocery chain that serves up exactly what you need and maybe a surprise or two? Lucas has Troy’s Groceries and Post Office, and Wilson, well, Wilson Foods had more dust, but that’s about it. I needed eye drop tears because it gets so dry out here sometimes that I wake up with very dry eyes, so I looked on the map to see where the nearest Pharmacy might be. It was 26 miles to the nearest pharmacy. So, that’s where we were, in the middle of … west Kansas.
It was beautiful there! My goodness, in our drive from Nebraska, we drove past miles and miles of nothing. It’s kind of mind-blowing to see how far some people live from their nearest neighbor. Miles! Gas stations are few and far between in this part of the country, so you fill up when you see one.
While driving down that long stretch of road, we passed a sign pointing down a side road … it was the US geological survey marker of the exact center of the lower 48 states. Earlier in our travels, we had visited the center of the entire 50 states, now we can check off the center of the contiguous 48 as well!
When we passed through Lucas, Kansas about 8 miles before our campground, there were signs boasting a place called “The Garden of Eden” and a folk art cooperative nearby. Of course we drove back the next day to check it out.
There are two featured attractions here: The Garden of Eden and Bowl Plaza. We started with The Garden of Eden, an undertaking of a fellow named S.P. Dinsmoor. Born in Ohio in 1843, Dinsmoor served in the Civil War as a nurse for the Union Army, taught school in Illinois, moved to Kansas and became a farmer. Samuel Dinsmoor was a married father of seven, a Mason and a Freethinker. When he retired from farming at the age of 62, he moved from the farm into town and built a cottage out of local post rock with the sleeping quarters on the 2nd floor, kitchen and dining areas in the basement and first floor devoted to family living and entertainment with the forethought that eventually it would become a museum. Once the house was complete, the sculpting began outside. Dinsmoore was, at that time, 64 years old. The year was 1907.
Mind you, I am 64 years old and have no intentions of starting to sculpt at this point in my life!
Everything in the sculpture that surrounds the house reflects Dinnsmoor’s religious and political ideas. He was raised in a strong Christian household and was a Populist, someone who feels that the concerns of ordinary people are disregarded by elite groups. He had never sculpted before when he began to erect statues in his yard that tell a story. The story starts outside the front door and moves counterclockwise around the house. In his own words: “This is the tree of life. The angel is guarding the apples. Below is Adam and Eve. Two snakes form the grape arbor. One is giving Eve the apple. The Devil was in the Garden of Eden in the background. He has his fork poised on a little kid. My God would throw up his hand and save the kid.” And so the story continues around the house, until you arrive at his Populist conclusion: “Labor has been crucified between a thousand grafters (thieves) … I have put up the leaders – lawyer, doctor, preacher and banker. I do not say they are all grafters, but I do say they are the leaders of all who eat cake by the sweat of the other fellow’s face.”
The pièce de résistance is Dinsmoor’s mausoleum. His first wife, Frances, had died in 1917 and was buried in the local cemetery, but after the mausoleum was finished, he dug her up and moved her home where he encased her casket in concrete to make it hard for the “grafters” to remove her. A few years later, he married his housekeeper and fathered two more children … she was 20 and he was 81. He died in 1932 and was mummified and laid to rest in a glass-front coffin on top of Frances in the mausoleum. In his words: “I promise everyone that comes to see me (they can look through the plate glass and glass in the lid of my coffin and see my face) that if I see them dropping a dollar, I will give them a smile.” No, I did not take a picture of him!
After leaving the Garden of Eden, we drove through “downtown” and found Bowl Plaza. There are folk art sculptures everywhere – on the side of the road, hanging from light poles, in yards, etc. You never know where you’ll spot one. But, you can hardly miss Bowl Plaza, which is adjacent to the town’s “Civic Center.” (I know, you’re imagining a big “Civic Center” coliseum … no, this is a little corner office on the Main Street.) Bowl Plaza is a public restroom that was designed and built by artists of the local Grassroots Arts Center to serve a very real need (the town had no public restrooms) in a thoroughly artistic way. The entrance wall depicts a large toilet tank with an intricately inlaid “lid” surrounding the glass door and crescent shaped benches forming the “seat”. Within the seat is a circular swirl of blue water with all sort of objects that have apparently fallen into the toilet … a cell phone, goldfish, money, cigar, etc. A little dog stands at the edge taking a drink. Nearby is a huge concrete roll of “toilet paper.” As if the exterior wasn’t elaborate enough, you enter the building and find an explosion of intricate mosaic work everywhere you look. The “boys room” had matchbox cars, sporting equipment and a John Deere sign; the “girls room” has dolls, teacups and lots of jewels. In actuality, neither room is gender labeled, so you can use whichever you want. You could easily spend an hour in each room looking at all the different items lodged in the walls, most of which were donated by local citizens. By far, the most beautiful and interesting restrooms we have ever seen!
The following day, we drove down to the town of Wilson, which was about 10 miles to the south of our campground. Wilson is called the Czech Capital of Kansas because it was settled primarily by Czech immigrants from Bohemia and Moravia. Many of the town’s 800 residents are descended from those original settlers, and businesses have signs in both English and Czech. There are colorful Czech eggs displayed around town in the same way Willimantic, Connecticut, has painted frogs and Saratoga, New York, has painted horses. The pièce de résistance here is the giant Czech egg.
All this, and I haven’t even mentioned that Wilson Lake and the surrounding countryside is absolutely beautiful. Very popular for fishing and mountain biking, and Tessa loved being able to swim a couple of times every day. We could have stayed there longer, but there’s so many more places to see! And, so, after a few days at Wilson Lake, we moved on to Dodge City, Kansas. The location of one of our favorite TV shows of the 1960’s, Gunsmoke! This is also the real-life location of so many true stories of legendary characters of the Wild West like Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holiday. They have a really good museum in town called the Boot Hill Museum. If you’re ever in Dodge, check it out.
We stumble upon so many interesting things in our travels, but while in this museum, we happened upon what has to be the most incredible thing yet. We entered the Long Branch Saloon (Miss Kitty’s saloon on Gunsmoke) to the sound of a piano. There sat a young man who was having a grand old time playing. His parents told us that Cope, their son, has autism, is blind and is a musical savant. He has never had a music lesson. At a young age he heard a song, sat down at the piano and figured out how to play it. He is so good that he asked us to request a song and challenged us to stump him. We asked for music from Phantom of the Opera, Ray Charles, Beethoven, and he played them all with zero hesitation. If you stump him (which we were not able to do), he only needs to hear the song and he’ll play it. What an amazing young man. Cope and his parents live in Oklahoma and were on a vacation in Dodge like us. Gigi said they have pianos in almost every room at home, and also have a traveling piano that they take with them because Cope will play the piano all day long. It was one of the most incredible things we have ever seen and is surely something that we will never see again in our lifetimes.
When we checked into the RV Park in Dodge, the front desk clerk gave me some brochures on things to do in town and asked if we enjoy walking tours. She gave us Charlie Meade’s number. Charlie is a retired Marshal of Dodge City and now gives visitors walking tours of the downtown area. Charlie is 86 years young and has enough stories to choke a Texas longhorn. Leading these tours almost every day is probably what keeps him spry! He got to know most of the cast of Gunsmoke, was particularly good friends with James Arness (Marshal Matt Dillon in the show) and Ken Curtis (who played Festus), and in 1966 was among a crew of cowboys who led a cattle drive of 100 longhorns 800 miles from San Antonio to Dodge to commemorate the millions of cattle who were driven across the plains in the old west. You can find him most days walking visitors around town dressed in his western clothes, spurs and cowboy hat with his trusty six-shooter on his hip and, of course, his Marshal’s badge (he was made a Special Deputy U.S. Marshal in 2006 and thinks he will retire from that in about a year). We so thoroughly enjoyed touring the town with Charlie! Another highlight of our travels! If you’re reading this and heading to Dodge to take a tour with Charlie, just make sure you put aside plenty of time … he told us the tour would last around 90 minutes, but it really lasted almost 2-½ hours!
We had a great time in Dodge City. The Boot Hill Museum was fantastic containing all kinds of information, relics and stories of Doc Holliday, the Earp brothers, and lots of lesser known but equally interesting people. Since Front Street was the main drag back in the old days, they have a recreated Front Street behind the museum. In the summer months, shoot-outs take place there every day, and in the evenings they serve up a can-can show in the Long-Branch Saloon.
We also visited Dodge City Brewing twice and ended up having a great conversation with Sheri, the owner. Here’s another great reason to visit Dodge for a couple of days … this brewery! Not only are the brews great, but they serve up some delicious New York style pizzas! We left Dodge with a couple of growlers of their brew to keep us going.
After Dodge, we went a little further west to spend one night in the town of Ulysses, Kansas. They have a city park that was a very well-kept, cheap and a great place to stay for a night or longer. Come to find out, even this little town has an interesting history. Back in the 1800’s Ulysses was caught up in a voting scandal. The town was up for a vote against another town to become the county seat. The scandal, complete with charges of voter fraud, rivals the election of 2020! The bottom line was that the town had to be moved, so they lifted up the buildings and moved them on wagons. You cannot make these stories up!
And so, we continue on a westward course. Colorado, here we come!