Day 2

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

We stayed at the only hotel in Council Grove, The Cottage Hotel. It’s an old Victorian building with a hotel-like addition off the back. Highly recommended except that they could make the coffee stronger and supply fresh half&half. The Cottage has a number of locally, self-published books about the town and we bought three. They provide and interesting, and at times perplexing, perspective. One book takes as its thesis: “What’s a black kid doing in Dunlap?”

We met fellow Cottage guest and geologist Ned Marks at breakfast. Ned gets paid for looking at rocks (his description) and loves his work. He has his own consulting company and works on water rights.  He was a font of knowledge about Kansas/SFT history and present day environmental preservation, farming issues, etc. We talked for about two hours and the conversation would have continued except that we all needed to get to work. Ned supplied us with a much better map and then circled numerous sites for us to check out. He also gave us contact information for a guy in Ulysses, KS who does Jedediah Smith re-enactment/performances and historic preservation work. We hit pay-dirt with Ned and are so grateful for his generous spirit. Here’s Ned:

Check out the sign behind his head. Hokey, but so appropriate. BTW, did you know that terrane means a specific location while terrain refers to a generalized area? We learned that from Ned.

After breakfast we ventured out to investigate the town. It had warmed up considerably: from 3 degrees to 20. We don’t know what the wind chill is, but it makes us swear.

Council Grove is an important historic site because it is where a pact with the Osage Indians was signed in 1825. This pact was an agreement with the Osage stating that the SFT could safely pass through their land. The Kaw Indians were also nearby but they were ‘removed’ by 1873. In 1846, after a series of unfortunate events, the Kaw sold off 2 million acres for about a penny an acre. Things went downhill from there.

Council Grove was the last significant stand of hardwood trees before the plains, so this is where wagon repair and spare axles were obtained. Trees also provided the meeting place for the signing of the pact with the Osage. The particular tree under which the pact was signed now looks like this:

There are a number of stumps around CG that have been preserved in similar fashion. There is the Postal Stump which used to be a tree that functioned as a transfer location about conditions in both directions. People would post notes in the tree trunk to warn of hostile areas or provide other travel tips regarding water or trail conditions. There is also a protected stump south of town where Custer once camped. It was a disappointing stump because Custer never really camped there. But if you can overlook that detail, it is indeed a mighty fine stump and shelter.

Another interesting CG attraction is the historic Hays restaurant. Seth Hays was the great-great-grandson of Daniel Boone and the first white settler of CG. He opened a supply store then a restaurant in 1857. The building served as a church on Sundays after closing the bar Saturday nights. It’s the oldest restaurant still in operation west of the Mississippi. We ate there Wednesday night. Let’s just say it’s not the most vegetarian friendly place in the world. However, the noodles in the chicken soup were home made. Seth Hays never married but adopted a girl when we was in his late thirties. Apparently, she had been orphaned by a family in the wagon train and he and his slave “Aunt Sally” raised her. At some point Seth granted Sally her freedom and they are buried side by side in the local cemetery. One of the books we bought at the hotel is about Kitty Hays, the adopted daughter. Stay tuned.

Present day CG looks like a number of towns we’ve traveled through. Main street (which often is on HWY 56) is fairly shuttered. We stopped in here:

to find some office supplies and ended up each buying a pair of Wrangler blue jeans for about 4 dollars a pair. They only had one size, and they fit perfectly, so we had to. Anyway, it shouldn’t be a surprise and yet every time you see a storefront like this it’s really sad.

Here’s a particularly poignant and vertically organized business also on Main street:

Our last stop in CG was a small gun shop that was offering concealed carry classes. They had a Barbie (style) doll kit with camouflage Carharts, deer racks, and several guns. The owner was pretty aloof and Obama’s speech at the Tucson Memorial was still fresh in our minds. The whole thing was awkward so we left without buying a Glock.

We visited a tall grass prairie but it was too cold to hike around. We visited Hillsboro which was described as a “tidy little town that operates with efficiency.” We were looking for the Adobe Museum which apparently details the history of the Mennonite Russian emigrants (hence the tidy efficacy) who settled the town. We couldn’t find it so went junking instead. BA bought a vase with chartreuse fish on it and a stunning quilted snow-suit and Chele found a stellar pair of opera binoculars and some orange buttons.

Just down the road from Hillsboro (pop. 2,613) is Lehigh, KS (pop. 189). The motto of Lehigh is “It’s small, but it’s home.”

Our next stop was the Maxwell Buffalo Preserve. For those of you who have forgotten sobbing through Dances With Wolves and the subsequent obsession with Buffalo facts, let me refresh your memory. In a nutshell, there were somewhere between 60,000,000 and 70,000,000 buffalo roaming around, making trails, eating prairies grass and getting speared every now and again by various tribes of Plains Indians. Between around 1820 and 1890, the buffalo (technically, these animals are Bison but it would be a pain to change all the literature around the nickel) were whittled down to roughly 1,100. The calculus of how this impacted tribes and their inter-tribal territory agreements; compounded with the trouble caused by the US Gov’t's “removal” policies…I’m not even writing a cohesive sentence anymore. The damage was incalculable. One way to pay tribute, though, is to climb a forty foot observation deck in 7 below wind chill

to try to film them.

The only thing more miserable than taking pictures from this deck was being the person who handled the gear for the venture.

But the view was stunning and something we refer to as ‘Endless Kansas.’

We made our way to McPherson, home of the McPherson Bullpups, to regroup and get warm.

Digression: I am sitting in a coffee shop posting this stuff and a guy (apparently a regular) just stopped in to ask the counter help, “WTF is the sign in the window all about?” And the barrista says,”Oh, the gun thing? I made that because of a guy who comes in here and has to be all obnoxious about his gun. You know- the concealed carry thing? Well I guess we’re in the ‘Wild West,’ no?”

OK. Back to the SFT and the crazy idea that the redeployment of the myth-of-the-west is alive and well in many perverse forms. McPherson coughed up a rough suede coat with snaps for Chele and a plucky western shirt for BA.

We headed out to Great Bend and continued with the Grapes of Wrath. We wondered whether the Joads would make it out of Oklahoma before we traveled through it. It’s an amazing thing to be listening to at the moment; A. because it’s a migration story. And 2, because the disparity between rich and poor is so glaring and, unfortunately, timely.

We only covered 145 miles today and are exhausted. The Travel Lodge turns out to be a dicey and unfortunate choice, but the Mexican restaurant next door is fantastic (more chicken soup) and the people are very sweet. We try to navigate the room without touching the floor with our bare feet. This place was listed as 3 (out of 4) stars. We have a constellation of gripes about the star rating system and hope that it’s too cold for bedbugs.

Tomorrow we visit historic Larned.

Here’s what we have to say about people in Kansas so far: Kansans are the nicest people we’ve ever met. Even the lady who runs the dumpy TravelLodge (and except for the grumpy gun guy). Everyone has gone out of their way to help us.

Ongoing tally for Thursday: flags at half-staff: 12, flags at full 19.

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