Tifton Gazette

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December 7, 2012

Kansas charms

Tallgrass prairie anchors tiny community intrigue

Second in a series about Wichita, Kansas

Measure your head when you arrive in Wichita. If you give Hatman Jack a few days, he’ll create a custom chapeaux perfectly suited to your features.

Exploring this city in south central Kansas provides plenty to do, awaiting more than one hat perhaps, and so does a journey into the Flint Hills.

More about Hatman Jack shortly.

I’d heard the last little bit of America’s once-abundant tallgrass prairie was nearby and determined to see it while I could, wondering if anything interesting adjoined the grasses.

Does it ever! Restaurants with Sterling Silver premium beef. Tiny towns with fine lodging. Art in a gallery with international renown.

Scenic byways, wildflowers, big breezes, cowboys, cattle drives and buffalo. Weaving all that together are people choosing to live in little Flint Hills communities, some by birth and some with intention. Authentic sense-of-place experiences I recognized.

Big place this is to Dan Riggs who rejoices in his good fortune to live near the last four percent of tallgrass prairie in the country.

“I’ve never seen so much space,” he says visitors to the national preserve tell him about the 11,000 acres.

Riggs guides tours through the prairie April through October, on a bus but stopping to exit and stand on bluffs to gaze forever. Possible to begin on the bus and walk back.

The bluff is where he likes to talk about Native Americans viewing land as treasure to use, not to own. He calls them “pre-Euro Americans.”

Riggs also claims that “vegetable is an old Indian word for poor hunter” so listen closely when you take his tour.     

Walk the tallgrass prairie, too, on trails open 24/7. I didn’t manage a night hike for star gazing but dream of returning.

Trails are modest: 12 of them from 1.1to 5.2 miles. The scenic overlook trail at 3.2 miles is a gravel surface.

Three more walking paths are less than half a mile, connecting from the Visitor Center to 1883 Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch buildings in the preserve. Ask for the self-guided map to visit more of the historic ranch, including prairie overlooks.

Twenty buffalo graze here, growing from a herd of 13 introduced from the Dakotas.

“Wind Cave, they are and that’s a pure strain,” Riggs says. Of course, 60 million buffalo used to roam here, he teaches.

Strong City, Kansas is the location of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, on the Highway 177 National Scenic Byway, maintained by the Nature Conservancy working in partnership with the National Park Service.

I kept hearing about fine meals at the Ad Astra Food and Drink in Strong City but didn’t make it there.

The Kansas City Symphony performs in the prairie preserve every June to sold-out crowds.

Listen for more music when you spend the night in Cottonwood Falls, four miles south of the preserve.

Population 903 with a AAA Four Diamond hotel! Isn’t that intriguing enough all by itself as a reason to explore here?

Music on weekend nights is just part of the package at the Grand Central Hotel. Ten rooms, each branded with a local, rancher western theme from the past century, and with big personality.

“European style with a Western flair” is owner/proprietor Suzan Barnes description. She bought the 1884 hotel 17 years ago, knowing the Flint Hills needed a high-end hotel.

Based on what, I wondered, even while eating a magnificent Sterling Silver beef salad in her crowded dining room featuring original western art. She knew.

Barnes returned to her Cottonwood Falls hometown to create that high-end after 30 years around the world in the travel and tourism industry.

“I completely gutted the building,” she said, “and then started at the top of quality in all features and stayed there.”

Her attention to detail is clear, including wait staff skills, décor, efficiency and the menu.

“Grand Central Hotel beef has never been frozen,” she declares, “and is always Sterling Silver premium, from ranches in Colorado.”

Tickled me to see cowboys at lunch, as well as Tallgrass Prairie tourists, Scenic Byway travelers and local folks.

I wish Nation Meyer had come in while I was there. Big ranch he owns, I was told, but it’s his grandma I’m curious about: Carrey Nation.

Seems the first saloon she whacked with her famous hatchet was in nearby Wichita. Curious it was in the Hotel Carey.

That was Dec. 27, 1900.

Middle of April seems like another good time to reserve a Grand Central Hotel room because that’s when 400,000 head of cattle start arriving to feed on the prairie grasses for a few months.

Merging Four Diamond AAA rating with cowboys driving cattle strikes me as a remarkable holiday.

Architecture at the end of the street where you find the Grand Central Hotel, Broadway, is remarkable too---a Second Empire French Renaissance courthouse.

Red mansard roof, 113 feet high, the second oldest continuously used courthouse west of the Mississippi River. That means you can walk all around inside this 1873 imposing structure.

Spend another night in the Kansas Flint Hills before returning to metropolitan Wichita, this time in a guesthouse in Matfield Green.

Pioneer Bluffs is the reason why. The Gallery will astonish you with quality and diversity of artists regional and international, reflecting tallgrass prairie themes.

“We’re Dutchies,” says Ton Haak, “traveling the world until we found this prairie and the Flint Hills. Here we chose to stay.”

Pottery, painting and an eye for art and literature fuel part of his desire with Ans Zoutenbier to shape the gallery in this particular place, and much more.

Pioneering 21st century style to honor and maintain the pioneer spirit of the settlers involves the Pioneer Bluffs Foundation, restored barns and homes and a growing schedule of workshops and residencies for poets, photographers, writers and artists.

Open spaces and the walking trails matter too. Be sure to pick up the hiking, walking and auto tour descriptions in the Pioneer Bluffs Gallery.

Precise information like one hour round trip auto tour, three hours full circle or hike as long as you like.

Haak marvels at the offers he gets for a ride when he’s walking in Kansas. “In Holland, in much of the world, people walk,” he says. “We walk on purpose.”

That’s why he encourages visitors to the Flint Hills to leave even the Scenic Byway for flinty, unpaved roads with the endless prairie sky overhead.

Speaking of heads---after all these wonders, your hat will be ready at Hatman Jack’s in Wichita. Actually he’s in Delano, west of the bridge where cowboys moved cattle in the 1870s. Think Chisholm Trail then, a personality more casual than Wichita now

Jack Kellogg’s one of maybe 20 hatters in America, using century old techniques he learned from a hatter he says was an old man then.

“I can make a person look taller, fatter, thinner. It’s all about proportion. I can teach you how to measure, but if I can get somebody’s head in the shop, that is best.”

Hatman Jack designs have been seen on Luciano Pavarotti, Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson, Charlie Daniels, actors in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

The pleasure of a fitting in his shop is seeing yourself becoming more handsome. Tip a brim, flatten a crown, tilt the angle---like yourself in a hat meant for you.

Don’t skip Cassoday on the way back to Wichita for the hat; it’s the crossroads of Interstate 35 and the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway. Won’t delay you long.

Cassoday is the Prairie Chicken Capital of the World. Sign told me so.  You can breakfast or lunch at the café and plenty of touring motorcyclists were when I went through.

This is authentic middle of America tiny town living. It’s also just right for musing about the prairies.

Seems those chickens prefer life away from humans, and National Park Service guides say their presence here indicates how biologically diverse the prairie really is.

Part of the grouse family, they are, needing tall, dense grasses for nesting and wide open spaces with shorter vegetation called leks for breeding.

Remind me never to giggle at a town moniker; chances are the meaning matters.

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