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October 17th, 2019

penner lucas kansas bathroomThis bathroom in Lucas is considered one of the best bathrooms on the planet. It has a unique entrance representing a toilet and is very ornate. This is one of thousands of sites Marci Penner and WenDee Rowe discovered as they criss-crossed Kansas as explorers to discover the uniqueness of the Sunflower State. Courtesy photosEARL WATT • Leader & Times

 

A boulder in the middle of the street, sun dials along the railroad tracks, one of the world’s fanciest bathrooms, and a cross teetering on the top of a cathedral appearing to fall at any second. These aren’t rare sites in a foreign country. These, and thousands more, are all unique sites and activities in Kansas, and they are detailed in a book called “The Kansas Guidebook 2” by Marci Penner and WenDee Rowe.

The two have criss-crossed Kansas with the eyes of explorers, discovering the unique offerings in Kansas ranging from the largest Czech egg in existence to a castle built by the WPA overlooking a patchwork of farms in a Kansas valley, and they provided unique insight to the Sunflower State during the annual Seward County Historical Society picnic Thursday.

“The more you travel the state, the more you fall in love with it,” Penner said. “It has become our job to share our joys of exploring and what the state had to offer. We are trying to smash the myth that there’s nothing to see and do in Kansas.”

Penner and Rowe have discovered more than 4,500 attractions in Kansas, and their book documents all of them. And their effort wasn’t to travel across Kansas seeking theme parks or other similar tourist draws but to see Kansas the way an explorer would.

“The more you travel and talk to the people, the more you love it,” Penner said. “It is easy to share that love for Kansas. You don’t expect a rock in the middle of the road. It is all these exploring things. You don’t expect them. What I enjoy is seeing how things are different in this part of the state from that part of the state. We like to discover a chicken fried steak made the explorer way. Once you travel this big state, there’s so many different things. That becomes the joy for me.”

Penner discovered a large number of projects built during the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration that gave Kansans jobs during the Great Depression. In Lindsborg, there is a castle known as Coronado Heights that was built by the WPA, and in Liberal the wall surrounding the Seward County Fairgrounds was also built by the WPA.

“We found more than you would expect,” Penner said. “Those programs put people to work and gave us an infrastructure we wouldn’t have — bridges, parks with structures. I am a fan of the WPA works.”

They also discovered a wide variety of people in Kansas representing a diverse population with ties to nations around the world.

“In Southeast Kansas, you have Italians and people from the Baltic countries that came to do mining,” she said. “In the Northeast they call it Little Switzerland for the look of it. We have Bolga Germans, Mennonites, Russian Germans, Hispanics — we are a state of immigrants.”

She also discovered that there is an undercurrent of preservation happening that can’t always be seen from a drive down Main Street.

“You can drive down a town and it looks like abandoned buildings, and you tend to think people aren’t taking care of this town,” Penner said. “Then you talk to people and find out there are projects going on. We have a number of limestone buildings in the state, ad they are expensive to restore, but there are efforts. In some places we have stone art bridges that aren’t big enough for modern equipment, so we need to appreciate them while we have them.”

Their travel across Kansas, which included visits to every incorporated town, county and about 90 additional unincorporated towns, also led them to some unique eateries and a realization of the development of the local chef.

“The food, the wait staff, the chefs or the building it’s in, there are so many unique aspects to the local cafe,” Penner said. “The food is the reason you go in, but you come out friends and with the recent gossip. When we were on our research trip, we would go in to a cafe, and we were strangers. But we would talk to everyone in the cafe about what we were doing. I tend to think rural Kansans are the original made-from-scratch chefs. Now it’s big to have these gourmet chefs and farm to table, but when you think about, it rural cafes in Kansas have served that kind of food for a long time.”

They now highlight counties in Kansas with “The Big Road Trip” where they encourage other Kansans to come to three counties and experience the uniqueness of each region through the eyes of explorers. The next “Road Trip” takes place May 7-10 in three northeast Kansas counties of Brown, Doniphan and Nemaha.

“We want people to come out and actively explore and enjoy these town just being themselves,” Penner said.

For those who would like a copy of “The Kansas Guidebook 2,” copies are available at the Land of Oz Gift Shop in the Coronado Museum or at the Tourist Information Center.

“They get to keep 40 percent of the sale,” Penner said. “We don’t use Amazon because we want to direct people to local places. It has 480 pages, 1,600 pictures, and 4,500 things to see and do.”

And when discovering the richness of Kansas, Penner said it is important to have the right perspective.

“Look at Kansas through the explorer’s lens,” she said. “Talk to the locals, get on the back roads, and feel good about spending money in small towns.”

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