When I do get around, I write about it. If you want to read exclusively about my visits to United States presidential sites, you can do that over here.

Travel: Kansas

Nothing is the matter with Kansas, if you ask me. In addition these fine sites, I have gone to town on everything related to Dwight Eisenhower.

Fort Scott

May 11, 2010

After a Saturday morning of merriment and ribaldry in Lamar, MO, I headed from the Show Me state to the Prairie State, where the men are real men, the women are real women, and I apparently come from Warshington. I pulled over to the side of the road when I crossed the state line, and there were cows mooing in the near distance. Really.

Kansas is a fine and beautiful land of fine and beautiful people; they are generally spread out enough that they don't seethe with unspeakable rage toward their fellow man. It's the out-of-staters who cause all the trouble. There are a few incidents in American history that we sort of gloss over in East Coast schools, and "Bleeding Kansas" is one of them. I'm not sure why. It has insane violence, brutal mutilations and messianic guys with huge beards. Basically, it sounds mega fun to read about, but instead we waste time dragging kids to Colonial Williamsburg so they can learn the history of butter production. Teachers: stick to the gore.

The basic idea: Kansas in the mid 1850s is a territory on the verge of statehood. Missouri, due east, has slavery. Kansas, generally speaking, does not -- the land isn't that suited for plantation crops. But Congress decides that Kansans will have to vote on whether or not slavery should be in their constitution. Slave states want more people on their team, so guys from Missouri and points south pour over the border to vote illegally. Hard-core abolitionists from the north despise slavery, so they set up special companies to import northerners to live in Kanas and tip the balance toward "free state." The two sides don't get along, and there isn't much of a federal presence in the territory (troops were spread way thin defeding against Indian attacks on the frontier). So they decide to kill eachother. A few cities are sacked and more than a few massacres occurr. John Brown, everyone's favorite anti-slavery zealot from New England, sees no problem with brutally murdering and mutilating those who disagree with him. For a few years, Kansas was WAY out in front on the Civil War, plus a total hotbed of terrorism. The picture here is a lovely mural of Brown in the Kansas state capitol, because no place of lawmaking is complete without a crazy dude holding a bible and a rifle on the walls.

Please remember that Kansas is the modern standard for clean-cut boredom.

The old drama is what made me insert Fort Scott into my itinerary, meaning I was driving past and I had an extra hour. The fort was founded around 1841 as an outpost for defense against Indians, but since people kept pushing the Indians West, it became obsolete. Some of the buildings were sold off, which is where things get a bit interesting -- one of the old barracks was converted to a hotel for pro-slavery people, and so a building directly across the parade ground became the abolitionist hotel. I know I feel a lot of tension when I'm in a Motel 6 parking lot, and people at the Super 8 parking lot are snickering like they're better than me. This was a gajillion times worse. There was actually some sort of abolitionist commando raid on one of those hotels which killed a bystander. Fun stuff. After the Civil War starts, the government reopens the fort as a Union garrison, and while it becomes a magnet for refugees, there are never any battles at Fort Scott.

The National Park Service, bless its soul, has restored the Fort to its most boring time, so the site today is really just a bunch of white buildings surrounding a parade ground. Even by my low standards, it was kind of dull -- if you aren't that interested in the history of quartermastering (and you aren't, unless you're an office manager) then I'd skip this one. It's hard to imagine that site built around racial tension and guys on horses with guns is a bit of a snooze fest, but there you have it.

William Allen White's Red Rocks (Emporia)

May 11, 2010

Few are the journalistic titans: Hearst, Putlitzer, Povich. But those are big city guys speaking to big city people. Who speaks to the common man not always in need of free paternity testing? The answer for about 50 years was William Allen White, and if you're ever in Emporia, Kansas, you should look him up. It's either that or antiquing. Emporia isn't that big.

White had the kind of career that young, friendless children dream about when they play backyard journalist. He was the mouthpiece of flyover country, before people could actually fly over it. After a few scuffling years as the owner of the Emporia Gazette, he had a column that went viral (in a plodding, Black Death, late 19th-century way): "What's the Matter With Kansas?" It was a scathing attack on William Jennings Bryan and populist movement, because those wankers had it coming. They were against the gold standard! Such evil can not be tolerated in the affairs of men! I think. I kind of spaced out that day in high school.

Being against the Populists meant being for the Republicans, and Republicans were a growth industry in 1898. White became bestest buds with Theodore Roosevelt, to the point where they had sleepovers and pillowfights, and TR even gave him a delightful dead animal rug (since every surface in his own home was already covered with dead animal). White was very suddenly a big-time player, and he ended up as an architect of the original Progressive movement. Philosophically, this means you are basically a populist, but you think the people are a bit too dumb to handle things on their own; instead, you worry about "fixing" all the choke points of popular action, like companies and bureaucracies, which cruelly manipulate and hose the wise and just people. Then, after 50 years, you finally realize that the people were really the problem all along, and you get bitter right before you die. It's the natural order of things.

But before that death, White was as an informal consultant to the stars well into the 1940s. If you wanted to get the pulse of middle America, you talked to White; if you were lucky enough that he agreed with you, then that greased the skids for all kinds of fun stuff, like being president (five of them stayed as his guest). Beteween his editorials, his magazine articles and his books (fiction and non-fiction), White was an icon of Middle America.

The house, Red Rocks (as in "John Tesh Live at"), is nifty -- it's chock full of swag from both White's travels around the world and his many distinguished visitors. The dining room chairs were once the property of the Medicis; they're around a table that was sometimes extended all the way to the outside patio to accommodate dinner guests. There's a copy of "Mein Kampf" on the living room bookshelf -- White was part of the team assembled to decide on U.S. publication, and he pushed for it as a matter of free speech. His press pass from the Treaty of Versallies is on display. In an upstairs study, there's the desk where he wrote "To An Anxious Friend," another defense of free speech, which won him a Pulitzer Prize.

There's also a personal element. One of White's most famous pieces was a rememberance of his daughter Mary, who died in a horse riding accident in her late teens; her doodles and journals are on display. White had a strange relationship with his son, Bill -- a successful reporter and author in his own right, who had to deal with dad trying to stage-manage his career from the shadows, a la Joe Simpson. Severe depression ran in the family, but White managed a loving marriage; Sallie ran the Emporia Gazette when he was out of town and was the first editor on just about all of his writing. I have to credit superguide Anna for the family info -- I asked a lot of questions, and she knew her stuff cold. As I was the only person to tour the house all Saturday, she could have phoned it in, but instead she gave one hell of a tour -- obviously she admired the guy, but she didn't sand off the rough edges. That's my kind of guide.

And at the end of the visit, I admired White too. Click through and read a few editorials if you get the chance. They're a bit flowery, but he has a very crisp style and a dry wit. Plus, success didn't seem to pump up his ego too badly. When he "held court," he did it on his porch while sitting in a hammock. The house is interesting, but not gaudy. And the ultimate kicker: Approaching death, he insisted that his viewing not feature him in a casket. He wanted something more natural, like friends were just stopping by to chat. So his corpse was dressed up and parked in a chair in his study, like he had just dozed off for a moment. People filed in for one last chat with a cadaver. From there, it was off Emporia's cemetery, where he's buried under a very simple marker -- I had to stop a guy driving a backhoe to find out where the hell he was. A guy who was a household name for 50 years doesn't even have a sign pointing to his grave.

Topeka: State Capitol and Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site

May 13, 2010

The thing about being a nerd is, you have to go for it. Embrace it, and be embarrassed when you're dead -- no one finds a half-dork endearing. My plane wasn't leaving Kansas City until Monday afternoon, the tornados hadn't started yet, and you're only young once. So on Monday morning, I decided to work on Topeka. It's how I LIVE.

My first stop after checking out of the Motel 6 (nerds sleep in style) was the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. And it was really not very impressive!

You'll recall that white people were jerks (some still are), and school segretation was a regular practice in many parts of the country. That meant creating educational ghettoes under the guise of "separate but equal." So the NAACP got mad and started filing class action suits all over the country, hoping that a few of them might pay off.

There were a couple of segregated schools in Topeka; Monroe Elementary was just one of four involved in the lawsuit. Apparently it was bought by a plumbing supply company, and then eventually the Park Service got a hold of it. The inside of the building really has no resemblance to a 1950s school anymore, and the building isn't really a "museum" -- they think of it more as an "education site," so it's clearly geared more to school groups. I was the only person there Monday morning, which is good, because it's harder to focus on a video of profound racial struggles when you're surrounded by class trips of kids who don't give a crap.

But it lacks a sense of place. The videos and timelines were very well-produced; they do a nice job of outlining both the NAACP's strategy for taking down all segretation laws and the underlying strategy of the Brown case (school segregation is psychologically damaging, even if facilities are equal). Brown was just one of five lawsuits considered by the Supreme Court, and they have good summaries and videos for the other four cases as well (including one for a school about a mile from my DC home).

Put it all together, and it the whole display could almost be condensed into a kick-ass Web site. You don't really get anything extra by seeing the building itself. One notable exception: in a section on the troubles of the first wave of students asked to integrate the schools, they have lined a hallway with large video screens on both sides. As you walk through they play continuous video footage of the actual white mobs from around the country who showed up to yell racial slurs at those kids. It's disturbing, and it should be. Very effective stuff.

From there it was off to the capitol, just a few blocks away. The Kansas state house has a HUGE dome and a very distinctive look to it, and naturally that means that the whole thing would be under heavy construction when I got there -- you can't go up to the top. Also, I missed the morning tour, so I didn't really get the history of all the find things that were hidden behind scaffolding. But it's always fun to wander around a capitol by yourself. People in nice suits will stare at you, wonder why you're taking pictures, and just at they contemplate calling security on the loner photographing everything, you can scurry away. Check it out:

That's the outside of the building, the Kansas House chamber, and the state's tribute to Mr. Clean. They say the Mr. Clean statue is actually Eisenhower, but obviously they're lying. Not pictured: the many fine murals. Go back to the May 11 entry and you can see the painting of wackadoo John Brown.

At this point, the driving rain was down to a fine mist, so I hopped back into the rental car and made haste to Topeka Cemetery to pay respects to its most famous resident. Charles Curtis was a Senate majority leader, a fine Kansan, a horse jockey ... and vice president of the United States. He was on a dream team with Herbert Hoover, so he got to enjoy one massive victory and one crushing defeat. He is to this day the highest-ranking American politician of Native American ancestry. And he also was our last vice president to have a moustache. That's worth a photo, don't you think?

Odds and Ends

Some other minor thoughts ...

  • If your town is in the middle of nowhere, and there doesn't seem to be a ton of industry, tourism or people passing through, devoting 50 percent of your storefronts to antique shops doesn't seem like a good long-term growth strategy.
  • Everyone I met was nice. Really, sincerely nice. It's a pleasant change of pace from the East Coast.
  • The comedy show in Emporia was fun. Sometimes you worry that you don't have enough animal husbandry jokes in your back pocket to succeed in all parts of the country. But it's important to remember that people everywhere have the same problems. If you find the common denominator, you can entertain people of any race, age or region. That common denominator is body piercing.
  • Driving away from the show on Saturday night in Emporia, I passed a college death metal band playing a free outdoor concert in the lot next to a Protestant Church. There were about 10 people in attendance. You just can't get more Kansas than that.
  • If you buy a bag of Hostess Donettes, you might think "I'll save most of them for tomorrow." You are wrong, by about 23 hours and 43 minutes.
  • I thought that "A Prairie Home Companion" might be more entertaining if I listened to it while driving through the prairie. I was wrong.
  • Listening to the radio while driving about 650 miles, I did not hear Ke$ha once (which was nice). I did find about 25 classic rock stations. Also I heard Britney Spears' "Circus" at least three separate occasions. Someone should map the dispersion rate of pop culture. I think there's a Nobel Prize in it.
  • Did you know that there are a lot of farms in Kansas and Missouri? Really. It's not all high-tech firms, like in the movies. It's amazing what you learn when you take the time to drive through this great nation.

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2014, Chris White