From the time I was a kid, I learned of my grandparents’ strong connection to US Highway 54. They both grew up in small towns along this highway in Kansas. When they got married in the summer of 1935, they drove hours along this highway (in their un-air conditioned Model T Ford!!!) to get to the bigger highways that would take them east to Niagara Falls. Many years later, when they retired to Lake of the Ozarks, Mo, Highway 54 was right there with them—as their daily route over Bagnell Dam into town. Coincidentally, my grandmother’s 3 sisters happened to also retire to a Highway 54 town (El Dorado, Kansas).
Visiting my grandparents every summer at the lake as a kid, I’d driven along Highway 54 in Missouri many times, but I had never been west of Wichita on this route, so was eager to explore it.
There were two towns in particular that I was most interested in seeing on this western stretch—my grandfather’s hometown of Kingman, and the little town that literally got nearly wiped off the map a few years ago by a massive tornado, Greensburg, Kansas.
Hundreds of small towns in Kansas look very much the same: a Main Street downtown of a few blocks of old buildings, a few streets still paved with bricks rather than asphalt, large shade trees lining the streets, and a variety of pre-WWII modest wood-framed houses of various shapes and sizes. That these towns have managed to stay relatively intact over 100 years while being in the “Tornado Alley” portion of the Great Plains is quite amazing. Greensburg, Kansas used to be one of these towns.
Four years ago, an EF5 tornado destroyed 95% of the town leaving it to look like this. In the face of such devastation, the city decided to rebuild as a “green” city requiring all new buildings to meet LEED standards and making substantial use of Wind and Solar energy.
Today, the town is strikingly unique. A new main street--
with modern, “green” buildings:
New subdivisions with newly planted lawns:
And, even 4 years later, the rebuilding still continues:
But small pieces of the older buildings and branchless trees still remain as a reminder of just how far they’ve come:
Another 100 or so miles east of Greenburg, was my grandfather’s hometown of Kingman, Kansas. He was the 11th of 12 children who were all expected to drop out of school after the 8th grade to work on the family farm full-time until they were of legal adult age.
My grandfather was born in 1897, so little chance of locating the family farm on this visit, but I did find that this prominent downtown building (now the town historical museum) happened to also be built in 1897.
If my grandfather were still alive today, I’d bet he’d still feel right at home walking in downtown Kingman. The brick-paved roads and many buildings from his time are still there:
and even the Drug Store still has a soda fountain!
My grandmother grew up east of Wichita in the small town of Augusta, Kansas. She was the youngest of 4 daughters to a railroad man and his piano teacher wife. My grandfather moved to Augusta just as my grandmother was finishing high school. He was a number of years older and had managed to spend time outside of Kansas (after leaving the farm) catching up on his missed education (graduating from high school as well as college), working in Washington, DC, and starting two career paths—as a portrait photographer, and as a minister.
He opened a photography studio in downtown Augusta and was hired to take my grandmother’s senior class photo—he always said she was the prettiest girl in the class! A few months later, my grandmother’s oldest sister began working at the studio and officially introduced them.
There’s still a photography studio in downtown Augusta today!
and an art deco movie theater from my grandparents’ time:
as well as it’s old-fashioned drug store:
After seeing downtown, I headed to the town cemetery where my grandmother, her sisters, all their husbands, and their parents were laid to rest. On this extremely hot and humid day in August, there was a soothing breeze beneath the shade trees and the smell of cedar from the evergreens lining the long driveway. A nice place to remember loved ones.
The final town visited was El Dorado, about 10 miles east of Augusta, where we often visited my grandmother’s 3 sisters who had retired there. On one visit, they proudly took us to the new Chinese restaurant in town. As Asian waitresses were rather hard to come by, a few blond haired Kansas farm kids served up our Chinese lunches accompanied by garlic bread as an appetizer!
My aunts would be amazed that today, the Chinese restaurant has been remodeled into a trendy PF Chang-ish bistro!
But the Braum’s Ice Cream shop across the street is still the exact same as it was 20 years ago. Downtown El Dorado looked pretty much the same as well.
A few miles north and east of El Dorado we drove through the pretty Flint Hills before reaching our campground in the small town of Iola, Kansas.