Category Archives: Kansas

Adventures in Northwest Kansas – Nicodemus, “the oldest and only remaining” (barely) Black town west of the Mississippi and Taylor Swift

Nicodemus has been on my to-visit list for about 35 years, since soon after I moved to Wichita in the mid-1980s but it is far far off the beaten path. Today, we finally stopped there on our drive home from Albuquerque and it was only a half hour out of our way. It looks like any other wind-battered, barely-hanging-on rural Kansas town except it has a fascinating history and is now a National Historic Site, with explanatory plaques in front of a few of the handful of buildings left.

In 1877, 300 recently freed slaves from Kentucky moved way out to this remote place, building the first Black settlement west of the Mississippi. In its heyday, Nicodemus had 500 residents. Today, there are about 16 residents and we saw four (25 percent of the population) because we happened to arrive when the Sunday service was starting at the Baptist church. The only other signs of life were a slightly menacing barking white dog who followed us for awhile, as our lab Millie picked up the pace, and a helpful park ranger in the visitor’s center, where we looked at some exhibits and watched a 13 minute video about the town then and now.

Nicodemus AME church. (Services were held nearby at the Baptist church.)
Nicodemus National Historic Site

The night before, we drove through wide open, barely populated western Kansas ranch land to oakley, KS, where we’d booked a room at the serviceable Sleep Inn. Who knew we’d get an excellent cheeseburger (even medium rare, as requested) from Buffalo Bill’s bar and grill, the name a nod to Annie Get Your Gun?

After Nicodemus, we drove east, passing a few small towns and interesting sights including The M Motel in Stockton, whose dayglo yellow sign shouts in blue “Taylor Swift stayed here.” So she did, after playing the Rook County Free Fair in 2007. (Early days for the now superstar.) A town later, Alton boasted of being Russel Stover’s birthplace. The chocolate candy maker, we presumed.

Technically east-central Colorado but northwest Kansas looks much the same

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Trump flags, Ibis bakery – Kansas City/ Peter Pan park in Emporia, Kansas

Passing through Kansas City en route to New Mexico, we stopped at a favorite bakery in the Quality Hill neighborhood and found it has a new name but the same fantastic bread. Fervere Bakery is now Ibis Bakery. serving up the same great rustic breads (orchard loaf, crusty, chewy, nubby, packed with apricots and other dried fruit) and pastries, including the caramelized croissant I’ve come to adore, even if I can’t spell or pronounce its French name: kouign-amann. We bought one that had a tart blob of cranberry jam in the middle. Yum.

Sadly, on the outskirts of Kansas City today, we saw what appeared to be the makings of a trump rally – a procession of pickups and motorcycles with flags waving, American and Trump flags. Sobering.

It was almost warm enough to picnic, which is our only option besides eating in the car because we are traveling with dog so we found a pretty little Peter Pan park in Emporia, Kansas to eat our bread with other goodies from our fridge. It was 59 degrees, a welcome change from frigid temps in Des Moines and frisbee golfers wore t-shirts and shorts (the temp got to 66 a few hours later on Wichita). We never found the monument in the park to William Allen White, the famous newspaper editor of the emporia gazette and champion of small-town America who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1928.

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Boot Hill Antiques, Dodge City Brewery, Boot Hill Distillery, Holiday Inn Express, The Long Branch Lagoon (Waterpark), Tacos Jalisco – Dodge City

We stayed smack dab in downtown Dodge City which gave us a whole new feel for a place we have visited dozens of times while staying nearby with family in the small unincorporated town of Wright, where my husband grew up. The occasion was sad, a belated memorial service for the family matriarch, who died last November shortly before her 97th birthday. But we offspring and in-laws, 33 people including 12 of 15 grandchildren (ages 25 to 39) and 5 great grandchildren, gathering from all over the country, were so happy to be together at long last to honor Evelyn (with masks on in the small country church during a memorial mass) and to catch up, Covid be damned.

Most people stayed at the new Holiday Inn Express, just south of the main drag, Wyatt Earp Blvd, and it was surprisingly contemporary, almost cool. But we opted to stay a five minute walk away in a cool old western bungalow near the Boot Hill museum, on an old red brick road. Great place, well-decorated in not too kitschy western decor, very comfortable beds and a great front porch with a table and old metal chairs where we ate breakfast looking down across the city, the sound of an occasional car rumbling by on the brick streets, a few people next door at the cool modern brewpub and up the hill at the distillery in a Spanish style brick building with a red tiled roof that used to be the city hall/police station..

Sadly Red Beard Coffee was closed, but we ate tacos at our favorite Mexican road house, Tacos Jalisco, which was as busy as ever with Hispanic and Anglo families. Good tacos (el pastor, carnitas, carne asada) and flan! We had a big family dinner at the venerable Cowtown Steakhouse.

I squeezed in a quick visit to Boot Hill antiques on the third floor of an old building downtown. Tons of great stuff packed into dozens of vendor’s stalls, lots of vintage tablecloths, Roseville pottery, old blue glass tumblers, turquoise jewelry, and that was just the stuff I liked in particular.

I wished we had brought our swim suits. The elaborate new waterpark looked very inviting although I’m not sure when we would have had time to visit. We had a little walk downtown on a very quiet Sunday, admiring some of the old buildings in fairly good shape and the beautiful old Spanish-style cathedral.

Sorghum in Western Kansas

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RIP Kansas’s Brookville Hotel, KCMO’s The Rieger and NOLA’s Cake Café – felled by the pandemic of 2020.

As a travel writer (and as a traveler), I seek out the places that feel emblematic of the place I’m visiting, with a storied history and local cuisine, with atmosphere, character and grit. Some of those places, sadly, have been felled by the pandemic as I learned in a NYTimes story yesterday. Oddly, we drove past The Rieger restaurant in Kansas City during a day trip there on Saturday and vowed to return once we can to eat at a place that not only had inventive food but allegedly a bathroom that gangster Al Capone once peed in. Sadly it is no more, as the NYTimes story reported. I had been to three of the nine restaurants mentioned in the story – including the Brookville Hotel in Abilene and the Cake Cafe in New Orleans.

End of an Era in Kansas

I first went to the Brookville Hotel – which specialized in fried chicken and biscuits – in the mid-1980s when I lived in Wichita. The 1.5 hour drive to the tiny worn town of Brookville was worth it, to eat in the old tumbledown hotel that was mostly (or maybe completely) a restaurant by that time. I took many a visitor there as well, since it was so evocative of old time Kansas. A lot of atmosphere was lost when the restaurant moved to a faux hotel recreation on the edge of Interstate 70 in Abilene but the chicken and biscuits were still great. Our memory is the wait staff only asked two questions: What kind of salad dressing do you want? What do you want to drink? Otherwise the order was chicken and biscuits.

I wandered into the Cake Cafe a few years ago while exploring the Marigny and Bywater districts. It was a cheerful alternative feeling coffee house, painted yellow on a quiet corner. Very cozy and they were advertising their NOLA-classic King Cakes with the little plastic baby in them.  I had only an orange juice, resisting the tempting pastries (which I now regret) and sat outside, back in the pre-pandemic days when you didn’t do this for your health and safety.

The pandemic has caused so much devastation – first and foremost, deaths and lasting health consequences for people, but also devastation to businesses and livelihoods, some that make a place distinctive. On a happier note, we did get carryout at two Kansas City classics that appear to be hanging in there — ribs from Gates BBQ and a chicken dinner with cinnamon buns (not biscuits) at Stroud’s. We need to remember to keep patronizing these places, helping them to survive.


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Filed under Kansas, Kansas City, Kansas misc, Louisiana, Missouri, New Orleans

Return to: Wheatfields Bakery/Lawrence KS, Arthur Bryant’s/KC and Arrow coffeehouse/Manhattan (KS)

We didn’t get too much time to hang out in Kansas (or Missouri) last weekend because the focus of our trip was attending the wedding of my niece Whitney in Manhattan, Kansas. But a family’s got to eat, right? So we stopped for lunch at Wheatfields in Lawrence, which was fairly quick in and out and had a solid selection of sandwiches (and excellent looking tomato soup). After a quick tour of his alma KU by Dirck, we drove another two hours to the Comfort Suites in Manhattan, which proved serviceable, as always. We stopped for coffee and iced tea at Arrow coffeehouse, where we also could have gotten cocktails as it doubles as a bar. The wedding was in Aggieville (the KState entertainment neighborhood), at a venue on Moro street next to…an offshoot of The Cozy Inn, the famous slider place in Salina, KS. (Who knew there was another Cozy Inn?) On the way home, after shopping for famous Kansas potato chips (Art & Mary’s) that we found out, sadly, no longer are made (Art & Mary went bankrupt about a year ago, we discovered), we ended up happily at Arthur Bryant’s. Emma, our pregnant daughter, was craving ribs and Rachel had never been to KC or for ribs (she was not long ago a vegetarian).  One of the few things I’m not that keen on at Bryant’s is the sauce (yes, I know, the sauce is beloved by many). It’s too peppery. But we discovered Bryant’s offers two other sauces including, I believe, the President’s sauce, which – dare I say it – tasted much like the sweet and tangy sauce served by its competitor, Gates. We had hoped to go to Joe’s (formerly Oklahoma Joe’s) but found out it was closed on Sundays. Good to know.

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First ISU cyclones game at Hilton (bad day for KU)/return to Provisions – Ames

2hiltonShockingly bad performance by the Kansas Jayhawks (our in-house favorite) at Iowa State University’s cavernous Hilton Auditorium in Ames – the Jayhawks  lost by 17 points. But it was fun to go to a game at Hilton for the first time. We sat high  in the nosebleed section so the noise from the increasingly joyful ISU near-capacity crowd was slightly less deafening and we had a good vantage point to see all the flashing lights, arm- waving fan cheers, perky pom-poming cheerleaders and the amusing half-time show with little kids doing somersaults while spinning basketballs.

We returned to our favorite Ames restaurant Provisions, sitting in what seemed like a new dining area near the bakery, a table away from a large party that included ISU’s new president.  I dared to try an Asian-flavored duck sandwich rather than my usual favorite, the salmon sandwich. The “five-spice” roasted duck was good –served pulled pork style with crispy bits, plum sauce and scallions in the same thick dark black brioche roll that makes the salmon sandwich so good.  The side salad, broccoli slaw and raisins, was too sweet. Dirck had excellent beer-braised short ribs served atop creamy polenta made with goat cheese.  We shared a lemon meringue tart that was delicious but the cookie crust was too hard. We had to pick it up to eat. Cutting it, especially with a fork, was too challenging and we risked sending flying projectiles of sticky crust toward each other. Or beyond.


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Garden of Eden/Grassroots art – Lucas, Kansas

Here’s a story I wrote about the Grassroots art Capital of Kansas for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Midwest Traveler: Kansas boasts quirky ‘grass-roots art’ capital

Small-town Lucas attracts artists from way, way off the beaten path.

“Thanks for being interested,” he said. “I’ve got to go to work now.” Off he drove, onto the empty blacktop and into open ranch land.

It was a fitting start to my latest exploration in and around the town of Lucas, pop. about 400, the state’s capital of “grass-roots art.” Also known as “outsider art,” this is the creative outpouring of self-taught artists located far from the mainstream art world (geographically, commercially, aesthetically), using unconventional materials and techniques.

They are often retired farmers, mechanics, newspaper editors, funeral home directors (you name it) making stuff with whatever’s around — car bumpers, light bulbs, barbed wire, gum, horseshoes, tree trunks (you name it). Prolific (some might say compulsive), they might not call themselves artists or even seek viewers for their work, which is typically found on their property.

In Lucas, it all started with Samuel Perry “S.P.” Dinsmoor, an eccentric Civil War veteran, farmer and teacher who in the early 1900s, at age 64, began building a fantastical sculpture garden in the backyard of his cabin home, located on an otherwise ordinary small-town residential block — which is part of its charm and shock value. The sculpture garden took 22 years, 113 tons of cement and many tons of native rust-stained golden limestone.

Now known as the Garden of Eden, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it includes the unique cabin — also made by Dinsmoor, out of limestone “logs” — and the garden, with sculptures representing biblical figures (most notably Adam and Eve) and populist themes (most memorably, labor being crucified by the lawyer, doctor, preacher and banker).

A macabre highlight is the 40-foot ziggurat-shaped mausoleum that Dinsmoor built, also with limestone. Inside, as Dinsmoor wished, visitors on a tour can see what remains of his face — he died in 1932 at age 89 — through a glass-lidded coffin. Nearby, unseen, is his first wife. At age 81, Dinsmoor married his second wife — his 20-year-old housekeeper. They had two children.

Since Dinsmoor’s day, locals and transplants — including grass-roots artists and aficionados — have helped cement Lucas’ claim to fame. It now attracts more than 10,000 visitors a year. I’ve visited several times since the late 1980s and each time, I’ve found more to see in an area that still feels refreshingly off-the-beaten-path, making it a perfect outsider art outpost.

Post Rock Country

Returning this spring with my Kansas-born husband, eight years after our last visit, we found more art dotting the highways, near where the art was made, offering fresh views and insights.

In addition to Jim Dickerman’s metal and bones work found along Hwy. 14 (mile markers 181 and 182), California artist and retired dentist Fred Whitman’s facial portraits of local residents are carved into limestone posts along Hwy. 232 (mile markers 12 and 13, east side; 14 and 15, west side; and 16 and 17, east side).

In Lucas, along the sleepy, two-block downtown bordered by a water tower and a grain elevator, we found a spectacular public bathroom/art installation. Opened in 2012, “Bowl Plaza” is shaped like a giant toilet tank with a raised lid and adorned with mosaics made with repurposed bottles, license plates, pottery and more. (Don’t miss the toy cars in the men’s room.)

Joining several others on a guided tour of the Grassroots Art Center, opened in 1995, we marveled at painstaking work of Kansans, including Herman Divers’ full-size car made from vintage soda can pulltabs and John Woods’ elaborate collages made from toys, keys and even handguns found in the muck of a drained lake.

In the outdoor courtyard, an exhibit opened in 2002 showcases the region’s “post rock” limestone masonry. Lucas is Post Rock Country, where stone masons during the turn of the 20th century made fence posts — and many buildings — out of the limestone because the treeless prairie ruled out wooden posts.

As for the Garden of Eden, it looks better than ever, thanks to a major 2012 restoration of the garden and cabin supported by the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation. Sculptures once darkened by age are now cement-colored, with dabs of pink that even some tour guides didn’t know were there.

Getting there

From the Twin Cities, Lucas, Kan., is 672 miles southwest, via Interstates 35 and 70 to Exit 206 and Kansas Hwy. 232.

Other attractions

Florence Deeble Rock Garden/The Garden of Isis: The rock garden is the handiwork of a Lucas teacher, inspired by S.P. Dinsmoor to create her own backyard masterwork in the 1930s, using colored concrete to fashion “postcard scenes” from her travels. In 2002, Lucas artist Mri-Pilar transformed the 1906 Deeble House into a recycled art installation, lining the walls with foil, salvaged dolls and toy slinkys.

Roy and Clara Miller’s Park: Relocated beside the Garden of Eden, this mid-1900s creation is a miniature town built with rocks, minerals and shells by a local couple in their yard.

World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things: Artist Erika Nelson’s tiny versions of giant things — including Minnesota’s big lutefisk and ball of twine — are on view, by appointment, at 214 S. Main St. Text ahead of arrival (1-785-760-0826; worldslargest­

Post Rock Scenic Byway: This 18-mile stretch of Kansas Hwy. 232 connects the towns of Lucas and Wilson, running past Wilson Lake and Wilson State Park, with hiking and mountain bike trails, swimming beaches, boating and camping. Also drive Hwy. 18 east from Lucas to Lincoln and Hwy. 14 south from Lincoln to I-70. Take time to admire the imposing limestone buildings in windswept Lincoln and Wilson.

Where to eat and sleep

Brant’s Market on Main Street in Lucas has made bologna and sausages since 1922.

Garden View Lodge (1-785-658-6607;, across from the Garden of Eden, is run by a Garden tour guide and Dinsmoor descendant.

Midland Railroad Hotel (1-785-658-2284; in Wilson was a film set for the 1973 movie “Paper Moon.” Open for dinner, the 1899 hotel’s Sample Room Tavern serves regional fare including chicken-fried steak.

More information

Garden of Eden: 1-785-525-6395;

Grassroots Art Center1-785-525-6118;

Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog TakeBetsyWithYou.

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Wheat fields/Lawrence, Guymon Petro and Cowtown steak house/Kansas


Wichita Water Meter Covers As stepping stones in the garden of our Lawrence airbnb

We are on our long drive home from Dodge City (and even passed some cotton fields near Culliston, KS). We stayed for two nights at the Comfort Suites, which seemed very new and was very comfortable, despite the usual sterile chain feel. Our room was enormous. The Best Western seemed pleasant enough too.

In Lawrence, we stopped briefly at Wheatfields for morning pastries (and a killer coconut macaroon that ended up being our lunch in Lucas when we discovered the meat market was closed.)

In Dodge, we gathered with family at a new (to us) bar and grill called Guymon Petro Mercantile (the original name of the brick warehouse that was converted into a restaurant) that had good quesadillas and then dinner at Casey’s Cowtown Steak House. (Note to self: Next time order the Dodge City Strip, not the filet.)

In Wichita, we ate at our old favorite, Saigon Market for Vietnamese.  Still going strong.

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garden of Eden and grassroots art everywhere in Lucas,Ks

Grassroots art – eccentric work by self-taught, prolific everyday folks (ranchers, farmers, welders, homemakers) – is everywhere in the out-of–the-way northwestern Kansas town of Lucas. it is actually fitting that art that is so “out there” should be way out here, far from the mainstream of most things, including the art world.

bathroom mosaic

This was probably my 5th trip to Lucas in over 30 years and there is more to see each visit. The main draw is the remarkable Garden of Eden, a bizarre sculpture garden with giant concrete representations of populis themes — my favorite is one of a farmer being crucified by the banker, lawyer and doctor. And then there’s the giant limestone and concrete ziggurat looking mausoleum where you can peer into the coffin of the civil war veteran S.P. Dinsmoor who built the garden. (He is looking moldy these days, which our guide explained was due to a crack in the sheet of glass in front of the coffin, which let air in. it has been fixed but not before substantial damage.)

grassroots art

The garden and house — also a work of oddness, made of limestone logs — sits on an otherwise normal Kansas small town street, which is part of the charm and shock effect. But the garden and its sculptures in particular have never looked better after a recent massive multi-million dollar restoration funded by the Kohler Foundation ( from the Bath works company in Wisconsin).

And even more so, the two block downtown has more to see, including the Grassroots Art Center in an old limestone masons building,where we went on a very informative tour of several rooms and an outdoor courtyard showcasing the odd work of artists primarily from Kansas. ( “Grassroots  art” was likened to “outsider art” but not “folk art.”)

There is also a phenomenal new public bathroom full of bizarre mosaics and the otherwise ordinary wood street lights are art installations. (One has various colorful belts strapped around it. Another has glass sculptures and two legs sticking up from the ground. Could it be the wicked witch of the west?)

We also found artworks in fields on Highway 14 heading to Lincoln and along Highway 18 to Lucas and Highway 232 back to Wilson and the interstate.

One disappointment: Brant’s meat market, which has sold homemade bologna for 90-some years in downtown Lucas, closed in January but the word on the street (literally from two townies sitting on a bench outside the market) is that it will reopen this summer, thanks to a new buyer.

I was glad to see “the Garden View  Airbnb”  now operating across the street from the Garden of Eden (run by our tour guide, who is also a cousin of Dinsmoor ) and the old hotel in Wilson (where the Movie “Paper Moon” was filmed) is still up and running. It also has a restaurant that serves dinner. Otherwise dining options are limited. We ended up about an hour west in Hays at Al’s Chickenette, which has been around since 1947 (and also has a new owner) where we had, yes, fried chicken. Very different than the upscale version we had in KC the night before but good in its own way (except for the mashed potatoes and gravy which were grey and gooey. get the fries. Much better.)

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Western Kansas: wright, dodge city,

To be honest, we didn’t do much in western Kansas beyond the confines of D’s 1960s ranch house in the tiny town of Wright, outside Dodge City. We were there to pack up and haul out all the stuff that a family of 8 children accumulated during the past 55 years. And we found things that were much older, some back to the late 1800s, we think.

A melancholy task, but good to be with other family who came from New Mexico and elsewhere in Kansas. Lots of laughter, occasional tears, family tales shared. We did emerge for lunch yesterday at Tacos Jalisco, our favorite Mexican place on Wyatt Earp blvd. in Dodge. A late dinner was at a surprisingly packed Applebee’s near Boot Hill, maybe some others were there because there weren’t many other options on a Sunday at 10 pm. I did have a very good limeade.

Today, we stopped to see family in Wichita and then picked up ribs “to travel” at Gates BBQ in Kansas City. Now three hours til home.

P.s. Comfort Inn in Lenexa turned out to be a mixed bag. Our room was clean but the thin walls meant nonstop noise from someone who appeared to fall asleep with the tv on. Argh

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