Kansas is known as the “fly over state.” Nothing much there, right? Wrong. After a recent trip I’d call it the “drive through slowly state.” Lots to stop and look at. Lots to reflect upon.
The highlight of my visit was the Symphony in the Flint Hills. Kansas City Symphony playing under a huge blue sky, surrounded by a rolling sea of tall prairie grass. Did I mention Lyle Lovett performed as well? What a pleasure to hear his smart, quirky songs backed by these versatile KCS musicians.
Anybody who plays a stringed instrument in Kansas has likely learned their chops on a violin, cello, viola or bass produced by K.C. Strings in Merriam, KS. Owner and master luthier Anton Krutz was born in Leningrad and came to the United States in 1976. His dad was in the Kansas City Symphony and his mom taught music. For the past 22 years Anton has supplied students and professional players alike with his carefully handcrafted instruments. I took a peek in the ‘wood room’ in the shop behind the store. Anton orders five tons from Canada and Europe at a time, and then dries it for 10 years. Instruments are all about the wood he said. “No piece is identical. You don’t know how it will play until it is complete,” he told me.
KC once had a thriving Croatian community whose members were drawn there to work in the meat packing industry. That’s all gone now, but what remains is the Strawberry Hill Museum. The former stately mansion built by a prominent lawyer in the 1800s, was converted to an orphanage run by nuns to house children whose parents had died in the flu epidemic of 1918. The chapel is still in use and upstairs visitors can peruse an immigrant photo gallery, displays of Eastern European ethnic garb, and a room containing and bed and other items used by Pope John Paul when he visited the United States in 1988. “I have the privilege of cleaning the room,” confided David Hartman, the museum’s executive director.
The passion and dedication of Kansas’s people stands out no matter what they are doing. Mike Calwell spearheaded the conversion of a trashed out portion of Kaw River shoreline into a lovely park honouring Lewis & Clark’s stop there. Calwell, a retired schoolteacher, is an avid environmentalist and history buff that started cleaning up the park in 2003 with an army of local volunteers. Calwell remembers Bobby Kennedy and the Riverkeepers also showed up that year. “He told the crowd, ‘Look around you and what do you see? A squandered resource.’ That got the governor’s attention and the project took off.” In 2012 it was made a National Historic Site. “I love this river,” says Calwell. “It is 173 miles long and ideal for canoeing. I used to teach environmental science and it does my heart good to see the changes,” he told me.
Who knew wine was made in Kansas? Not me. There are 30 wineries in the northeast of the state and I was able to visit a couple. At the Wine Barn Winery & Vineyard Celeste Mikijanis and her husband grow 11 varietals on six acres of vineyards. Throw in the live music on weekends and you can have a delightful little time sipping and tapping your toes.
Somerset Ridge Vineyard & Winery is Cindy and Dennis Reynolds’ labour of love. They have 20 acres of wine grapes and make 20 different wines. I liked their Chardonel, crisp and dry and finished in stainless steel. Their Citron was another one of my favourites. A blend of white wine, brandy and organic lemon it was similar to Limoncello – perfect for lemondrop martinis or adult lemonade.
At the Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame the Linemen’s Rodeo draws 11,000 people annually to watch contestants speed climb electric poles. Wonder if “The Wichita Lineman” is blasting in the background?
Who expected world-class art in a community college? The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College blew me away. Do-Ho Suh’s “Some/One” Korean coat made of dog tags was amazing.
The Museum at Prairiefire in Overland Park is a spectacular collaboration with New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. Dinosaurs, horses, frogs and Madagascar hissing cockroaches are just a few of the creatures you learn about in this airy interactive environment. The most amazing aspect of the museum is the dichroic glass and steel panel on the exterior that change appearance depending on the time of day and weather. Stunning.
Strawberry Hill Bakery if famous for Povitica (pronounced po-va-teet-za), a Croatian dessert bread that they ship all over the country. The 2.5 lb loaves come in all sorts of flavours including poppyseed, cream cheese and blueberry. The bakery outlet in Merriam is a fantastic place to drop in and sample which one you like best before plunking down $20 for the heavy-duty gluten treat. “The secret is we put the dough in the fridge. That keeps the bread lines thinner and filling gooey,” owner Marc O’Leary tells me. Don’t let his last name fool you, Marc’s Croatian on his mother’s side. In fact, his mom used to be known as the Povitica Princess and the bakery has been in the family for 30 years. Popular at Christmas and Thanksgiving, the bakery makes 7,000 loaves a day in peak season. Costco is one of their clients.
While in Merriam, I was introduced to Valomilk. Chocolate on the outside, creamy marshmallow in the centre. Do not let this candy get overheated. I put mine in the cooler in the car and the centre stayed creamy, while the outside kept its firmness. I am not a fan of marshmallows, especially the spongy ones, but this was amazing. I’m hooked.
Still thinking of Kansas. Time to click those ruby red slippers.
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