By Paul Shoul
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
I’ve flown over Kansas a dozen times, wondering what’s down there. It had to be more than just someplace in middle America on my way from getting coast to coast.
I mean that literally. The geographic center of America is near an old pig farm in Lebanon, Kansas.
So I took a road trip throughout Southeast Kansas along straight roads through small towns and endless farmland. There is a lot of Kansas in Kansas; it takes a bit to get from point A to B.
Here are a few tips on what to do, where to go, and what to eat.
Pittsburg. Amazon Women and the Kansas Chicken Wars.
In 1921, as many as 6000 women marched to the Crawford coal fields in Pittsburg to stop replacement miners and support their husbands, brothers, and fathers’ strikes against unfair labor conditions. They became known as the ‘Amazon Army.”
They carried buckets of cayenne pepper to protect themselves against the scabs and soldiers sent to stop the protest. They also carried American flags. Their actions laid the foundations of our nation’s better labor laws. Do you like an 8-hour workday? Thank the Amazons.
In 1933, Charles Pichler lost his leg working in the coal mines during the great depression. To make ends meet, his wife Annie started selling fried chicken from a makeshift restaurant in their home.
Just down the street, In 1941, Annie’s neighbor, Mary Zerngast’s husband Joe, also became debilitated from working the mines. So she started frying chickens too.
Both grew in popularity beyond the size of their small kitchens.
82 years later, only 600 feet from each other on the same road, Chicken Annie’s and Chicken Mary’s are each large enough to seat over 300 people. They have loyal followings and a healthy rivalry. In the press, it has been called the “Chicken Wars,” covered by the BBC, The New Yorker, and the travel channel’s Food Wars.
For me, it was the similarities that stood out. Both serve delicious fried chicken. Comfort food in a comfortable atmosphere. It feels like family to eat at, either.
They have almost the same menus: fried chicken, potato salad, cole slaw, fried onion rings or french fries, mashed potatoes, and white gravy. Mary’s onion rings are a little crunchier, and Annie’s coleslaw has more zing. Both have drop dead smack your lips amazing fried chicken.
Which is better? I’ll leave that for you to decide
Chanute Kansas: Safaris and Street Festivals
Chanute is about as small a town as you can get.
Also founded in the late 1800s when the railroad arrived, It’s a small community with under 10,000 residents.
The Artist Festival held every September is an excellent mix of Middle American crafts, pony rides, curly fries, car shows, and rock wall climbing walls. A little bi-coastal hip-hop culture snuck into the cheerleader dance performances held in the middle of town.
I bought an old iron horseshoe; razor sharpened into a rocking kitchen vegetable chopper made by a local knifemaker. You can’t get that in Wal-mart.
Of all places in the world to discover the parents of travel photography, I did not expect it to be in Chanute, Kansas. The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum documents the work of this adventurous couple who captured the first still and moving images of Africa and the South Seas in the 1920s and 1930s.
Their adventures around the world continued for years. This quirky little museum in Osa’s hometown is packed with artifacts, tribal masks, memorabilia from their travels, and beautiful large-format black-and-white images. As well as video archives of their books and adventure movies.
Highly recommended and ranked as the #1 museum in Kansas.
Galena. Southeast Kansas Nature Center
Located in Schermerhorn Park on a hill overlooking Shoal Creek, The SEK Nature Center works to educate the public and preserve the habitat of some of the rarest animals in Kansas. A family-friendly destination in the heart of the ‘Ozarks of Kansas.”
A short hike on one of the many nature trails up the limestone formed over 300 million years ago takes you to a small cave: home to endangered salamanders and rumored to be a hideout for the outlaw Jesse James.
Packed with Native American artifacts, plant and animal exhibits, and hands-on activities. A great stop on your travels in Kansas.
Get your Kicks on RT 66
I loved all the kitschy American neon colors, old cars, and curio shops along the 13.5 miles of Route 66 in Kansas.
The town of Galena and an old funky 1950s Tow truck inspired Pixar’s animated movie cars. Named “Tow Mater, “He is parked outside Cars on the Route, “a small sandwich, antique, and souvenir shop housed in an old gas station.
In the next town over, the Old Riverton Store has been a fixture on Rt 66 since 1925. It’s packed with groceries, souvenirs, and quirky old James Dean and John Wayne lifesize celebrity cutouts.
Tempted by a neon red jar glowing on the deli counter, I asked the owner, Joe Eisler, for one of Herb’s Beet Pickled Eggs. He had a sarcastic smile as he quickly wrapped it in a plastic bag, keeping his nose far away from the jar. “Better you than me” he said,” Eat this outside and good luck to you”…….. It was delicious.
Humboldt. Life is Fine
This small farm town of about 2,000 people in the middle of nowhere became the “middle of everywhere” after being named one of the 52 places to visit in 2022 by The New York Times.
An inspired revitalization plan, “A Bolder Humboldt,” has sparked new coffee shops, bakeries, boutique hotels, a music hall, and new bars and restaurants. I had lunch at the excellent Honey Bee Bruncherie. You can get comfort food favorites like biscuits, gravy, steak and eggs, and avocado toast and quiche Lorraine.
Close by, stay at Base Camp Humboldt. Scandinavian -inspired cabins overlooking a fishing pond. You can kayak, fish, or bicycle on over 61 miles of rails to trails connected to downtown.
Historic Fort Scott, Kansas
From “Bleeding Kansas” throughout the civil war, Fort Scott was established in 1842 as a support base for Union soldiers fighting in the area, patrolling the Missouri border and the Indian frontier.
It is a designated National Historic Site with daily guided tours.
The town of Fort Scott has those wide Bonnie and Clyde Kansas streets, ample width for cattle herds or Civil War battalions. I stayed for the evening in the city at the Courtland Hotel and Spa.
The Courtland, built as a railroad boarding house in 1906, has not changed much and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a little step back in a relaxed historic setting… with a spa and wifi.
The Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes:
This is what I loved about Kansas. In a small, middle of American town next to a historical civil war military outpost is a lively, thoughtful center that celebrates the stories of the unsung heroes of the world who have unselfishly spent their lives uplifting the lives of others.
Student/teacher teams develop projects “highlighting role models who demonstrate courage.”
The stories told through images and videos at the center of women saving Jewish lives during WWII, reporters risking themselves to cover the civil rights movement, and so many more were incredibly moving.
Yet another reason to go to Kansas.
Emporia Kansas for a Final Dinner
My last night in Kansas was spent at dinner at the Union Street Social in Emporia, Kansas, with Bob Spatta, who moved to this little town a few years ago from a CPA job in San Francisco.
He competes annually in the 200-mile Garmin Unbound Gravel bicycle race in Emporia, which draws riders worldwide.
“I came for the race but stayed for the people. Neighbors look out for each other; there is an obvious generosity”. And Roxie Yonkey, a gatherer of stories and author of 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die and her recent book Secret Kansas.
Union Street is hip and comfortable; Great cocktails (try the Boot Hill white whisky) and a very creative menu with global flavor influences like kimchi and harissa. Like so much of my trip, I found much more than I expected on the ground in Kansas.