Much to the chagrin of my family, I love to tell people “I’ve been to all 50 states, but Kansas.” This isn't an intentional dig at this state - which I discovered I really know nothing about. I take some responsibility for this, but not all my ignorance is my fault.
Twice I’ve had the opportunity to go to the Sunflower State (which is also known as the Wheat State, Jayhawks State, The Free State, and a bunch of other nicknames depending on who you ask). Twice my attempts have been foiled.
The second time I had a chance to go through was when my middle child and I drove our dog from Michigan to California. We had a chance to take I-80 that would let us stop in the state where Dorothy and her little dog Toto blew away to Oz. Or we could go south a bit and see Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. I’m sure you already know which way my daughter chose. “Hey dad. This way you can keep your record of seeing all 50 states but Kansas going.”
That leaves me with the internet to learn about his state that was named after the Kansas River, which in turn was named after the Kansa people who lived on that land.
The first Euro-American settlement happened in 1827 at a place called Fort Leavenworth, which has the second oldest active Army post in the country (west of Washington D.C). The state was admitted into the Union on January 29, 1861. Somewhere in between these two dates, Kansas became a hotbed for political chaos when the “the Kansas–Nebraska Act in 1854 pitted abolitionist Free-Staters from New England and pro-slavery settlers from neighboring Missouri against each other to determine whether Kansas would become a free state or a slave state. Thus, it was known as Bleeding Kansas” before the abolitionists prevailed. After that, Kansas would be unofficially known as "The Free State."
Historically, Kansas has been an all-red, Republican stronghold; a phenomenon that dates back to that movement opposing the extension of slavery into Kansas Territory, which helped create the Grand Ol’ Party. Believe it or not, the last Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate happened during the 1932 election, when Franklin D. Roosevelt won his first term as president in the wake of the Great Depression. This is the longest Senate losing streak for either party in a single state.
Kansas is known for many other things. Did I mention they think they are the middle of the country? Well they are in the middle between Nabraska to the north, Oklahoma to the south, Colorado to the west, and Missouri to the east. And in 2019, U.S. News ranked the state at #26 - right in the middle of all the other states.
It is also known as America’s Breadbasket because it produces more wheat than any other state. In fact, agriculture uses up 88% of the 82,278 square miles that make the state. Besides wheat, they also produce a bunch of the nation’s corn, sorghum, and soybean supply. And of course, they are also well known for beef.
You might recall that Kansas is also the literary setting for a story about a young farm girl named Dorothy Gale whose story is told in the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But did you know it is also the backdrop for Truman Capote’s 1965 best-seller In Cold Blood, which chronicles the events and aftermath of the 1959 murder of a wealthy farmer and his family who lived in the small West Kansas town of Holcomb?
There are other famous Kansans as well. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the great general and two-term President grew up in Abilene where his childhood home and Presidential library still reside. Another was the famed female pilot, Amelia Earhart, who vanished in 1937 near the end of her flight around the world. People are still looking for her plane, which I suspect is in a wheat field in Kansas because that would be the last place people will go to look. Walter Chrysler, the automaker, was also born there in Wamego while the great postmodern author William S. Burroughs died there in Lawrence.
Fun Fact: The first White Castle burger chain started in Wichita. Even though they don’t currently exist anywhere in Kansas, you can still find Pizza Hut and enjoy an ice-cold ICEE here in their home state. Speaking of food, because of its plain and prairie landscape, someone compared the topography of Kansas too an IHOP pancake, arguing “the similarities were simply too great to be ignored.”
In case you want to run for President of this great country where Kansas may or may not be in the middle of, you might want to know that the Kansas City Chiefs and the Kansas City Royals are not from Kansas. They are from Missouri. I’ve been to Missouri.
Though millions of wagons and station wagons have traversed its green grassy plains, I have not. I have met plenty of people who once called this place home, but none have been like Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, and Bat Masterson whose spirits still haunt the streets of Dodge City. But in my meeting of these people I’m almost convinced if you want to get a real taste of America, Kansas just might be the place.
Perhaps, if everything works out, and COVID will stop being a thorn in my side, then I will see for myself firsthand next summer as I am scheduled to attend a conference in this mysterious land. Until then, I have my guitar and Jerry’s song “to make Kansas look like greener grass to me.”
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”