My old pal Jerry wrote a song that I absolutely love and I often find myself singing it some 20 years after we first played it in his downtown loft. I play his song with a jangly strum like I'm walking with the chords through a field of wildflowers. I like its bright and ethereal overtones which are reminiscent of an early REM song. His lyrics are similar too.
“Don’t you see, the yellow brick is a waste of time to me. I haven’t found a place, that makes Kansas looks greener grass to me.”
Welcome to Kansas.
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 first time came when we took the kids on a midwestern road trip. You would have thought that Kansas would have been on the agenda because 1) it’s in the Midwest and 2) it literally is the middle of the United States. Just a few miles outside Lebanon, Kansas you will find a sign that makes you believe this is true. However, my wife disagreed. So instead of going to Kansas for a family photo op, we went to Belle Fourche, South Dakota - the actual geographical center of our country because it includes Alaska and Hawaii. I will say, this was a pretty interesting stop.
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.
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.
But Kansas can boast something Missouri cannot. It is the only state, as far as I know, that has a band named after it. That’s right. Straight out of the state capitol of Topeka hails the multi-platinum, album-oriented rock band Kansas.
And if that excites you, then you might also want to know singer Melissa Etheridge is from Leavenworth; Eagles guitarist, Joe Walsh is from Wichita; and my old friend Danny Carey, drummer for the band Tool, was raised in Paola.
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.”
Some other random facts I bet you didn't know.