May 3, 2012, What is the matter with Kansas?

Someone pondered the question in a book, “What is the matter with Kansas?” Others have pondered if Oklahoma is really “O.K.”

On May 5, the entire population of LaCrosse, Kansas will turn out for their 46th annual Barbed-wire festival.  You see, they are the self-proclamed world capital of barbed wire and home of the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum.  All this in a land so devoid of trees that to build fences, the locals had to quarry fence post shaped rocks, called “post rocks” out of the local hillsides to build their fences.  The festivities include the world championship barb wire splicing championship where the woman ten-time defending champion goes for another title.  They have a swap meet where you can trade rare and priceless barbed wire strands for your collection, and they have eating, music, and dancing.

The Kansas Barbed Wire Museum includes every type of wire ever made, all the tools you’ve ever dreamed of stringing wire, demonstrations of how to make post rocks, and my favorite… the world’s biggest ball of barbed wire, which really isn’t that big (pictured).  This shrine to the “devil’s rope,” as they call it, was beyond words (well almost).  But wait, there are even more hot spots on the highway in this part of the world.

Kansas also boasts the world’s deepest hand dug well, in Greensburg.  There is the geographical center of the United States.  Beaver, Oklahoma has the world cow chip throwing championship.  They even have a three story high statue of someone throwing a cowchip (as in dried cow dung).  Woodward, Oklahoma has a Prairie Chicken festival.  It goes on and on as it seems every town has some claim to fame however obscure.

You see everyone and every place wants to be noticed.  Milbank, where i live has a sign stating, the “home of legion baseball.”  Nearby, we got the world’s biggest prairie chicken, the world’s biggest Viking, the world’s biggest ball of twine, international centers of vinegar, threshing, sausage, lutefisk…. the list goes on and on.

It seems every place wants their moment of glory, their claim of importance.  Is this something new?  Did the Romans have towns known for having the world’s biggest bottle of olive oil?  Did the French in the Middle ages have somewhere with the biggest bottle of Burgundy?  Is this a twentieth/ twentyfirst century phenomenon?

It has been an age old custom of cities and villages to lure people to come and spend money there.  Stonehenge may have been an early tourist trap, as were the pyramids.  There have been places for religious pilgrims to go to since maybe before there was religion.  There were centers for pagan festivals, sites of Christian miracles, Islam holy places, Jewish sites, Buddha statues, the list goes on.  The seven wonders of the world were described before Christ.  These wonders read like a Fodor’s travel guide to the Middle East. The larger, the weirder, the strangest, or most fantastic tales lead to the most tourists….but barbed wire?

Well you deal with what you have, it is like a game of poker, you play with the cards you are dealt.  This town in west central Kansas only has lots of space.  Cairo got the Pyramids, or a hand of three queens and poor LaCrosse was only dealt with a jack high.  They had to make the best of it, so barbed wire it is….

But like everywhere, you can learn something.  Barbed wire was not invented to keep the cattle ‘in’, it was designed to keep the free ranging cattle ‘out’ of the farmers fields.  The age old dispute was sung about in the musical, Oklahoma. in The Farmer and the Cowman.  Back then the farmer hated the cowman because the cows ate his profit (and probably spept with his daughters), and the cowman hated the farmer who put up fences blocking his movement on the open range.

I tried to picture the process of fencing in the 1890s Kansas:  One cuts a block of stone six inches by eight inches and six feet high.  You somehow drag it to a place, dig the end in and then do another one fifteen feet away.  After say a mile of this, you string barbed wire, four times a round.  I cannot imagine how much work that was.  Life was harsh back then, boy life on the prairie was harsh.  Maybe we need to appreciate barbed wire and what the citizens of laCrosse, Hays, Greensburg, or any of the towns of Kansas had to do to feed us.

On further thinking, what may be the matter with Kansas ……is us.  We need to appreciate Kansas.  We need to understand the values and convictions of those that built our country.  We need to realize that the American dream wasn’t Prada shoes and it wasn’t making a billion dollar company and selling stock options.  It was something much simpler.  It was called making it to spring, and the fact that you had survived another winter on the harsh landscapes of America.  It was the feeling of making something with your hands and surviving by your wits and preparation.

It seems of late, the people in New York, those in Boston, those in Washington only appreciate Kansas and other rural states for their people to go off and fight wars, we don’t give them much more thought when they die and don’t come back.  How many men and women from Manhattan or the Hamptons enlist?

We complain about “big oil.” These same people say oil is bad when we fly in our private jets, drive our big cars and use or AC….Who is ‘big oil?”  The people of LaCrosse and Greensburg Kansas are big oil.  Many of the local residents receive current prices for between 1/8 and ¼ of all oil and gas taken from their lands.  Devon Energy for one company pays monthly royalty checks to a quarter million people and they are not that big of an oil company.  Maybe they deserve this payback for suffering in obscurity for over a hundred years?  Do we also think about where that steak and where those corn flakes started?   How about that organic bread?

I don’t think anything is the matter with Kansas and Oklahoma is without question O.K.  These are places we should visit and a good place to start is at the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum.  But don’t forget to stop in Goodland at the world’s largest easel.  But be careful because it is illegal to hunt ducks from the back of mules or rabbits from a motorboat and in some cities, musical car horns are banned.  Luckily the ban on serving ice cream on cherry pie has been overturned but only twenty years ago.

Go Jayhawks!


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