OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
by Judith Fein
photos by Paul Ross
|Most people think of Kansas City as one big barbecue pit, where the meat is so tasty it falls off the bones and right into your mouth. Some folks know that Kansas City is home to the magnificent Nelson-Atkins art museum, and the whimsical, contemporary Kemper Museum, where an ersatz guard, made of plaster, greets you as soon as you enter. Still others spend their days at the old Union railroad Station, with its live performances and exhibits, and then pass their nights listening to jazz. But for adventurous travelers who like to ferret out what is really unusual, this is a mini guide to little-known Kansas City.
The first site goes back to 1856, when a Missouri steamboat named Arabia hit a log snag; within five fateful minutes it sank into fifteen feet of water about ten miles north of Kansas City. One hundred and thirty two years later, five modern-day treasure-hunters from Kansas City recovered the boat in a corn field; their research told them that the Missouri had changed course, and with a proton magnetometer they tracked the side-wheeler to its agrarian resting place, forty-five feet beneath the earth.
When it sank, all of the Arabia’s passengers were saved, but the cargo–which was meant to stock frontier stores–went under. After an arduous and hair-raising salvage effort, the boat was preserved and displayed in a privately-owned museum that was opened to the public. But, best of all, the boat’s luggage and booty and provisions were intact, and they were put on display. The result is the largest trove of pre-Civil war artifacts in the world.
A visit to the Arabia museum would light a fire under anyone interested in history, early America or buried treasure. The rooms are like time capsules, containing everything that was used for daily life in 1856. Well-informed guides point out some of the intriguing items, and then, after listening to a spellbinding talk by one of the five men who found the boat, visitors are free to wander through the rooms.
The display cases and the storage areas are filled with wood, leather goods, textiles, thousands of boots and shoes and over five million trade beads. There is a pre-Civil war sweet pickle, shipboard food, Wedgwood china, perfume from France that still has its original scent, buttons, tools, jewelry and solid gold earrings, a tiny doll, gold gun powder flasks, whips, lamps, pencils and rubber combs. A sign informs visitors that steamboats brought technology to the frontier; from 1850-1870, U.S. registered patents increased from 9,000 to almost 100,000. Some of the inventions are on display: bedsprings, printer’s type, paint pigment, coffin screws and a sawmill blade.
The most touching exhibit has a bit of a story behind it. The only living being to die in the boat wreck was a mule. The owner insisted he did everything he could to save the animal, but the bones, which are now on display, told a different story. The poor beast was tied up to the last, and he went down, with no human help, with the Arabia.
The men who found the Arabia became amateur researchers, geologists, and specialists in boat recovery. Their museum is the only place in the U.S. that does fresh-water conservation. And, undaunted by sinking all of their money into the salvage operation, the guys are dreaming about their next find, and would like to draw up another boat or two from the river that is affectionately called “Ole Mo'” or “The Great Muddy.”
Another underground curiosity in Kansas City is the vast world of business and storage units that lies beneath the rolling green hills and trees. From various entry points around the city, cars can drive down into the subterranean cave-like areas which have been carved out of limestone, and which are supported by huge pillars. For as far as you can see, there are whitewashed columns and offices that have been sculpted out of rock. There is a distinct, cave-like smell, and anyone claustrophobic would run out of there screaming. Every few seconds the stoney silence is pierced by the echo of a truck making a pickup or delivery.
Many of the windowless offices use the natural limestone formation for their walls; they make a very attractive design statement. One of the attractions of the underground spaces for businesses is that there is a constant temperature of 55-60 degrees, which means a great savings in utility costs.
Dave Melzer is one of the developers of what he calls “subsurface space”–three million square feet of it. He explained that caves are natural formations, and the subsurface space is man-made. Actually, most of the subsurface space in the world–twenty-five million square feet– is in the Kansas City area; this is due to the geology and also the proximity and accessibility of the limestone foundation. Most of the underground world has been developed since the 1970’s, and rents are about half of what they would be on the surface. The space was originally a mine, the pillars were already in place, and the task was to convert what already existed to usable space.
There are roughly five thousand people who work in the subsurface spaces, and they share the space with the occasional bat and raccoon. If Fred Flintstone were a real person, he would probably have an office or home underneath Kansas City.
On the Missouri side of Kansas City (the city spans both Kansas and Missouri) is another oddity that appeals to kids of all ages–a Toy and Miniature Museum. Founded by two Kansas City women collectors, it is the only museum of its kind to combine true-scale miniatures (exact replicas that are historically correct) with antique dolls’ houses and furnishing.
On the ground floor is an exhibit filled with tiny figures and called “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe;” the humongous shoe is a Boston Celtics promotional high-top sneaker. A magician circulates among the visitors, performing–what else?–miniature tricks. He uses tiny props like rubber bands for his acts.
There are rooms full of dollhouses with early Georgian drawing rooms, an l8th century gentleman’s game room, a colonial master bedroom. There is a wee cottage peopled by stuffed bears, a rabbit and a frog that was made by Santa Fe resident Peter Babcock in 1990. There are many porcelain dolls, China head dolls, a Dresden miniature wine carrier, Victorian glass hot air balloons, German dolls in a cradle. On the walls are room boxes (they contain miniature figurines and are hung like pictures, inside frames) and French presentation boxes (they are filled with dolls that look like early Barbies).
If dolls aren’t your thing, you can gawk at squeak toys, miniature John Deere farm tools, a lithographed farm house with stables, cathedrals, a carved butcher shop, a miniature violin maker’s shop encased in a 100-year old violin, imitation foods and bizarre inventions like metal pudding charms, which were hidden in puddings and baked goods that were served on celebratory occasions; one hopes the wee ones didn’t choke on them.
In a section of town called Olathe is the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm. This farmstead was a stagecoach stop on the Santa Fe Trail from 1863 until 1869; it is the last authentic stagecoach stop on the historic trail.
It may surprise Santa Feans to learn that fifty per cent of the people on the Santa Fe trail were Hispanic residents of Santa Fe, who were headed eastward to do commerce. Because of the connection, the Mahaffie farm is a sister site of Las Golindrinas; they collaborate and often work together.
The Mahaffies moved to Olathe in 1857, and built their stagecoach business in l863, right in the middle of the Civil War. It was a bloody time in the area; Missouri was pro-slave and Kansas was pro-abolition, and there was an ongoing fight over whether Kansas would join the union as a slave or free state. Mahaffie was a democrat, meaning he was pro-slave, and when bullwackers (or whip-crackers who walked alongside the stagecoaches) roamed the area, killing people from Kansas, they spared the life of the homestead owner. It is interesting to note that one of the bullwackers, named William S. Messervy, became territorial governor of New Mexico in 1853.
The violence in the area slowed the travel on the Santa Fe Trail, but didn’t stop it. What eventually killed it was the transcontinental railroad that was inaugurated in 1869. Fortunately for Mahaffie, he also had a stake in the railroad business.
To us, stagecoaches are romantic and fascinating, but they made for difficult travel. They rolled 24 hours a day, and people were crammed into the wagons for weeks at a time; it took, for example, l4 days to go from Olathe to Santa Fe. There were rules of behavior, like no spitting tobacco, shooting out the window, or leaning your head on the shoulder of the person next to you while sleeping.
The Mahaffie house is highly evocative of the days of the old Santa Fe Trail. The kitchen is in the basement, and it is has 2 foot thick insulating walls made from stones that were quarried on the property. About sixty passengers a day stopped in the kitchen to eat some of the Mahaffies’ wholesome meals. They were very successful farmers, they raised livestock, and their meals were much like ours, but with more fat. The kitchen also served as a hostel; for 25 cents, a traveler could lay his bedroll on the floor to catch a few winks.
On the main level of the farmhouse is a family room, where the kids played, and there is a maroon wedding dress on display; it was a very popular color for brides of the day. In the hallway outside the room, there is a bronze statue of the Mahaffies. Next to it is a formal parlor, which was primarily used for entertaining. On the wall is a mourning wreath, made from the hair of the dearly departed. Among the period furnishings is an organ from a brothel; according to the guide, more than 50 per cent of the women in the west worked as prostitutes.
Upstairs, visitors can see the bedrooms. The Mahaffies had seven kids, and one of them died. There are many stories about tourists having sightings of the child’s ghost; one even claimed he was pushed down the stairs by the phantom.
Outside, the Mahaffies ice house has been preserved; it is a wooden building where blocks of ice were cut from a stream and then covered in hay; they kept foods cold for up to 6 months. There is also a smoke house for hanging hog meat, and a reproduction of a blacksmith’s shop. During tourist season and on weekends, there are often smiths working in the shop, and for a nominal fee, visitors can go for a ride in a stagecoach.
Also on the farm property is a wood peg barn (made without nails) that houses a doctor’s buggy and a beautiful black sled with red trim. In a hay barn, which was built around 1900, there is a reproduction of a stage coach and the meanest, most aggressive (live) black rooster that ever walked the Santa Fe Trail.
The homestead offers events to the public like a Buffalo Bill Wild West show (with cowboys and staged robberies), Civil War on the Border (replete with Yankee and Confederate camps and a raid on the farmhouse) and a Bullwacker Fiesta (with Hispanic food and music).
In the Plaza area of Kansas City, indicated only by a sign on the road, is the Cancer Survivors’ Park. It was built by Richard and Annette Block (he is the “R” in H&R Block) as a gift to their community; twenty-four years ago, Richard had lung cancer and was given three months to live. He went to doctors in Houston who said they would cure him so he could work for cancer. And so it came to pass. This is the first cancer survivors’ plaza to be built in the U.S.A; today there are similar parks in l7 cities, and the goal is to have one in every city in the USA and Canada that has more than a million inhabitants. The parks give hope to cancer patients and their loved ones, and are a testimony to life, joy and survival.
A walk through the park begins at an obelisk, which is an ancient symbol for a gathering place. It is called the “acceptance plaza” because it is necessary for cancer patients to accept their diagnosis so they can begin their path to recovery. There are a series of smaller obelisk with plaques that say “cancer is the most curable of all chronic diseases,” “there are treatments for every type of cancer,” and “regardless of the prognosis, get an independent qualified second opinion.” There is a number to call for free information about cancer and its treatment (1-800-4 CANCER) and inspirational hints like “make up your mind that when your cancer is gone, you are through with it.”
A red gravel walkway leads the visitor down the road to recovery with more tips about diet, attitude (“You are the boss. This is your life”), treatments, commitment and mental welfare. At the end of the walkway is a tree arbor, and in the middle of it is a sculpture entitled “Cancer–there’s hope.” Six of the figures in the grouping are cancer patients and their supporters who are ready to undergo treatment; their faces are filled with fear, hope and determination. The two figures in the front have completed successful treatment and their faces are glowing with hope and joy. The sculptor was Victor Salmones, and two weeks after he finished his creation, he was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly thereafter.
The last undiscovered site in Kansas City (on the Missouri side) is Line Creek, where there are five registered archeological sites. On these grassy plains, along the creek, the Kansas City Hopewell culture thrived for hundreds of years (70 B.C to 430 A.D.), farming corn, beans, squash and tobacco. Many artifacts have been found, like chips, flakes, stone tools, pottery and animal bones; some of them date back as far as 4,000 years(to the Archaic period) and there is even evidence that a few people passed through as early as 10,000 years ago. There is a small museum at Line Creek, but an important national center is being planned on the spot, and the National Center for Indigenous American Cultures is working with the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department to devise a plan for the development and interpretation of the site. Progress is slow, and attention to cultural sensitivity is meticulous. There is talk of only doing non-invasive digs out of respect to the ancestors and the natives who live in the Kansas City area. The goal of the National Center (it will be the only one of its kind in the Midwest) is to relate the story of the native people who lived at Line Creek pre- and post-contact. There life will be told through the creek, native plants and grasses, the oral tradition of present-day American Indians, American Indian art and artifacts.
At the moment, there isn’t much to see, but workers will tell you that you can “feel the ancestors’ presence” as you walk along Line Creek in silence. There is a small patch of male and female tobacco plants which were gifts from native elders from the longhouses of the east. These plants will be used in ceremonies; the men will use the male plants and the women will use the female plants.
Line Creek is a quiet place. There are deer and heron and a grandfather cottonwood tree with a gash from a recent lightning strike. There is a separate area where sweatlodges are set up when qualified elders (they must meet guidelines) come to town to facilitate the ceremonies.
Far from the hustle and bustle of Kansas City, Line Creek is an area where people are trying to restore the balance that once existed, so that humans can once again live in harmony with the earth. IF YOU GO:
Arabian Steamboat Museum 400 Grand Avenue, Kansas City, Mo 64106 816-471-4030 open 7 days a week
Toy and Miniature Museum of Kansas City 5235 Oak, Kansas City, Mo. 64112 816-333-2055 open Wednesday to Sunday
Meritex Lenexa subsurface development West of I-435 at Renner Rd and 95 street
Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop 1100 Kansas City Road, Olathe, Kansas 66061 913-782-6972 from April to December, open 7 days a week
Line Creek Museum 5940 NW Waukomis in Frank Vaydik Park 816-741-7201 http://lcmuseum.tripod.com
The Cancer Survivors’ Park is at 47th street, west of the Plaza
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