At some Kansas museums, Halloween comes every day. You’ll find a ghoulish corpse and embalming tools, a resentful ghost, robbers, the shades of presidents who might have been, highways of art, miles of barbed wire, and giant holes in the ground. Get ready to fall into some very odd and unusual museums.
At the Garden of Eden in Lucas, peek at concrete grassroots artist S.P. Dinsmoor’s decaying corpse in the mausoleum he built. Shawnee Town 1929 features a large undertaker’s collection. No word on whether Shawnee’s undertakers embalmed Dinsmoor. Undertakers (now called funeral directors) place bodies into holes in the ground. Sallie is long-buried, but she still scratches men at Atchison’s Sallie House. Vi Fick turned fossils into art.
Speaking of holes, in Kansas, you can descend into a well or ride an elevator into a salt mine. The Dalton Gang scurried through a tunnel in their Meade hideout. There they may have planned a double robbery in Coffeyville, where the townspeople fought back. Unlike Dinsmoor’s macabre display, Coffeyville buried the Daltons safely below the ground — after they displayed their bodies.
1. The Fick Fossil & History Museum, Oakley
Oakley’s Vi Fick was an undertaker’s opposite; she unearthed fossils and turned fish bones, oil paint, and crayon wax into high-relief artworks. She donated her works to the Fick Fossil & History Museum. When I view Fick’s work, I like to play detective. Which object did she turn into art?
Local mortician Don Hall’s children donated his vast pencil collection. The collection covers an entire wall in the museum’s back room.
2. The Big Well Museum, Greensburg
What kind of museum is built above a giant hole in the ground? The Big Well Museum in Greensburg covers the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well. Besides descending into the well, you’ll see a giant meteorite, the Space Wanderer; and artifacts from the day Greensburg nearly died. An EF5 tornado nearly obliterated Greensburg on May 4, 2007.
Jack Wheeler started digging the well on Aug. 9, 1887. Nearly two years later, Greensburg had a 32-foot wide, 109-foot deep well lined with two-foot thick native stone walls. In 1937, Greensburg installed a staircase extending to the well’s bottom. In 1949, the museum obtained the 1,000-pound meteorite which had been unearthed on a local farm.
Then the tornado destroyed 95 percent of Greensburg. Five years later, the museum reopened in a town that refused to die. The well and the tornado artifacts demonstrate the depth of Greensburg’s determination. Determined Greensburg is one of our incredibly charming Kansas small towns.
3. Strataca, the Kansas Underground Salt Museum, Hutchinson
Strataca, the Kansas Underground Salt Museum in Hutchinson, is built above a giant salt mine. You’ll never look at deicing salt the same way again. The huge chunks of salt in the mine walls sparkle when light touches them and a faint salt smell perfumes the air. Ride the trains through the mine to learn more about salt. Bring home a free salt chunk.
UV&S, a records storage company, uses the mine to store documents, original movies, and more. My husband took a picture of me with a UV&S Twister movie display. On our way home, we narrowly missed driving into a tornado. The law of attraction in action?
Pro Tip: The temperature in the mine is always 68 degrees. During the summer, wear a jacket in the mine to ease the shock of going out in the summer’s heat after your tour.
The museum is part of our best day trips from Wichita.
4. Undertaker Exhibit, Shawnee Town 1929, Shawnee
Most of Shawnee Town 1929 focuses on small-town life in 1929. But the museum also holds one of the Midwest’s largest funerary objects collections. In the recreated Dr. Charles Bassler Undertaking Establishment, meander through the business of death from embalming to burial. Artifacts include embalming equipment, coffins, and burial clothing. I did a double-take at the music book “Wedding and Funeral Music for the Organ.” Did an organist play this during the Corpse Bride?
5. The Sallie House, Atchison
Creepy, kooky, mysterious, and spooky. Atchison’s Sallie House checks off each item on the haunted house checklist. A creepy vibe envelops visitors when they walk in. Sallie, a 6-year-old girl who died while being operated on, doesn’t like men, and sometimes scratches them, an apparent reaction to the doctor who was cutting on her. They’re not imagining it, the marks are real, according to a renter who said he was scratched. Balls and toys move around. Footsteps echo through the house at night. Book a self-guided tour or dare to stay overnight with Sallie.
6. The Garden Of Eden, Lucas
Lucas is full of strange and quirky art installations. On Highway 18, two signs welcome visitors. One of them looks somewhat standard, with a mosaic-filled “Lucas” on a board. M.T. Liggett’s devilish creature on top signals otherwise. The other sign is the 14-foot wide World’s Largest Souvenir Plate on a repurposed satellite dish. The town even decorates its power poles.
Visitors can watch Garden of Eden creator S.P. Dinsmoor’s body decay. Dinsmoor was a mighty showman. He erected sculptural “trees” to display creations that explained his quirky political philosophy. The Eye of God had a blinking iris, and the devil’s eyes glowed. If gawkers stood outside without paying, Dinsmoor berated them through a speaking tube that exited from an angel’s mouth.
Pro tip: Dinsmoor inspired more grassroots art in his hometown. Start exploring with the Grassroots Art Center and Bowl Plaza. Bowl Plaza is the fanciest public restroom you’ve ever seen. At the entrance, the little dog Beauregard Funkmeister gazes into a toilet bowl full of floating objects. Inside, mosaics including found objects cover the walls.
7 (And 8). The Sign Field, Mullinville; And The Open Range Zoo, Lincoln County
M.T. Liggett and Jim Dickerman spread their grassroots art collections beside Kansas highways. Liggett enjoyed poking holes in politicians’ pretensions, and he used the ever-present Kansas wind to embellish his totems. Dickerman crafted his creations, including a Wicked Witch riding a bicycle and a Winged Monkey, to promote his studio.
Liggett’s half-mile-long Sign Field begins on Highway 400 in Mullinville and continues onto Elm Street past his workshop. Dickerman’s Open Range Zoo spans 40 miles of Highway 18 from Lucas to Tescott, and from Lincoln to Interstate 70 on Highway 14.
9. The Kansas Barbed Wire Museum, Lacrosse
Before barbed wire, people and animals roamed freely through the West. After barbed wire, settlers dominated the landscape. View the wire that conquered the West at the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum.
As pioneers moved West, they found that constant winds and a drought-prone climate are not tree-friendly. Unable to build wooden fences, the pioneers needed something different.
When livestock invaded Lucinda Glidden’s yard, her husband Joseph turned her hairpins into barbed wire. His invention sparked a major industry. Glidden’s invention was a farmers’ godsend. Soon, barbed wire fences divided the open range and tamed the Wild West.
In the museum, see a 2,100-item barbed wire collection, track barbed wire’s evolution, and see how cowboys cured and treated barbed wire cuts. The museum hosts the Barbed Wire Festival each year, including the World Championship Barbed Wire Splicing Contest.
Pro Tip: While in Lacrosse, also visit the Post Rock Museum. In treeless land, farmers used post-rock limestone as fence posts and building materials. The museum explains how and why.
10 (And 11). The Dalton Gang Hideout, Meade; And The Dalton Defenders Museum, Coffeyville
The Dalton Gang sometimes hid out in Meade, but they met their end in a hail of bullets in Coffeyville. Eva (Dalton) Whipple, the Dalton Gang’s only sister, married J.N. Whipple of Meade in 1887. Whipple built a house for her, cutting it into the side of a hill with a barn below. The Whipples connected the house to the barn with a 95-foot tunnel. Meade citizens suspected that the infamous gang members were visiting their sister between their robberies.
Meade has preserved the Dalton Gang Hideout. Enter the museum through the barn. Watch shoot-em-ups at Hideout Park’s Wild West town façade.
Through their mother, the Daltons were related to James-Younger gang members. Bob Dalton decided to outdo his cousins by robbing two Coffeyville banks at the same time during daylight. When they attempted the stunt on Oct. 5, 1862, Coffeyville’s citizens killed every gang member except Emmett Dalton. In the mélee, four Coffeyville citizens also died.
The grateful town opened the Dalton Defenders & Coffeyville History Museum in their honor. Highlights include a mural of the defenders who gave their lives, another mural showing a photo of the dead Dalton Gang members, and a hearse like the one that hauled away the dead Daltons.
Pro Tip: The Daltons’ jealousy of their more famous cousins led to their downfall. A bent pipe marks their grave in Coffeyville’s Elmwood Cemetery, where two defenders also rest. Follow Jesse James on the Jesse James Trail.
12. They Also Ran Gallery, Norton
While the Dalton attractions recall those who ran afoul of the law, Norton’s “They Also Ran” Gallery honors those who ran for President and lost. Norton banker William Rouse read Irving Stone’s book They Also Ran in the mid-1960s. The book examines the presidential runners-up. Inspired, he collected black and white photographs and displayed them in the First State Bank’s mezzanine. The tradition continues. On inauguration morning, the gallery’s curator hangs the losing candidate’s picture in the gallery.
Pro Tip: Horace Greeley, who lost to Ulysses Grant in 1872, had visited the later site of Norton on an 1859 stagecoach trip. Rouse was involved in stagecoach Station 15’s recreation. Look for Greeley in the station, wearing his trademark white coat.
There are many attractions the world over that are quirky and unusual. Check out: