Maybe it’s the sleek, handsome black squirrels with their boa-feather tails. Or the uber friendliness of a pair of orange cats who circles Laura and I as we strolled through Marysville on Sunday morning. Maybe it’s the ancient spirit and shining beauty of the ceiling, windows and flowery trim around the stage at the Waterville Opera House, or the view of long lanky hills dropping and lifting as the trees yellow and big bluestem reddens. Or perhaps it’s the curved expanse of the Big Blue river as seen from the Central Branch Railroad or the rails-to-trails walkway that took us through a covered bridge to walk through tunnels of trees. Of course, the homemade cookies and delicate chicken casserole at Our Daily Bread in Barnes, the bourbon steak at the Marysville Country Club and the walk through another era in Waterville’s streets late at night also have their allure.
I suspect, though, that my infatuation with the wonders of Marshall County have everything to do with people’s attitudes, words and deeds in creating a confluence of wonder through preserving, making and expressing history, a sense of place, and artful living. I saw this in the historic tracks, trails and buildings as well as tiled images of a pony express rider who gallops when you pass him, murals on the side of a bank building, the silhouette of a wagon train on the horizon, and all manner of flyers promoting plays, shows and community soup dinners. This kind of focus makes for a seemingly effortless integration of venues and events, bringing together many generations.
Yet the hard work happens because of the vision and insight of people like Wayne Kruse, who directs the Marshall County Arts Cooperative and brings ten artists (or groups of artists) to the county each year (and this on top of leading historic preservation and theater efforts too, plus his rather intense day job managing a restaurant). There’s also Ann Walters, who — when she saw the Central Branch Railroad was threatened with extinction — managed to raise $45,000 in a week to help buy up the tracks and create a living history experience for people to ride the old route. And saving the railroad, plus leading tours, is a drop in the bucket of what else she does when it comes to art and history.
In any case, if I were looking for another place to live in Kansas, I think I would head west a while, then north, stopping just short of Nebraska on the northern reaches of the Flint Hills where black squirrels aren’t the only little wonder that abides.
For incredible images of the area, see Tom Parker’s exquisite photographs and writing. Photos of mine in this story (from top): a black squirrel, Diana the Huntress in front of the Koester House Museum, Laura Ramberg posing with sun faces made by Jennie Thayer-Wood, Wayne Kruse along with John, who volunteers at the Koester House, giving tours most days, Kelley Hunt and Ann Walters talking trains on the tracks, and the view from the train, somewhere east of Blue Rapids.