Category Archives: Kansas

Garden of Eden/Grassroots art – Lucas, Kansas

Here’s a story I wrote about the Grassroots art Capital of Kansas for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Midwest Traveler: Kansas boasts quirky ‘grass-roots art’ capital

Small-town Lucas attracts artists from way, way off the beaten path.

“Thanks for being interested,” he said. “I’ve got to go to work now.” Off he drove, onto the empty blacktop and into open ranch land.

It was a fitting start to my latest exploration in and around the town of Lucas, pop. about 400, the state’s capital of “grass-roots art.” Also known as “outsider art,” this is the creative outpouring of self-taught artists located far from the mainstream art world (geographically, commercially, aesthetically), using unconventional materials and techniques.

They are often retired farmers, mechanics, newspaper editors, funeral home directors (you name it) making stuff with whatever’s around — car bumpers, light bulbs, barbed wire, gum, horseshoes, tree trunks (you name it). Prolific (some might say compulsive), they might not call themselves artists or even seek viewers for their work, which is typically found on their property.

In Lucas, it all started with Samuel Perry “S.P.” Dinsmoor, an eccentric Civil War veteran, farmer and teacher who in the early 1900s, at age 64, began building a fantastical sculpture garden in the backyard of his cabin home, located on an otherwise ordinary small-town residential block — which is part of its charm and shock value. The sculpture garden took 22 years, 113 tons of cement and many tons of native rust-stained golden limestone.

Now known as the Garden of Eden, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it includes the unique cabin — also made by Dinsmoor, out of limestone “logs” — and the garden, with sculptures representing biblical figures (most notably Adam and Eve) and populist themes (most memorably, labor being crucified by the lawyer, doctor, preacher and banker).

A macabre highlight is the 40-foot ziggurat-shaped mausoleum that Dinsmoor built, also with limestone. Inside, as Dinsmoor wished, visitors on a tour can see what remains of his face — he died in 1932 at age 89 — through a glass-lidded coffin. Nearby, unseen, is his first wife. At age 81, Dinsmoor married his second wife — his 20-year-old housekeeper. They had two children.

Since Dinsmoor’s day, locals and transplants — including grass-roots artists and aficionados — have helped cement Lucas’ claim to fame. It now attracts more than 10,000 visitors a year. I’ve visited several times since the late 1980s and each time, I’ve found more to see in an area that still feels refreshingly off-the-beaten-path, making it a perfect outsider art outpost.

Post Rock Country

Returning this spring with my Kansas-born husband, eight years after our last visit, we found more art dotting the highways, near where the art was made, offering fresh views and insights.

In addition to Jim Dickerman’s metal and bones work found along Hwy. 14 (mile markers 181 and 182), California artist and retired dentist Fred Whitman’s facial portraits of local residents are carved into limestone posts along Hwy. 232 (mile markers 12 and 13, east side; 14 and 15, west side; and 16 and 17, east side).

In Lucas, along the sleepy, two-block downtown bordered by a water tower and a grain elevator, we found a spectacular public bathroom/art installation. Opened in 2012, “Bowl Plaza” is shaped like a giant toilet tank with a raised lid and adorned with mosaics made with repurposed bottles, license plates, pottery and more. (Don’t miss the toy cars in the men’s room.)

Joining several others on a guided tour of the Grassroots Art Center, opened in 1995, we marveled at painstaking work of Kansans, including Herman Divers’ full-size car made from vintage soda can pulltabs and John Woods’ elaborate collages made from toys, keys and even handguns found in the muck of a drained lake.

In the outdoor courtyard, an exhibit opened in 2002 showcases the region’s “post rock” limestone masonry. Lucas is Post Rock Country, where stone masons during the turn of the 20th century made fence posts — and many buildings — out of the limestone because the treeless prairie ruled out wooden posts.

As for the Garden of Eden, it looks better than ever, thanks to a major 2012 restoration of the garden and cabin supported by the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation. Sculptures once darkened by age are now cement-colored, with dabs of pink that even some tour guides didn’t know were there.

Getting there

From the Twin Cities, Lucas, Kan., is 672 miles southwest, via Interstates 35 and 70 to Exit 206 and Kansas Hwy. 232.

Other attractions

Florence Deeble Rock Garden/The Garden of Isis: The rock garden is the handiwork of a Lucas teacher, inspired by S.P. Dinsmoor to create her own backyard masterwork in the 1930s, using colored concrete to fashion “postcard scenes” from her travels. In 2002, Lucas artist Mri-Pilar transformed the 1906 Deeble House into a recycled art installation, lining the walls with foil, salvaged dolls and toy slinkys.

Roy and Clara Miller’s Park: Relocated beside the Garden of Eden, this mid-1900s creation is a miniature town built with rocks, minerals and shells by a local couple in their yard.

World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things: Artist Erika Nelson’s tiny versions of giant things — including Minnesota’s big lutefisk and ball of twine — are on view, by appointment, at 214 S. Main St. Text ahead of arrival (1-785-760-0826; worldslargest­things.com).

Post Rock Scenic Byway: This 18-mile stretch of Kansas Hwy. 232 connects the towns of Lucas and Wilson, running past Wilson Lake and Wilson State Park, with hiking and mountain bike trails, swimming beaches, boating and camping. Also drive Hwy. 18 east from Lucas to Lincoln and Hwy. 14 south from Lincoln to I-70. Take time to admire the imposing limestone buildings in windswept Lincoln and Wilson.

Where to eat and sleep

Brant’s Market on Main Street in Lucas has made bologna and sausages since 1922.

Garden View Lodge (1-785-658-6607; airbnb.com), across from the Garden of Eden, is run by a Garden tour guide and Dinsmoor descendant.

Midland Railroad Hotel (1-785-658-2284; midlandrailroadhotel.com) in Wilson was a film set for the 1973 movie “Paper Moon.” Open for dinner, the 1899 hotel’s Sample Room Tavern serves regional fare including chicken-fried steak.

More information

Garden of Eden: 1-785-525-6395; garden-of-eden-lucas-kansas.com.

Grassroots Art Center1-785-525-6118; grassrootsart.net.

Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog TakeBetsyWithYou.

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Wheat fields/Lawrence, Guymon Petro and Cowtown steak house/Kansas

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Wichita Water Meter Covers As stepping stones in the garden of our Lawrence airbnb

We are on our long drive home from Dodge City (and even passed some cotton fields near Culliston, KS). We stayed for two nights at the Comfort Suites, which seemed very new and was very comfortable, despite the usual sterile chain feel. Our room was enormous. The Best Western seemed pleasant enough too.

In Lawrence, we stopped briefly at Wheatfields for morning pastries (and a killer coconut macaroon that ended up being our lunch in Lucas when we discovered the meat market was closed.)

In Dodge, we gathered with family at a new (to us) bar and grill called Guymon Petro Mercantile (the original name of the brick warehouse that was converted into a restaurant) that had good quesadillas and then dinner at Casey’s Cowtown Steak House. (Note to self: Next time order the Dodge City Strip, not the filet.)

In Wichita, we ate at our old favorite, Saigon Market for Vietnamese.  Still going strong.

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garden of Eden and grassroots art everywhere in Lucas,Ks



Grassroots art – eccentric work by self-taught, prolific everyday folks (ranchers, farmers, welders, homemakers) – is everywhere in the out-of–the-way northwestern Kansas town of Lucas. it is actually fitting that art that is so “out there” should be way out here, far from the mainstream of most things, including the art world.

bathroom mosaic

This was probably my 5th trip to Lucas in over 30 years and there is more to see each visit. The main draw is the remarkable Garden of Eden, a bizarre sculpture garden with giant concrete representations of populis themes — my favorite is one of a farmer being crucified by the banker, lawyer and doctor. And then there’s the giant limestone and concrete ziggurat looking mausoleum where you can peer into the coffin of the civil war veteran S.P. Dinsmoor who built the garden. (He is looking moldy these days, which our guide explained was due to a crack in the sheet of glass in front of the coffin, which let air in. it has been fixed but not before substantial damage.)

grassroots art

The garden and house — also a work of oddness, made of limestone logs — sits on an otherwise normal Kansas small town street, which is part of the charm and shock effect. But the garden and its sculptures in particular have never looked better after a recent massive multi-million dollar restoration funded by the Kohler Foundation ( from the Bath works company in Wisconsin).

And even more so, the two block downtown has more to see, including the Grassroots Art Center in an old limestone masons building,where we went on a very informative tour of several rooms and an outdoor courtyard showcasing the odd work of artists primarily from Kansas. ( “Grassroots  art” was likened to “outsider art” but not “folk art.”)

There is also a phenomenal new public bathroom full of bizarre mosaics and the otherwise ordinary wood street lights are art installations. (One has various colorful belts strapped around it. Another has glass sculptures and two legs sticking up from the ground. Could it be the wicked witch of the west?)

We also found artworks in fields on Highway 14 heading to Lincoln and along Highway 18 to Lucas and Highway 232 back to Wilson and the interstate.

One disappointment: Brant’s meat market, which has sold homemade bologna for 90-some years in downtown Lucas, closed in January but the word on the street (literally from two townies sitting on a bench outside the market) is that it will reopen this summer, thanks to a new buyer.

I was glad to see “the Garden View  Airbnb”  now operating across the street from the Garden of Eden (run by our tour guide, who is also a cousin of Dinsmoor ) and the old hotel in Wilson (where the Movie “Paper Moon” was filmed) is still up and running. It also has a restaurant that serves dinner. Otherwise dining options are limited. We ended up about an hour west in Hays at Al’s Chickenette, which has been around since 1947 (and also has a new owner) where we had, yes, fried chicken. Very different than the upscale version we had in KC the night before but good in its own way (except for the mashed potatoes and gravy which were grey and gooey. get the fries. Much better.)

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Western Kansas: wright, dodge city,

Doll Avenue, Wright, ks

Doll Avenue, Wright, ks

To be honest, we didn’t do much in western Kansas beyond the confines of D’s 1960s ranch house in the tiny town of Wright, outside Dodge City. We were there to pack up and haul out all the stuff that a family of 8 children accumulated during the past 55 years. And we found things that were much older, some back to the late 1800s, we think.

View from the Steimel house

View from the Steimel house

A melancholy task, but good to be with other family who came from New Mexico and elsewhere in Kansas. Lots of laughter, occasional tears, family tales shared. We did emerge for lunch yesterday at Tacos Jalisco, our favorite Mexican place on Wyatt Earp blvd. in Dodge. A late dinner was at a surprisingly packed Applebee’s near Boot Hill, maybe some others were there because there weren’t many other options on a Sunday at 10 pm. I did have a very good limeade.

Shadow

Shadow

Today, we stopped to see family in Wichita and then picked up ribs “to travel” at Gates BBQ in Kansas City. Now three hours til home.

P.s. Comfort Inn in Lenexa turned out to be a mixed bag. Our room was clean but the thin walls meant nonstop noise from someone who appeared to fall asleep with the tv on. Argh

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Sentimental journey: Overland Park farmers market, cottonwood falls, bazaar cemetery

Cottonwood falls courthouse

Cottonwood falls courthouse

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On our drive to Dirck’s childhood home for the last time (it has been sold) we have stopped at some favorite spots during our almost 30 years driving together through Kansas.

The Overland Park Farmers market was overflowing with gorgeous produce but we restrained ourselves since and bought only what we can eat in the next two days away. Peaches, cantelope and a fantastic looking bread from the Ibis bakery stand (our “morning buns” were delicious, a bun made with croissant dough sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.)

Bazaar cemetery, flint hills

Bazaar cemetery, flint hills

On to the flint hills and the old town of Cottonwood Falls with its glorious French revival courthouse. We wandered down the three block brick Main Street, poked around in some antique/junk shops and craft shops, had fantastic sirloin steak sliders in the restaurant At the classy western hotel, The Grand Central Hotel and found a cool old limestone motel at the other end of Main Street along the river that looks like an amazing place to stay, the Millstream Resort Motel.

We drove south along scenic byway 177 through the vast open, gently rolling flint hills, the road almost entirely to ourselves. So much open space, land, sky, road. love that feeling. We stopped briefly at the old Bazaar Cemetery to walk along the old gravestones and hear nothing but the wind blowing through the trees.

Now we are in Wright Kansas, an unincorporated city of less than 100 people, outside Dodge City, packing up the house with some of Dirck’s siblings and their families. Strange. Sad. One of life’s endings.

Corner of main and broadway

Corner of main and broadway

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Dodge city dining– tacos Jalisco

imageNo visit to Wright, Kansas is complete without a visit to Tacos Jalisco in nearby Dodge City so we found ourselves here, yet again, on a suddenly snowy bleak day after Xmas. Good nothin fancy soft tacos (fried pork is my new fave) and carne asada and flan in a long open dining room with lots of murals of the old country. We also did a little antiquing at the dodge city antique mall near Hastings dept store and stopped at Dillons grocery for some Art and Mary jalapeño potato chips, a Kansas Classic (it was just arts when we lived in Wichita many years ago.)image

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Eating en route to Dodge City: Liberty, Mo (Stroud’s chicken), Lawrence, ks (Wheatfields), Salina (cozy inn)

imageFine dining en route to dodge city Kansas from Des Moines for Christmas:

Stroud’s (“we choke our own chickens”) off I 35 north of Kansas City). We didn’t think we’d be able to stop here because there is usually a long wait but we drove right into a prime parking spot on a Tuesday night at 8:15 pm (albeit holiday date) and sat at the small bar rather than waiting  40 minutes for a table. Great pan fried chicken and what everyone needs after a chicken dinner – killer cinnamon rolls, buttery and warm. Perfect stop before picking our son up at the Kansas City airport.

Wheatfields bakery in Lawrence where we learned we could avoid the long line for take out pastries and bread if we ordered breakfast as well at a counter with no line. And good grub too although I just had a small croissant (still recovering from Stroud’s.) Our waitress enthusiastically recommended another old tome bakery in town for its cream cheese donuts. Next time. (And there will be…)

Cozy Inn, we took up three of the six seats at the counter in this shoe box of a burger joint, with a great view of the two tattooed guys cooking sliders on a griddle. Forgot how good those sliders are..small and mighty, slightly rare with grilled onions and pickles (no cheese or fries allowed) on a small moist white bun.image

Ad Astra, a hipster coffee shop around the block on Salina’s main drag where I had a good chai latte and found a great used book about Elizabeth “Grandma” Layton, a sweet older lady from small town Kansas who painted brilliantly wicked self portraits. (One of which hangs in our kitchen nook.) We met her in the late 1980’s when some friends and I were playing pool at a bar and met her nephew, or some such, who called her to see if she was receiving visitors. She was . So we went to her house and she served us lemonade and showed us around and let us buy signed posters of her work. Only in Kansas!! She died in 1993 I see from the book (which I had to buy!)

The sun is finally out with endless blue sky, bald brown hills, the occasional wind-whipped tree and lots of gleaming white whirling wind turbines. Life is good.

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