If you haven’t seen it yet, our current exhibit of WPA-style posters depicting green spaces in Douglas County is a great reason to visit the library in person. Of course, you can always view them online, along with last year’s set, and purchase copies for your own walls. They were made by local artists, and proceeds from sales go to the library and the artists themselves. The exhibit, which runs through July 31st, is sponsored by the Lawrence Public Library Friends and Foundation.
These images put me in mind of the great state guidebooks written by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s. If you’ve never seen the Kansas edition, we have a copy in our Osma Local History collection, or you can read the entire volume, or the one for any other state you love, free online, since the books were commissioned by the U.S. government, and thus live in the public domain.
The Federal Writers Project was an attempt to put writers to work during the Great Depression, and employed a who’s who of that generation’s eventual literary legends, among them Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and many others. Its state guidebook program employed some 6,000 writers to travel and describe all of the then-48 states in minute detail, from cities to towns to roadside curiosities, and today the books they created provide a fascinating snapshot of life in the U.S. at the time.
The Kansas volume, published in 1939, has an entire chapter on Lawrence, “the principal educational center of the state” (sorry, Manhattan!), which is “also important as a shipping point for potatoes, corn, wheat, and alfalfa grown in the rich valley land around it.” Home to 13,726 souls, our town boasted four “motion picture houses,” two radio stations, three hotels, five “tourist camps” (no offense but I’ll be at one of those hotels) and “the usual traffic regulations, all plainly indicated” (we always have had good signage). Bus fare was 8 cents, minimum taxi fare, 25. The Carnegie Library, recently renovated with an expansion (another W.P.A. project), held 27,000 volumes (our current building holds about ten times that many, in comparison). High above it every year on “North College Hill,” KU students gathered to burn a Missouri Tiger in effigy at a bonfire the night before the annual Thanksgiving game against their biggest rival (that was a fun rivalry, but I must say I’m glad effigy-burning on campus is not a thing anymore). South of town, one could cool off at the “Hole in the Rock,” a curious limestone formation on private property at the edge of a creek which had been a watering stop on the Santa Fe Trail.
A recent piece in the New York Times by Scott Borchert, author of a book all about the Federal guidebook program, calls for a new Federal Writers Project, and should that come to pass, I hope they do state guidebooks again. The closest thing I know to a modern day equivalent for Kansas is the exhaustively researched Kansas Guidebook for Explorers, by Marci Penner and WenDee Rowe, which documents all the interesting stuff in just about every community in our state, large or small, whether or not it still exists. Thumbing through it makes you feel like you could spend your whole life just taking in the wonders of good old flat rectangular Kansas, without ever having to go away to one of those fancypants states with curvy borders, or tall pointy things all over them you could fall off of, or waves lapping at their sides that get your socks wet.
Last summer during the pandemic we looked for family travel destinations closer to home, and spent some beautiful days in the Flint Hills, so I finally picked up William Least Heat-Moon’s epic “deep map” of Chase County, PrairyErth, a book I'd seen on my parents’ bookshelf for decades but never read. It does for a single county what the guidebooks do for the state, its author having had a foot or tire on just about every square mile. I’ve been savoring it bit by bit all year. Because it is made up of short little vignettes with no real plot or drama to speak of, you can put it down for weeks or months and pick it right back up again. I’m afraid that also makes it sound as boring as watching grass grow, and in fact parts of the book specifically cover the phenomenon of grass growing, but it’s not boring at all, mostly just beautiful.
My favorite thing about PrairyErth is its revelation of so many obscure little places in such a small area. So with a tip of the hat to William Least Heat-Moon, Marci Penner and WenDee Rowe, the Douglas County poster artists, and all the WPA guidebook authors, I thought I would write up and share a few of my favorite off-the-beaten-path corners of Douglas County (locations are linked to Google maps behind their names).
Billed as the oldest cemetery in Douglas County, this place is so beautiful it almost makes you want to keel over just so you can hang out there longer (like, for an eternity). One time walking among the gravestones I flushed a wild turkey and was so startled I thought I might. The place sits high on a hill south of Lone Star Lake, and offers an amazing northern vista. It’s a great place to hear cows lowing, see a ripening cornfield at full height, and feel a Kansas breeze.
Chicken Creek Stone Arch Bridge
If a tough guy photographer who looked like Clint Eastwood came to Douglas County, Kansas instead of Madison County, Iowa to photograph old bridges, and found the love of his life in the arms of an Italian-American housewife who looked like Meryl Streep, this would be the bridge he was here to see. If you visit, you can actually pretend you are Clint Eastwood and/or Meryl Streep. Go ahead, try it. It’s fun. The nearby road is sort of busy, though, so please, people, no necking!
On a ridge just north of Baldwin once stood a magnificent bur oak so tall it was used during the Bleeding Kansas era to warn spotters atop Mount Oread in Lawrence, with lanterns hung high in its branches, that border ruffians were headed their way. The tree is gone, but the scenic view from that spot remains, the best in Douglas County. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad the days of town-sacking are over. But just think of how much better things would be if we still relied on lanterns hung from tall trees to broadcast short messages instead of Twitter?
Mountain Trails, Lost Highway, and Alpine Lake
Speaking of Mount Oread, I recently became aware that, tucked away in its picturesque western foothills (okay, I mean KU’s West Campus area, but that’s way more fun to say), are an alpine lake and a network of woodland trails. You can jump on at a trailhead of sorts where Irving Hill Road concludes in a dead end just southwest of the Lied Center. A bit north of there, at the west end of the KU Marching band practice area, is a mysterious lost highway (okay, it’s a gravel road) heading down a slope through the woods. If you’re a middle aged person, you can run up that road with your dog in the heat of summer and come out of the woods looking like you are both about to die from over-exertion right in front of the entire KU marching band standing around on their break staring at you, but I don’t recommend it. It’s a lot more exciting to hike around those trails and daydream about the West Campus mountain lion of urban legend, which could be stalking you and about to pounce at any moment. Fly fishing is permitted along the south edge of the alpine lake right across the street from the School of Pharmacy Building. There are no trout, but it is one of the few local waters where you can regularly catch a redear sunfish, which looks a lot like what we all dismiss as a "bluegill," but is not. And I pose this question in all seriousness: Given that redear sunfish are possibly harder to catch around here than trout (which must be stocked in this area and won’t live through summer anyway), which is the cooler trophy fish to catch (and release)?
How many endangered species live in Douglas County? Besides the black-footed ferret who lives in captivity at the Prairie Park Nature Center (the viewing of whom is actually more remarkable than seeing the pandas in the San Diego Zoo, since black-footed ferrets are rarer in the wild and in captivity than pandas), there is only one other I know of: Mead’s milkweed. And the place to see it is Akin Prairie, a remnant of the biome that once covered much of county. This 16-acre tract of native tallgrass prairie has been protected by a conservation easement through the Kansas Land Trust since 1994, when Dorothy Akin’s surviving family members decided to preserve the land as a memorial to her and her love of wildflowers. The land is still privately owned, but open to the public for visits (if you come, please be respectful of this place and all it means). My kids and I failed to find Mead’s milkweed when we looked last summer (we did find some very cute meadow spittle bug larvae, though), but the experts can point it out to you on the June wildflower walk they put on for the public every year. I’ve never been scuba diving in a coral reef, but I can’t imagine it would be any more beautiful or interesting than standing in the middle of this field looking down at all the colors and critters at my knees. Plus, you can breathe. And, no sharks.
— Dan Coleman is a Collection Development Librarian at Lawrence Public Library.