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May 18, 2013

Quirky Kansas and its eccentric attractions are at your fingertips

Quirky is as quirky does.

Quirky is as quirky does.

And in the land of Kansas?

Quirky is everywhere.

We’ve got a big honkin’ toilet, a ball of twine larger than an RV, a shoe tree that would make Imelda Marcos envious and tunnels that speak to the darker sides of life.

Quite frankly, we think you can’t call yourself a Kansan until you’ve been to see all of them.

Biggest toilet in the Midwest

When residents in the Wilson County town of Lucas decided they needed eccentric, quirky public restrooms for the town’s Main Street, their imaginations went wild.

The town turned to bathroom humor and created a monument making Lucas home of the largest, most blingy toilet in Kansas.

The town of 407 residents is home to the “Garden of Eden,” which features the peculiar work of S.P. Dinsmoor. He was a retired schoolteacher and Civil War veteran who sculpted 113 tons of concrete into various religious and political figures in his backyard.

In recent years, Lucas has become known as the grassroots art capital of Kansas, in large part because it is home to the Grassroots Art Center dedicated to 20th-century Kansas grassroots folk art.

But now – now Lucas boasts a big toilet.

The exterior of the giant toilet bowl is sunken so people can sit outside and talk. A giant toilet paper roll sits outside as a conversation starter. The toilet’s 14-foot-tall mosaic lid is up. Always up.

Every wall is decorated. A chandelier made from the bottoms of wine bottles is only one of the highlights.

Once in downtown Lucas, simply look for Bowl Plaza.

The Shoe Tree

The Shoe Tree features all kinds of shoes, from cowboy boots to slippers.

For more than a quarter of a century, the old cottonwood tree on the Kissel farm west of Wetmore has been a magnet for road-traveled, closet-weary shoes.

People are invited to add their own.

And they have – ruby red high heels, steel-toed boots, tennies and flip-flops walk all over this tree.

A hammer and can of nails sit at the bottom of the tree for those who want to ensure the permanence of their venture.

Or the foolhardy can tie a pair of shoes and laces together and try tossing them in a flying arc over the cottonwood’s branches to let the Kansas winds embrace them.

It’s up to you.

From Wetmore, go 1 mile west on K-9, then 5 miles north on W Road (blacktop) to the old Davis Ranch sign, then 1 mile west on 80th to V Road.

Get your quirk on and go.

Giant Ball of Twine

You grew up hearing about it.

And if you haven’t gone to Cawker City and seen the world’s largest ball of twine, it’s time.

For more than half a century, Kansas has been home to a big ball of twine.

In 1872, Col. E.H. Cawker built the first house in Cawker City. Two years later, the town was incorporated. By 1880, it had 2,000 residents, a mill, banks, churches, an opera house and a city auditorium.

But like many rural towns in Kansas, Cawker City eventually declined in population. In 1960, the last passenger trains stopped coming. Construction of Glen Elder Lake took not only farmland but people away from the community.

How can a town make a go of it after that?

In 1953, Cawker City farmer Frank Stoeber began slowly knotting his way to fame. Like many farmers, Stoeber had a hay baler that used twine – and once those bales were fed to livestock, he had plenty of twine left over.

By 1957, the ball weighed 5,000 pounds, stood 8 feet high and contained 1,175,180 feet of twine.

In 1961, when Kansas observed its centennial and hundreds of communities had celebrations, Stoeber brought his ball of twine to town and left it.

For years, it was billed as the Largest Ball of Twine.

But it really didn’t have a clear title to the name then. Three years before Stoeber began his ball, a farmer in Darwin, Minn., started knotting his own ball of twine. Technically speaking, the Minnesota twine is the world’s largest ball of twine made by one man. It’s enclosed in Plexiglass and is not available for the public to touch.

Don’t let that stop you, Kansas.

In 1987, a Texas man began making a nylon ball of twine using machines to help him. It’s the largest nylon ball of twine and is displayed in Branson, Mo.

Not a problem; we do better.

The Cawker City twine ball can truly claim the world’s largest title. Each year, for the past quarter of a century, Cawker City has sponsored a twine-a-thon, inviting people to add more twine to the ball.

Now, more than 10 feet tall and more than 41 feet around, the Cawker City ball is gigantic. And because it is outdoors under a shed, visitors can touch and smell it to their heart’s content, 24 hours a day.

It’s been noted in at least three Hollywood movies: Chevy Chase’s “Vacation,” “Beethoven’s Third” and John Travolta’s “Michael.”

Nobody knows for sure how many visitors have seen the ball of twine, but many do leave their names and notes in the guest registry.

Things like: “We drove 16,000 miles around the U.S. and finally found it. Wow. It’s a lot of twine.”

We told you so!

Signs, signs, everywhere signs

M.T. Liggett is a folk artist from Mullinville who takes potshots at politicians through colorful, whirling roadside sculptures.

His artwork cannot be missed as cars and trucks speed along U.S. 400 west of Mullinville and on U.S. 54 east of town.

In past years, he has called his work and what he does “Disco Art Works, Manufacturer of Political Statement Totem Poles.”

His first totem pole was created in 1989. He’s been prolific ever since.

Sometimes his artwork defies explanation.

It confounds and confuses.

His pieces offer commentary on politicians, local shenanigans and other events.

Liggett’s signs feature seven languages and references to Shakespeare and the conquering of the Aztecs.

When it comes to his political signs, Liggett leans more toward being conservative. Government intrusion into almost every aspect of American life forced him to become conservative, he told a Wichita Eagle reporter in 1994.

Since then, the signs have only gotten more prolific, more whimsical, more pointed as to what’s wrong in Washington.

Mullinville is about 110 miles west of Wichita.

Ellinwood’s tunnels

For more than three decades, Ellinwood’s tunnels have allowed visitors to travel back in time, back to the days of railroad salesmen and cowboys, when proper Victorian standards mixed with the day-to-day grittiness of frontier life.

But it is the bathhouse where the true uniqueness of Ellinwood’s tunnels comes to light.

It’s one of the few places in Kansas that talks about prostitution, albeit in a PG-rated way.

Semis shudder past on U.S. 56, only feet from Ellinwood’s underground tunnels.

The highway those trucks travel is nearly the same route as the historic Santa Fe Trail, active from about 1821 to 1880.

From the mid-1860s until 1873, Ellinwood was a cowtown along the Cox Cattle Trail.

Like one of the major fueling stops found along an interstate today, Ellinwood was a quick stop before moving on, a chance to refuel and refresh.

Within Ellinwood’s tunnels were a harness shop, a barber shop and a bathhouse where women known as “soiled doves” entertained road-weary strangers while clothes dried on wooden racks and bath suds dripped through the cracks of wood floors.

It is the dark underbelly of life the Ellinwood tunnels portray.

And it is one of the quirkier stops in central Kansas. At the turn of the 20th century, Ellinwood boasted 11 saloons in its underground tunnels.

The Wolf Hotel, one of Ellinwood’s premier buildings – and the gathering point for any tour of the tunnels – is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Most of the tunnels built in the late 19th century in Ellinwood were eventually closed and filled with sand, but town patron Adrianna Dierolf managed to save a short stretch. And that’s what visitors see today.

For tunnel tour reservations, call 620-564-2400. The tour starts at the Wolf/Starr Building at the corner of U.S. 56 and Main Street. Cost is $6, $2 for ages 10 or younger.

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