Matfield goes green

03/14/2010 12:00 AM

04/18/2010 11:01 AM

MATFIELD GREEN — The Kansas countryside is dotted with hundreds of tiny towns long past their prime, places where the streets are as desolate at midday as midnight.

But Saturday afternoon the few streets in Matfield Green echoed with the sounds of loud tailpipes, horse hooves hitting pavement, and laughter.

So it goes at the annual St. Patrick's parade.

"It's the biggest event of the social season," said Susan Hardesty.

And that season is year-round in this town of less than 60 people.

At least once a month events are held for locals and any visitors who wish to come.

Most revolve around Hardesty's business, the Hitchin' Post. The bar and grill has been the town's only business for about the past 30 years.

Matfield Green certainly had better days.

It sits in the south fork of the Cottonwood River valley, a fertile, serpentine crease in the heart of the Flint Hills. The town thrived in the days when small farms dotted the region.

Clara Jo Talkington has lived most of her 75 years in the area and said the town once supported hotels, restaurants, banks and assorted retail businesses.

But as people moved away to earn easier and better livings in bigger towns, Matfield Green withered.

Most businesses and people were long gone when the local school closed in 1967.

That's about when an abandoned gas station was converted to a bar. Hardesty is about the 12th owner to give the business a go in those past 40-some years.

In the past five years, Hardesty has served people from all 50 states and about 10 foreign countries. Most have come to tour the Flint Hills on K-177, which passes a few steps from her door.

Some make the half-hour drive from Emporia or El Dorado, and some the hour from Wichita.

They come mostly for her legendary ground-round hamburgers and homemade fries.

Steaks are served on Fridays and Saturdays. Thursdays see plates of Mexican, Italian or Chinese food served over the bar.

Still, it is a tough go, and Hardesty knows she could earn more money while working fewer hours elsewhere.

She's had entire days without a single customer and has opened early, late and on her day off to make a few sales.

A Flint Hills native, she endures it all largely because she knows the Hitchin' Post is much of Matfield Green's identity, and because of its importance as a gathering place for locals.

Largely for that reason she helps plan special events about once a month, such as the July 4 pig roast, the October homemade salsa contest and the annual Fat Tuesday celebration. Special meals are served on about anything resembling a holiday.

All carry good bits of rural Kansas creativity, humor and entertainment.

"We have an opera singer perform at our Christmas party," Hardesty said. "OK, so she's my sister, but she's sung opera professionally and she's good. People like it."

But no event compares with the St. Patrick's parade, started about 10 years ago by the Hitchin' Post's previous owner.

"It's the one we most look forward to, kind of like a celebration of making it past another winter," she said.

And so Saturday afternoon parade participants gathered at Matfield Green's old schoolyard.

They included wagon-pulling horses that each weighed nearly a ton and 4-year-old McKaylee Nave driving a tiny electric toy Jeep.

About 20 hot rods passed in a line and candy was tossed from a parade with more participants than spectators.

The parade route of about two blocks finished at the Hitchin' Post, where Hardesty, Talkington and others served green beer to adults, green Kool-Aid to kids, and a steady procession of burgers and fries. Corned beef and cabbage was served later in honor of the holiday.

Most who had come for the parade lingered an hour or so. Few were first-timers.

John Patton and his wife, Vicki, of El Dorado, have had their wagon and team of super-size horses in about every parade. Both had grown up in the area and have seen communities dwindle.

"We need to do what we can to support places like Matfield Green and the Hitchin' Post," he said. "It's the best hamburger you'll find anywhere, and we really need places like the Hitchin' Post around here. It's really important."

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