BEFORE THE STORM: How Greensburg used to be

05/13/2007 1:01 AM

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

Greensburg was deep, we know that. Consider the Big Well -- 109 feet to the bottom -- and the big-hearted people who lived there. In this wet spring, the town was awash in the color of its namesake, "Cannonball" Green, its lawns and gardens and surrounding pastureland lush and fertile.

The Greensburg that was hit by a tornado on May 4 was a charming town that had been preserved for more than a hundred years by people who valued what they had and wanted to keep it. Even newcomers who had new ideas and dreams want their town, once it's rebuilt, to be something akin to what they've lost.

     

Greensburg lies flat, and as a result the sky above could not seem wider. It's almost as if the town were a perfect fit for the 1.7-mile-wide tornado that took it for a runway on May 4.

Its streets are that way, too.

"It has wider streets than anything I've ever seen," said Bob Neier, a Wichitan raised on a farm southwest of Mullinville whose parents eventually moved to Greensburg.

Bay Street, which forms the town's western border, is wider than Main Street.

"Bay was supposed to get an island with trees," Greensburg Mayor Lonnie McCollum said. The median never materialized, but Bay "was the biggest and prettiest street in town," and its breadth always gave the street pride of place.

Amy Marshall Romoser, now of Indianapolis, grew up at the top of Bay Street in a mansion known as the Hertline house. Two hundred cedars shielded the four-story house, complete with ballroom, from the road.

"If you were on Bay Street you had the right of way through town, no matter what intersection you were at. It was an unspoken rule," Romoser said.

The town's landscape could seem exotic to eastern Kansans, even though Greensburg is only two hours from Wichita.

"They could always grow blue spruce better than we could, being that much farther west," Neier said, "and there were the most beautiful maples in my parents' neighborhood. You're kind of shocked that things grew so well."

Billboards heading into town from both sides advertise the Big Well -- the world's largest hand-dug well. It was the quintessential campy tourist attraction, attracting Kansas day-trippers and others from all over the place who wanted to get off the interstate. They'd descend on fire-escape-like staircases to the depths, wondering all the while, "So, they dug this by hand?"

Because of the well, Greensburg attracted strangers; about 30,000 people signed the guestbook each year. You could feel the town's pride.

Outside the entrance to the well was Greensburg's other claim to fame, a pallasite meteorite weighing 1,000 pounds that had fallen from the heavens into a nearby farm field. It was a two-for-one treat.

Greensburg stretches several blocks north and south of U.S. 54 -- the same road that is Kellogg as it runs through Wichita. The heart of town is the block of Main Street where Hunter's Drug and the Twilight Theatre faced each other. Hunter's Drug had been preserved as an antique soda fountain; the theater was an art deco charmer in the process of being restored.

"People were coming from all over to that movie theater because there's not many left in our small towns," said lifelong resident John Rosenberger. The theater was built in 1915 and showed first-run movies.

"The whole community put a lot of money into that," Rosenberger said.

Across the street, the drugstore, in business since 1917, had kept its original storefront, trimmed in copper and capped by a blue-and-white striped awning.

"The same guy had been rolling that awning out over 50 years," the mayor said.

Four years ago he sat with his old classmates in a booth inside the drugstore during their 40th high school reunion.

"Same guy's making the chocolate Cokes," McCollum said of a soda-fountain concoction they called a "400."

All of the buildings on that block of Main had tin ceilings, each with its own pattern, said Erica Goodman, head of tourism for Greensburg. She moved with her family from Las Vegas five years ago after finding Greensburg on an antiquing trip. The family fell in love first with the town's buildings, then its people.

"All of our buildings, like most towns in Kansas, they make a statement," Goodman said. "They were all connected to each other. It was a block row of buildings, but they all had their own little character as far as their architectural details."

For natives like McCollum, growing up in Greensburg was a dream.

"The school was great," he said. "We could just run all over town. My mom used to say, 'Be careful going across the highway.' " But back then, there wasn't much traffic to be careful of.

His dad, Shorty, was the custodian at the high school, built in 1921. McCollum himself practically lived there as a kid and knew every nook and cranny -- the gymnasium, built in 1951, the library, added in the '60s.

Mary Lou Schenk married a Greensburg man, and they settled there.

"It was small-town life, which I think can't be beat," Schenk said. "Greensburg was just about the right size. There were a lot of things you could buy -- the necessities, and more. Later on, a lot of the businesses didn't thrive and closed up. But we could get just about anything there. It was just a happy life, contented."

     

Like most small towns, Greensburg had lost businesses and population over the years, but there was no downward spiral. People like the mayor had moved away to pursue careers but had returned for their retirement. Younger people had stumbled onto its charm and moved in. And some, such as 40-year-old school board president Ki Gamble, had never left.

Its 1,400 residents were its champions. The town was independent and conservative, its people protective of what made their town good.

When a prison was proposed, it was rejected.

"We didn't want a new prison because we didn't want to bring different people into town," Rosenberger said. "Especially the old farm residents. They kind of liked it the way it was. They didn't want to change."

When Erica Goodman and her husband, Gary, moved to Greensburg from Las Vegas, they bought the antique store in the former First Christian Church as their livelihood, and the old Faye Brown house built in 1914 as their new home. Erica became tourism chairwoman for Greensburg, and they started helping to spruce things up.

"I started painting the town," said Gary Goodman, a native of Wichita. He had painted 16 downtown buildings as of May 4 as part of a city-rejuvenation project.

"The city was just coming into its own again," Erica Goodman said. "We saw the potential here."

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In the storm's rubble, it's natural to look for indicators of what the town was like before. But mostly what you see are piles of nothing that used to be pieces of everything. Even the mayor has a hard time getting his bearings, because there are no landmarks.

Blue spruces? Can't see one. The battered, toothpick trees are catch-alls for curtains, tarps, rugs and clothes.

Occasionally a bit of color provides a hint of what a place used to be. There's the blue-and-white awning twisted up in the rubble -- Hunter's Drug. A red stool can be seen if you look hard enough. The old Rexall sign was salvaged; that's one thing.

The schools are in varying stages of rubble;the entrance to the high school -- with "Greensburg" inscribed across the top -- stands alone now, like a tower.

Among the more expensive former residences, you might see a brick wall remaining. Among the more humble abodes, just sticks.

At the top of Bay Street, the four-story Hertline house, built in 1906 of brick and once secluded by 200 cedars, still stands, but naked and exposed. The evergreen hedge is a mixed-up, flattened mess, and the top-floor ballroom has lost its roof and walls, its wooden floors open to the elements.

People go by now and say, "Oh, wow, there's the house," Amy Romoser says.

A relative is trying to salvage some of the solid oak and Philippine mahogany woodwork.

"That is a real shame there," the mayor said. "You couldn't start to rebuild it for a million dollars."

The mayor guesses there are six or eight buildings worth saving out of the whole town.

   o

The deepest things, like the Big Well, are unscathed by the tornado. The mayor imagines a new glass platform over it so that people can look down, if they don't want to venture down.

Faced with the loss of everything the residents tried so hard to conserve, some people in Greensburg see the town situated even better in the future, twisted a quarter of a turn by the tornado. There's no choice now but to change.

"We're just going to have so many opportunities that we didn't have before," said Ki Gamble, the president of the school board."... We're going to build it back and better than it ever was before.

"How many people who are 30 to 40 years old can build a town? That hasn't been done since the 1800s."

Ironically, the newcomers who hoped to create a little stir in the town before the tornado now just want it back.

"If there were anything I would hope for is when they do rebuild Main Street to make it look the way it did, because it had so much charm to it," Erica Goodman says.

For his part, the mayor dreams of an even wider Main Street -- 10 feet more on each side -- in the new Greensburg.

Why broaden it?

"Because we can," he said.

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