Giant cleanup for Kansas in Miniature exhibit

The grass outside may be brown, but it's getting greener across the Kansas in Miniature exhibit at Exploration Place.

Not only that, but the Flint Hills have been vacuumed, the riverbed is being primed, the carnival rides are being fixed, and a field of sunflowers is being planted.

By mid-September, there will be a new Kansas — but it will still reflect life in the 1940s and 50s, scaled to the size of 1/4 inch to a foot.

"It's pretty dirty," Tom Nichols, who made the exhibit, said Thursday after rolling out from underneath the 49-foot-by-30-foot diorama.

Nichols, who lives in Pennsylvania, has been back a few times since Kansas in Miniature opened along with Exploration Place on April 1, 2000. He added elements such as the Allen-Lambe House in 2004, and he did some minor repairs last year after a boy got on the exhibit and walked across it.

But this is the first time since the museum opened that the model has had a complete refurbishing. Koch Industries, which paid for the exhibit, is also paying $50,000 for the cleaning and tuneup.

The trains were barely running when Nichols arrived because of the dirty tracks, and not all the carnival rides were operational.

Nichols said he wrote an extensive maintenance manual for the exhibit but with budget cuts he didn't know how much of it was followed. Museum development director Sharon Miles said it had been five years since the exhibit had a thorough cleaning.

Nichols and his wife, Joyce, drove to Wichita from Pennsylvania last weekend and will be here for a month. Nichols isn't sure they will get everything done in that time — he was even tempted at first to work seven days a week — but they will do the best they can toward a mid-September reopening of the model.

Later, more interaction will be introduced into the exhibit that will take people deeper into all of its elements, said Christina Bluml of Exploration Place.

"The river has been leaking awhile," Nichols said. The water has been drained, and he is priming the river bed to seal it.

"She's doing landscaping," Nichols said, indicating his wife working in a corner. She was using a paintbrush to put sawdust stained with fireproof paint over some rolling hills — instantly making the grass greener — and spraying it down with starch.

The Nicholses also brought along a new element that they made back home — a field of sunflowers. They made each of the 1,163 flowers — but who's counting? —from steel wire and electrical insulation and little existing flowers from Michael's that still needed the addition of petals and seeds — and yellow paint.

"Kansas is my second home," Tom Nichols said, noting that he spent years before the project was built traveling and doing research in the state. "We selected what we liked" and included it in the model — including the Red Hills, the Flint Hills and the chalk rocks.

When Nichols hears someone make a crack like, "You have to travel through Kansas at night," he'll respond: "I could take you to places in Kansas that would make your eyes water."

One of the hidden treasures of Kansas in Miniature is the Plevna general store. The Nicholses were traveling through the town soon after the store burned down. So they decided to put it in the diorama.

Inside its non-descript exterior, Joyce Nichols has completely stocked the store with clothing, food, dry goods — everything she could see in photos that she and Tom were shown of the store.

You can see hints of the contents only when the town grows dark and the night lights come on inside the buildings.