Party kicks off year of state celebrations

TOPEKA — A few hundred Kansas residents marked their state's 150th birthday with an outdoor ceremony Friday that featured speeches, a little poetry and, of course, choruses of "Home on the Range."

There was no glitz and no flash, except for the firing of National Guard artillery.

State officials emphasized that the event on the south steps of the Statehouse was only a kickoff for a year's worth of celebrations for a state born amid bloody conflict over slavery and claiming a no-nonsense ethos that helped its farmers survive the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

The ceremony was a day ahead of the state's actual birthday. Kansas became the 34th state on Jan. 29, 1861, less than three months before the Civil War started — though the conflict over slavery already had been violent well before then in Kansas.

Friday, an Army National Guard unit's 75mm howitzers fired 19 rounds. The House and Senate adopted a resolution celebrating the state's heritage and sang the state song, with its tribute to Kansas as a place where the deer and the antelope play.

There was a common-sense side to the low-key approach. Kansas is facing a projected $550 million budget shortfall, making an expensive party less appropriate.

"It's a little more reserved, like Kansas is a little more reserved, and you don't want to spend a whole lot of money on a festivity like this when other things are probably a little more important, fiscally anyway," said Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, who did his part by adopting mid-19th century dress for the day. "It wouldn't be Kansas anyway."

The Kansas sesquicentennial also has an improvised, do-it-yourself feel to it, with its advisory committee encouraging communities to sponsor their own events or use annual festivals and gatherings to honor the anniversary throughout the year.

"We're still in the planning stages, so we're going to be looking for other opportunities throughout the year to have events," said Mary Madden, the sesquicentennial's chairwoman, who's also director of education and outreach for the Kansas State Historical Society.

Judging by dozens of events listed on the official Kansas Sesquicentennial website, the coming months will be heavier on education than parties.

About 300 people, many of them state officials but a few of them historical re-enactors, attended the Statehouse ceremony. The crowd included 23 seventh-graders from Robinson Middle School in Topeka, who began a study of Kansas history just after the new year.

One of them, 13-year-old Sentrell Buckley, said he'd expected fireworks but, then considering the idea for a moment, acknowledged that such pyrotechnics would have forced the ceremony to be held at night. His goal, he said, was to get a glimpse of a small display of stonemasons tools used in the building of the Statehouse.

He also likes poetry and was taken by "Celebrate This Kansas," read by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, the state's poet laureate, who lives near Lawrence. Her poem begins, "Celebrate this sky, this land beyond the measured time."

Classmate Matthew Gonzales, 12, said the birthday party he'd plan also would include "Home on the Range" and plenty of Kansas flags, adding, "I'd invite the governor."

Gov. Sam Brownback was at Friday's ceremony, of course. He also signed a proclamation that said the state's residents face "innumerable challenges" but had ancestors who overcame worse. He was in the Senate to join its chorus of the state song, too.

"I've traveled all over the world. I've been in many places, and this is really a unique place," he said after the ceremony. "It's a place where people are committed. They believe in their cause. They work hard. They're humble about it."