How dirty laundry literally is helping small town beat dismal rural numbers

The owners of the Wash-O-Rama in Cottonwood Falls, Christy and Luke Davis, proclaim they have the “prettiest laundromat in the most beautiful town in Kansas.”

And, after more than 4,000 loads of laundry since their grand opening last summer, they may be on to something.

Erik Pederson said Cottonwood Falls is one of several small, rural communities in the Flint Hills working together to keep crucial businesses in town so the towns continue to survive.

“There are regional pockets of goodness throughout the state,” said Pederson, vice president of the Entrepreneurship NetWork Kansas, a state organization that assists businesses starting and expanding in rural communities.

“These are the quality-of-life businesses – the grocery store, the hair salon, auto repair, pharmacy and laundromat are all quality of life – the things that enable a rural community to continue to thrive so the residents don’t have to travel great distances to get core needs satisfied.”

In Cottonwood Falls, with fewer than 900 residents, the Davises’ laundromat is evolving into a destination point.

On a Sunday morning earlier this month, the Wash-O-Rama’s Facebook page offered this: “Pack up your bed roll and dust off your lycra shorts! Whether you’re spending Saturday on a bike, a bull, or a lawn chair, you’re invited to give us a spin at Washorama on Sunday morning. Join us for food, drinks and fun while you wash your Wranglers and jerseys. Bring your smiling face and appetite. Laundry is optional. Food and drink are on us! Y’all come – but please RSVP.”

The laundromat was awarded a Kansas Historic Preservation Award in May for the $200,000 renovation of the building in downtown Cottonwood Falls. Architect Ben Moore of Manhattan and general contractor Pat Larkin were also included in the award.

The Davises are both fifth-generation Kansans – Harvey County, specifically – and have lived in the Cottonwood Falls area for nearly four years.

They view the laundromat as their vision in helping support rural Kansas quality of life.

“There are a lot of economic stories based on both internal and external surveys on what the economic needs in the community were,” said Christy Davis. “I was sitting in a meeting where they identified the number one need as a laundry mat.

“I thought, ‘This isn’t rocket science. Someone should do that.’ ”

Davis, 42, has been the executive director of the Symphony in the Flint Hills for the past four years. She also worked for the Kansas Historic Preservation Office for seven years and ran her own preservation company.

Some of her past preservation work has included projects with Wichita’s Ambassador Hotel, the Broadview and the Player Piano building.

“The hardest thing in rural communities is to get financing for projects, because people just don’t take chances on rural Kansas,” Davis said. “Cottonwood Falls is probably one of the few exceptions.”

Why Cottonwood Falls

In the mid-1980s, Chase County was in the midst of a divisive tug of war.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve had yet to be created by Congress, and local ranchers feared a government takeover of their land. They were leery of environmentalists and big-city tourists.

And that’s when William Least Heat-Moon began researching and writing his book on the now-famous county: “PrairyErth (A Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tallgrass Prairie Country.”

Readers were enthralled with Heat-Moon’s “deep map” style of weaving the geography, archaeology, history, folklore and interviews with Chase County residents into his book, which quickly made the New York Times’ best sellers list.

And so people came to Chase County in search of the tall grass prairie, cowboys and small-town life.

In the early 1990s, U.S. Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker of Kansas was instrumental in getting the nearby tall grass prairie placed into a national preserve.

Broadway Street in Cottonwood Falls – where the Wash-O-Rama now sits – was once nearly a ghost town of empty shops but now has become a trendy hangout for tourists and locals.

It boasts art galleries, antique shops, the Grand Central Hotel – a AAA four-diamond historic country inn and restaurant.

And in the center, with its eye-catching bright blue trim and penny-colored medallions, is the Wash-O-Rama.

Some tourists bring their laundry, get the machines going and, while they are waiting, get back on K-177 and travel 2 miles to Ad Astra Food and Drink in Strong City before returning to pick up their clothes.

Or they just wander down the streets of Cottonwood Falls, taking a tour through one of the most historic and most photographed county courthouses in Kansas.

“We had to have a tie-in to tourism,” Christy Davis said. “There are a lot of guest houses in Chase County, and many of them don’t have clean commercial-type machines. So the owners were clamoring for a laundry mat.

“This was the kind of business that could cater to both locals and tourists.”

In addition, the couple also have a guest house in back of the laundromat. Together, the two businesses pay the bills.

But it was hard in the beginning, Davis said, to get financing.

“We struggled to get anybody to take a chance on it,” she said.

The couple worked with Farmers & Drovers Bank in Council Grove and received the financing.

A preservation project

Before its incarnation, the Wash-O-Rama building had served for decades as an office building for the county attorney.

“When he died, the new county attorney located in the courthouse building,” Davis said. “The building then was for sale, and when we bought it, it had blue plastic on the front.”

At first, the Davises had no intention of doing a preservation project on the building. But that was before they found the tin ceilings.

“When we bought it, the office had suspended ceilings, wood paneling and carpet,” she said. “We were going to cover the upper facade with a crazy sign. That was the plan.”

But then they spotted the tin ceilings, and plans changed. The project suddenly went into preservation mode.

The tin ceilings were painted with a copper-green paint. The couple left a coffee can in the center of the ceiling’s medallion, just like it has been for decades, as an artistic touch.

The building’s HVAC system was redesigned, commercial state-of-the-art machines were purchased from Commercial Laundry in Wichita, and local artists and businesses were contacted for quirky, decorative touches.

“We designed the system so local farm hands and cowboys could come in and wash their horse blankets and people working third shift could drop their laundry in the machines and come back in the morning to pick them up,” Davis said of the laundromat, which is open 24 hours.

Shirley and John Rogler from neighboring Matfield Green were using the laundromat last week.

“This is all laundry we couldn’t do at home,” John Rogler said. “It was heavy stuff, like a king-size bed comforter that was too big for our machines.”

Another visitor wrote on Facebook: “I’m in love. This is the nicest laundromat I have ever used. … It’s worth the drive. We will be back.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner