Richard Neuhaus told the story (in 1991, I remember it clearly) of going to Kansas to give a lecture. He was met at the Kansas City, Missouri airport and whisked out beyond Topeka across the eventually barren plains that frame the shoulders of Interstate 70. All the plains beyond Topeka eventually become barren.
His driver, a very nice Kansas lady (there is hardly any other sort), told him many lovely things about her state, adding adamantly, “I just couldn’t live anywhere but Kansas.” “But there’s nothing out here,” I think he told her. “Of course,” she clarified, “when I say ‘Kansas,’ I mean eastern Kansas.” Another moment passed followed by another clarification. “And when I say ‘eastern Kansas,’ of course I really mean Johnson County.”
His fellow New Yorkers in the room thought this terribly funny. But I knew exactly what the woman was telling him. That story featured my Kansas. I was raised in Johnson County.
Renner Road in Johnson County? It was called Renner Road because it ended at the Renner farm where my grandmother, Hattie, was raised. Same deal with Widmer Road, by the way. That road passed Cora and Will Widmer’s farm, my aunt and uncle, sister and brother-in-law to Hattie. The Saltzman side of things never had their road, but no matter, it was my place.
There is hearty chauvinism Kansans can never shed, and it only gets worse when you happen across a Johnson County Kansan. Part of that, I think, is because we live so close to Missouri, with only a road between us. We looked good by comparison, nudged up so near Kansas City and its legacy of Prohibition booze and the Pendergast machine (that got rich making the booze) that vaulted Harry Truman into politics. Plus, we grew up with vivid stories of the Missouri-Kansas Border War from a century earlier.
Bleeding Kansas involved Johnson and neighboring counties and to this day that experience shapes some of the area’s attitudes. The Civil War history I first learned growing up in Kansas, before I ever heard of Gettysburg, was of Confederate guerrillas led by William Quantrill burning Lawrence in 1863, a raid launched from Missouri. We called him a thug. In Missouri he is “Captain” Quantrill. (Um, never mind Quantrill’s Raid was in reprisal for a Kansas raid on Osceloa, Missouri.) When I was a teenager, crossing the state line into Kansas City felt as perilous as passing though Check Point Charlie into a Cold War East Berlin.
Maybe you noticed me saying “us” earlier. Old habit. I live in Missouri now, Kansas City, exactly. Except for the years growing up in Kansas I’ve never lived in any place longer. I miss Kansas yet, well, the idea of Kansas. I’ll concede there are parts where nothing is there, not that “nothing” doesn’t exude a distinct charm for the folks living there.
Last month I had reason to remember Neuhaus’ story once more. I was to deliver a speech in Edmond, Oklahoma. Driving from Kansas City, turning south at Topeka and traveling through Wichita down below Guthrie to Edmond, the phrase “The Big Empty” kept rambling through my mind.
The term described a lot of what I saw between Topeka and Wichita. The Kansas Turnpike stretches through part of the Flint Hills, some of the last tallgrass prairie in the United States, spread over steep rolling hills and sharply sloped valleys. The prevailing color was brown, everything all dried up from summer’s drought. The most remarkable thing I noticed along the way was one lone great blue heron standing forlornly in the center of an exhausted pond. A tourist brochure describes the Flint Hills: “Empty? Not if you look closely.” There it is. You must look closely.
There are a couple books and a movie, a band and maybe a song with The Big Empty for a title, but only one of them tells the history and contemplates the future of what demographers, looking at the Great Plains, would otherwise call “a core base statistical area.” It’s largely about aging populations and small rural towns declining. Greeley County, bordering Colorado, with seven hundred seventy-eight square miles has perhaps two persons per square mile, a population of twelve hundred-something. Wallace County, also next to Colorado, has fourteen hundred people and two hundred more square miles. There will someday be counties that can no longer be counted as counties, unless they merge with others.
Many little towns, like Zarah where my father was born, are gone or disappearing. Of three hundred seventy-six counties counted as the Great Plains proper, two hundred sixty-one have fewer than ten thousand people. Only thirty-four of them have populations of more than fifty thousand. The Great Plains has eighteen percent of America’s landmass in the lower forty-eight states and only three percent of its population. When the lady told Neuhaus she’d live only in eastern Kansas, Johnson County, she meant a place with lots of people. With a state population of 2.8 million, twenty percent of all Kansans now live in Johnson County.
The Renner and Widmer farms I knew as a child are gone. They gave way to business development and houses and schools, and lots of other good things, no doubt. But the small communities in The Big Empty, they will just be gone, I fear, with little better to replace them.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.