I enjoyed spending the evening in Colby, particularly because for the first time in a long time I was confronted by a true prairie wind, the kind that blows constantly at 25 miles an hour, and from which there is no possibility of hiding. It was a good reminder of what is so special and horrible about the high plains. It is indeed a wind to drive you mad. I had to pick up some things I had forgotten to bring with me so I went to a local grocery store and, as usual (to encourage me to walk as much as possible) I parked on the far side of the parking lot and really felt the power of the wind as I went into the store.
Bruce Cutler, a poet who taught at Wichita State University, described the plains as "skinned by winds to skullsmooth mounds." I was reminded what exactly that means that evening in Colby.
The next morning I got myself a cup of coffee at a truckstop Starbucks (there were several of these along my route, which made me happy -- if you have had hotel breakfast bar coffee you will know why!), and crossed under the Interstate to the local museum.
The entrance to the Prairie Museum of Art and History in Colby, Kansas.
The Prairie Museum of Art and History
is just off the interstate, and the building itself is only a part of the establishment. On the south side of the complex is an area of prairie grasses that is used by local students for their science classes. The main building itself only dates to the 1980s, and it is beautifully set into a berm covered with native grasses.
This is the view of the main building from the open air portion of the museum.
On a morning already promising to be hot, the woman at the front desk directed me to the collection of buildings that have been set out in a parkland accessed through a walled passage. There was a 1930s farmstead house with a 1906 barn next to it, a sod house, a one room schoolhouse, a rural church, and what they proudly claim to be the largest barn in Kansas. With the exception of the 1906 red barn, which is used for 4H projects in the summers, all of these buildings are open for you to walk through, and there is a note on the door of many of them to be sure you close the doors securely (remember the prairie wind).
The buildings are connected by paved walkways.
A house that made it through the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
You start with the farmstead house and can go into almost all the rooms, just two having a railing to limit your access. You can sit on the couch in the living room or at the dining room table, play a board game from Dust Bowl times, and really explore the details of life on a farm. Each building has both detailed write-ups about the people who lived or worked in them, but also active things for kids to do. And there are
You can sit on the furniture in these buildings, something that is very rare in museums just about anywhere.
The two most entertaining buildings, I think, for visiting children (and clearly for visiting adults as well) were the one room schoolhouse and the rural church.
Interior of the one room schoolhouse.
In front of the school, painted on the sidewalk approach, was a hopscotch frame (do kids still do that, or am I just really really old?).
Hopscotch grid on the sidewalk up to the school door.
There was a merry-go-round of a sort to its side. Inside the school itself there were McGuffey Readers on the shelves, a chalk board and slates to write on. Visitors had taken advantage of this to write notes, provide their comments on the museum or their friends or enemies, and just generally do the graffiti things they wanted to do.
There was an educational, local history component, too. The teachers who had taught in the school, the alumni of the school, and pictures of the building in various seasons, are posted on a bulletin board display. There are also the lovely rules for male and female teachers (men could be married; women were expected to be spinsters, etc.). Stories of fundraising auctions to fund the school (bachelors were to bid on one of a group of picnic baskets and then have an afternoon sharing the basket with the girl who packed it, for example) and other events were told in the typewritten cards, several fading from age. There was also a piano here, as there was in the 1930s house, and as there was in the other residential building in the museum.
The rural church, still used as a church today, even though it has been moved to the museum grounds.
The other building I thought would be of greatest interest to a child was the church. Yup, the church. It had a couple of very clear interactive experiences for children.
Sign in church!
Get dressed in your sunday best!
The church itself was quite spare, with little decoration (although some nice stained glass windows). But this sign and the way children were encouraged to play, even in church, would have made this a highlight for me at age 10 or 12, and I am sure it is thought to be really really cool, even today.
This is the bell rope. It would take more than a child's strength to ring the bell with any effect.
No, I didn't pull the bell rope. At my undergraduate college, you got to ring the bell when you were finished with your senior exams. The number of peals was the year in which you graduated. Usually people got together in pairs or trios to pull it. I did it with one other woman and it was tiring by the time we got past sixty and still had a lot more to go!
A sod house, a really nice one!
For me the most interesting building was the sod house. It was a really nice one, with a window and a wooden pitched roof. But it was interesting to go into one nonetheless. There was a sign on the wall inside it which noted that it was difficult to keep a dirt building clean. "Why don't you take the broom and help the family who lives here sweep the floor?" (or some such request).
I remember from Little House on the Prairie or one of the other Laura Ingalls Wilder books a description of the latch on a sod house door, where the latch was a mechanism built around a short strand of rope. It was something I had never quite understood, but here was one of those latching mechanisms, where I could play with it and figure out exactly how it works. That alone was worth stopping at the museum. It is amazing when you realize you are solving a puzzle that has been in the back of your mind since you were really little!
The latch on the door of the sod house.
By the time I got to the barn I was really tired and it was really hot, so I walked relatively quickly through an interesting exhibit on wheat cultivation on the great plains. The highlight of the items on display (a bunch of farm equipment, as you might expect) was a covered wagon. It was smaller than what I think of as a Conestoga wagon, and you couldn't go climbing on it, but it was cool to see nonetheless.
The covered wagon, minus the canvas cover.
At this point I wandered back to the main building, where I drank lot of water from the water fountain, and reveled in the air conditioning. And took a look at the permanent collections. And again was bowled over by the quality of the material and the displays. The subjects were relatively standard for a midwestern museum that is based largely around one person's collection, with quilts and toys and glass and ceramics, among other things. But it was the number of objects, the quality, and the impressive displays that were so surprising to me.
Just three of the cases of glass in the Prairie Museum.
While the labels were not always accurate, and many objects were not labeled, there was a room devoted to glass, with perhaps 15 spotlit cases with items of very high quality dating from at least the 18th century to the 20th (I didn't notice any pieces of Roman or medieval glass but I would not have been surprised to see them). There was an equally impressive room of ceramic material, from Roman oil lamps (which were incorrectly dated, but then I am currently working to publish a late Roman site so I would know that!) to English majolica and Wedgwood and 20th century commemorative plates. In all of these there were pieces of very high quality mixed in with items that were essentially high end "collectibles." But the overall level of material was impressive.
Examples of English majolica.
The woman who collected these objects had not limited herself to easy-to-display items. Her clothing collection was equally worth seeing. Several wedding dresses were displayed in a series of cases, but the most impactful was the collection of war uniforms, from World War I to the Gulf War (and, I believe, examples up to the Afghanistan War so much in the news these days). These were displayed with the names of those who had worn the uniforms, both men and women. But the thing that got to me was the way the World War I uniforms were displayed, behind a mess of barbed wire.
This huge collection of World War I uniforms comes largely from the Kuska collection.
And then there was the furniture. Anyone who knows me knows I love Georgian and Federalist furniture, but I really lose my heart to reproductions of ancient furnishings. Like an Egyptian revival stool from the latter half of the 19th century. This is my idea of heaven.
I want this. Badly.
Almost every museum has limited space for display of their collection, but the Prairie Museum of Art and History has a way to deal with that as well. On the wall of the furniture gallery is a glass window with this sign next to it:
I am a sucker for buttons to push and levers to turn, and I turned the switch and took a picture through the window. It practically took my breath away. Again, remember this is a town of under 5500 people. And it has a collection so fine that these objects are not on display.
This is the storage space for furniture not on display in the museum.
Again, as with the Sternberg Museum I had visited the day before, I was one of very few people there on that day. There were a couple of staff members, but I only saw one couple who, like me, had stopped off on their way across the state on I-70. I could hear them talking to each other as they went through the buildings and particularly in the main building when we came back to see the displays there, and they were just as blown away as I was. I was very glad things had worked out to have me spend the night in Colby because otherwise I would have missed this museum and it was well worth the excursion off the interstate (which was perhaps 500 yards, at most).