Thursday, June 20, 2019

Kansas Staycation: McPherson

McPherson is a small town with a big downtown presence. From the outside looking in, it appears the 13,000-some residents have figured out the formula for keeping hometown businesses viable. It's a rarity in this new world of online ordering and the rush to big box stores to shave a few bucks off the family's budget.

Somehow, McPherson seems to have found the formula. As I looked at a colorful collage at the Clayworks gallery, I thought maybe it represented the answer: A variety of ideas and concepts in the downtown area create a whole that is attractive to both residents and out-of-town visitors. And, as one of the pieces of the collage says, "All things grow with LOVE."

It's obvious that McPhersonites love their town. With its location in the middle of the state, it's also a great spot for a Kansas Staycation.

 My PEO group traveled to McPherson this spring for a field trip. We only toured two places and ate lunch at the Main Street Deli. Some of us spent a little time at Twice Told Tales, a second-hand book store which turned out to be owned by a "girl" who grew up in Stafford. (It was a nice surprise. We didn't know it until we walked through the door.) Since we were on a schedule, we didn't have time to explore other stores, including two of my favorites, The Well and The Cook's Nook.

But, if you didn't want to spend all day in McPherson, you could amble on down the road to nearby Lindsborg, about 20 minutes away. (I have done blog posts about Coronado Heights, the Red Barn Studio, and Dala horses in Lindsborg, and there are plenty of other stores and attractions there, too.
On the PEO trip to McPherson, we started at the renovated McPherson Opera House. McPherson County was booming in the late 1800s with a population of some 24,000. Commerce and agriculture supported the county and its same-named county seat, McPherson.

Even though McPherson lost its bid in 1887 to become the capital of Kansas, some early entrepreneurs weren't deterred. They wanted to build a bigger and better opera house to replace the city's original structure.
The opera house, which cost $42,000 to build, had its grand opening in January 1889, and it became a center for conventions, political rallies, high school and eighth grade graduations, orphan train stops and a variety of entertainment. The auditorium had two balconies and seated 900 persons.
In 1913, the auditorium was redecorated. The owners hired G.N. Malm for the project, a noted painter and writer affiliated with Bethany College in Lindsborg. In addition, Malm, along with his brother and Oscar Gunnerson, had a successful business that dealt in hand-cut stencils designed by Malm.
Malm painted the mural above the proscenium arch and designed the decorative stenciling that has been recreated in the auditorium. During a 1925-1929 extensive remodeling of the Opera House, the decorative scheme devised by Malm was largely left intact but some of his work was painted over in an effort to “modernize” the interior.

In 1929, the facility was converted into a movie theater, first called the Empire and later called the Mac. In 1965, the last business to occupy the building was the Trailways Bus Station. However, the building fell into disrepair. In the 1980s, the crumbling structure was facing demolition when a group of citizens organized efforts to renovate the building. Through careful restoration, the interior now looks much like it would have in 1913. But it now has modern amenities, including larger seats, a digital sound system for movies and a concession stand. 
Light still shines into the building through colored glass windows.

The restoration took 25 years and cost $8.5 million. Funding came from individual donors, foundations, government and private grants, as well as from State and Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credits.
One part of the restoration has a back story: In about 1933, a little girl named Jo (Norma Joan Burlingame) visited the Empire movie theater with her babysitter. The sitter's boyfriend was the projectionist, and the two went to the projection room where Jo was placed on a shelf in order to restrict her adventurous spirit. There, Jo found two "soldiers" - which were actually the two handles from the original Opera House doors.

The sitter and the boyfriend tried to get them back, but Jo protested so loudly that they eventually gave up and let her take them home, where she buried them in a sand pile. A few years later, her family moved to St. Louis and the "soldier" handles came along. In her later years, she told the story to her family.

Her daughter Sarah Peters of Louisville, Ky., returned the door handles to the Opera House in late 2011. Now the handles are mounted on the original Opera House doors in the Grand Ballroom. The transfer back to McPherson fulfilled her mother's wish: "If you restore the building you can have them back!"
The opera house ticket booth is not original to the building, but provides a handy place for current patrons to buy tickets before the numerous local and traveling tour performances.
 The basement has also been renovated. In its early years, McPherson had underground tunnels in its business district, like many prairie towns. (PEO toured Ellinwood's tunnels during another field trip.)
The basement meeting rooms are rented out for community events or business meetings. Guests can see the original limestone that was quarried in neighboring Marion County and brought by horse and wagon to McPherson. Some of the square nails used during construction in the 1880s are still visible.

Another part of the basement has been transformed into the Mary Anderson Arts Center, which functions as a working art studio for artists. The clay room features a kiln and potter's wheels, while the other arts are taught and practiced in the adjacent room. Novice and veteran artists can use the center to host art-inspired camps, birthday parties, women’s groups and more.
The McPherson Arts Alliance, whose office is across the hall from the Arts Center, programs a number of classes for all ages. During summer, the McPherson Recreation Commission provides art classes for youth.

We had a wonderful tour guide, Jean Rowland. If you're with a group, I highly recommend a guided tour. You may also take a walking tour on your own for a small fee.

The arts center at the Opera House is certainly not the only venue for art in McPherson. Clayworks provides a location for differently-abled people to do art - and sell it to others.

Disability Supports of the Great Plains' goal is to make life complete for its clients. Clayworks provides an artistic venue for clients to express themselves by making bowls, decorative plates, planter decor, mugs, wind chimes, vases and other pottery, as well as jewelry, stepping stones and stationary, our tour guide, Teresa Preston, told us.
I purposely kept this photo fairly dark so that the people couldn't be easily identified.
A gallery on McPherson's Main Street gives the public a chance to buy the client's work. The artist gets 100 percent of the revenue from their artwork.
The Clayworks. Studio staff follow case worker's recommendations on what media and projects are best suited for each individual client, and they use what they call a “gentle teaching” approach to working with the artists. Sessions are kept to a 12–16 artists working in clay, greenware, hand-thrown pottery and drawing.
 “When the artists begin a project, they start with something they look at as just a mound of clay, or a pencil, brush and sheet of paper. But as they work with it, it grows, transitions and changes. By the time they’re finished, they’ve communicated their personality and feelings in a way words never could.”
David Olson on The Clayworks website
The Clayworks uses creativity as a way to help people find a sense of place as well as a livelihood — and a place to share their gifts with the world. A similar work space and gallery is set to open on Main Street Hutchinson in July.
These pieces of pottery were completed that day and were ready to be fired. I was struck by the message of the LOVE stickers on the "window" that looked into the work room.
If art is not your thing, there's also a beautiful golf course that Randy and I visited last year - Turkey Creek. We ate at Tres Amigos Mexican Restaurant for our evening meal and enjoyed that, too!
For more ideas on a Kansas Staycation in McPherson, go to this website.


  1. This looks Amazing! I can’t wait to visit. We are moving to St John in September from Connecticut.

    1. That's great. Welcome to my neck of the woods! I look forward to meeting you in person.