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The Big Divide
A Travel Guide to Historic & Civil War Sites in the Missouri-Kansas Border Region
By Diane Eickhoff, Aaron Barnhart
Quindaro PressCopyright © 2013 Diane Eickhoff and Aaron Barnhart
All rights reserved.
The Missouri-Kansas border region comprises some 20 million acres of fields, woodlands, river valleys, settlements, and cities. No journey into The Big Divide is complete without exploring the area's distinctive geography, for the land itself has helped shape the region's history.
In prehistoric times, what we now call the Midwestern United States lay submerged under a shallow sea that spanned the length of this continent. About 200 million years ago the water vanished, and the ocean floor — made of limestone and a tough-as-nails substrate called chert — became the prairie, a waving sea of tallgrass and wildflowers that was unrivaled for biological diversity and hypnotic beauty.
More than 95 percent of that prairie is now farmland or forest. What remains is mostly here, in the Flint Hills region of eastern Kansas, its rich grasses grazed upon by livestock, its splendor gazed upon by both artists and tourists. The Flint Hills are a source of state pride, as you will discover at the brand-new Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, Kansas. A few miles down the road are the historically significant Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie and Beecher Bible and Rifle Church. Missouri is also preserving its tallgrass where it can, including Prairie State Park just east of the state line.
Nature museums and centers are another place to learn about the region's geology, botany, and wildlife. The University of Kansas Natural History Museum is the area's premier place to learn about the diversity of life forms that have lived off this land. A number of area natures — we have chosen our favorites in Kansas City and St. Joseph — combine kid-friendly features like miniature zoos with hiking trails through restored tallgrass, riverfront, or in the case of Neosho National Fish Hatchery, spawning pools. They offer road-weary travelers and their young passengers an ideal place to get out and stretch.
Sites in This Chapter
1. Remington Nature Center, St. Joseph, MO
2. Martha LaFite Thompson Nature Sanctuary, Liberty, MO
3. Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center, Kansas City, MO
4. Lakeside Nature Center, Kansas City, MO
5. Burr Oak Woods Nature Center, Blue Springs, MO
6. Ernie Miller Nature Center, Olathe, KS
7. University of Kansas Natural History Museum, Lawrence, KS
8. Prairie Park Nature Center, Lawrence, KS
9. Flint Hills Discovery Center, Manhattan, KS
10. Beecher Bible and Rifle Church, Wamego, KS
11. Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie, Wamego, KS
12. Prairie State Park, Mindenmines, MO
13. Wildcat Glades, Joplin, MO
14. Neosho National Fish Hatchery, Neosho, MO
Prairie State Park
near Mindenmines, MO 64769 (128 NW 150th Lane in rural Barton County)
Park with visitor center, trails, and camping. Hours: dawn to dusk; visitor center open 10 to 4 Wednesday thru Saturday, April to October (closed Wednesday in the off-season). FREE. Campsites must be reserved in advance. Wheelchair access: Visitor center yes; trails are unpaved. Who runs it: Missouri State Parks (mostateparks.com). Phone: 417-843-6711.
[??] Our Take: A beautifully tended preserve of native Missouri grasses and wildflowers.
As we approached Prairie State Park on a bright, windless autumn day, the sky suddenly turned dark. We looked up to see the sun shrouded behind a red cloud of thick smoke. Looking to the horizon, we spotted the park ranger's truck and the orderly row of fire. The controlled burn is a familiar sight to Kansans who live near tallgrass prairie, which now relies on humans to do what lightning once did — burning off the woody plants that encroach on grassland. But it thrilled us to be witnessing this ritual in Missouri, on the state's largest contiguous stretch of surviving prairie.
Prairie State Park offers a glimpse of what this part of the world looked like for millions of years: a vast sea of grass and wildflowers that supplied nutrition to the bison and elk who once defined the Western landscape. Like most surviving prairies, the 3,942-acre park sits mostly atop bedrock and a thin layer of soil, making it unfit for traditional agriculture. Supported on sturdy taproots, tallgrass can grow as high as six feet or more and withstand the harshest conditions. A total of 350 native prairie plants thrive here, supporting an abundance of wildlife, including 150 species of birds, 25 species of mammals, 25 types of reptiles, and at least 112 different amphibian types.
Prairie State Park offers a variety of interlinked hiking trails, a brookside, shaded picnic area, and primitive campsites for sleeping under the stars. A staffed visitor center has nature exhibits and east-facing picture windows for prairie-gazing. Park guides offer bison hikes and wildflower hikes. In spring you may be able to spot newborn bison with their telltale orange hides.
Near here: Harry S. Truman Birthplace, about 17 miles.
Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie
near Wamego, KS 66547 (Highway K-99, 5.5 miles north of Interstate 70)
Prairie preserve with hiking trail. Hours: dawn to dusk. FREE. Wheelchair access: No. Who maintains it: Mount Mitchell Prairie Guards. Tours and info: firstname.lastname@example.org (e-mail is promptly answered).
[??] Our Take: Take in the Flint Hills with this scenic hiking trail on what was once an abolitionist colony.
Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie was named after William Mitchell, leader of the anti-slavery Connecticut Kansas Colony, 63 men, women, and children who settled this area in 1856. At an organizing meeting in New Haven, the emigrants were treated to a rousing sermon by none other than Henry Ward Beecher, the "most famous man in America," the celebrated abolitionist preacher and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin.
After Beecher spoke, someone declared that the settlers should not be going to Kansas unarmed. At that, an eyewitness said, "one of the audience became aroused, and to the surprise of the rest, and even himself, called out, I'll give a Sharps rifle." In the ensuing frenzy, twenty-five guns were quickly pledged to the colony — and Beecher pledged a matching gift of $625 to buy twenty-five more. He delivered the money along with a crate of Bibles and a note: "This book will be the foundation of your State. It will teach you to value your rights and inspire you to defend them."
A legend was born. Newspapers went wild reporting on "Beecher's Bibles," embroidering the story as they went. The guns, it was said, were smuggled into Kansas in boxes marked "Bibles." Michael Stubbs, president of the Mount Mitchell Prairie Guards, told us that the rifles, in fact, "were prominently on display" and were actually brandished when the emigrants' steamboat was threatened at Lexington, Missouri.
Mitchell's son donated these 45 acres to the state historical society in the 1950s. But it wasn't until recently, when local residents bought the land and partnered with Kansas Audubon Society on a restoration plan, that the prairie began to return to its pristine state.
From the parking lot, an easy 0.6-mile walking trail takes you to the summit, a 360-degree panorama of sky with a historical marker. Early mornings are the best time to hike Mount Mitchell, especially in the hot months of summer. You will encounter just a single clump of shade trees (with picnic table) on your journey to the summit. The park is teeming with prairie plants and wildflowers that change seasonally.
Near here: Flint Hills Discovery Center, Goodnow House, and Beach Museum of Art Manhattan, 12 miles by Highway 18.
Beecher Bible and Rifle Church
near Wamego, KS 66547 (1 mile NW of Mount Mitchell across Highway 99)
Historic church. Tours: by appointment. Call John Sumners at 785-617-1300. FREE. Wheelchair access: Yes; enter on south side. Note: Bridge construction will impede access from some roads for most of 2013; call for directions.
[??] Our Take: Living relic of abolitionism is worth a stop.
During the perilous Bleeding Kansas years, colonists met for worship in homes, in tents, or outdoors. Only in 1862 was the stone building erected that came to be known as Beecher Bible and Rifle Church. Today it is a community church and meets for services at 9:45 a.m. every Sunday. Our guided tour was brief and worthwhile.
Near here: Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie.
KU Natural History Museum
Lawrence, KS 66045 (Dyche Hall, 1345 Jayhawk Boulevard on the University of Kansas campus; parking is in a nearby fee-based garage)
Large museum. Hours: 9 to 5 Tuesday thru Saturday, 9 to 8 Thursday, noon to 5 Sunday. Suggested donation: $5 adults, $3 seniors and youth. Wheelchair access: Yes. Who runs it: the university (naturalhistory.ku.edu). Phone: 785-864-4450.
[??] Our Take: This university collection of natural history artifacts is well-designed and kid-friendly, with helpful staff.
Four floors of exhibits covering millions of years of life on Earth sounds intimidating, though not as intimidating as the giant mosasaur in the lobby must have been in his day. However, from its inception over a century ago, the university's natural history collection has been tailored to the public. Today it is skillfully organized to appeal to child and adult alike.
The signature exhibit in this museum is itself a slice of history: an enormous diorama of North American mammals that was one of the most popular attractions at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Assembled by University of Kansas professor Lewis Lindsay Dyche, a naturalist with a talent for taxidermy, it depicts wolves, prairie dogs, bison, moose, and other creatures in action poses. After the fair, the exhibit was installed in this landmark hall and later enhanced with dioramas featuring other wildlife. Also here is Dyche's most famous stuffed animal — Comanche, the Army horse once thought to be the sole survivor of Little Big Horn.
Other exhibits in Dyche Hall include Bugtown, Explore Evolution, and The Life of the Past with the aforementioned mosasaurs. We found the staff knowledgeable and helpful in navigating the museum. Tours for students and adults are given every Saturday at 11 and 2 and by request. For younger visitors, the museum has put together several scavenger hunts, available at the front desk or for download at the museum's website.
Conservation and Audubon Center in Joplin, MO 64804 (201 West Riviera Drive, south of Interstate 44 at Exit 6)
Nature center with walking trails. Hours: Trails open dawn to dusk; nature center open 9 to 5 Wednesday thru Saturday year-round, noon to 4 Sunday from March to October. FREE. Wheelchair access: Nature center and paved trails. Phone: 417-782-6287.
[??] Our Take: Rare chert bluffs are the claim to fame of this new nature center, located at the edge of the Ozarks.
Operated by Missouri Audubon and the state of Missouri, this conservation area's nature center, opened in 2007, leads into a network of trails through fishing and bird-watching spots and half the world's surviving chert glade. Inside the nature center is a modest collection of wildlife and kid's "discovery area," including a cylindrical aquarium that offers 360-degree views and a corner bird-watching station where visitors can hear many common bird songs at the press of a button.
To truly appreciate this site, however, you need to walk the trails. Crossing over Silver Creek, you enter upon some of the last remaining chert glade on the planet. More extreme than even the prairie to the west, chert glade is a desertlike environment where a layer of soil offers a scant barrier between bedrock and the elements. Only species with deep roots and large water-retaining leaves can survive. Joplin is the northernmost location for prickly pear cactus and other species native to the glade. Some of these plants are over 150 years old but remain small and stunted in their growth.
A must-see is Mother Nature's Gap on the Bluff Trail, a 40-foot split in the chert rock. Whatever you do, tread carefully on the uneven glade, especially when stepping on exposed rock.
Near here: George Washington Carver National Monument, about 15 miles
Neosho National Fish Hatchery
Neosho, MO 64850 (520 East Park Street)
Working hatchery with staffed information center and aquariums with rare fish. Hours: 8 to 4:30 weekdays, 10 to 4 weekends. FREE. Wheelchair access: Yes. Who runs it: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (fws.gov). Phone: 417-451-0554.
[??] Our Take: The nation's oldest federal fish hatchery has a unique mission, terrific visitor center, and helpful staff.
A gem in the Ozark region of southwestern Missouri is the federal system's oldest continuously operated fish hatchery. Neosho was chosen in 1888 because of its gravity-fed spring that produces 1,200 to 1,600 gallons per minute. Today, some 230,000 rainbow trout are bred annually here and sent elsewhere as stock for lakes.
The hatchery is better known for its conservation efforts, which are highlighted in its spiffy visitor center, built to LEED Gold energy efficiency standards. The most notable and strange of species nurtured here is the pallid sturgeon — a boneless, shovel-nosed wonder with a 400-million-year-old pedigree. It almost went the way of the dinosaur but is making a comeback with human help. The sightless Ozark cavefish, imperiled by pollutants and chemical runoff, is also a focus of the hatchery.
If you have children in tow, visiting here is a no-brainer. For sheer entertainment it's hard to beat the feeding frenzy outside in the trout pond. Visitors can toss pellets of food into the water and watch the trout collide hilariously in midair as they lunge for the chow.
Near here: Wildcat Glades, about 21 miles; George Washington Carver National Monument, 14 miles.
Remington Nature Center
St. Joseph, MO 64505 (1502 MacArthur Drive, exit 7 from Interstate 229)
Nature center with riverfront walking trails. Hours: 10 to 5 Monday thru Saturday, 1 to 5 Sunday. Admission: $3 for adults, $2 seniors, $1 youth ages 4+.Wheelchair access: Yes. Who runs it: City of St. Joseph. Phone: 816-271-5499.
[??] Our Take: Take a break here after museum-hopping in St. Joe.
Remington emphasizes the region's natural history, focusing on the river region of St. Joseph and northwest Missouri. Among the displays are a functioning beehive that can be observed safely behind glass, a replica beaver dam, a 7,000- gallon aquarium stocked with local species of fish, Indian history, and Civil War artifacts of local provenance.
Greeting you at the lobby is the life-sized model of the 10,000-year-old woolly mammoth whose bones were excavated nearby. (A mascot-sized version, named Remi, makes appearances at birthday parties held at the center.) Also notable are the paved trails outside the museum, which offer opportunities to observe bird habitats and wildflower plantings along the Missouri River.
Flint Hills Discovery Center
Manhattan, KS 66502 (315 S. 3rd Street)
Large science and history museum. Open 10 to 8 Monday thru Thursday, 10 to 5 Friday-Saturday, noon to 5 Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, closing at 5 p.m. Monday-Wednesday the rest of the year. Admission $9 adults; $7 military, students, and seniors; $4 youth 2-17. Wheelchair access: Yes. Who runs it: the City of Manhattan. Phone: 785-587-2726.
[??] Our Take: Superb new museum on the tallgrass prairie, its natural history and culture, has appeal for visitors of all ages.
Located on the westernmost edge of the Big Divide region, the Flint Hills Discovery Center, which opened in 2012, is a nicely conceived and executed museum about the largest intact tallgrass prairie in North America.
Excerpted from The Big Divide by Diane Eickhoff, Aaron Barnhart. Copyright © 2013 Diane Eickhoff and Aaron Barnhart. Excerpted by permission of Quindaro Press.
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