First published in The Emporia Gazette September 26, 2006
‘READING ROADSIDE KANSAS’
by Cheryl Unruh
“That was once a Phillips 66 station,” my friend Jay told me several months ago, as we passed Crown Vic Auto Sales at Sixth and Rural.
“Look, the ‘P’ is still there on the
The architectural style of the building, the west end of it anyway, is Tudor cottage. Some oil companies used this style during the 1920s to make gas stations seem friendlier to the motoring public and also to blend in better in residential areas.
Another example of the Tudor cottage
style gas station is in Lebo at Old Highway 50 and Kansas Highway 131. This one-time Skelly station has been closed for a while.
My friend Jay Price is a history professor at Wichita State University and directs its public history program. One of his talks on the Kansas Humanities circuit is called “Reading Roadside Kansas.”
That was how I met Jay. In 2001, he gave a presentation in Emporia for The Learning Connection. We’ve been good friends ever since.
When I’m around Jay, I ask a lot of questions and I begin to see the pieces of history fit together. He can tell me how aspects of religion, culture, business, and regional identity have coincided to produce a specific situation or event.
I’m envious of Jay because he knows the timeline. For him, the history puzzle is already put together--or at least he knows what the picture on the puzzle box looks like.
When we’re riding around in Emporia or in Wichita, Jay shows me how to read the buildings. Gas station, church, and motel architecture provides information about various eras.
Architecture also reveals a community’s prosperity at a given time. And by studying a number of buildings, one can determine the boom periods of a town.
I often stumble onto something that Jay has mentioned. In June when my mom and I were in Council Grove, we noticed the 1930 Maple Camp Tourist Cabin behind the Terwilliger Home. “Aha,” I said, “Jay has talked about tourist cabins like these.”
Recently, I drove to Wichita to catch up with Jay. His fifth book came out last month, a pictorial history: “Cherokee Strip Land Rush.” However, on this particular afternoon, he was giving a talk on the history of the town of Bel Aire.
While most Kansas towns got their start in the 1800s, Bel Aire, a suburb on the northeast edge of Wichita, was incorporated in 1980.
So how much history could a 26-year-old town have? Apparently, plenty. But Jay limited his talk to an hour.
In the 1890s, sulky horse racing created quite a stir in the place that would become Bel Aire. “There was very much the sense that this was going to be the next Lexington,” Jay said.
“After World War II, this area was seen as a place for development.”
In 1955, the Bel Aire Improvement District was formed in order to obtain residential water. But it was still a rural area.
“You could go for a walk and see the lights of Wichita twinkling in the distance and you might get the odd field mouse in your house,” Jay said.
Wichita and Bel Aire battled in court over Bel Aire’s incorporation. “Wichita said, ‘Look, you’re hemming us in’ and the people of Bel Aire said, ‘Don’t we have the right to determine our own future?’”
Bel Aire won. And the area has shifted from a rural way of life to a suburban way of life.
Old towns, new towns, red towns, blue towns. Every place has a story.
And even if you don’t know a town’s history, you can find clues in the architecture, you can read the writing on the walls.
It’s been fun to have a friend in the history business.
"Cherokee Strip Land Rush" and three other books written
by Jay Price can be found at Arcadia Publishing
Read more about Dr. Jay Price:
ElDorado: Legacy of an Oil Boom - a Flyover People column
written by Becky Tanner
Copyright 2006 by Cheryl Unruh
All Content Copyright 2004-2006 by Cheryl Unruh