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The Hidden Garden

June 7th, 2011 at 10:48 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

Steve and Jane Fry


Steve and Jane Fry knew the garden was there, somewhere in the undergrowth and the overgrowth, somewhere amid the self-initiated forest and the thick tangle of English ivy.

“We love trees, but we’ve cut out hundreds of them,” Jane said.

Six years ago in the Elk County community of Elk Falls, pop. 103, the Frys began uncovering a garden that had been hidden for decades.

The property at one time belonged to Maude Frakes. As the Frys tell the story, the garden started taking shape in the 1930s after Maude’s husband passed away. She was well-to-do and hired people to create a garden in her expansive yard.

The Frys believe that Maude Frakes hired workers mainly to provide employment during The Depression. The workers built concrete and stone ponds, bridges, benches, a wishing well, and various other stone features, as well as concrete elephants. (And yes, they were political elephants; she hosted a campaign event for Alf Landon here.)

Steve Fry grew up in Great Bend and his family moved to Hesston when he was in high school. He met and married Jane and they spent a couple of years in Georgia. In 1976, they moved to Elk Falls.

While planning their move back to the Midwest, they saw an ad in Mother Earth News inviting people to move to this community. Steve remembered the hilly region of southeast Kansas from riding motorcycles and liked the area. The population of Elk Falls at that time was about what it is now, Steve said, 100-120 residents.

So the Frys moved to Elk Falls 35 years ago to start their shop, Elk Falls Pottery, which is on South Sixth Street. Among items they regularly make are coffee mugs for businesses and events, such as the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield. This year they were also commissioned to make sesquicentennial mugs which are for sale at the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka.

The Frakes property had been neglected for decades. And in the meantime, a forest took over the garden; dirt and ivy smothered the stone features.

About six years ago, the Frys purchased the long-abandoned property. What got them headed in that direction was a visit to the stone gardens of Quigley’s Castle in Eureka Springs, Ark. Because it was similar in nature, they began to think about the overgrown garden in Elk Falls.

Jane urged Steve to write to the Frakes family and see if they would be willing to sell the land. They learned that the property had been tied up in a trust, but would now available for purchase. The Frys bought 22 acres which included 11 structures, although many of them were falling down.

They’ve done a lot of work on the place so far and still have a lot to go. Steve has called it their “lifetime project.”

They called one of the barns the poison ivy barn because it was totally engulfed in the three-leafed foliage. On the buildings they dismantled, they salvaged everything they could to be reused in their construction process.

They’ve rehabbed another barn and will use that as their pottery studio. Construction has begun on a small home for themselves on the property, and they will fix up the existing house as a bed and breakfast.

The garden has been cleaned up and is a fascinating step back into the 1930s. One of the pieces in the garden is called the State Monument. A stone from each of the states (48 at the time) is embedded in this structure.

Some of the cement animals and other pieces have been stolen or damaged over the decades, but eight elephants remain in the garden, including one which had a spray of water coming out of its trunk, filling a tiny pond.

The Frys will move their pottery shop over from its present location. Then they’ll build their house and eventually work on the bed and breakfast.

Elk Falls is the same town that hosts an outhouse tour each November, on the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving. Outhouses in the community are decorated and decked out and people come from across the state to take the tour.

I’ve always said that there’s something fascinating in every small Kansas town. But that something may not always obvious or in plain sight; sometimes a treasure is hidden under the cover of foliage and dirt.

Copyright 2011 ~ Cheryl Unruh


history, Kansans, nature, small towns

  1. Frank Thompson
    June 7th, 2011 at 11:20 | #1

    Glad to see this. Steve and Jane are great folks, and I appreciate their art. Haven’t been to these gardens since the Kansas Explorer outing there some time ago but hoping to do so again this fall with a number of friends in tow.

  2. June 7th, 2011 at 12:56 | #2

    How fascinating! I’d love to go there some time…

  3. Amy
    June 8th, 2011 at 09:49 | #3

    I love the idea of a secret garden to uncover. The photos are great.

  4. June 8th, 2011 at 18:13 | #4

    What a wonderful story! I love it that people can actually do this kind of thing.

  5. Greenseeds
    June 9th, 2011 at 07:03 | #5

    It sounds like an exciting adventure uncovering the hidden garden. Love all the concrete structures especially the bench and the arch.

    And I love that they came to Elk Falls due to reading about the land availability in the paper.

  6. June 10th, 2011 at 13:45 | #6

    The Frys do make amazing pottery!