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

Kansas Museum of History


World War II ended before I was born, so it seemed like ancient history when I studied it in high school. And after all, by 1976, the U.S. had already been through two more wars – in Korea and Vietnam.

But as we age, time becomes more fluid. Thirty, 40, 50 years go by in a flash. And when I consider history now, 1861 doesn’t seem all that long ago.

Maybe our perspective of time changes as we grow older or maybe history just becomes more authentic for us. As I visit sites and see more artifacts, history moves from the stories-in-a-book category into something solid and real.

Over time, we get a better understanding about the Underground Railroad, the Dust Bowl years, or what life was like as a 19th century immigrant.

Dave and I recently toured the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka. It had been several years since our last visit and, with the state’s sesquicentennial coming up in 2011, it seemed like a good time for a refresher course.

The Kansas Museum of History provides a panoramic trip through time, starting with the Paleo-Indians who made their way to North America about 20,000 years ago.

Displays featuring Native Americans tell about tribes we’re familiar with, such as the Kansa, Osage, Pawnee, and Kiowa. The museum has a Cheyenne tipi set up as well as examples of other Native American shelters – replicas of a thatched hut and an earth home.

With westward expansion in the 1800s, explorers and traders started passing through Kansas. The museum has a covered wagon, a stagecoach, and exhibits which detail what life was like on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails.

While the trails tended to be perilous, traveler George Watson was bored by his journey on the Oregon Trail in 1864. He said, “It became so monotonous after awhile that I would have welcomed an Indian fight.”

If I could be transported back in time, I think I’d try out the last half of the 1800s. That was a time of wildness and danger: the settling of Kansas, the pre-Civil War skirmishes, the influx of European immigrants bringing their foods and languages with them, and towns popping up all over the state. There were Indians, cowboys, cattle drives, saloons and railroads.

Yes, railroads. Who doesn’t love a train? The railroads played a huge role in the settling of Kansas. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad recruited immigrants to populate the land so as to create safe passage for their trains through Indian territory.

AT&SF locomotive No. 132 is the museum’s pride and joy. It’s the oldest surviving Santa Fe engine and has been restored to full glory. The monstrous 1880 locomotive rests inside the building. On the track behind it are two refurbished coaches. A walkway above the floor level allows visitors to peek inside the train.

This museum is packed with wonder. You’ll find a biplane hanging in the air, a wooden windmill, the interior of a 1950s Valentine Diner. Other displays mention droughts, the grasshopper plague, and a short-lived utopia called Silkville. You’ll see William Allen White’s printing press and George Custer’s black boots.

The most colorful section in the museum contains things from 1940-1990: bicycles, toys, pop culture, household items. Many of these things are not exclusive to life in Kansas, but they reflect the times: wooden Tinker Toys, a blue Princess phone, a “George Brett for President” bumper sticker, a Veg-O-Matic.

“The Need for Speed” is the current special exhibit at the museum and details the motoring experience in Kansas. There’s a 1908 Great Smith produced by Topeka’s one-time Smith Automobile Company, and a stock car driven by NASCAR’s Jennifer Jo Cobb. Clint Bowyer is also recognized.

Most of our state’s recorded history happened within the last 200 years, not that long ago in the big scheme of things. So, if you’re in the mood for fresh history, presented in an uncluttered manner, go ahead and speed your way up to the Kansas Museum of History.

Kansas Museum of History, 6425 SW Sixth Ave., Topeka. 785-272-8681. Open Tues. – Sat. 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Sun. 1-5 p.m. Adults $6, students with ID $4, under 5 free.

Copyright 2010 ~ Cheryl Unruh


  1. I like the word authentic and you used it in the column. History is more authentic today than it was. Most history has at least two sides. Today we understand that. More is always learned, therefore history is always unfolding.

    Good one.

  2. We should take a FOP trip to the museum! I’ve taken my students there several times and it’s always somewhat different. They have marvelous (interactive) programs for kids–like a kid, I remember the “water jug” made from a buffalo bladder….ooohhhhhh…..You can read history books about Kansas, but seeing the “real” things is the best! Thank you, Cheryl!

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