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


‘Take me back to the Cottonwood River,” Kelley Hunt sings. “Lead me on, lead me on to where the Flint Hills roll.”

Growing up Emporia, the Flint Hills likely provided Kelley Hunt with a feeling of being grounded, and the open skies surely fed her spirit.

It is Hunt’s song, “Heartland,” that the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan uses to seal the deal in its immersion theater. This theater takes you out into the Flint Hills where you feel the heat of fire, the cold of snow, the rush of a breeze.

When the film is over, stay seated, because that’s when Hunt’s song begins.

For those of us who live in or near the Flint Hills, the Discovery Center shows us our home. While scenes of the open range are familiar to us – the big sky with streaks of cirrus and contrails, spring wildflowers, cattle and cowboys – there is still a lot that we can learn about this region.

Dave and I went to the Discovery Center in late April, two weeks after it opened. This museum should be on every Kansan’s “must visit” list.

Last June, I toured the building while it was under construction. I saw just the bones of the place then, gray concrete and empty space, the building open to the elements. Now the center has come to life, and it’s a beautiful place. The people of Manhattan should be proud of what they have created.

Adjacent to the center is a small park with a water feature. Spouts of water make half-circle jumps, one after another, as if they’re playing leap frog.

Inside, each detail, each exhibit has thought and research behind it. Here, you can learn about everything from our oceanic history, to the Native Americans who lived here, to the PH levels of soil.

My favorite display in the museum was the grass roots area. You can walk through a dirt-like tunnel and see just how long the roots are on plants such as switch grass, Indian grass, and big bluestem.

grass roots

The Flint Hills region has only a thin layer of dirt before you get to stone, but the grass is determined, it wiggles its roots through the rocks, securing itself to the earth and looking for water; some of those roots are longer than I am tall.

When I sat down at a computer touch screen in the Discovery Center, I was pleased to see some acquaintances talking about their lives in the Flint Hills. Former Emporian Louis Copt was filmed out in the windy hills with his easel and paints. He spoke about the curved lines of the land and about painting prairie fires.

On the same touch screen, I listened to stories told by Annie Wilson of the Tallgrass Express String Band, Sue Smith of the Emma Chase Café in Cottonwood Falls, and Jim Hoy, local historian, professor and cowboy.

The Flint Hills Discovery Center hopes to get people out and into the hills, to appreciate the region so that they will become good stewards of this rare and vital ecosystem. And, these travelers will provide an economic boost to small towns and businesses in the area.

An interactive kiosk in the lobby allows visitors to obtain information about destinations. Those looking for food or lodging, events or historical sites can create an itinerary for a trip. The information may be printed out or sent to an email account.

The second floor of the center has activities for youngsters, and there are numerous interactive exhibits throughout the building, making it a very kid-friendly environment.

I watched a boy and a girl, both about 10, circle a display showing larger-than-life insects. “Oh, a dog days cicada,” the boy said gleefully. Science has an important role in the museum and children were taking it all in.

The Flint Hills region is a beautiful part of our lives. It provides a unique ecosystem, topography, history and culture. It’s a gift we have, this location, this land, these rolling green hills. The Discovery Center shows and tells our story.

*The Flint Hills Discovery Center is at 315 S. 3rd in Manhattan. Admission fee: adults, $9; military, students, seniors (65 and older), $7; children, $4 (2 and under, free). For more information, call 785-587-2726, or visit

Copyright 2012 ~ Cheryl Unruh

*Lyrics to “Heartland,” were used with permission from the artist.

Two of Dave’s photographs are included in the exhibits. How cool is that?

Dave loves sweat bees and was pleased that one could be represented here.



  1. Looking forward to experiencing it! I was there in October for the setting of the cornerstone and am glad that it is now finished and open.

  2. Tom and I visited last Tuesday and were very pleased with the facility and displays As always it was a treat to see Dave’s photographs!

Leave a Reply