Our trips around Kansas gave us a portrait of decay

The old pool hall in Herington has been closed for many years. On this block there was a bakery, a Western Auto, a newspaper office — all gone. Across the street, a strip mall was built but it's since been plowed under. (Rebecca Otte)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Rebecca Otte is a retired nurse-midwife who lives in Topeka.

My husband and I are amateur photographers and enjoy long drives in hopes of getting that one great photograph.

In 2017, I retired from my profession as a nurse-midwife and we began traveling through Kansas, crisscrossing the state on major highways and rural byways. Kansas is a wonderful place in so many ways, with its wide vistas, open prairie and fiercely independent people. But as we traveled its many roads, we were stunned at the number of towns and farms that are dead or dying.

Of course, we’ve known of this decay in some areas. We are both from Herington and have grieved at the loss of vibrancy it once had. Over the last few decades, as we traveled back to see family, we watched as businesses closed their doors, leaving the downtown area languishing.

Every politician talks about the great state of Kansas and how important it is to preserve family farms. In a recent newsletter, Sen. Jerry Moran wrote about visiting Osborne and the importance of preserving a rural way of life in Kansas. All our representatives and senators for the last 50 years have talked about it, but whatever policies have been enacted on behalf of the rural communities in Kansas clearly have not worked for a great many of them.

These are just a few of the hundreds of photos we’ve taken over the last few months.

This is Burdick. My mother-in-law grew up on a farm not far from here. The Burdick Meat Locker is still operating, but this is essentially the downtown. (Rebecca Otte)
This is a storefront in Lincolnville. There is no longer any business in the downtown area. The two-story brick school is closed. There is a post office, but nothing else. (Rebecca Otte)
This is a street in a residential area of Severance. There are no shops here, no post office and few homes. There does not appear to be or has there been any maintenance for the streets. (Rebecca Otte)
In Altoona, we were struck by the charming architecture of some of the buildings, but none are occupied. Across the street from this shot was a beautiful building with arched doors and windows but the roof had fallen in, windows were all broken and trash was scattered throughout the first floor. (Rebecca Otte)
This is an abandoned school house in Willis. (Rebecca Otte)
This is downtown Wilson, the Czech capital of Kansas. These wonderfully painted eggs are placed every few blocks, but there isn’t anyone downtown now to see them. Almost everything is shut up. (Rebecca Otte)
Downtown Dorrance. The tall building has a historical museum on the lower level. Across the street is an old bank that is being renovated. A young man stopped and talked with us about his pride in Dorrance and the community that comes together to celebrate Memorial Day. The high school burned down and was not rebuilt, but the community is using the old gymnasium for gatherings. There is a cafe and a post office, but little else. The Methodist church is abandoned and there is a shell of a building with trees growing in the middle that used to be their market. (Rebecca Otte)

Over and over, my husband and I have seen these small rural communities held together by a single coffee shop or perhaps a curio or antique shop, but the energy is gone. The downtowns are empty shells — the beautiful old limestone buildings falling in disrepair, the rusted railroad yards and grain elevators giving lie to the politicians’ rosy speeches.

Yes, there are bright spots in Kansas and I’m sure our politicians and community leaders will be quick to point that out. But from what we’ve seen, far too many communities in our state have lost any hope of prosperity.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.