Opinion

Once a Kansas petroleum powerhouse, Neodesha now drills down on education and investments

August 22, 2022 3:33 am
The well called Norman No. 1 was drilled on Nov. 28, 1892, in Neodesha and opened an new era of oil exploration. The site was reconstructed in 1961 and later moved closer to Main Street. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

The well called Norman No. 1 was drilled on Nov. 28, 1892, in Neodesha and opened an new era of oil exploration. The site was reconstructed in 1961 and later moved closer to Main Street. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

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When I was a child, Neodesha was the big city.

My family and I lived in nearby, even smaller Altoona. The city of Neodesha — population 2,275 — boasted a grocery store, library and a red caboose behind that library. This month, I drove back to Neodesha with my 11-year-old, on a mission to look both backward and forward.

The looking backward was obvious. My family had moved away from the area when I was 7 years old, and I hadn’t visited Neodesha since. What had changed and what had stayed the same? I looked forward to sharing my history with my son, although his eye-rolling as we arrived in town suggested he didn’t share that excitement.

The looking forward was inspired by Neodesha itself. Three years ago, reports of all-but-guaranteed scholarships for those graduating from the city high school made national news. Like many other small towns and cities across Kansas, like the rural areas that dominate this state’s geography, Neodesha wants to make sure it isn’t ignored.

“I am excited about the untapped potential we have in our community,” Mayor Devin Johnson told me via email. A third-generation resident, he returned after graduating from Pittsburg State in 2008. “Over the last three years we have seen incredible progress made in many areas. In a time when small communities are struggling to remain viable, Neodesha is thriving.”

During my first year at Kansas Reflector, I’ve written about Salina, Lawrence and Topeka. But beginning this month and through the fall, I want to expand our geographic range with travels throughout the state (and Alabama).

How do small towns and cities navigate an increasingly urbanized, connected world? What are the obstacles and opportunities?

In southeast Kansas, at this oil exploration landmark, I searched for answers.

 

This bright-red Frisco caboose dazzles from its spot behind the W. A. Rankin Memorial Library in Neodesha. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Educational promise, virtuous cycles

Driving into Neodesha that Friday afternoon, we found a neat and tidy downtown. 

A handful of cars passed as we visited a flea market and drugstore and looked for lunch. The sky stretched endlessly blue overhead, while muggy summer heat pressed down as we strolled to and fro on Main Street.

This was the big city I knew as a kid, and the small town I recognized as an adult. My son ran ahead, peering through windows. One storefront proclaimed it would soon become the Main Street Diner. Another, freshly clad in black with boarded-up windows, kept its secrets.

This quiet street might mislead visitors, though. Neodesha has ambition aplenty.

In fall 2019, retired businessman and native son Ben Cutler stepped forward to fund the generous Neodesha Promise scholarship program. The town’s high school graduates will have college tuition and fees covered. (A handful of requirements and limitations apply.)

After an initial burst of publicity three years ago, the attention had faded. As I browsed the drugstore and watched a clerk fussing over a display of blue-and-white Neodesha schools Bluestreak merchandise, I wondered how the program was doing.

Downtown Neodesha also features this black-clad building. The town’s mayor says the first floor should be a cocktail bar, which could be open by winter. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Reached by phone a few days later, Neodesha Promise administrator and USD 461 college academic coach Rebekah Peitz gave me the answer: impressively well.

“It’s very much become part of our culture here,” she said, adding that Cutler’s philanthropy doesn’t necessarily sink in for students right away. “They don’t necessarily realize what a big deal it is until they get to college.”

In competition between small towns in the region, the program benefits Neodesha, according to Mayor Johnson.

“Before the Promise, we struggled to compete for new residents against bigger towns around us such as Independence,” he wrote. “This is one specific area we are seeing a competitive edge now over surrounding communities.”

So far, 91 students have received the scholarships over the past three years, Peitz said. Roughly 70% of graduating seniors have received them.

Of those heading off to college, she said, at least half are first-generation university students, if not more. While most of those who have received the first scholarships are still in school, a handful have graduated with technical degrees and one student already completed a bachelor’s.

As college academic coach, Peitz does more than monitor the flow of money (for the record: $255,000 out thus far and $170,000 set to be paid this fall). She also checks in on how the recipients fare as they take the plunge into the waters of higher education. She helps with finding them tutoring and extra financial aid, as well as other resources.

“I’m just starting with them and making sure they have that support,” she said. Cutler “truly wants to see our students succeed. It’s not about, ‘Here’s the money, good luck.’ ”

That civic-minded investment in Neodesha’s youths has created a virtuous cycle.

The college students volunteer in a program called Promise Pals, which connects them with elementary students. Members of the community want to offer mentorship opportunities. The result? Students in the program actually look forward to returning home after graduation.

“They feel that community pride,” Petiz told me. “I even get goosebumps talking about it.”

 

Traffic was light in downtown Neodesha on a recent Friday afternoon. The city recently invested $10 million for infrastructure upgrades. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Big investments, housing search

That neat and tidy downtown I mentioned earlier wasn’t an accident.

Along with Cutler’s big investment in local education, Johnson has overseen a bevy of projects across the community. He gave me a mayoral-sounding roundup.

“We have been successful in securing grant funding for numerous quality of life projects, such as the new Riverwalk Park, a project funded by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas Pathways grant,” he wrote. “There are new housing developments with more in progress, as well as early plans for a mixed use project downtown for multi-family living with ground-floor retail space.”

Overall, the city has just wrapped up a $10 million project to upgrade infrastructure, the mayor told me. It also passed a 10-year, 1 cent sales tax to support sidewalks, infrastructure and growth.

No one enjoys paying taxes. But if the funds raised are well directed and smartly used, we can all enjoy the results. As Neodesha shows, public investment makes a difference in contexts big and small. High-quality schools and roads across the state stimulates growth and development in all of Kansas.

A mural on the side of a brick building in downtown Neodesha features the town’s trademark oil derrick while honoring the local Masonic Lodge. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

And it was doing just the same that warm August afternoon my son and I explored downtown.

That mysterious black building I mentioned earlier? A developer plans to install a cocktail bar on the ground floor and a loft above.

“Some future projects discussed and potentially in the queue include a downtown community plaza, a bowling alley, co-working/shareable office space, and a microbrewery,” Johnson said.

A grant from the late Norma Moore, the downtown grocery store owner, funds Main Street revitalization projects, with more on the way.

Barriers remain. Grants can be tough to apply for without dedicated staff. And while more people want to settle down in Neodesha, they can’t find the right places to do so.

“Housing is a huge obstacle we face right now,” he said, noting a steady rise in property values and increasing school enrollment since the Promise scholarships were announced. “We have taken steps to acquire land for development of new housing, and some are being built, but not on a scale to keep up with the demand for housing we are seeing.”

Johnson has worked out the math, too, as it applies to the city’s biggest employer.

“We currently see 68% of Cobalt Boats employees commuting to town each day,” he said. “If we could just capture 10% of that 68% through new, affordable housing projects, that would put 50 new individuals/families in our community.”

Neodesha will grapple with even more demand soon. SICUT Enterprises, a London-based manufacturer, picked the city as its North American headquarters a little more than a year ago. It expects to begin production in town by the last quarter of the year and plans to hire 125 or more employees, Johnson said.

 

Entering the town of Neodesha, signs promote the Norman No. 1 oil derrick, as well as the local historical museum. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Energy history, moving ahead

Wrapping up our visit, my son and I couldn’t avoid the elephant in the room — or in this case, the gigantic oil derrick right next to Main Street.

Neodesha’s history has been entwined with the oil exploration business. That derrick pops up on downtown flags and as the name of the weekly newspaper. Sixty-five feet tall and with a 22-foot square base, the National Historic Landmark even has a name.

Norman No. 1.

Drilled on Nov. 28, 1892, it “was the first oil well west of the Mississippi River to produce a commercial quantity of oil,” according to the Kansas Historical Society. Explorers had been poking around for years, but the Neodesha site was a breakthrough for everyone concerned.

As the American Oil and Gas Historical Society puts it: “Although it initially produced less than 12 barrels of oil a day, the Norman No. 1 well was the first to reveal America’s Mid-Continent petroleum region, today including oil and gas fields in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.”

This “Lil’ Chapel in the Woods” stands behind the Neodesha Historical Museum downtown. A still-working oil pump jack can be seen in the back right. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Driving into and out of Neodesha, I could still see oil pump jacks bobbing up and down. One lingers on public display behind the downtown derrick, which is actually a relocated reconstruction from 1961. My son complained that it smelled like rubber.

Things have changed since the glory days.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Kansas has roughly 1% of the nation’s crude oil reserves and oil production. That output has steadily dropped since 2015, and the government states that oil output hit its lowest point in more than four decades last year.

How we think about energy has changed. The “black gold” once celebrated by popular culture — and TV programs as different as “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Dallas” — has made way for renewables. They now account for 45% of Kansas’ in-state electricity generation.

The museum near the derrick has been rebranded. Once the Norman #1 Museum, it revamped exhibits and now goes by the Neodesha Historical Museum. Exhibits include American Indian artifacts, photos and art, farm implements, clown memorabilia, and an array of other items from town history.

When we visited, museum director Douglas Reece was glad to tell me all about it. We chatted about the exhibits, and he let my son pick out some toys from a plastic tub as we left.

The derrick looked impressive as a symbol. But it didn’t point to the future.

As we drove back home that evening, I thought about Neodesha and all the other small towns dotting the Kansas landscape. They have rich histories and proud traditions. With the Neodesha Promise scholarship program and community development plans, however, the future boasts boundless opportunity.

I look forward to seeing where the town — the big city of my childhood — heads next.

 

This feisty sign has a pointed message for browsers inside the Neodesha Art Association Flea Market downtown. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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