Ruined beauty of Kansas: Ghost towns and buildings splinter under weight of time

March 26, 2023 3:33 am

The outside of an abandoned gas station in Dunlap, Kansas, looked weathered yet approachable on a cold March afternoon. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Roving with Clay Wirestone

Opinion editor travels Kansas and beyond for stories off the beaten path. Read them all here.

As a week of spring break wound down, my son told me that he wanted to explore an abandoned place.

Like most ideas generated by his 11-year-old noggin, this one likely came from YouTube. The video sharing site serves up videos aplenty of urban exploration in places like Detroit. Twenty something vloggers excitedly chatter as they wander through the hallways of shuttered hospitals or office buildings, shrieking in terror at stains on the ceiling. You get the drift.

The one challenge for his goal? We live in Kansas. Also, his father is a journalist who really can’t condone anything unsafe or illegal.

That set my own fatherly noggin to thinking. And I realized that while what the Sunflower State might lack in urban blight it more than makes up for in ghost towns. I raced to the internet (that is, I walked a couple of steps to my laptop) to see what ruins could be reached within a hour or two drive.

A lot, it turns out.

I took pictures the entire way, so join us on a short but poignant exploration of abandoned towns and vacant buildings in the heart of Kansas.

(Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

We first stopped by the unincorporated community of Miller, in Lyon County. Its post office had closed 65 years ago.

On the main drag, a new fire department building sat on one side of the road, while an abandoned and overgrown former fire department building sat on the other side, a block away. My son and I, of course, looked over the abandoned one. On this March day, the gray undergrowth and blue sky lent the brick structure an austere kind of beauty.

(Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

To the side of the building, you could glimpse this decayed sign, which suggested better times in the past. We poked around town some more, but we didn’t see much else that excited my son (or me, for that matter). Like many of the tiny Kansas settlements listed on “ghost town” websites, Miller isn’t totally abandoned. A few houses still obviously had residents, and gargantuan long-haul trucks parked in driveways suggested their occupations.

(Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

We left Miller and drove along Highway 56. Our destination was Dunlap, a town highlighted by multiple sites online as an especially ghostly settlement. But on the way, I spotted this partial building just off the highway.

Barbed-wire fence prevented us from exploring further, but I was able to capture a couple of good shots with my phone’s camera. I turned down my son’s offer to climb over the fence and race through the field to take photos on his own. See, at least a few journalists have a heart.

(Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

We had barely returned to the road before we had to stop again, but this time it wasn’t because of ruined beauty. A herd of loose goats had decided to clamber across the road.

Living in northeast Kansas, one can easily forget the state’s agricultural past and present. You can’t do any such a thing when a bunch of horned mammals stop your car in its tracks.

(Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

We made it several miles more without interruption, but then we stumbled into the town of Bushong. The post office there closed in 1976, a mere 46 years ago, making it a younger ghost town than Miller. We glimpsed this enormous, empty high school building while driving by and had to stop.

While the main building to the left remained standing — you could peek into a basement level and the main floor — the structure to the right had collapsed. Bricks had collapsed into ruddy piles, while wood beams splintered and twisted. According to the website Abandoned KS, that used to be the high school’s gymnasium.

(Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

After driving over dirt roads for several minutes, we made it to Dunlap. Travel guide Only in Your State calls it “creepy” and includes several photos. Honestly, I didn’t find it particularly scary or ominous. I grew up in southeast Kansas, where towns had withered after industry set off for greener pastures.

Dunlap reminded me of any number of places from my childhood, houses and businesses that simply couldn’t survive changing times. An empty gas station or convenience store sits on the outside of town. Two metal chairs still sit outside this memory of a warm welcome, waiting for visitors.

(Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

As we explored deeper in Dunlap (which still has 27 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), my son and I ran across several empty and overgrown houses. Who had lived in them, and why had they gone? We could only imagine. In front of one home, all but covered by trees and brush, sat a moldering McCall’s catalogue.

I caught the image above through an empty window frame. Some might see this as a scene from a zombie film or what critics call “ruin porn.” I see the remnants of a small-town life, packed with meaning and nostalgia.

(Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

At one point, Dunlap’s high school “boasted the ‘best gymnasium in the county’ and hosted the Morris County High School Basketball Tournament for many years,” according to the Council Grove Area Trade & Tourism Association. The high school vanished with the Flint Hills winds, but gymnasium remains. The doors and windows have been securely fastened shut. It waits quietly for better days.

(Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Before leaving, my son and I took one more look around and noticed this roof in a field. Did it come from a barn or storage shed of some kind? What happened to the rest of it? In the world of ghost towns, sometimes you can only speculate.

This Sunday exploration of tiny, emptied towns left me wistful.

You wonder how so much energy and potential could be thrown away in the passage of years. These buildings were used by real people, by real families and businesses. They existed. Their remains exist still. To see the wreckage makes one wonder about the fate of Kansas’ other rural communities, even the relatively thriving ones. They face enormous pressures. National, state and local governments should figure out ways to support small towns.

The clock still ticks. Seasons change, years pass, families move from one generation to the next. My husband sometimes jokes, when meeting friends after a long time: “Behold the ravages of time!” He has a point.

We can’t escape time. But we can appreciate that all of us — columnist fathers and their wily 11-years-olds alike — float along in its stream.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, 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.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited 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, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent 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.