A story about the old home town, on Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday when I was growing up. I called a small town in Western Kansas home for most of my childhood years and Leoti, Kansas still occupies a special place in my memories even though it may not be home now. I lived in Leoti for eleven of my first fourteen years. Now that the grandparents have passed and dad has moved to Colorado (and also passed) I have a hard time thinking of Leoti as home anymore. But I know every square inch of the place intimately.
A small town is a great thing when you are a child. You can ride your bike in the street with little or no concern for car traffic. Amber Gribbon lived in the house facing the main highway, directly across the alleyway from our house. Amber is the only person I know who was struck by a car in the 11 years that I lived in Leoti. She had just been given a brand new pair of sneakers for her birthday, and she thought she could run faster than a car after putting them on. She was quite unhappy to find out that she couldn’t. Not as unhappy as the driver she ran out in front of. That was probably his worst day, a nightmare come true for any driver. She enjoyed showing us her cast and telling us the story, but she seemed no worse for wear even with the cast.
In a small town, everybody knows you. More importantly, everyone knows who your parents are, so you know that everything you do will probably get back to them. Nearly everything worth doing is within easy walking distance so there is no need to drive, at least not with any sort of a hurry required.
My paternal grandparents lived 7 blocks away, just past the old City Park. I always think of that direction as North. I don’t know why. I know full well that Tribune is a half-hour drive down the road in that direction, and that the Rocky mountains are visible not too far West from Tribune. That direction has to be West, not North. But in my head Grandma was North of our house. When I think of directions in relation to home as it was then, I have always gotten the directions shifted by 90°. The front of our house faced Grandma’s house, and that way was North in my head. Maybe it’s the wanderers desire to go where the sun goes that makes me think of that direction as the direction to go, or maybe it was that I felt safe at Grandma’s house. I’ll probably never know.
Our family had lived in the area for several generations by that point. Our Grandfather’s uncle had bequeathed his property to the state (after his only son died) for the purpose of turning it into a state park. It still is a state park, (Kansas Travel) featuring one of the few natural springs in the area. I still have the map Grandpa drew for me showing how the homestead was laid out. He once told me the story of how the orginal dam was made of wood, a palisades dam as he described it, not the concrete dam you can see there now. One spring brought heavier than average rains and, as he told the story,
We watched the wave of water advance on the dam from the top of the nearby hill. the water covered the dam and went over it. When the flood passed where the dam had been, there was no remaining evidence that the dam (and our work) had ever been there. The ground was scraped clean.
The only other story of working with his uncle that I can recall him telling was when the university types began to take interest in the indian artifacts that they found when grandpa and his uncle were out working the fields. The guy nearly had a stroke and then a whole bunch more of them showed up and started digging around in the dirt looking for more useless stuff. I think that was my first introduction to the field of archeology. I’ve remained fascinated with useless stuff ever since.
There were (and still are) at least a hundred Steele relatives in the immediate area of Wichita, Scott and Saline counties, and about that many Heims (Grandmother’s family) as well, so a family gathering was a massive affair, something to really look forward to. Grandmother loved Thanksgiving. She loved to cook, and there would be pies galore. Pies made from the sour cherry trees she and Hyland cultivated on the backside of their property, pies that were baking a week in advance in preparation for the family event. Everybody brought a dish of their own, in addition to the massive turkey that would be cooking in the old gas oven at Grandma’s house.
You never knew who would show up for the event from year to year. The same old regulars would generally be there; Uncle Jake, Edna and Ted, Uncle Russ. But there also seemed to be a varying cast of additional characters that you never really got to know, but you knew were related somehow. They’d explain it to you if you asked, but I could never keep it all straight.
A little after noon the feast would commence, and it didn’t stop for the rest of the day. After the initial round, the adults would break into groups and play cards or watch the football game, with the occasional return to grandmothers massive cherry banquet table, just to make sure that you were indeed no longer hungry. The children would go out and play in the croquet court that was Grandad’s pride and joy. It had poured concrete curbs and the bare earth could be leveled flat by an enormous angle-iron drag that I towed by hand around the court more times than I care to mention. The children could also just wander around town if they liked. The yard had no fence having once been just the verge of the fields that grandfather owned, fields now sold off to neighbors for their houses to be built on. Everyone knew Hyland and Hyland knew all of them. It was a very relaxed affair.
I can remember those times as clearly as if I was sitting in the old house right now. I cast myself back and I can picture the polished wooden floors in the kitchen. Floors inset with a dual light colored band that we used to mark off our kid-sized bowling lane until someone wanted to watch the television. To the right would have been the kitchen proper with it’s breakfast bar jutting into the room and high stools to prop yourself up on so you could chat while Grandma cooked. If you went to the left down the hallway you’d come out in the breezeway after taking a left at the washing machine, and if you went around the garage that was right in front of you there would be the double line of cherry trees. To the right was the back of the Methodist church were Grandpa sang every Sunday. If you followed the road past the church you would be facing the old Leoti High School (now the elementary school) on one corner, and on the other facing corner there was an A&W drive-in that tried to compete with the Dairy King that was on the other end of town. Dairy King is still there. It’s better situated, being right across from the fairgrounds and the softball/baseball diamonds.
The town has changed from what I remember. It has changed and yet it is still exactly the same in some fundamental ways. A friend of mine who worked for Broadwing (a fiber optic cabling company) had a tire blowout while she was on the road a few years back. It was Sunday and she needed to be somewhere else, but she wasn’t going anywhere until her car was fixed. She had taken a room at the only motel in the little town she was in and called me to pass the time since there was nothing else to do there. She remembered me mentioning that I had grown up in Kansas and wanted commiserate with me on how flat and boring Kansas was. I asked her where she was. She said “Leoti”.
I told her to hang on, and I made a call to my uncle Frank. Uncle Frank was Dad’s best friend and owned the gas station directly across the street from my Dad’s (Grandad’s before him) filling station in Leoti. Between them they owned the only two fueling spots in the entire county when I lived there. While I hadn’t spoken to Frank in several years, I knew he would remember me. Sure enough, we dropped right back into old times, and as soon as I mentioned my friend’s problems, he said not to worry about it.
My friend called me in amazement a few minutes later. “How did you do that? Every place in town is closed, I checked.” Two guys showed up with a tow truck, took the car down the road to the service station, and got it back on the road in a few hours. This happened on a Sunday in rural Kansas, where nothing gets done on Sunday. I just called an old friend, I said. Someone I really should have talked to more frequently.
I have visited Leoti since then and I didn’t like the changes much. Frank’s son had inherited the family business and had to compete with a convenience store that they had built just off the town square. They knocked down what I remembered as a ginormous brick building, the home of Jaeger Implement for all of my memory, and erected a split faced concrete block and painted steel wart, right in the center of town. Well, the wart of a convenience store is directly across the street from what was the slab of the first grocery store in town, never rebuilt after the fire that gutted it, with what I always remembered as the State Farm insurance offices built on the back half the corner with brick tables and benches taking up the other half. The bank building on the opposite corner never was a bank in my memory even though everything about it said bank other than the occupant who lived there.
The store facing the wart across 4th street was the Three Way department store. It had a basement that mom lost me in once. I went exploring while she was shopping, and she nearly had a heart attack looking for me before I got bored and wandered back upstairs. It’s a True Value Hardware now, according to Google. The hardware store was the store further down the block. It had dusty, unfinished wooden floors and a narrow aisle that went front to back and exited on the alleyway at the back. A few doors down was the newspaper offices, right next to Pepper’s IGA, which was built as the only movie theater in Leoti way back before I was born. It was Pepper’s IGA when I tried my hand at shoplifting as a child. I had to go back in with my backside smarting to pay the cashier for the candy that I stole. I never did that again, but the shopkeepers never forgot it. They were always chasing me out of the stores when they would catch me reading comic books on the floor like it was my living room. All of town was my living room, from where I saw it.
The place where Peppers was is now an empty, grass-covered lot. The building that had been a theater and was later the IGA burned down a few years after my one childhood criminal act. It burned down like so many of Peppers’ businesses did before he was cordially invited to leave town. Next to that was the courthouse and the library, my home away from home. I could lay on the floor and read all day there and no one would chase me out for doing it, either. I still get nostalgic walking into a library. The smell of books always brings that feeling back.
The tavern is still the second building behind the insurance office across Broadway from the wart (Sinclair? In Kansas? Since when?) right where I remember it being. I remember it being there because of the many times Grandpa would drive us downtown on errands to buy groceries for Grandma. He’d always have to stop in and shoot a snooker game with the boys along the way. Further down Fourth Street in that direction was the Post Office and the barbershop, before you ran into the old fire station (now the Museum of the Great Plains) if you take a right there and go two blocks you will hit the elementary school that I attended.
Across the street from the tavern, the Post Office and the terrifying barbershop was the Rexall drug store and the Ben Franklin’s five and dime thrift store. I always get the location for that drug store mixed up because the druggist (pharmacist) lived on the other end of Fourth Street, two houses closer to the library than our cross street was. Seven blocks from home to school, and I walked that distance every day that there wasn’t snow on the ground, sometimes even then. When I got my first bike and was liberated from walking everywhere, I rode all over town, exploring every street.
I could even ride across the railroad tracks, an ominous barrier a full two blocks further over from the school, that I only dared to cross once prior to that, and I did it in order to speak to the girl I was sweet on when I was about ten or twelve. I remember that incident because a kid named Ray lived near her. He hated me and I knew he could run faster than me. But I got away scott free that day. Liberated on my bicycle I could even ride to my friend Mitch’s house, a full three or four blocks farther North on Fourth Street from the railroad tracks. Why, that was nearly out of town!
On the other end of Fourth Street, on the South edge of town, was the Catholic church where I went to see what Catholicism was all about with my aunt Betty and Uncle Clem. They moved into town the last few years that I lived in Leoti, and they built a house on the corner that lead back towards the swimming pool, one block down Fourth Street from where the Wichita County hospital was at the time. The city offices now sit where the hospital was, caddy-corner across the alleyway from my old house, and the hospital is now two blocks further back from Fourth on the other side of the street, next to what we baldly proclaimed as the Old Folks Home back in the day. We could see the building every day that we were swimming during the summer since it was across the county park from the pool.
I remember the Old Folks Home because that was were they put Grandma after she started showing signs of Alzheimer‘s. The year we went back for Thanksgiving and the Wife made Dad take his cigarettes outside to smoke. Grandma thanked her for that. “I hate the way those things smell.” Dad comically shivered and looked mournful out on the porch all by himself. That was the year that the Daughter got to meet her great grandmother. The last time we all got together and laughed as a family. The last real Thanksgiving, in my estimation.
Grandma died in 2000, eighteen years after the love of her life, Hyland. His former filling station is now a bare concrete slab. One of the eight different businesses that he ran during his long lifetime in Leoti Kansas. When Grandpa saw something that needed doing, he’d figure out a way to get a business started that could do it. If the business didn’t make money or was too much work, he’d sell it. If it did make money and he liked doing the work, he’d keep it. His house was bought by the town mayor after Grandma no longer needed it. The mayor painted the house grey and took out the raised flower bed outside the living room picture window that was Grandma’s pride and joy. All of the cherry trees have died and grass grows where they and the croquet court used to be. Time changes everything.
Kansas, it’s a great place to be from. Home is someplace else now. Thanksgivings are just not the same anymore. The cherry pies are sweeter and they don’t have that sour bite that Grandma’s pies had. When you have to do the cooking, and you hate cooking like I do, Thanksgiving becomes a chore that you’d just as soon not engage in. Chores like putting up and taking down decorations that no one notices in the big city. They don’t look unless your entire neighborhood loses its mind and lights the entire street and all the trees. Then they show up and they never stop coming until you take the lights back down again. Traffic snarled for blocks in all directions so badly that you can’t even get home to enjoy the holiday. Who wants that?
Grandpa hosted the nativity scene for the Methodist church on his front lawn every year. He had life-sized statues with bales of hay around the animals, and strings of multicolored lights hung on all the eves of the house. We’d go out and help him set up the display not too long after the Thanksgiving feast was over. We never had anyone come by to gawk that I can remember, certainly not enough of them that we couldn’t get into the house when we wanted. But he went through the labor every year, just like Grandma did for Thanksgiving. I never understood it, but I always did appreciate it. A memory to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. May yours be a happy one.
Editor’s note, 2019. Wayback Machine archive from 2012 showing the original article. It’s longer and reads better, but essentially the same. You be the judge.