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, KS still occupies a special place for me even though it may not be home. I lived in Leoti for eleven of my first 14 years. Now that the grandparents have passed and dad has moved to Colorado, I have a hard time thinking of it as ‘home’ anymore. But I know every square inch of the place intimately. Or rather, I did.
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, 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 could not. 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 4 blocks away, just past the old City Park. My family had lived in the area for several generations. My 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, 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. 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, made from the sour cherry trees she and Hyland cultivated on the back side of their property, 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 (Grandad’s pride and joy. concrete curbs and leveled bare earth) or just wander around town. It was a very relaxed affair.
I can remember those times as clearly as if I was sitting in the old house right now. But the town has changed from what I remember. Changed and yet is still the same.
A friend of mine worked for Broadwing (a fiber optic cabling company) and was working in Kansas a few years back (2004ish) when her tire blew out. It was Sunday, she had no car, and she needed to be someplace else. When she called me, I asked her where she was. She said “Leoti”.
I told her to hang on, and 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 at the time 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. 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 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 tavern is still the second building behind the insurance office, right where I remember it being, 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. His former filling station is now a bare concrete slab, and his house was bought by the mayor after Grandma left us. Time changes everything.
Kansas, it’s a great place to be from, a saying I’ve heard several times. Home is someplace else now, but Leoti lives on in my memory, as fresh and clear as if I was there yesterday. A memory to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. May yours be a happy one.