This column appeared Tuesday, November 21, 2017 in the Manhattan Mercury.
Travel east on the Saline River Road off U.S. Highway 183 in far northern Ellis County, Kansas. You’re in the heart of the Saline River valley, surrounded on the north and south by canyons and bluffs, some more than 2,000 feet above sea level.
Not Rocky Mountains, by any means, but it tops the mental list of places I draw from to debunk out-of-state friends’ myths and preconceptions about Kansas flatness.
Past Horsethief Canyon and you’re soon at a wide spot in the limestone gravel road. The local vehicles look as though they've been dusted with talcum powder. This was once Turkville, Kansas. Founded by a handful of Tennessee Baptists in 1876 who perhaps just grew weary of Reconstruction, packed up and headed west. Among them was my great-great grandfather, the Reverend Allen Lewis King.
A mile further into the valley and head north. Uphill into the bluffs. The Saline is a meanderer. You will cross the river six times in the span of two miles. Listen carefully and you can almost hear the county commissioners in the courthouse complaining about all the infrastructure upkeep.
Now, you’re on top of the bluff. Slow down. Take in the view. With apologies to Streisand, on a clear day, you can see Osborne County.
Further north downhill and before long, you find yourself in Codell, a hamlet of a few dozen hearty souls, tucked into the hills of the Saline River valley, nine miles downstream from Plainville on Paradise Creek. Along the way you have crossed over into Rooks County. You’re almost dead center between Denver and Kansas City. Codell’s trend line is headed south and will one day join Turkville in ‘limestone gravel road wide spot’ status. I give ‘em one generation.
A few years ago, I took a television crew to Codell for a documentary I wrote and directed on the impact of shifting Kansas populations. A wizened, craggy ol’ lifer who ambled out to see whuddup, offered Codell’s lament.
“We done shifted.”
A kid named Victor Ordway was born in Codell in 1910. Three years later, the Reverend King’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Bemis, was born in Turkville.
A century ago, Codell’s population was 175. Today, it may be half that, if you count stray dogs. Codell’s claim to fame is being hit by a tornado on the same date three years in a row: May 20, 1916-18. Victor loved to entertain audiences with the story of how, on May 20, 1919, at age 9, he climbed the highest tree in town and hollered to the heavens to ward off a fourth annual calamity.
“It worked,” he would later regale. “No tornado that day.”
Victor first met Elizabeth when she walked into his father’s general store in Codell with her cousin.
“She was the most beautiful of anyone I’d known. I knew within an instant, she was meant to be my own,” Victor would later write. Initially, Elizabeth was unimpressed. She turned him down for dates several times before finally relenting, and then only on the condition that her cousin and her boyfriend come along. They married in 1932 in the parsonage of a Baptist preacher in Hays. Three kids. My mom’s the middle one. Vic and Libby lived their entire lives in Ellis and Rooks Counties.
In the global scheme, I haven’t gotten much further. Wichita, Hays, back to Wichita, Topeka, Manhattan. As a kid in Rooks County and Wichita, I wanted Kansas in my rear-view mirror and began planning my escape at an early age. L.A., Chicago or New York. It didn’t matter. How you gonna keep ‘em on the farm once they’ve seen the bright lights of the big city?
Victor Ordway died in 1992, Elizabeth eight years later. Our family’s last human connection to western Kansas. That’s typical of my generation of Kansans.
This land around Turkville and Codell, it’s unlike anywhere else in Kansas and I’ve been in all 105 counties. Sweetwater Canyon is a few miles further along as the Saline twists east by southeast. I went to a party there once and had one been dropped in blindfolded, one would swear the place was in Colorado or the Black Hills.
From Codell, aim for the sunset. Travel nine miles. Now, you’re roughly paralleling the Saline, on the northern slope of the valley bluffs. There’s a rambling family farmhouse on the south side of the road. That’s where Mom grew up.
Of three siblings, turns out I’m the only one who stayed in Kansas. Does everything happen for a reason? Maybe, maybe not, but often, I find myself thinking about why I stayed. When I travel to or through Ellis and Rooks County, invariably I’ll get off the highway and drive past the old home place or through the Saline River Valley.
Everyone’s family starts someplace. Trace ours to the Saline River Valley of northwest-central Kansas.