Marci Penner and her father, Mil Penner, didn’t plan to become the voice for rural Kansas when they hit the backroads for a travel guidebook in the late 1980s.
But when a thousand people showed up for a book signing on their farm in Inman (pop. 1,142) in 1990, the Penners knew Kansans were hungry for information about those interesting, out-of-the-way places scattered across the Sunflower State.
“We’d stop at the post office or the library or cafe to ask for information,” recalls Mil, 72. “Again and again, people in these small towns would say, ‘We don’t have anything of interest here.’”
Meanwhile, the Penners struck travelers’ gold: old-time hardware stores, drive-in theaters, and attractions—such as The Gallery of Also-Rans in Norton (pop. 3,012), starring presidential candidates who lost, and a tiny chapel in Cedar Vale (pop. 723) built by a farmer for his wife, in the middle of a cow pasture.
“All these towns offer an authentic experience that people yearn for,” says Marci, 45. “People want to go into a local cafe and hear the local gossip and get called ‘honey’ and visit a local store and be waited on.”
It wasn’t long before the Penners’ brainstorming led to formation of the Kansas Sampler Foundation. Embracing and preserving such rural treasures is the goal of the foundation, headquartered on the Penners’ family farm. The foundation sponsors an annual Kansas Sampler Festival, scheduled Oct. 6-7 in Ottawa (pop. 11,921), during which people can find out what there is to see and do in Kansas. Through its Explorers Club, seminars, newsletters, slide shows, and traveling “Go Kansas!” game show, the foundation promotes the often overlooked history and attractions in rural Kansas.
Explorers share their finds in the group’s newsletter: a root beer float sipped at an old-fashioned soda fountain in Greensburg (pop. 1,574); chocolates from Henry’s Candy Factory, home of the O’Henry candy bar, in Dexter (pop. 364); and the century-old rock fences posted across the Smoky Hills region. One Explorer, Larry Woydziak, is visiting a bowling alley in every county and writing about his adventures.
Linda Geffert, co-owner of Lizard Lips and Deli near Toronto (pop. 312), knows firsthand the power of the foundation. In May 2000, Marci challenged 1,000 Explorers to spend at least $5 over the coming year to save Lizard Lips. Within 10 months, more than 750 Explorers met the challenge.
Keeping mom-and-pop shops open means more than just saving a business or small town, though. “This is saving a way of life,” Geffert adds.
Mil tells about meeting Leon Wegner, who was repairing a corncrib at Windmill Garden, an agricultural museum in Hiawatha (pop. 3,317).
“He had tears as he told me about sitting around with some other old dairy farmers, talking about the number of dairy farms closing. A young lady piped up and said, ‘Oh, don’t worry. We can go to the grocery store for milk,’” relates Mil. “Leon said he wanted his grandchildren to know how it used to be on the farm and where food comes from.”
Because of the Penners and the foundation, communities are seeing the value in saving “how it used to be,” says Susie Haver, curator of the Brown Grand Mansion, a restored opera house in Concordia (pop. 5,714).
“We now have inspiration, hope, and a whole network of people in other small towns to give us the courage and support to keep going,” Haver says. “Most of all, Marci is making us see what we have and to be proud of it. I can tell you this. I no longer apologize that I live in rural Kansas.”