In 1988, Sedan was headed the way of many small, southeast Kansas towns. Declining oil and cattle prices had crippled the local economy and forced many downtown businesses to close. Longtime residents, fearing Sedan (pop. 1,306) would become a ghost town, knew they had to do something.
Jeane McCann was the first to suggest the town capitalize on Kansas relationship with The Wizard of Oz, the 1939 classic film whose lead character, Dorothy, dreamed she was swept up in a Kansas tornado and found her way home by following a yellow brick road to a magical land. McCann suggested that a Yellow Brick Road lining downtown sidewalks not only would attract tourists but might inspire local businesses to invest in Sedans faltering economy.
McCann shared her idea one morning over coffee with several friends, including Nita Jones, and it wasnt long before the Save Our Sedan (S.O.S) committee was formed. Jones, a dynamic committee member, was instrumental in paving the way for Sedans golden sidewalks by lobbying the town council, holding press conferences, and selling bricks for $10 (later $15) apiece.
Dreamers and doers have to learn to work together, says Jones, who operates a candy counter, restaurant, and Wizard of Oz-oriented souvenir shop along the mile-long sidewalk. Its a hard lesson for a small town to learn.
Today, 10,700 golden bricks line Sedans sidewalks. Theyre imprinted with the names of donors from 50 states and 28 foreign countries, including celebrities like Bob Hope, Whoopi Goldberg, and Elizabeth Taylor. And, after a three-year hiatus, Sedan has decided to widen its golden sidewalks and is selling bricks once again.
The Yellow Brick Road project has been so successful that other communities and groups now turn to Sedan for advice and inspiration with their own projects. Representatives of the Jane Phillips Medical Center in nearby Bartlesville, Okla., for example, are selling bricks to raise money for a new emergency room.
Any time we can help a community work together, we do, Jones says.
Meanwhile, downtown Sedan is booming. Many of the Victorian-era buildings that were vacant a decade ago now are occupied, and others are being renovated, including the Emmett Kelly Museum, which honors the famous circus clown who was born in Sedan.
Don Armstrong, a retired building contractor, is one of the people responsible for Sedans rebirth. Since moving to town with his wife, Rachel, (she grew up in Sedan) 13 years ago from New Jersey, Armstrong has renovated two buildings on Main Street and spearheaded an effort to transform an automobile junkyard into a beautiful downtown park called The Hollow. The park, built and maintained by community volunteers, is home to a restored historic schoolhouse and a source of community pride.
Still, Armstrong attributes much of Sedans renaissance to Bill Kurtis, who bought a 5,000-acre cattle ranch outside town four years ago. Since then, the native Kansan and host of the A&E Networks Investigative Reports and American Justice has purchased six downtown properties, opened a restaurant, bakery and gift store, and is renovating another building into an art gallery and theater to show his historical and nature documentaries on Kansas.
To people in Chicago and New York, Sedan is exotic, he says. Theres a feeling of small-town America here that harkens back to a simpler time when the local gang was the football team, rush hour traffic was a wagon traveling down Main Street, and theater was the prairie.
Kurtis says small-town life, along with the willingness of local residents to work together, is what first attracted him to Sedan. Here was a town 100 miles from anywhere struggling to stay alive, he recalls. But they had spirit. They wanted to save this town.
And they did.