My Favorite Things: Topeka, Kansas
Our trip through Topeka, Kansas consisted of three sights (plus a spot for dinner). However, Topeka is the place that I cannot seem to get out of my head whenever I think of this trip. Maybe because the sites represent such a range of ideas, or maybe because all pushed me a little bit out of my comfort zone. Either way, our time in Topeka was short, but certainly memorable.
In terms of planning, besides a hotel reservation, I had left Topeka fairly open. We had started the morning in Kansas City, Missouri, and visited the Truman Library and House in Independence, MO. We then drove two hours to Abilene, KS to see the Eisenhower Library and Birthplace. The final leg of the day was the hour and a half from Abilene to Topeka. The itinerary was packed enough without the added pressure of trying to make it Topeka at a specific time. (In fact, a park ranger at the Truman House said our itinerary for the day was basically impossible. He was wrong.)
Even with all those miles driven and sites visited, we found ourselves headed to Topeka in the early evening with the energy and time to do a little bit of sightseeing. Alex sat in the passenger and consulted Atlas Obscura, our favorite resource for oddities and hidden gems. The only site was had absolutely scheduled was to see the Brown vs. Board of Education historical site the next morning, so we had essentially had the evening open for spontaneity.
Billed as the Cadillac Ranch of Kansas City, Truckhenge involves, as you might guess, trucks. When the county told Ron that he could no longer keep rusted trucks in his yard as they could be a flood hazard, he stuck them in concrete to negate their claims and to send them a proverbial message. Since he is now listed on Topeka’s visitor website, we know who got the last laugh. With decorations much more expansive than the original trucks, give him a call and arrange your own tour of his machinery laden junkyard and art exhibit. Feel free to bring spray paint or use some of his in order to leave your mark on this eclectic and fascinating spot.
Note: His house is located on site. While I never felt unsafe, I also probably would not have gone by myself. The farm is at the end of a rural road and he will tour you around the entire, expansive property if you have the time.
The Equality House
Among other things, Topeka is home of the Westboro Baptist Church. Known for protesting about …well…everything, they are most famous for picketing funerals. Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is also a staple of their supposed emulation of Christ. The organization Planting Peace bought the house across the street, now known as the Equality House, and painted it the rainbow colors of the pride flag to counteract the hate emanating from across the street. (They now have a second house painted the colors of the transgender pride flag.) With a porch full of goodies, including bubbles and chalk, the lawn is also ringed with little rainbow flags. Even though it is only across the street, the Equality House does feel like an oasis of peace and happiness juxtaposed next to an alleged church decorated with signs so vile I won’t even deign to repeat what they say.
Note: I was nervous about visiting, as I had visions of angry church members standing and yelling outside. The church and Equality House are surprisingly located in a residential neighborhood and both appeared deserted when we were there around 7 pm. (The church is surrounded by a wall, so if there was anyone inside, they never made themselves known.) Experiences could vary depending on what time of day you decide to visit.
Brown v. Board of Education Historical Site
As noted above, this was the only Topeka site that was scheduled previously. The first floor of the building, which was once one of the four designated African American schools in Topeka, now offers visitors a chance to step back into the tumultuous time. While the name Brown v. Board makes sound like only one family sued, the Kansas lawsuit consisted of over ten families and was combined with other cases from across the country when it finally reached the Supreme Court. Oliver Brown, who sued on behalf of his daughter Linda, simply came first alphabetically. After walking through the exhibits and listening to the introductory talk by the park ranger, I was left feeling that too often this period of history is glossed over. Too often we jump straight to the outcome that we know is coming, and ignore the division and fear and struggle that went into these sorts of cultural changes at the time. Desegregation was not easy and even those with the best intentions and incentives did not all agree on how best to proceed.
If you think you know the story of this case and the wider implications of the struggle for Civil Rights, specifically around children and schooling, trust me when I say that you don’t. Even after having visited the Little Rock High School site earlier this year, I still didn’t grasp the complications of this situation. Our visit was made even more profound by the fact that Linda Brown passed away only a few months before we arrived. The last room on the right is an old classroom set up per 1950s standards, as an example and space for current day children to reflect. The activity set up was to write a letter to friend and hero Linda Brown.
Blind Tiger Brewery
We are certainly not foodies, so a place with a good selection of beer and food options is usually all we need. Blind Tiger fit both of those and we enjoyed sitting on their back porch to take in the Kansas heat. Although the name is a reference to places that served alcohol during prohibition, they do also donate proceeds from some of their beers to support the Sumatran tigers at the Topeka Zoo and there’s nothing we love more than drinking for a cause.