May 24, 2004

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Contact: Mary Jane Dunlap, University Relations, (785) 864-8853.

NW Kansans to talk with KU faculty about hopes to transform local economies

LAWRENCE -- Community and entrepreneurial projects to transform northwest Kansas will be featured on Thursday, May 27, day five of the six-day University of Kansas Wheat State Whirlwind tour of Kansas.

In addition to learning about managing water in an area suffering severe drought and about farming in a semiarid climate, KU faculty will learn more about the region's history with stops in Colby and Nicodemus. They will spend much of the day northwest of Hays focusing on traditional and innovative businesses in two Rooks County communities.

Before the KU faculty began their tour, they visited with Mike Hayden, Kansas secretary of wildlife and former governor, whose family farms in Rawlins County north of Colby. Hayden described northwest Kansas as "a special place with special people who are experiencing a drought that verges on the 1930s, when an out migration of population began that continues today."

At 8 a.m. Thursday, Sue Taylor at the Prairie Museum of Arts and History, 1905 S. Franklin in Colby, will guide the faculty through the area's history. Serving as an area cultural center, the museum includes 24 acres with buildings such as a sod house. One exhibit, "Prairie Life: Conquering the Great American Desert," describes settlement from the 1880s to the 1930s with an emphasis on water resources. Wayne Bossert, manager of the Northwest Kansas Groundwater district, will join the faculty at the museum to talk about the future of water in northwest Kansas.

The second stop will be at 10:30 a.m. in Nicodemus, the oldest surviving frontier African-American community in Kansas. The town was established by Exodusters from Kentucky in 1877, and the earliest settlers survived in dugouts, lacking timber for homes. The population peaked at 400 in 1880 and today numbers about 20. Named for a slave who bought his liberty, Nicodemus became a National Historic Site in 1996.

During the last weekend in July each year, Nicodemus attracts settlers' descendants and visitors from throughout the United States for "Homecoming." The event originally celebrated "Emancipation Day," a national tradition in the West Indies to celebrate the freeing of slaves in 1834.

At 11:15 a.m. the faculty will arrive in Palco, a Rooks County community whose population peaked at 570 in the mid-1960s and now numbers about 240.

Palco native Don Steeples, KU distinguished professor of geology, is co-directing the tour. Steeples and his brother Dave Steeples, of Stockton, continue to raise wheat on their family farm. Don commutes more than 200 miles from Lawrence to work on weekends; Dave commutes about 30 miles to work at night.

The KU faculty also will hear Palco residents discuss efforts to preserve the farm community. At 11:45 a.m., Leo vonFeldt, Palco's mayor, Terry Kortan and others with the Palco Community Development Authority will join the faculty for lunch in the town hall. The PCDA owns the town's one gas-station building, has made a loan to a custom-machine manufacturer in Palco and has helped obtain more than $1 million in state and federal grants for several projects, including street and sewage treatment maintenance.

Steeples notes that Palco once supported three grocery stores, four gas stations, two cafes, a movie theatre, two grain elevators, a barber shop and a pool hall. Today's business district includes a grain elevator, a community-owned gas station, a cafe, a bank and a small grocery.

At 1:30 p.m., the faculty will visit the Steeples farm, and at 2:30 p.m. they will stop by the Kysar Machine Shop, 1603 E. Ash. Owned by Doug Kysar, the firm grew from a part-time business to supplement an industrial arts teacher's income nearly 30 years ago into a high-tech operation. Kysar produces tooling solutions and parts for assembly-line manufacturing. Using the Internet, Kysar partners with a robotics company on the West Coast and a conveyor systems firm in Illinois to serve customers nationwide.

The Internet and closed-circuit television also give Palco's high school students a wide range of educational distance learning. KU faculty will stop by the high school for a look at the educational distance learning classrooms.

Before leaving Palco, the faculty will stop by a custom saddle-making shop owned by John Steeples, who fills orders for custom saddles and western gear. Historical societies and cowboy re-enactment groups call on Steeples to demonstrate his leather-working skills.

After a 30-minute ride east, the faculty will arrive in Plainville at 4:15 p.m. to tour two local businesses. Marvin Reif, owner of Sticks and Stones, 100 S.W. Ninth St., will show the faculty through his operation that creates yard art from limestone quarried from the Smoky Hills region. At Dessin-Fournir, 112 S. Main, the faculty will meet Chuck Comeau, a petroleum geologist who with his brother, Len Larson, founded the 11-year-old Plainville-based company that creates, manufactures and markets furniture designs to showrooms in the United States and Canada.

House and Garden magazine recently voted Dessin-Fournir one of the top three furniture design and manufacturing companies. Comeau and his wife, Shirley, also operate C.S. Post, a general store in Plainville that retails furniture locally.

The faculty will conclude the day with dinner at the Ross and Mariana Beach ranch, located near Hays. Ross Beach is president of Kansas Natural Gas Inc. The Beaches have provided major support for higher education in Kansas.

Sponsored by KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway, the Wheat State tour serves to introduce faculty new to Kansas to their new home state and to fellow Kansans. On Friday, the tour will head back to campus with stops in Lucas, near Wilson, Marquette and Lindsborg.

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