Gloria Gaynor should appreciate Greensburg, Kansas. Greensburg lived her song, “I Will Survive.” After a devastating EF-5 tornado nearly wiped it off the map, the small city two hours west of Wichita arose from rubble. After that devastating day, May 4, 2007, they decided to build back better. They have turned the “green” into Greensburg’s reality.
Neighboring Mullinville preserves the art of M.T. Liggett, the Prairie Provocateur, and the Fromme-Birney Round Barn.
Related: Explore the best things to do in Wichita and Dodge City, 45 minutes northwest of Greensburg.
1. The Big Well Museum, Greensburg’s foremost claim to fame
My husband and I believed that the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well would be the perfect tornado shelter. We were wrong. The terrible twister destroyed the structure above the well.
Seven years later, Greensburg reopened The Big Well Museum.
You can no longer walk to the bottom of the well, but the new museum improves upon the old. It examines Greensburg’s past and the role of water in sustaining the High Plains’ economy. In addition, the museum preserves artifacts from the tornado and documents recovery.
The tornado wasn’t the sole hammer from the sky. In 1947, H.O. Stockwell and Bob Peck unearthed the fourth-largest pallasite meteorite on Peck’s farm. The Kiowa County farm had produced smaller meteorite fragments before Stockwell’s find, but none so significant as the 1,000-pound Space Wanderer. The big rock sits below the impressive metal detector used to discover it.
Related: The Big Well is one of the state’s World’s Largest Things.
2. Decode the artworks at the M.T. Liggett Art Environment
M.T. Liggett pulled no punches. When he disagreed with something, a Liggett art creation would appear at a strategic location. Liggett was an equal-opportunity provocateur. By default, he took the opposite position from any questioners.
Liggett was prolific. He filled his 70 acres of roadside property in Mullinville with approximately 600 metal totems and whirligigs. The metal works lampooned politicians and others. His fame spread so far that when he died in 2017, The New York Times ran his obituary.
The Kohler Foundation conserved Liggett’s works. Five years after his death, the foundation transferred the artworks and a visitors center to Greensburg’s 5.4.7 Art Center. The visitors center exhibits Liggett’s custom tools and other artifacts from his studio. While many of Liggett’s works are cryptic, they are all fascinating.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Visit the visitors center first for a helpful overview. Then stroll past Liggett’s creations along Mullinville’s highways, 11 miles southwest of Greensburg.
Related: Lucas also displays Liggett’s works. The small city is one of our 12 best places in Kansas.
3. Enter a hexadecagon at the Fromme-Birney Round Barn
About 1908, Henry W. Fromme commissioned William “Pat” Campbell to build a round barn. Promoters said that round barns withstood high winds better than rectangular barns. The round shape also used less material. However, Campbell did not create a round barn. Instead, his barn had 16-sides, a hexadecagon. At completion, the bar spanned 70 feet and stood 50 feet tall. Campbell continued the hexadecagon with the granary. Two rings surround the granary, a 13-foot wide wagon garage, and a circle of trapezoidal horse stalls.
Campbell finished the building in 1912. However, its draft horses soon went away. The Frommes bought their first tractor four years later, making the barn obsolete. Next, the Frommes changed the barn’s purpose to grain storage. The barn received another task during World War II when aerial navigators used it as a training landmark.
In 1954, the Birney family purchased the Frommes’ property, including the barn. Phyllis Birney adored the barn. So on their 15th anniversary, Larry Birney gave her the barn and one acre around it. She diligently worked to preserve the barn, and she got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Eventually, she deeded it to the Kiowa County Historical Society.
Roxie’s reliable report: The barn is open to visitors daily and has an honor-system gift shop. Inside, admire the truss system’s mathematical perfection and marvel at the collection of equestrian tack. The barn is six miles southeast of Mullinville.
4. The 5.4.7 Arts Center, the state’s first Platinum LEED structure
Back in Greensburg, Kansas, visit the 5.4.7 Arts Center. Greensburg prioritized the arts after the tornado. The city chose to construct the center as its first new public building post-storm. The center’s name references the tornado’s arrival date and the community’s hopes for a new beginning.
Students in the University of Kansas’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning desired to contribute to Greensburg’s rebirth. So, seven months after the storm, they accepted the city’s invitation to build the arts center to Platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. The students completed the building in time for the storm’s first anniversary. Its list (PDF) of energy efficiency features is 13 items long. Unfortunately, the list doesn’t include the building’s most remarkable feature. The south wall’s facade is a bank of full-length windows. The staff can raise the entire façade to breathe fresh air in good weather.
The studio hosts artists’ exhibits in its gallery. In addition, its classrooms hold classes and workshops.
5. Kiowa County Historical Museum and Soda Fountain
The Kiowa County museum also fell victim to the tornado. In 2011, it reopened in the new Kiowa County Commons Building, another LEED Platinum (PDF) winner. The museum includes local artifacts, but its centerpiece is the vintage soda fountain. Savor a shake, malt, Green River, or cherry phosphate.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: After you eat at the soda fountain, walk one block west to the Big Well Museum and borrow one of Greensburg’s complimentary bicycles. The Greensburg Tour will burn off the ice cream.
Where to eat and stay in Greensburg
You can’t go wrong with my favorite Greensburg, Kansas, restaurants, Crazy Mule Food & Brew and Kook’s Meat.
The Mule serves breakfast all day, plus burgers and steaks. Meat lovers should try the Maverick Burger, which adds bacon and ham to the burger. Or fill up on the buffet.
Kook’s serves freshly-cut meat, and you can buy some to grill yourself. Eat deli food, burgers, and fries, plus daily specials.
Stay at the Best Western Plus Night Watchman Inn and Suites. Greensburg RV Park is across Highway 400.