22 October, 2012

Art and research - Frontier City

I love doing research. I'm not talking about researching through a book; I'm talking about researching through a person. Interviewing. Books are so interesting and fascinating. They contain so many facts - BUT people contain personality, facial expression, emotion. You can't find those things in a book. I love to watch a person as he talks about something - especially something he's passionate about or something that makes him sad or mad. The tone of voice changes. The facial expression changes. All of those things just play into the research. You don't just have to research facts. I love researching feelings.

The next project in drawing is Place & Circumstance. We are to create a series of drawings that reflect research of the history of a particular site and consideration of the possibilities for repurposing or rebuilding. That will be presented in a map format.

I love it! I chose Frontier City as my place. It's so unique and interesting without even knowing the history. Frontier City is this rundown, torn-up, fake old west town. It was open at one point in time, but it's not anymore and probably won't ever be opened again.

For my research, I talked to the owner of Frontier City, Henry Schwaller. His grandfather owned it and it was passed down to him. I enjoyed talking to him so much. He had such expression in what he had to say. It was incredible to soak in everything he had to say.

My interview with Henry (mind you, it's long):

Q: Tell me a little bit about Frontier City.
A: Frontier City was created by my grandfather in 1975. He had some success with shopping center development here in town where the bowling alley and Nextech are today. Of course, that goes across the street to Heartland Building Center. He built all of that including all the houses from 22nd and Vine to 27th and Vine all the way east. About a 200-acre development. And about 15 years later he thought that it would be interesting to develop a frontier or historic-themed shopping center and have some historic attractions to it and put shops in there that would appeal to travelers. So not quite a Silver Dollar City, but really something that would tell visitors about Hays and Hays' frontier city but also provide retail opportunity as well.

The business opened in 1976, and there are really two components to Frontier City, and one is the - I forget what he called it - the thing that looks like a downtown, the front street. It's that one very large building that has the false front to it that looks like a series of different buildings. And when it opened, it had a gift shop, a furniture store, a travelers' information center - it was a state designated tourist center - a saloon, and I don't believe the artist had moved in yet. There was a sculptor that was there for a number of years, a local sculptor.

Then across from that are the older buildings, and those were moved in from places. The depot was an actual Union Pacific depot, and there were some houses and a hay barn, and eventually the church, but that was a later reincarnation.

So Molly, there were a couple problems with that, and the first problem was that in 1976 and 1977 things were pretty tough. And the economy was really bad. And we had rapid inflation. We no longer were able to rely on our own oil, so we were importing oil. The price of gasoline was going up very quickly. So people stopped traveling, and that cut down on the number of tourists. And there was a gas station and a motel. All those things were being affected by the economy.

The other problem was that the community really didn't know what to do. I don't know how many people visit Sternberg a year that are from Hays. One of the things I found that was really common, ya know later in life, when I talked to people about Frontier City, they said, "Yeah, I went there once." And then I'd say, "Why didn't you go back?" "Oh, I already went. I was there. It was nice." So we didn't get a lot of repeat traffic because they'd already been there once. I think the Sternberg has the same thing. Once you see the dinosaurs, a fish within a fish, you might take a visitor, probably not. If you've been there, you're not going to go again. There were events there. We had Summerfest, which was a summer version of Oktoberfest. You know, my grandfather really worked hard to promote it. He has a lot of interesting ideas, but those things cost money and they took time. And it just was not lucrative. It just did not pan out.

Then the third element was, to pan out, you really had to have something that would draw people in, that would be a destination in its own right. Like a Worlds of Fun. Like a Silver Dollar City. Like a North Pole in Manitou Springs. I don't know if he didn't see that or he didn't want to put anymore money into it. And it's probably the second rather than the first.

And so, it close and it re-opened and it closed. It re-opened in the late 80s through the early 1990s. A husband and wife lived there. They had a little girl with them - she's now grown-up, Fort Hays graduate. And they lived out there. They put the church. They added more buildings. They had a petting zoo. They added all sorts of things. And they lived there year-round. They had elementary school tours, and they just couldn't make it work. Again, we were in another recession, and things were really bleak. People were not traveling. And even though she grew it - oh, and the saloon. The saloon actually expanded. She had Fort Hays theatre students and dancehall girls. They had a whole review on melodrama. There were new and different things going on there every month. Just still, no real local interest. It was just not the right time. And that was it.

Someone thought it would be a great idea if we turned that into a pavilion like the Fox Pavilion  We were the Fox Pavilion before the Fox Pavilion. So we made about $20,000 in improvements to make it a wedding and reception hall for rental. And we did that for awhile, and I just stopped it because we're not in that business. We don't have the staff to go in a clean and set up for an event. And it was not lucrative at all. And yes, there is and was a need for a really nice place to have a meeting, and that was not it.

That was the last of it, and that was about 15 years ago. The biggest problem we face now, Molly, is - and we actually always faced it, even when it was operating - is vandalism. People come in, they break in, they steal stuff, they write their name on something. I don't know what that's about, but people really wanna leave their mark and destroy it and tear it down. And it just breaks my heart.

Q: Do you think you'll ever open it back up in the future?
A: No. It's been listed for sale, the entire property. We own the entire property from Frontier Rd. - that's where the motel is - all the way down to Rans. So it's about 11 acres. Our hope is to sell it. There's a lot of things I'd like to do with it. I own other vacant land, so I think it would be better if we could sell that. It's difficult. It's a big piece of land to sell at once. And I can assure you, nobody wants Frontier City. Now, we get a lot of calls, they want the church. Fine. Until recently, we didn't own the church. So all these years, it was owned by a family, and they said, "We give up. You can have it."

So nobody wants any of the buildings or any of the artifacts - or whatever's left. Everybody wants the church, and that just shows you how sad it is. "Can we buy the motel?" "Nope." "How's Frontier City?" "I don't want it." So it's kind of like this thing - it could be re-opened. It would take a lot of money. And I don't see why we would wanna do that.

We've had a lot of businesses come and go in the 40 years since that was build, and that's just what happens to business. Either you find a customer or you don't, and that one just did not have a customer. 

Q: You know those little tiny houses in the back?
A: Yeah, and rock sculptures.

Q: Why? What are they?
A: Those were build by a man who lived in Lucas, Kan., and his last name was Miller. And there's actually a city park in Lucas called Miller's Park. And in the 20s, Mr. Miller had fresh drinking water. So travelers would stop in Lucas, and they knew they could get safe water to drink. And he and his wife traveled a bit - I don't think they had any children. And in their travels, they collected stones and other things. And he built those items.

For some reason when he died, I guess he had no heirs, those things came to Hays, they were somewhere else, we bought them at an auction. We just acquired them, and it was part of a tour. We gave a private tour. The facility was actually enclosed - you had to pay to go in to it. And we explained what the different houses and different rock formations were. The Kohler Foundation has agreed to help transport all that stuff back to Lucas, restore them, and put them in Miller's Park where they belong. We're very excited about that. That's the best thing that could happen. And again, they have been really badly vandalized. And not just people picking rocks off, but people kicking them, smashing them. I have no idea what would drive anyone to do that. It would be like take a razor to the Mona Lisa. You have to have an appreciation for grass roots, outsider art. But to think that that man spent his life making that stuff. The buildings are pretty incredible - the detail. But for people to beat them so - it just makes me sick, makes me wanna cry.

Q: If you never sell the land, do you think you'll just leave Frontier City up?
A: No. You know, I have interest in some of the buildings. There are four or five historic buildings. They could be moved; they could be brought here into town. Again, there's land in the downtown area there's nothing on - no parking lot, nothing. They could be interesting as part of the history of Ellis Co. because these are historically significant buildings. So no, I'm not going to let it return to the earth, but given development patterns, this is a pretty attractive corner. Whether it's a truck stop or a KOA Campground, whatever it is, at some point someone will buy the land.

1 comment:

  1. The log cabin at Frontier City was built in 1870 by my Great Great Grandfather Christopher Mason Harshbarger in Lucas, KS. It was first moved to Miller's Park in Lucas, KS. and later to Frontier City. I'm trying to find out what happened to this structure and if it still exists.