Disclosure: Republic County Economic Development sponsored this post, however, all opinions are my own. Nearly all of the photos were taken by me.
There is so much to love about rural Kansas.
If you’ve driven from Wichita to Omaha, you’ve passed through Republic County sitting just below the Nebraska border in North Central Kansas. After a recent visit to the area, I assure you that Republic County is a must-visit destination that wins you over quickly with its boutique shops, Main Street charm, and delicious dining options.
They say the soul of a place is what it is because of its people. The residents of Republic County are salt of the Earth people who care about one another and who want to keep improving their communities. They greet visitors with open arms and are eager to tell you about the many great things that make their county a place many would like to call home. In fact, I heard more than once during my visit to area businesses that many of the county’s residents are returning to the area to raise their families. They’re drawn to a quieter way of living, an ideal place to raise a family. I understood the sentiment after spending two days visiting the county’s best destinations.
BELLEVILLE, KS “At the Crossroads of America”
Shopping + Dining
My first stop upon arriving in Belleville, Kansas was The Feathered Nest (1914 M. Street), a store that a friend of mine raved about as soon as she heard I was traveling to the area. It’s not a store that many discover by happenchance, but rather one that lives up to its reputation. A massive home interiors/decor shop with a coffee lounge, it is a must-visit store. As soon as I walked in, I knew my wallet was in trouble. I wanted to bring home the fancy pillows, framed prints, and towering candle holders. They also sell jars of Kansas-made gourmet foods and chef’s tools to complete one’s kitchen.
The store manager, Lynette, sat down with me to chat about the store in the coffee lounge. I sipped on a specialty coffee, The Feathered Frenzy, and enjoyed a scratch-made scone from the espresso bar. As we talked, I noticed several locals sitting together in small groups talking over coffee. Immediately, I could feel a real sense of community.
I learned that the store has a decades-long history of outfitting homes with furnishings and gift items. The Feathered Nest provides in-home design services for those looking to upgrade their living spaces from the flooring to the textiles. It’s far more than a standard small-town furniture story. They also provide free consultations to homeowners who want to meet with the designers both at home or in the store.
Aside from home design items, they sell apparel, jewelry, and baby + preteen gift items. It’s next to impossible not to find a gift for someone in The Feathered Nest. Lynette and her team take the time to listen to your needs and direct you to the perfect purchase for someone. If you’re not able to shop in-store, you can also buy many of the retail items online here.
A HISTORIC TOUR
Later, I was taken on a walking tour of Belleville‘s Courthouse Square to view the architectural details and relive its early years. Belleville Chamber & Main Street Director, Waylon, pointed out each building’s details to me. We walked and talked as music played over the square’s speaker system.
Officially a town in 1869, buildings surround the art deco county courthouse, which was built after the original building burned down. Actually, several of the original wood-framed buildings burned down, so they were replaced with brick and stone construction. During our tour, I admired the Spanish-style design details that adorned many of the buildings. Tall, arched windows dotted the commercial architecture. Inside, original tin ceilings and hardwood floors were a glimpse into the past. As we continued walking, I spotted historic photos on the side of planters and signage detailing the early days of Belleville. Today, many of the buildings house specialty stores and renovated office space. However, it was a particular towering building that caught my eye.
The Blair Theater (1310 19th St.) opened in 1928 when talking pictures came to town. Its facade is meticulously restored and reminiscent of an earlier time. After admiring its exterior beauty, we walked inside to see that its woodwork and ornate finishes. Now known as The Blair Center for the Arts, it is still in operation today. During my visit, I saw school children in small groups awaiting their turn to head into the single movie theater to watch a free summer movie. The smell of fresh popcorn permeated the air. It is definitely a must-experience attraction in Belleville. To view upcoming showtimes, visit here.
After my tour, I was ready to get back to shopping. I stopped inside Sew Country (1834 M. St.), a quilter’s paradise. Two friendly employees greeted me and took me around the store. I quickly discovered that Sew County is the place to source the latest fabric patterns and supplies for quilters planning a project. In business for almost three decades, they carry over 6,000 bolts of fabric (check out their gallery). Quilters come from miles around to peruse their inventory of seasonal prints and notions (snaps, elastics, threads). If you’re interested in finding out more about taking a DIY class or asking them to ship quilting supplies to you, visit their Facebook page.
My next stop led me into David’s Creations (1329 19th St.) the town’s full-service florist. I was greeted by David who quickly made me feel right at home. It wasn’t long before I was snacking on a sample of Kansas-made preserves and chatting about flowers. The store was celebrating its first anniversary and it was a day of celebration. David’s Creations provides fresh and silk floral arrangements for pick-up or delivery up to a 20-mile radius. With years of experience artfully arranging flowers for special occasions, David is well-versed in botanicals.
If you’re in search of a gift for a loved one, the store is stocked with boxed candy, home decor, and statuary. Consider David’s Creations your one-stop shop for all things beautiful in Belleville. View a gallery of arrangements for ideas and check the store hours on the Facebook page.
Just as I was beginning to get hungry for lunch, I spotted Wood Shop Pizza (1317 18th St.) across the way. As I approached, I saw a window sign that read, “This is a bad place for a diet.” I had come to the right place.
Inside, I saw locals sitting at beautifully crafted wood tables happily dining on wood-fired pizza and sub sandwiches. The pizzeria is owned by woodworkers, hence the name, so it made perfect sense that the interior had an industrial vibe from the authentic wood floors to the beam exposed ceiling.
I chose the lunch special, the Italian Pizza, served on thin crust – it was a delicious choice. I loved the tanginess of the Italian dressing combined with the salami, pepperoncini, and stretchy cheese. Country music played in the background as enjoyed my pizza. I could see hilarious sayings written on various wall signs from my booth seat. (Insider Tip: If you get the chance to dine at Wood Shop Pizza, make your way down the hallway to the bathroom where you’ll discover more hilarity written on the walls.)
Now it was time to drive to Kansas High Banks Hall of Fame Auto Racing Museum (1204 H. St.) – the mecca for all things midget car racing since 2015. Anyone who races or loves racing knows that Belleville is the home of the world’s fastest half-mile dirt track (aka “Big Belleville”). What began as a flat horse track eventually became a popular race track in 1910. The museum gives visitors an up-close look at two rooms stocked with pristine midget cars and a few stock and modified cars.
Record-holding racer, Don, gave me a tour of the museum. It was built to capture the history of racing personalities, house memorabilia, and display race cars. More or less unregulated, midgets cars have been driven at Belleville by some of the best drivers including many of today’s Nascar celebrities from Kasey Kahne to Jeff Gordan. The track is also home to sprint car racing and touts 305 national winners.
Opened in 2015, the museum welcomes race fans from all over the world who want to learn more about the track the put Belleville on the map. I encourage you to visit Don and his friends who work at the Hall of Fame museum to fully appreciate the legacy of Belleville’s racing community. Don’t forget to sign the guest book.
So, it only made sense that I needed to visit Belleville High Banks (608 O. St.), the historic race track built in 1932. City councilman, James Doyle, met me there to give me an inside look. We were standing on the second oldest continuously operating event track, the same track where racing record-holders make a name for themselves.
He told me that the Belleville Midget Nationals started at the track in 1978, an event that still fills the stands today. Later, the Belleville 305 Spring Nationals was born Thus, High Banks has an inner track and an outer track with an incredibly steep, 23-degree bank. Race fans can sit in the stands only feet from the track to cheer on their favorite driver during event races. I’m told it’s quite a show as midget cars race at up to 141 mph and sprint cars zoom along 80′ width of track at speeds up to 200 mph.
COURTLAND, KS “Welcomes You”
A 20-minute drive from Belleville, the charming town of Courtland was my next stop. I drove down a road surrounded on both sides by 8′ tall cornfields.
I checked into the Heartland Gamebirds Lodge (402 Main St.) for an overnight stay. Once one of the town’s bustling banks, today the building is restored into a beautiful lodging facility for visitors to relax after a day of guided pheasant hunting. I was impressed by the brand new accommodations and modern finishes. If I were a hunter or part of a group spending time in Courtland, this is where I’d want to stay.
The two-story building includes rooms with comfortable bunk beds, a common living space with an open kitchen, and two full bathrooms with laundry facilities. Downstairs, I found two authentic bank vaults and a foray with oversized windows flooding the space with sunlight.
After dropping my bags, I felt perfectly relaxed as I sipped on Kansas-made coffee from a comfy leather couch while admiring the brick exposed walls and original arched windows. From the window view, I spotted a building down below that I had to check out.
Soul Sisters Ceramics (328 Main St) is a unique boutique inside what was an old gas station. The paint your own pottery studio also sells hand-selected home decor and clothing.
Shanna, the store’s owner, was one of the sweetest people I met during my stay in Courtland. It turns out we graduated from the same university with the same degree. As we chatted about her love of all things creative, she explained that the pottery studio is open to walk-ins, private parties, and serves as an event space. I watched as she displayed delicate necklaces with pendants made from Kansas clay onto a wall display. I noted the much of the inventory from candles to the modern farmhouse-style decor was made in the Sunflower State.
Visitors to the historic building will love what Shanna has done with it. She regularly rotates new retail inventory making shopping a delight. I’m still kicking myself for not buying the necklace I had my eye on. Luckily, I can order many of the store’s items online.
As you leave with your shopping bag in hand, I recommend taking a peek at the “hidden” mural painted on the outside of the building. It’s a great place to take a photo during your time in Courtland.
Soon, I found myself walking down to another shopping destination, AnTeaQues (415 Main St.). Part antique store/part restaurant, the AnTeaQues is divided into two sections. Shoppers will appreciate hunting for antique finds ranging from rusty tools to old books. If you see something you’re interested in, ask the owner for assistance. On the other side of the store, I spotted red and white checkered tablecloths where locals gather for breakfast and lunch. Everything on the menu from the mashed potatoes to the sandwiches is made in-house.
Hungry for dinner, I didn’t have to look far – Pinky’s Bar and Grill was across the street (428 Main St.). This is the kind of restaurant you walk into and everyone knows you’re not a local. The place is filled with families and couples dining together and catching up on the latest news. I chose a seat at the bar.
The special of the day was Salmon Cakes with Vegetables, but I opted for the Chef Salad and a cold beer. At Pinky’s, the owner cooks your meals fresh to order. She buzzed busily behind the counter preparing heaping plates of chicken parmesan, hand-pressed hamburgers, sandwiches or “handhelds,” and steaks. The person next to me ordered the Rigatoni Bolognese. You name it, it’s on the menu. When in Courtland, make time to visit Pinky’s.
I knew I had one more place to track down before the day’s end. It was time to drive to Snow Goose Lodge (250 Xavier Road) for a glimpse of the Jamestown Marsh at the overlook. I had heard about its breathtaking scenery and wanted a closer look.
A cheery couple, the property’s new owners, met me upon my arrival. I learned that the property was built to provide hunters unmatched hunting opportunities. Located just beyond the town on 48 acres, it included a log home, lodge, and bunkhouse. Before I knew it, I was sitting in an ATV and we were going for a ride to see the original homestead and to capture a better view of the buildings, including the infamous covered bridge. What a sight! It is the only covered bridge (not solely for pedestrians) in Kansas. The clock tower on top of it still works.
Built in 2002, the lodge has been leased by groups and families for overnight stays. During my tour of it, I couldn’t help but admire the tall wood beams and stone fireplace. A canoe hung from the vaulted ceiling and taxidermy decorated the walls. It was the quintessential cabin. With enough space for three fully furnished bedrooms, multiple bathrooms, a loft, and an open great room, it was definitely an inviting space. I considered how easy it would be to return to Courtland with a group and stay there.
On the back patio, I watched the wind push the grassy fields and birds fly back and forth to bird boxes. The lodge, built at the highest point overlooking Jamestown Wildlife Refuge, offers some of the best views in Republic County. Just off in the distance, I saw a “General Store” on the property and later learned that is where visitors practice their clay shooting skills.
The property also has a smaller bunkhouse for those who are traveling solo or with a companion. To learn more about renting one of the properties for an overnight or weekend stay, contact the property directly via the website here.
Just after sunrise the next morning, I planned the rest of my trip. I checked out of the lodge and made my way to the Depot Market (11101 30 Road) just beyond the cornfields leading into Courtland. I was in search of fresh-made donuts.
To my surprise, I found myself standing inside an authentic train depot/retail store. Unfortunately, the donut machine wasn’t working that morning, but that didn’t dissuade me from shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables, snacks, and cheese curds.
Just as I was about to purchase my finds, I was greeted by the Depot Market’s owner. He invited me to sit down to learn more about the depot and his business. A few minutes into our conversation and I felt like I had made a new friend.
He had the Sante Fe train depot, originally located in Courtland, moved to its current site in 1989. The market is open in the summer and sells fresh produce and farm-to-table, Kansas-made products. Just as I was learning about the depot’s history, we headed outside to get a better view of the farm fields.
With his granddaughter in tow, we walked rows upon rows of trellised berry bushes and mounds of flowers. He carried the basket while his granddaughter carefully snipped brightly colored flowers for me to take home. Visitors to the market can do the same and weigh their cuttings for purchase inside the retail store.
As we walked, Dan told me about his love of rural farming and a quieter way of life. He mentioned how wonderful it is to see people visit in droves to pick their own pumpkins in the fall and meander through the corn maze. For his family and the Depot Market’s employees, watching people smile while they pick a basket of blackberries is just another rewarding part of the job.
Just as my tour ended inside the hoop house where we snacked on raspberries, I found myself feeling sad that I had to leave. I highly recommend stopping at the Depot Market for an experience you’ll never forget.
Eight miles north of U.S. 36 on K-266, I drove to the Pawnee Indian Museum (480 Pawnee Trail) to see an authentic earth lodge. I was told it was a finalist of the 8 Wonders of Kansas, so I knew it was worth the short drive. The visit has since changed the way I view the Kansas prairie.
In the early 1800s, the Pawnee tribe chose to settle in what is now Republic County where they lived in 50 dome-shaped earth lodges. The museum opened in 1967 after archeologists excavated and uncovered half the village, which originally housed 2,ooo+ Pawnee.
Standing inside the museum, I was quieted and humbled by the experience. When you walk into the doors of the facility, you immediately catch a glimpse of an interior room. Soon, you realize that you’re standing above an actual lodge depression. Each hole in the ground, including a six-foot dry goods pit, served a purpose for the Pawnee.
Bison bones, metal tools, and a sacred bundle tell the story of a tribe that chose to live in the area to hunt big game. The women of the tribe built the lodges, gardened by the river, and performed all of the domestic duties. It is said that they even traveled as far as Colorado to source the wood beams to support the lodges.
The historic site took my breath away. The Pawnee Indian Museum forces visitors to pause and reflect on the earliest residents of Republic County. It deserves your visit.
SCANDIA, KS “Your Shopping Destination”
With the rest of my road trip ahead of me, I drove six miles to Scandia, a town known for its antique stores. I was having too much fun to stop now.
It was time for a hearty meal and I knew just the place I wanted to try, TAG’s Grill & Bar (319 Cloud St.) I spotted a meat smoker near the building hard at work billowing with blue smoke. Barbecue was on my mind.
I ordered the BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich with kettle chips for lunch. Just as I suspected, it was delicious. Having arrived early into the lunch hour, I noticed townies stopping by for lunch. One man ordered breakfast (you can order it all day) while another patron dined on a hamburger. But what everyone really wanted at TAG’s was a slice of cream pie or cheesecake. One man’s grandson hopped up excitedly to check out the refrigerator case full of single-serve slices. He brought it back with a smile of delight. I was going to need to leave room for dessert.
I ordered the Turtle Cheesecake, a popular choice, and began to devour it. Just then, the owner sat down at my table to say hello and get to know me better. I quickly realized that this kind of friendliness is just what you should expect from everyone when in Republic County. Warm and welcoming – they don’t know any other way.
One of the highlights of visiting Scandia is that you can shop for antiques along the town’s main corridor. Visitors drive to Scandia just to shop the shelves of the Antique Mall (309 4th St.). It makes up four storefronts allowing shoppers to duck in and out of stores easily. The town screams, “Shop here!”
No stranger to antique shopping, I’d consider the items in the stores worthy of a trip to Scandia. My heart nearly skipped a beat when I came across an original linotype machine inside what was the town’s newspaper building. Other items that caught my eye included oversized pieces of furniture just waiting for someone to claim them. The prices were quite reasonable.
I stepped inside the Buffalo Gallery & Pigeonhole Studio (302 4th St.). Co-owners Connie and Marla sell their individual creations, which include an eclectic collection of handcrafted wreaths, whimsical artwork, and unique home decor. The walls were adorned with art made from hand-cut license plates.
Just down the street, I shuffled through the racks of vintage clothes inside the Rusty Wheel Boutique (304 4th St.), a great place to find women’s clothes from shoes to handbags and blouses to pants.
My final stop took me to C&C High Tunnel Farms (317 4th St.) where I met the owner, Christi. She told me how her family farm grew into a retail business. Refrigerators were stocked full of Kansas-sourced meats and cheeses and to my surprise, she carried beef from my friend’s farm, North End Farms in Salina. It just proves you never know who you’re going to meet or what coincidences you might experience on a road trip.
My visit to Republic County reminded me that the people and places of Kansas are some of the best anywhere. I learned that the people work hard to make their towns a place to call home.
Only a two-hour drive from Wichita and north of Concordia, all three towns deserve your visit. Whoever said Kansas is a flyover state, hasn’t met the fine people of Republic County or visited its towns. I promise you’ll love your experience. I’m already counting down the days until I revisit my new friends.