Disclosure: Kansas I-70 Association sponsored this post. However, all opinions and photographs are my own.
Driving into WaKeeney, I wondered why a small rural town of its size would call itself “The Christmas City of the High Plains.” Within minutes I was parked directly in front of an archway that read “North Pole.” Wooden cutouts of holiday trees and figurines sat in a courtyard surrounded by murals painted with Christmas scenes. It may have been a sweltering 99-degree summer day in Kansas, but it certainly conjured up thoughts of winter. I thought, “Why does this town love Christmas so much?”
Since 1950, the town has lived up to its nickname when local businessmen displayed a 35′ Christmas tree covered in 3,000 lights in the center of town. The tree and display are lit the Saturday after Thanksgiving and stay illuminated until New Year’s Day. Long strands of twinkling lights and fresh greenery stretch from the tree to neighboring businesses lighting up the downtown. The four-block district is illuminated in colorful lights. The Christmas tree and lighting displays are considered to be one of the largest of their kind along KS I-70 during the holiday season. Some of the decorations stay up the entire year along Main Street and inside its businesses. How many trees will you spot around town?
WaKeeney is much more than a tourist stop along Kansas I-70 between Kansas City and Denver. The county seat of Trego County is home to hardworking residents who roll out the red carpet for visitors. WaKeeney offers travelers a place to enjoy a simpler way of life. It wasn’t long before I found myself quickly making friends with the locals at Hometown Bakery (215 N. Main St.), a busy place during breakfast.
I was craving a hearty and comforting meal. I ordered the Breakfast Plate of eggs, potatoes, and toast along with a freshly brewed coffee. I could hear the cook, who I assumed was the owner, whistling while she prepared meals in the kitchen. Townies talked about the hot weather and the quickly approaching end of summer. Hometown Bakery was the place to catch up on the town’s happenings over coffee.
I checked myself in an Air B&B, 1909 Cottage House (510 Warren Ave.) located just off the town’s square and across from the courthouse. Having never stayed in an Air B&B, I loved it. I highly recommend booking an overnight or weekend stay at the cottage. It’s meticulously restored, spacious, thoughtfully decorated, and clean. It has all of the comforts of home. Five beds and three bathrooms provide roomy accommodations for a family visiting the area.
One delightful part of a stay at the cottage is enjoying the flower gardens that surround the property. A white picket fence corrals leaning plants and flowers – the ideal setting for enjoying the view from the front porch. It’s also relaxing place to sit and watch residents come and go about their business along Main Street until the sun goes down.
TREGO COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY MUSEUM
The best way to get to know a place that you’ve dropped into for the first time is to visit the town’s museum. The Trego County Historical Society’s Museum (128 N. 13th St.) indoor collections tell the story of the residents of the area who have made an impact on the town’s success. As you walk amongst the exhibitions, you’ll see vintage clothing, household goods, medical artifacts, and items from farming on the prairie dating back to the late 1800s. I suggest starting your self-guided tour by learning more about the town and its founders. WaKeeney was named after Albert Warren and James Keeney who dreamed of a city with 80′ wide brick streets. They got their wish.
The museum’s textiles date from the early 1800s-1970s. Many of the museum’s items were donated by families in the area. Can you imagine walking the streets of WaKeeney and seeing women wearing dresses like the ones below as they headed off to church or a formal occasion?
A new addition to the Trego County Historical Museum includes a large mural depicting the life of an earlier time. Governor John P. St. John signed a proclamation to organize the county on June 21, 1879. What do you notice about the mural below that tells the story of the county?
One exhibit that the museum is continuously working hard to build is the Trego County Honor Roll that features names of residents who have served in the military. I felt a sense of patriotism as I read about the soldiers who wore the uniforms on display. The collection dates back to World War I. The artifacts in the case situated left of the honor roll wall are phenomenal.
Several tiny towns in Trego County eventually combined into one school district. The one-room schoolhouse pictured below is available for visitors to enjoy with access provided by museum employees. It was used from 1910 to the early 1960s.
Today, schools use the facility on occasion to teach historical lessons to students and for the occasional elementary school program. From floor to ceiling, the one-room schoolhouse helps visitors take a virtual walk back into time. As someone who tends to notice the details of artifacts, I couldn’t help but think about the students who must have sat at the desks. Based on my count, about about 20 students could have occupied the classroom at a time. Look at the desk in the photo below. Do you see the initials WL?
TOUR OF TREES
An interesting attraction worth noting in WaKeeney is the Tour of Trees. To further celebrate “The Christmas City of the High Plains,” WaKeeney expanded their love of the holiday by adding 22 metal Christmas trees in front of historic homes and businesses. Each tree encourages visitors to learn facts about the town or “Tree-via.” Will you find the house that belonged to the doctor who cared for Wild Bill Hickok? How about the remains of the house built by the town’s founder?
Stop by The Studio 128 (128 N. Main) to ask for an address directory to help you locate all of the trees on the tour. Like me, you may simply stumble upon them as you walk around the main square of WaKeeney. I spotted the tree below in front of my lodging accommodations at 1909 Cottage House. The trivia about the house helped me imagine the sister and brother who once occupied it. Immediately, I felt at home when thinking about the happy couples who were married in the house by Justice of the Peace, Walter Siggett. A house is always more than just a place to live. It tells a story.
TREGO COUNTY COURTHOUSE
When given the opportunity, I like to tour a town’s courthouse. The halls usually have framed photos of influential townspeople. The Trego County Courthouse (216 N. Main St.) sits in the middle of the town’s square.
Construction of the courthouse pictured below took a year to complete. The structure is made of beautiful limestone from Trego County as well as Manhattan stone. According to travelks.com, the interior design remains nearly unchanged and it remains one of the oldest Kansas courthouses in operation today. The county jail was in the basement of the courthouse until it was condemned in 1976. Now, the space is used as storage. At the time of its construction, it cost over $26,000 to build it.
The county’s growth increased once the Kansas Pacific Railroad brought jobs. Homesteaders and pioneers soon followed. I looked into the eyes of early residents in photographs on the courthouse walls and wondered what goals they saw realized for the county.
Another fun place to check out when in downtown WaKeeney is Studio 128 (128 N. Main St.). It is part art gallery and part studio space for people to use to foster their creativity. Lynelle, the owner, invites individuals and groups of all ages to experiment with paint and clay. The retail space is the perfect opportunity for shoppers to buy unique gifts and Christmas ornaments. Studio 128 hosts events ranging from holiday-themed classes to public paint nights. To plan your visit during one of the events, view the studio’s Facebook page.
GIBSON’S HEALTH MART PHARMACY OLD FASHIONED SODA FOUNTAIN
I ventured across the street from Studio 128 into Gibson Health Mart Pharmacy (125 N. Main St.). The secret ingredient to WaKeeney’s charm? The people…and a delicious drink at the pharmacy’s old-fashioned soda fountain in business since 1892.
My Vanilla Cream Coke was delicious but not overly sweet. Other specialty drinks, shakes, and malts are served to customers who sit at nine barstools inside the historic building. I enjoyed learning more about the town’s residents and history while sipping on my drink. Another traveler stopped in having taken a detour from KS I-70 for the old-fashion soda fountain experience. It’s a must-visit place in Kansas and a popular place for locals and travelers to the Christmas City on the High Plains.
What drink would you order while seated at the counter? I’m told that the town’s youngest residents love the Green River, a super sweet drink. One of about forty authentic soda fountains still in operation in the state, Gibson’s includes seating for nine patrons. Thirsty? Flag down any employee who is ready to happily whip up a nostalgic drink for you. Prefer a cup of coffee? It’s only 5 cents! The pharmacy is also a great place to stock up on everyday necessities, gift items, and floral arrangements. Plan your visit around the pharmacy’s hours listed here.
SHILOH VINEYARD & WINERY
With time to spare before the dinner hour, I drove west from WaKeeney on KS I-70 to Exit 120 to M Road to get to Shiloh Vineyard & Winery (17079 M Rd.). I was told it was a popular stop for visitors to the area in search of a relaxing place to sip wine and enjoy the gorgeous scenery. A family-owned winery founded in 2008 by the Johnstons, it features a tasting room, event space, and serves as an official Harvest Host for overnight RV guests.
I was given a private tour by Kirk and Treva who told me about the property that welcomes people from all over the nation to the destination winery. The family renovated an old chicken coop into the pristine wine tasting room you see in the below photo. Salvaged materials from buildings on the property were sourced to finish the space. I would highly recommend asking for a guided tour to fully appreciate the winery. Visitors can schedule an informative tour by appointment.
Visit the tasting room to enjoy the winery’s long list of varieties, order a wine flight or ask about the Wine of the Week. A fan of dry wine, Kirk poured several varieties for me to try but it was a dry red, Noiret, that was by far my favorite selection. I’d also recommend sampling Norton and Vidal Blanc. Bottles of wine and gourmet chocolate are available for sale.
Kirk enthusiastically talked me through the notes of each wine and the story of its production. The winery is known for producing cold-hardy grapes to make dry reds, dry whites, semi-sweet whites and reds, fruit wines, and dessert varieties. All of the wine is made from the fruit the family grows on site.
A popular venue for hosting weddings, receptions, and private parties, the barn below is available for rental. A nearby patio attached to the tasting room provides outdoor seating. The winery and event spaces stay consistently busy, but they always welcome wine lovers who show up to the tasting room.
WAKEENNEY WATER PARK
The WaKeeney Water Park (716 N. 6th St.) is the ideal place to cool off from the rays of the summer sun. If your kids are begging for something fun to do, take them to the swimming pool for a day of fun. This aquatic center isn’t any ordinary city pool either. The park features two slides, lap lanes, dive boards, dump bucket, and deck sprays. Looking to lounge? The zero-depth, beach-like entry space is ideal for relaxing. Check the pool’s page for operating hours.
The WaKeeney Water Park sits adjacent to a manicured city park – one of four in town. Whether you’re looking to enjoy a covered picnic inside a pavilion or play a game of disc golf, WaKeeney’s city parks have something for everyone to enjoy at their pace. I enjoyed relaxing at the Swimming Pool Park under a canopy of shade trees. Which one will you enjoy? View all the park locations here.
EISENHOWER PARK + DOG PARK
Another park that often attracts visitors is Eisenhower Park (I-70 Exit 127). It has two distinct attractions. One is a restored Navy F-14 Tomcat Fighter Jet, which sits on display. The 62′ jet was transported to town by truck from Ohio, reassembled by volunteers, and put on exhibit as a tribute to veterans of all ages and branches of the military.
The other attraction that draws people to the area is Eisenhower Park’s newest feature, a dog park. It’s an ideal place for you and your four-legged friend to enjoy the outdoors whether you’re staying overnight in WaKeeney or taking a break from an KS I-70 road trip.
KANSAS VETERAN’S CEMETERY
Just off of Highway 40 in WaKeeney sits the Kansas Veteran’s Cemetery (403 South 13th St.). It’s open to visitors year round from sunrise to sunset. During my visit, I read many of the headstones and observed that each one described the person buried there in a few poignant words or gave a message of remembrance. As the Kansas Commission of Veterans Affairs Office says, “No One is Ever Buried Alone, All are Buried with Honor.” You can tour the cemetery at your pace or request a staff-led tour.
WESTERN KANSAS SALOON & GRILL
After a busy day of exploring, I was ready to dine at Western Kansas Saloon & Grill (121 N. Main St.) for a tasty meal. Like many of the businesses in town, the restaurant is located in a historic building. A hardware store occupied the space in 1925. Now, townies gather in groups to enjoy steaks, hamburgers, pasta, and appetizers from a long menu of local favorites.
While I dined on a delicious Patty Melt, I noticed the walls and upper shelves were covered in antique lamps, signs, and farming tools. The original wood floors creaked as people walked by and the tin ceiling revealed the building’s age. Oversized paintings by a local artist hung on the walls – each one told the story of Kansas life.
My time in WaKeeney seemed to fly by preventing me from visiting several more places that I look forward to experiencing on my next visit to town. I would love to tour Castle Rock located 15 miles south and four miles east of Quinter. The area is touted for it geological treasures and is considered one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas for its 70′ rock formations and seabed fossils.
Have you spent time in WaKeeney or plan to visit? It truly is a quintessential American town. I will always have fond memories of my stay in WaKeeney.
While the town may attract curious tourists who want to visit the “North Pole,” the charming town has so much more to offer than that. WaKeeney’s people, comfortable lodging, and the must-experience attractions make it a worthwhile stop along KS I-70.