Disclosure: Kansas I-70 Association sponsored this post. However, all opinions and photographs are my own.
No two Kansas towns are alike and Colby is definitely one-of-a-kind. I was excited for an afternoon of exploring having heard only good things about The Oasis on the Plains. I turned off of KS I-70 at Exit 54 to check it out for myself.
Colby’s Visitor’s Center (350 S. Range Road, Suite 10) is quite the sight. A grain bin is part of its architectural design, a nod to the progressive agricultural community. I had the pleasure of meeting one of the town’s longtime residents who worked there. Ralph was a wealth of knowledge about the town’s history. We talked for at least an hour.
In the late 1800s, homesteaders built sod homes on railroad land not far from the original post office. The town is named after Joseph R and Mary J Colby. They ran a boarding house and Joseph was a part-time preacher. Later, a general store was built serving as the town’s first merchant. A major contributor’s to the town’s growth, the Union Pacific Railroad and farming brought jobs to the area and increased the town’s population. The agriculture industry is thriving in Colby producing wheat, corn, milo, and sunflowers.
Why should you take a detour from the highway to Colby? There are a lot of cool places to visit in this western Kansas town.
The Prairie Museum of Art and History (1905 S. Franklin Ave.) is one of the best places to explore in Colby. All of its collections tell the story of the lifestyle of the high plains and many of the artifacts were donated by local families. I recommend starting the museum tour on the inside of the building and then walking outdoors to the 1930’s homestead and barn, one-room schoolhouse, sod house, and to view the Cooper Barn up close.
The indoor galleries include eight collections ranging from priceless collectors’ items to local high school memorabilia. The house you see below anchors the “High Plains Journeys” exhibit. It’s tall enough that visitors of all ages can tour it.
“A Little This, A Lotta That” exhibit includes items from Joe and Nellie Kuska. She was a Colby school teacher who devoted her entire life to collecting glass, coins, furniture, toys, dolls, and more. Joseph and Nellie eventually moved to California and opened a museum, but now the collection is on display for visitors of The Prairie Museum to enjoy. Of all of her belongings, I was enamored by her collection of glass pieces. Having visited the Corning Museum of Glass and the Wichita Art Museum’s collection of glass, I think this exhibit easily competed with them in terms of the quality of singular pieces.
The exhibit “Over Here Over There” stopped me in my tracks. The case you see below houses uniforms from different military branches worn by Thomas County residents dating back to WWI. If you look closely, you will see a hanging white badge on each uniform identifying the soldier who wore it. Some of the badges also include a photo that personalized the story.
Beyond the museum’s doors is a campus of historic buildings that are worth checking out as well. I spent a little under an hour touring them. The yellow house pictured below, owned by the Eller family, is significant because it is one of the earliest homes built in Colby in 1903. The family purchased the home three years later. I was surprised to walk inside and find a fully furnished home – even the piano in the living room had sheet music on display. A tour of the home revealed the story of rural life in the 1930s.
The one-room schoolhouse aka “Nicol School” serves as a time capsule to an earlier time. Schoolhouses in Thomas County closed when school consolidation took place. Walking into the District #15 building gives you an idea of what almost 100 schoolhouses across Kansas looked like at the time. I noticed that the schoolhouse didn’t have a bell atop its roof to allow the teacher to alert students to return to class after recess. Do you suppose she used the bell on the desk?
Colby is known for its hardworking farmers, so it was no surprise to find antique farming equipment on site. According to kfb.org, one farmer feeds 168 people. Farmers and ranchers receive only 19 cents of every dollar spent on food that is eaten at home and away from home. Farm fields as far as the eye can see greet visitors to Colby along KS I-70.
A major reason for my visit to Colby was to step foot inside the Cooper Barn. The largest barn in Kansas, it stands 66′ wide, 114′ long, and 48′ high. Voted one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Architecture, I had to have a peek inside. I drew back one of the barn doors. The interior was impeccably clean. The first floor’s exhibit “Agriculture on the High Plains: High Dry” encourages visitors to imagine farming during water scarcity. What’s on the third floor? You’ll have to see it for yourself when you visit Colby.
Lone Star Church is a quiet space to collect your thoughts and enjoy a bit of solitude while on the museum’s grounds. Built in 1915, it was brought from Gem, Kansas to its current location. Visitors to the sanctuary will appreciate its stained glass windows and restored woodwork. Would you ring the church bell?
After wrapping up my tour of the Prairie Museum, I made the short drive to one of the town’s biggest attractions, Colby Aquatic Park (1610 S. Franklin Ave.) Locals appreciate it for its water slides, lazy river, and friendly lifeguards. “The Oasis on the Plains” knows how to bring paradise to its residents and visitors. It’s open seven days a week offering swimmers relief from the sweltering Kansas sun.
The pride of joy of Colby these days is its newest attraction, the Colby Event Center (1200 S. Franklin Ave.). The massive structure opened its doors in late July, and I was game for a visit. I peeked my head into a nearby office to meet the staff before heading into the main gym. I was met by a friendly employee who was excited to show me a country concert video on his phone taken earlier in the week. The stands were full and the crowd was singing along. With seating up to 3,000 people, it is a premiere venue space. To view upcoming events at the center, click this link.
After touring the state-of-the-art event venue, I decided to check out a store in town that I heard rave reviews about, Maevis & Magpie (1005 E 4th St.). One step inside and I knew I was in trouble. I was in heaven! The boutique is an epicenter for all things rustic farmhouse and primitive home decor. But it isn’t like other stores of its kind in Kansas. It has not one but two buildings filled to the brim with reasonably priced items.
The photo taken below is of the boutique’s second building, which features mostly kitchen and dining room items. Garden lovers will appreciate the animal statuary and botanical stems. Calligraphy signs are tucked neatly into vignettes. Who doesn’t need a little sign that reads, “If you had to choose between tacos every day or being thin forever, would you choose hard or soft?” The shopping fun continues in Maevis & Magpie’s main building where final transactions are made.
The store has a space devoted to lounging and enjoying confections, ice cream, and cold drinks. Brightly colored booths line the wall and jars of retro candies tempt shoppers to stock up on their favorites. I bet it also doubles as a great place to keep the kids happy while Mom shops until her heart’s content.
With bags of home decor finds in my car, I drove to the ever-popular City Limits Bar and Grill (2227 S. Range Ave.) for lunch. To my surprise, the restaurant was tucked away behind Colby’s popular highway rest stop. Palm trees welcomed me as I entered the parking lot, an Oasis on the Plains!
City Limits Bar & Grill (2227 S Range Ave.) was recommended to me by a couple of Colby residents. The owner, Keith O’Dell, is also the head chef and he is known for serving delicious meals on a consistent basis. On this day, he was also my server. He handed me a lunch menu and told me about the all-you-can-eat soup and salad buffet. I chose to dine on bottomless bowls of chicken noodle soup with heaping helpings of salad. The restaurant is a must-stop for travelers driving on KS I-70 who don’t want to travel downtown for a meal. Other lunch menu items included burgers, chicken tenders, and hand-cut top sirloin. The food is downright delicious.
With time to spare before heading to Goodland, I drove back into town to relax at Fike Park located north of the courthouse. The park, named after a one-time town mayor, was breathtaking.
It includes over nine acres of manicured lawns and oversized trees. During my visit, I followed a winding sidewalk to check out the public art installations only to spy a man practicing juggling at the basketball court. Children giggled as they ran to nearby playground equipment. It was a happy space.
For me, a highlight of the park was capturing photos of its remarkable art installations. I appreciated how a chainsaw artist took what was most likely a dying tree and transformed it into a work of art.
A second masterpiece caught my eye. It was a mini Statue of Liberty similar to the one I had seen in downtown Hays, Kansas. She stood with poise welcoming park visitors at one corner of the lawn. It is one of the 25 Statue of Liberty replicas in Kansas. The tiny Lady Liberty statues were placed in public spaces by the Boy Scouts of America for their 40th anniversary.
The clock was ticking and I needed to get back on the road, but my day in Colby was made better by the many cool things to do in town. I can’t wait to return to shop Main Street and dine at B’Hive Bar & Grill next time. Maybe I can convince my new friend Ralph from the Visitor’s Center to join me for dinner?