As shelter in place orders unfolded across Kansas communities in early March, with the goal of slowing the spread of the new coronavirus, we started to see a few photos online of how Kansans were handling the crisis. By the time Gov. Laura Kelly issued the statewide stay-home order that went into effect March 30, social media was buzzing with stories of first responders’ heroic efforts as well as unselfish acts by everyday citizens stepping up to help their communities face the physical and mental strains caused by the pandemic.
On March 19, the Kansas Sampler Foundation started a Facebook page titled “Kansas Responds” and welcomed the public to share how their communities were responding to situations created by COVID-19.
“So many wonderful efforts for cheer or relief were being initiated and done by locals across the state and it seemed like those ideas would be inspiring and comforting if shared. It helps to know that anyone can step forward to make a difference during these tough times, to make them some of our best times,” said Marci Penner, who champions preserving and sustaining rural culture through the nonprofit Kansas Sampler Foundation that she runs from the family farm near Inman.
“It’s a good feeling to help someone and this is a time that calls for neighbors to help each other, for citizens to check on that little old lady that never gets out, and to find creative and safe ways to connect and check on each other.” Here are a few examples of Kansans’ cooperative spirit.
Towns End Tavern in Sharon Springs
Erin Wright spent six years working hard in her food truck, Erin’s Home Cooked Fresh Foods, to create a loyal following. It wasn’t uncommon for her to serve more than 300 people in a day in downtown Sharon Springs, a town of less than 800 people not far from the Colorado border and just 30 miles south of Goodland.
The success of the truck allowed her to transition to a brick-and-mortar restaurant debt-free. Towns End Tavern opened in July 2019, featuring a scratch made menu of steaks and gourmet burgers using fresh never frozen ingredients, all of which she buys from Miller’s Food Store in Sharon Springs.
Nine months later she had to stop allowing customers — including some who drove as many as 90 miles each Saturday night — in the 90-seat dining room of the 100-year-old building that she’d spent two years renovating.
“We’ve had to adapt and think outside the box in ways to just keep the business viable, keep the business going so that we can still pay the staff and pay the bills,” said Wright, who named the restaurant using a play on her maiden name Townsend and operates the restaurant with her extended family. That includes sisters who waitress, a husband who washes dishes, a son who cooks as well as parents and younger kids who help out when needed.
She said she didn’t consider closing the business temporarily, especially with access to her food truck that she’d kept licensed. She serves lunch from the truck on weekdays and offers curbside dinner cooked in the Towns End kitchen on Friday and Saturday. Staying open keeps alive her dream business and also gives the community a social outlet, a gathering place, even if from within vehicles.
To keep food costs down, she created a drive-in menu of burgers, fries, sandwiches, chili dogs, root beer floats and milkshakes. A holdover is her bestselling burger, the I’m Your Huckleberry Burger — playing off a line from the movie “Tombstone” — with a one-third pound patty topped with a homemade huckleberry habanero sauce, goat cheese and pickled red onions.
By the second week of the revised operations, the waitresses were wearing poodle skirts sewn by their mother in two days and music was being piped out to the parking lot to create a carhop vibe. Most weekend nights a movie plays on a screen at the end of the adjacent parking lot and those who choose to stay are asked to stay in their cars.
“We just want to give people a safe reprieve from the seriousness that the world is in right now,” she said.
When a generous customer donated money to help keep the lights on at Towns End, Wright used the money to deliver free soup and mini bread loaves to locals 65 and older who were not leaving their homes because they’re at too high a risk. The restaurant has continued to deliver about 50 free meals a week, left on doorsteps with a kind note.
“The community has been amazingly supportive,” Wright said. “I have been so impressed with the community’s initiative to help make sure that we have the funds to feed those who are shut in who can’t even get out to go do a carhop meal. It’s neat to see how communities and people pull together as they recognize that people are more important than things and businesses.”
Improving broadband access in western Kansas
Connectivity to the internet is more important than ever, with teachers hosting web-based education tools, more people working remotely and households with multiple students now trying to connect at one time.
Members currently on the economy or basic package with Wheatland Broadband, a subsidiary of Wheatland Electric Cooperative, and in the western portion of their coverage area — roughly from Scott City west — can request a free temporary increase in service speeds through May 31. Speeds will increase from 3/1 Mbps and 5/1 Mbps to the maximum speed available up to 10/4.
Wheatland Broadband also opened WiFi hotspots across its service territory for free public use. They’ve seen cars sitting in parking lots at offices and libraries using the internet access that they might not have at home. A list of locations in Garden City, Holcomb, Leoti, Scott City, Syracuse and Tribune is available at KEC.org/covid-19-cooperative-response.
“Our hope is that broader access and faster speeds will help all of our members access educational resources and more easily work from home,” Bruce W. Mueller, Wheatland Electric’s CEO/general manager, said in a news release.
To receive the increased internet speeds, existing members should call 866-872-0006 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wheatland also is making $500 donations to every food bank in their service area, and they’ve made a donation and a purchase of hand cleanser from Boot Hill Distillery that will be provided free to first responders.
Boot Hill Distillery in Dodge City
The supply chain has been slow getting hand sanitizer to western Kansas and other rural areas. When the small staff at Boot Hill Distillery came up with the idea to devote their time and space to making and bottling hand cleanser, their goal was to make sure the Ford County community had access to what has become an essential product in everyday life.
The distillery’s effort has gone far beyond those original plans, though, and as of April 10 they had made 500 gallons of hand cleanser and distributed 60,000 bottles. (While they are following the Food and Drug Administration’s formula for non-sterile solution, which uses 80% Ethanol, Hydrogen Peroxide, Glycerin and purified water, their operation is not being inspected for this production so they must call what they make hand cleanser.)
Boot Hill’s hand cleanser has reached county hospitals, nursing facilities, law enforcement agencies, rural electric cooperatives and others across Kansas, and even into New Mexico.
“It’s been amazing to be a part of this but also amazing to watch it happen,” said Lee Griffith, director of sales for the Dodge City distillery opened in 2016 by farmers Roger Kelman, Hayes Kelman and Chris Holovach. “The generosity and the outpouring of support we’ve seen has been incredible.”
Making this project happen has required collaboration. The small distillery needed financial donations from community partners, including Victory Electric, Kansas Corn, and Dodge City/Ford County Development Corporation, to purchase ingredients and to pay staff while giving the product away to those who needed it.
As the distillery team focused on making the handrub, others stepped up to help distribute it. Victory Electric’s communications team came up with a media and marketing plan to get the word out and they organized drive-up events allowing people to get a free bottle. The first two events were on March 22 in Dodge City within 24 hours of the idea, then they took the concept to every community within Victory’s service area with a school, holding 12 events in a nine-day period. The events were successful thanks to help from volunteers in each community and local law enforcement, said Jerri A. Imgarten-Whitley, vice president of communications for Victory Electric.
While Boot Hill Distillery continues to distill and barrel their spirits, the team is not bottling and its tasting room is closed. They have inventory and their sales have slowed considerably with bars and restaurants unable to serve cocktails using their signature liquors. Their products are sold in eight states, including liquor stores across Kansas, but cannot be mail-ordered within the state. Those same restrictions mean the hand cleanser also must be picked up at the distillery.
To keep up with demands for the hand cleanser, the distillery added employees who had been laid off from the food and beverage industry. They’ve also shifted from donation only to allowing individuals and organizations to purchase the sanitizer in bottles or in bulk, though they still take donation requests.
Sunflower Electric Power Corporation, in Hays, on behalf of its member distribution co-ops, purchased bottles of hand cleanser from Boot Hill Distillery for the co-ops to distribute within their service territories. In addition, Pioneer Electric, in Ulysses, Prairie Land Electric, in Norton, and Western Cooperative Electric, in WaKeeney, purchased extra bottles to distribute to EMS personnel, grocery stores, hospitals and senior living facilities.
McCune Farm to Market in McCune
Sheltering in place has driven home the importance of our local and regional food system, and the importance of quality customer service, said Cherie Schenker, owner of McCune Farm to Market.
“People are looking to us because why would you want to be in a big box store with 300 other people when you can shop in a small store, support a mom-and-pop and you might be there with two or three other people,” she said. “My hope is that this situation helps people take a second look at mom-and-pop stores and that they continue to value the service that they sure are appreciating right now.”
Residents of McCune, a town of about 400 in southeast Kansas, had to drive 30 miles to the nearest grocery store for more than two decades. In 2017, Cherie and her husband, Kevin, opened the small grocery just a mile from the land that’s been farmed by Cherie’s family since 1874. The store carries Schenker Family Farms’ naturally raised meats, conventional meats, locally grown produce, groceries and milk. They also operate a cafe inside the market, serving breakfast and lunch seven days a week.
The dine-in is closed but they’ve continued to offer to-go meals. The grocery side of the business has picked up as more customers rely on the market for staples the large chains can’t keep in stock.
“It helps that we’re not contracted into one warehouse, so we can pull from multiple distributors,” she said. “… Sometimes you have to get creative. We’ve sourced toilet paper from our uniform and towel supply company when we had to.”
They’ve also been stocking more bulk items — 25 pounds of dry beans, a pound of yeast, 25 pounds of flour — and they’ve expanded from home delivery one day a week to every day.
“We’ll deliver within an 8-mile radius and for many of our elderly who miss coming into the cafe or aren’t comfortable getting out right now, they appreciate us bringing groceries to their door, or a hot meal and a little conversation. The big boxes don’t do that, but your neighbors do.”
Keller Feed & Wine Company in Cottonwood Falls
Bryan Williams had a message for out-of-town diners who decided to flee their urban homes in March and head to his restaurant in Cottonwood Falls: We’d love to see you this summer, but go home and stay there.
Keller Feed & Wine Company, the restaurant he owns with his wife, Janice (Keller) Williams, depends on tourism for its survival, as do many of the businesses in Chase County. But now isn’t the time to think about surviving as a business, the Williams’ decided. Keeping family and neighbors in the county of 2,700 people safe from a deadly virus and preserving the assets the community needed during the stay-at-home order mattered more.
That’s why they bought Redbox codes to give to regular customers, got up at 3 a.m. to bake loaves of bread when the local dollar store couldn’t keep it in stock, closed the dining room before the government told them to and turned it into a market offering staples people were having trouble finding elsewhere, prepared free lunches for kids until the schools figured out a meal plan, started tabs for customers who were out of work, and sold eggs for less than they paid a restaurant wholesaler.
“Making sure the community has eggs is the least we can do for townsfolk who come to eat at our restaurant in December, the slowest time of year for us,” Williams said. “People have given us credit for things I don’t think we deserve credit for. We’re not doing anything that someone in the same position wouldn’t do. We just happen to own a restaurant.”
He hasn’t done it alone. Fellow businesses have chipped in or donated inventory to use in the to-go meals he prepares. The owner of the antique store across the street installed a carryout window in one of the Keller Feed & Wine doors. Even his 8-year-old daughter, Hallie, did her part: disinfecting the family’s DVD movies and loaning them out from the restaurant.
Individuals have donated money, too, from contributing to the school lunches to subsidizing a free ham dinner that residents could pick up on Saturday and serve for Easter Sunday. Williams said it feels like every time he comes up with a way to share donors’ generosity, he gets more contributions.
He feels guilty that his business is doing as good, maybe better, than when they could have diners inside the 50-seat restaurant. Maybe Keller Feed has fared better because it was already quick serve with low overhead, so offering take-out only hasn’t been a major disruption. He’s needed to add staff to keep up with expanded hours. Maybe it’s because when you support your community, they support you.
“There’s no place I’d rather be during a pandemic than in a town of 875 people in Kansas,” Williams said. “You cheer for a community like this. You fight for a community like this.”
Porch portraits in Olsburg
When she had her son two years ago, Bailee Roberts started taking more photos of her family as well as friends who needed photographs for their holiday cards. She was laid off from her job at an orthodontics office due to COVID-19 and wanted to do something for her neighbors in Olsburg, a town of about 220 people that is 20 miles north of Manhattan.
“You see people out on their porch more often,” she said. “In a little town like this, all you can do is walk the dirt roads and see who else is on their porch.”
That got her thinking: Families are together and their schedules aren’t so busy; now would be a good time to take family photos. The city of Olsburg put out a message on its Facebook page to let residents know and so far she’s captured eight families, from a foursome outnumbered by the puppies they are holding while sitting on their porch to a family with mom, dad and son each posing on their own tractors at sunset.
Roberts offers her porch portraits at no cost. She sets up a time to come to their residence and takes the photo from their driveway, adhering to social distancing guidelines. She sends the photo files electronically and families can use them however they want.
“To look at the bright side of all this,” she said, “it’s a great time to get a family photo.”