Most Kansas residents have never heard of Mingo, a western Kansas farming community just off Interstate 70 where there are fewer than 20 houses, a church, a grain silo and some gas pumps. But there are millions of people around the globe who know exactly where Mingo can be found: N 39° 16.677’ W 100° 56.621.’
Those are the latitude and longitude Global Positioning System coordinates that pinpoint the exact position of a container hidden underneath a rock and partially submerged in a well casing not far from Exit 62. Hidden might be an exaggeration: There’s a well-worn path from the side of the road to the fence line where you’ll find the container, known as a geocache. When you arrive at this waypoint, you are at ground zero for the world’s oldest active geocache.
The act of finding these hidden treasures using GPS coordinates and hints, if needed, is geocaching. This hide-and-seek game turns 20 years old in May. There will be special events worldwide, including in Mingo where they will celebrate two decades of maintaining this cache that keeps Kansas on the must-find list for any serious geocacher.
“Mingo brings a lot of attention to Kansas within the geocaching world,” says Chris Ronan, a Kansas native now living in Seattle and working for Geocaching.com. “It has this place in the history of the game, it’s like a mecca for someone who is really into caching. There are certain things that you just have to do: you have to go visit Geocaching headquarters in Seattle, you have to go to where the first geocache was placed in Oregon, you have to go to the oldest current cache, which is Mingo.”
How did Mingo get there?
Civilian GPS devices became 10 times more accurate on May 2, 2000, when the U.S. government turned off Selective Availability, an intentional degradation of public GPS signals implemented for national security reasons. This made GPS more responsive to civil and commercial users worldwide, and a computer consultant in the state of Oregon decided to test the system.
The consultant created a game by hiding a navigational target — a black bucket — in the woods in Beavercreek, Oregon, near Portland. It contained a logbook and pencil, along with some prize items.
He posted the coordinates for what he called the “Great American GPS Stash Hunt” in an internet GPS users group on May 3 and three days later two different people used their GPS receivers to find the container.
The idea took off that week and more people began stashing containers for others to find, including a land surveyor in western Kansas. He placed a container on May 10 and published its coordinates on May 11, making it the seventh known geocache.
The first person to find that original geocache in Oregon decided to log his experience on his personal website and within the first month, he had started publishing the online posts of coordinates from around the world. By September 2000, enthusiasts had formed a hobby website for the activity and adopted the term geocaching because it sounded more positive than stashing.
When they launched geocaching.com, there were 75 known caches in the world, including that one in Mingo and two others in Kansas hidden by a user known as The Kansas Stasher. He prefers to stay anonymous, and while he doesn’t actively log new finds or hide caches, he’s still involved with the geocaching community, says Ryan Semmel, a devoted cacher living in the Manhattan area.
Semmel has been in touch with The Kansas Stasher as he works on a commemorative plaque to install near Mingo as part of the 20th-anniversary event. Semmel started a geocaching group in the Flint Hills region, one of a handful of unofficial geocaching groups, after discovering the game while on active duty with the U.S. Army in Germany.
Mingo became the oldest active geocache in 2002, according to Semmel’s history gathering, when the last of the first six caches went missing. It’s taken a community effort to keep Mingo active in the face of vandalism, theft and muggling, a term to describe removal by an unsuspecting non-player.
The owner has repaired and replaced it as well as other groups of people over the years. The geocaching community across the state feels a sense of ownership when it comes to Mingo.
“Geocachers are very conscientious,” says Kathie Peyton, whose husband Tom is the pastor at Mingo Bible Church. “Five years ago when they celebrated 15 years at Mingo, they were sure to leave everything the way they found it. If they saw garbage they would probably pick it up. They are a good group of people.”
Interest in Geocaching, Mingo Continues
By today’s caching standards, Mingo is a little boring. It’s not hard to find for most people and its container is white with its name written in black marker. Finders can comment on Mingo’s logbook at geocaching.com, and some will say they love Mingo for its straightforwardness while others want something more challenging or flashy.
Mingo was standard in May 2000 but today it falls into the traditional category. All caches contain a logbook for finders to sign, and if the container is large enough they typically have trinkets or other small treasures. Cachers carry their own swag and leave something when they take something from the cache.
There are at least 16 different types of geocaches now. The multi-cache that takes you to one site to find a clue for the next stage. Some caches require you to solve a difficult puzzle to find the correct coordinates for the cache. It’s not uncommon for some of the more complicated versions to take more than 10 hours, or multiple attempts. But the legacy of Mingo still carries weight.
Being the oldest current cache means there are 20 years of stories to tell. There’s the time an entire Greyhound bus stopped to see Mingo because a passenger talked about it for four hours. Some cachers schedule an airline layover in Denver or Kansas City long enough to rent a car, drive to sign the logbook at Mingo and return to the airport for their next flight. There are also numerous milestones celebrated at the site.
“The first time I went out to Mingo, it was my 2,000th find,” Semmel says. “It’s a bucket list cache and a lot of people work hard to make it a milestone cache, whether it’s their 100th or 1,000th.”
Geocaching.com is still the official website of the game, and it shows there are now 3 million active geocaches in 191 countries on seven continents. In 2019, more than 1.6 million geocachers found at least one cache.
In Kansas, there were 11,179 active geocaches as of March and among those hidden caches there were approximately 92,200 “Found It” logs posted in 2019.
While Mingo gets the attention worldwide, there is another 20-year-old active cache in the state. On May 31, 2000, The Kansas Stasher hid one near the Arikaree Breaks in the far northwest part of the state.
It’s one of the Kansas favorites of Ronan, who grew up in Overland Park and worked in Kansas City before moving to Seattle five years ago to work for Geocaching headquarters. He got started when the Kansas State Park system put a geocache in each of its parks and he found all of them. Now in his ninth year of geocaching, he has more than 30,800 finds.
“For me, these 30,000 geocaches that I’ve found represent 30,000 little adventures that I wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for this game. I can’t even measure how much it’s enriched my life,” said Ronan, who is the community relations manager for Geocaching.com.
Mingo Madness May 1-3
Semmel is among a group of Kansas geocachers teaming with the communities of Colby and Mingo to hold Mingo Madness May 1-3. A committee, with the help of more than 100 additional volunteers, is planning events and activities for newbies to veteran geocachers.
Based on a “will-attend” log used on geocaching.com, the official website of geocaching, organizers are expecting as many as 2,000 to attend at least part of the weekend celebration, including visitors from across the U.S. plus New Zealand, Canada and several European countries. An RSVP isn’t required, though, so it’s tough to estimate how many people will show up.
Judging from attendance at a 15-year celebration held at Mingo, the committee decided to hold most of the festivities in Colby, about 9 miles northwest of Mingo and the nearest city with full amenities. As of early March, the Colby Convention and Visitors Bureau reported that the city’s 700 hotel rooms were 98% sold out. There are also camping and RV options.
The schedule of events includes meet-and-greet opportunities on Friday and Sunday, when they expect fewer attendees, and a full day of events on Saturday. Most activities are at the Thomas County Fairgrounds, where they’ll have food trucks and concession stands, educational sessions, vendor booths, family-friendly games and activities, and music, including a one-man band from Colorado who performs geocaching songs.
All three days, visitors can explore a GPS adventures maze in the 4-H building at the fairgrounds. This educational exhibit travels the country to teach people of all ages about navigation, GPS technology and how those tools are used for geocaching.
Of course, those who haven’t yet found Mingo — and even some who have — will want to visit the legendary site and sign the logbook. Mingo Bible Church is allowing visitors to use its parking lot, and the church family there plans to serve free homemade cookies and drinks.
There’s a website (mingo2020.com) and a Facebook page (facebook.com/MingoMadness) that is updated with new information as available.
The hope is that people who come to find Mingo will venture north and south of the interstate and meander through more of the state, either geocaching or visiting attractions, having a meal or staying overnight.
“I’m so proud that the oldest active geocache is just in our backyard,” says Julie Saddler, executive director of the Colby Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Sometimes people think the state ends in Salina; they forget about western Kansas. So every little thing we can have in western Kansas, like Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park and this geocache, brings people to drive to that one spot and as they are driving they realize there is more here than they thought. They can find all kinds of gems out here to visit.”