In Volland, Kansas, Ranchers Head To The Old General Store For A New Kind Of Provision
Inside the gallery, it’s a scene familiar to anyone who attends art openings: People are enjoying the oil paintings and large-scale photographs bathed in natural light, snacking on cheese and crackers while lively conversation bounces off the brick walls and polished wood floors.
Outside, though, is the wide-open silence of the Kansas Flint Hills.
This particular art gallery is surrounded by ranch lands in rural Wabaunsee County, where there are many more cattle than people. The gallery's in a place called Volland, which is basically the intersection of a two-lane highway and a dirt road.
How did an art gallery get here?
Like a lot of locals do for entertainment in this scenic part of the prairie, Patty Reece and her husband Jerry were out for a drive one day a couple of years ago.
"We drove down this little gravel road, and then this big brick building appeared," Patty Reece says. The brick stood out in a part of the prairie known for its native limestone.
"It was a rather sophisticated city-type building," Reece says, "and it was kind of out in the middle of nowhere."
And it was in bad shape: trees growing out of it, the roof caved in to the basement.
"It was pretty sad looking, but those walls were straight," Reece says. "It was like man, that place ought to be fixed up."
Reece and her husband had experience restoring old buildings. For many years, Jerry Reece was the CEO of ReeceNichols Real Estate (he's now the chairman emeritus) in Kansas City, and the couple bought and restored a second home in the Flint Hills 15 years ago. They bought this one, too.
"And we looked inside and saw what was ahead of us," Patty Reece says, laughing. "It was full of debris, and it had sat vacant and had been rained on and snowed on and hailed on for 30 or 40 years."
Tracy Henry, who is now the economic development director of Wabaunsee County, Kansas, met Reece when she was working in the county appraiser’s office.
"She came in and I thought she was crazy," says Henry, who knew the condition of the structure. "I couldn’t fathom the mess that she was getting into. And I wasn’t alone."
It turned out the Reeces had bought an important building. For most of the last century, it was a general store run by a charismatic, visionary man named Otto Kratzer. Generations of families had happy memories of the place – and they’d all watched it deteriorate after Kratzer died in the early '70s.
As Reece hired local contractors and they went to work, Henry says, everyone was curious about what she could possibly be doing.
"I just took a little road trip out there," Henry says. "I thought, I’m going to walk in and see if I can get it. And the contractor was out there and I said, 'Can we sneak in and just take a look and see?' Because we were just nosy."
"It was kind of the talk at the coffee shop," says Gary Schultz, who runs cattle on 4,000 acres and has spent his entire life within a mile of Volland.
"I’d ride my pony to Volland because I was intrigued by Otto Kratzer," Schultz says of his youthful trips to the store. "He’d tell me stories about stuff he did, such as riding a motorcycle to California to the World’s Fair in San Francisco and the Rose Parade — and that was a hundred years ago."
Reece’s contractors might have been working on the old place, but that doesn’t mean she had a plan.
"I saved this building and then I had to figure out what to do with it," Reece says.
She considered lots of ideas, but she always knew art would be a part of it. And after a year of rehab, last summer the old brick Volland Store opened as an art gallery and event space.
The first exhibition was a crowd-pleaser: Pictures by Otto Kratzer, who, it turned out, was a talented photographer. The Wabaunsee County Historical Society sponsored the exhibition, and the Kansas Humanities Council helped with a grant to make a documentary of Kratzer's home movies.
Hundreds of people showed up for opening weekend, and they kept coming throughout the summer and for the two exhibitions that have followed.
Having finally seen the results of Reece's vision, Wabaunsee County Economic Development Director Tracy Henry understands why the place is a hit.
"There’s not another art gallery in our county," Henry says. "This is a piece of art and culture that Wabaunsee County’s never had."
"And the response from the visitors is unreal," says Gary Schultz. He and his wife Peggy volunteer at the gallery as hosts on weekends.
"We meet people from Ireland and all over the country," he says.
Now, tourists who take scenic drives to Wabaunsee County for its natural beauty have another reason to visit the Flint Hills. And the locals have more reason to visit among themselves.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.
This story is part of Artland, a regional public radio collaboration reporting on stories of creativity building community in unexpected places.