It's a familiar sight around rural Kansas: Some old, falling-down building, obviously abandoned long ago.
One of those buildings was in Volland, which can’t be even be considered a town — it's just four houses (three of which are empty), a boarded-up white building and an old brick store about an hour and a half west of Kansas City, just beyond the town of Alma (population 800).
It was the old general store that intrigued Patty and Jerry Reece, then the CEO of ReeceNichols Real Estate (he's now the chairman emeritus). The Mission Hills couple has a second home in the Flint Hills, and came across the building while driving around country roads one day 15 years ago.
“It was clearly empty and in sad shape, except the brick walls were really strong,” says Patty Reece. “The roof was gone and everything had fallen into the basement, but the walls were really straight.” The Reeces had restored buildings in worse condition. “We asked around the community and were told it belonged to someone who lived out of town would never sell.”
People also started telling them something else: old stories about Otto Kratzer, who ran Kratzer Brothers Mercantile in the building from its opening in 1913 until he died in 1971. “Otto sold penny candy at the store, and he ended up giving away more to the kids than he sold," Reece says. One neighbor recalled going to the store each spring to get a new cane (fishing) pole. "People had fond memories and cared a lot about it,” Reece says of the structure.
“At one time, Volland serviced around 400 people in the area – farmers and ranchers who would come to the store to shop," Reece says. "About 30 railroad workers lived there. Ranchers would bring cattle up from Texas to be fattened for the summer eating Flint Hills grass, then ship them off to market.”
Patty Reece served as chair of Symphony in the Flint Hills in 2010. The next year, when the Kansas City Symphony played its annual roving Flint Hills concert in Volland, the accompanying field journal included more information about the area. And Reece discovered Krazter didn’t just sell frontier provisions and candy.
“Otto Krazter photographed the community for over 60 years,” Reece says. Kratzer upgraded his cameras as new technology became available and took more than 1,000 pictures — and eventually 8mm home movies — documenting Flint Hills life in the first half of the 20th century.
Long story short, the Reeces came into contact with Kratzer’s granddaughter, Karen Durso, who lived in Tennessee and agreed to sell them the property. She also sent her grandfather’s negatives and home movies to Greg Hoots, a local UPS driver and historian who promised to digitize the images and return them safely to her.
Reece promised Durso she wouldn't tear down the building, though she had no idea what to do with it. For renovation help, the Reeces turned to David Dowell of Kansas City’s el dorado architects. “I’ve admired his creativity and energy, and I knew that he loved the Flint Hills,” Reece says. Kansas City’s George Terbovich helped with interior design.
By 2013, the Reeces had cleaned it out and were ready to start major construction. “That was 100 years to the day since the first grand opening,” Reece says.
Thinking they should mark the occasion, they threw a “birthday party” for the building.
“We invited everyone in the county, put it in the newspaper, and 500 people showed up,” she says. “Clearly people were interested.”
Now the Volland Store is an art gallery. It opened in June with its first show: Kratzer's old photographs.
Also showing is a documentary Hoots made using Kratzer's home movies and interviews of people talking about their memories of Kratzer and his store. Emporia State University photography professor Tom Parish (whose “Take Shelter” exhibition of Flint Hills stone cellar photographs was shown at Kansas City’s Box Gallery earlier this year) helped with large-format printing.
The gallery's open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Reece says she had no idea what kind of attendance to expect, but she figures 600 people showed up for events on opening weekend. Later, the Kansas Cowboy Poetry Contest filled the room with more than a hundred people.
“At first it was a little slow, but then all of a sudden, the last three weekends, we’ve had 75 visitors over the two afternoons, which amazes us. We’re thrilled,” Reece says.
"Otto was very charismatic, humorous, full of energy, full of life," she says. "He made Volland the cultural and social center of area."
Patty and Jerry Reece are carrying on that tradition.
"In Focus: The Photography and Film of Otto Kratzer" closes on Labor Day, with music by the Bloomfields at 4 p.m. and a potluck starting at 5 p.m. Opening on Sept. 20 is “Women’s Work,” textiles by Kansas City artist Debra Smith, accompanied by a selection of antique American quilts from the collection of Asiatica owner Elizabeth Wilson of Westwood.