Follow the Yellow Brick Road to Wamego, Kansas
The small railroad town goes big on 'The Wizard of Oz.'
There’s a bright yellow children’s train that loops around the City Park of Wamego, Kansas, population just under 5,000. Called the “Spirit of Wamego,” since 1954 (replaced in 2009) it’s been running a couple hours daily, giving free rides during the season of mid-April to mid-October.
More than just a fun activity for those under four feet, the train—complete with kid-sized depot—is a nod to Wamego’s past: In 1863 the town was founded to be a stop along the Kansas Pacific Railroad, later Union Pacific. Migrants looking for new beginnings saw an opportunity in the expansion of the rails westward, and up sprung a can-do town. Within a decade, there were shops, 28 businesses, a railroad station and roundhouse (locomotive storing and servicing station).
Today, you can see remnants of the settlers’ pioneer spirit: The Beecher Bible and Rifle Church on the outskirts of town began as a camp of abolitionists from up North. That charming City Park, home to a tulip festival every April, also houses Schonhoff Dutch Mill, used to grind grain until the 1880s. There’s also a Historic Museum with an Old Prairie Village, and in downtown Wamego is the Columbian Theater, built in 1893 and inspired by the treasures in Chicago’s World's Columbian Exposition (the world’s fair named for Christopher Columbus).
A few doors down on Jackson Avenue you’ll find a nod to another bit of Kansas history, Hollywood-style. Wamego is also home to the Oz Museum, the largest public collection of Wizard of Oz memorabilia in the world (including one 8-foot Tin Man). Its gravitational pull to tourists is so strong there’s now also a Yellow Brick Road they can travel on, and Oz-themed establishments. So grab a glass of Flying Monkey Zinfandel from the Oz Winery, and stay a while.
Take a trip to Emerald City
In the early 2000s, the Columbian Theater displayed an exhibit of Wizard of Oz memorabilia owned by former Wamego resident Todd Macin. About 12,000 people came through to take a gander, an overwhelming turnout to what was then a town of just 4,000. It was such a hit that they decided to open an Oz Museum just a few doors down. Today you can visit the emerald green building, covered in sinister flying monkeys and housing over 2,000 historical and pop culture items. You can even experience your very own tornado inside. Or at least, a tornado machine. That’s in the gift shop.
Besides the museum, Wamego has gone all in on Oz, with a Yellow Brick Road, an Oz Winery, a restaurant named Toto’s TacOZ, painted statues of Toto around town, and OZtoberfest in the fall, complete with lookalike contests. May the best Toto win.
Travel back in time in City Park
Wamego's City Park—home of the children’s train—is also a one-stop shop for the region’s history. Besides the 1870s Schonhoff Dutch Mill, formerly used to grind grain and now on the National Register of Historic Places, there’s the Wamego Historical Society & Museum, in a replica of the first city hall, with displays including the first Wamego switchboard and items from the Ames House Hotel, one of the first hotels in Kansas. The registration book includes names like Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor, and P. T. Barnum.
The adjoining Prairie Town Village could double as a movie set, with structures from the 1800s including the area’s first jail. That’s by the Transportation building, housing a 1950 Chrysler Coupe. Wamego is the birthplace of Walter P. Chrysler, founder of the Chrysler Corporation; his father worked on the Kansas Pacific Railroad.
When you’re done, stop by the down-home Friendship House restaurant, purveyor of soup, sandwiches, and a wide variety of from-scratch baked goods, inspired by the grain-grinding Dutch Mill across the park. Go for a cinnamon roll, snickerdoodle, or, in a pleasant twist, a selection of bierocks. Or show up on Tuesdays for a surprise dessert.
See where Kansas bled
In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, allowing would-be Kansans to decide for themselves whether they would be a free or slave state when entering the Union. Some enterprising citizens of Connecticut came down to help sway the vote to the side of abolition. Knowing what they were up against, they toted rifles and bibles provided with aid from preacher Henry Ward Beecher of Brooklyn. They founded the Beecher Bible and Rifle Church in Wabaunsee, in a time of war between pro- and anti-slavery factions known today as Bleeding Kansas. Kansas eventually entered as a free state and the church still stands today, offering Sunday services.
Battles were fought on the (now endangered) tallgrass prairies of Kansas. See one example at Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie Park, originally part of a farm that was on the Underground Railroad and whose owner, Captain William Mitchell, was a leader of local Free-state militia, the Wabaunsee Prairie Guards. The park is dedicated to his memory, as well as the Beecher Bible and Rifle Colony.
Traverse the Oregon Trail
From the Yellow Brick Road to the Oregon Trail, Wamego contains multitudes. The westward expansion path passed just a few miles north of town. Travel part of the route on Oregon Trail Road and make a pit stop at the Cholera Cemetery, where travelers who succumbed to the disease are buried. The silos in Oregon Trail Nature Park
feature scenes of Kansas painted by local artist Cynthia Martin. Plus a lake, picnic tables, and panoramic views of the Kansas River Valley.
At the Wamego Historical Museum you’ll find a cross-section of one of the limbs of the famous Louis Vieux Elm, named for a member of the local Potawatomi tribe who operated a bridge on the Oregon Trail. The elm was located along the Oregon Trail and has the distinction of being massive, once certified as the largest American elm in the US before it was destroyed by vandalism and lightning.
Introduce yourself to some bison
Bison once roamed the Kansas land freely, feasting on a buffet of grass in land carved out by glaciers. Now, there are just a couple of places to see them (besides the stuffed bison named Abigail in the Wamego Historical Museum). Both Lazy Heart D Ranch, and the Plumlee Buffalo Ranch offer tours to get up close and personal with the furry natives. Call ahead to reserve a spot, and note the best time to visit is spring—that’s when the babies make an appearance.