Atchison is a city of contrasts.
Restored Victorian homes rest shoulder to shoulder with houses built much later. Farmland marches right up to the business district. The Downtown Mall, one of the few remaining that haven't been enclosed in steel and atriums, sits in the shadow of grain elevators.
Despite the contrast and the changes, the people have stayed the same.
Just ask Mary Begley, the 85-year-old clerk at the Begley-Paolucci Grocery Store. Although she has passed the ownership of the store on to her son Mike, Mary Begley still shows up for work every day, rain or shine, 365 days a year.
"I've seen lots of people grow up here," she says between customers. "And then they leave and then they come back home. I should go to Arizona where my other son is. I should go to New Hampshire where my brother is. But I stay right here."
Mike Begley understands that. He left Atchison to join the Navy.
"But as soon as I got done there, I knew I had to come back," he says.
The grocery store, which stocks soda pop, candy and drugstore items as well as sandwiches and a full deli, opens every day at 7 a.m.
"We live just upstairs," Begley says. "So we can't use snow as an excuse. There's nothing to block us from work."
And the grocery store has become a sort of landmark for town residents, past and present.
"Anyone who has grown up in this town has bought candy at this store," Begley says.
So what is it about Atchison, this town of 10,656 people nestled in the Missouri River bluffs?
That's what photographer E. Joseph "Call me Ed" Zurga and I set out to discover as we followed winding U.S. Highway 59 through the Glacial Hills.
As the road leads north, the farmland and hills begin to close in. When you reach Atchison, the horizon, which once seemed so distant, is close enough to touch.
Atchison began as a freight station, and sooner or later every form of transportation, from wagon trains to boats to the railroad have used the city as a loading and unloading zone.
By using the "Great Detour" and leaving from Atchison, instead of St. Joseph, Mo., 12 miles upstream, overland wagon companies such as Russell, Major & Waddell, Wells Fargo and Butterfield could save a day's journey on the road west.
In the summer of 1858, two dozen wagon trains with 775 wagons; 1,114 men; 7,963 oxen; 142 horses and 1,126 mules transported 3,730,905 pounds of merchandise to Colorado, Utah and Santa Fe.
Then came the Pony Express, which ran for two months from Atchison, and the telegraph, which effectively put an end to brave men riding from point to point.
And in 1868 came the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.
A downtown landmark
The AT&SF; Freight Depot is a tough building to miss. Situated at 200 S. 10th, the limestone and ashlar building which once saw thousands of tons of material pass through its wide doors now houses the Atchison County Historical Museum, the visitors center and the Atchison Area Chamber of Commerce.
Priscilla Scholz is curator of the museum. She'll take your money, introduce you to the teller's window and deposit desk which serves as her office, and even give you a private tour if there's not a crowd.
"There used to be 85 trains a day through here," Scholz says. "Carrying everything you can think of."
Scholz can tell you all about Atchison's famous residents, from Amelia Earhart to Fred W. Stein to David R. Atchison, the U.S. president with the shortest term in office.
Never heard of him? Few people have outside of Atchison. His term of office wasn't very long or very eventful. In fact, Mr. Atchison said he slept through half of it.
According to information from the Atchison Visitors Center, Gen. Zachary Taylor was elected president in 1848. Back then, he would be inaugurated at noon on March 4, which in 1849 happened to fall on a Sunday.
Taylor refused to be sworn into office on the Sabbath so the inauguration was postponed until the next day. Since the country was temporarily without a legal president or vice president, the responsibility fell to the president of the Senate, Mr. Atchison, then a senator from Missouri.
So from noon Sunday to noon Monday, Mr. Atchison served his term as president. He signed no bills and received no presidential paycheck for his duty.
Scholz can also tell you about the first Independence Day ever celebrated in Kansas. It took place, of course, in Atchison.
"When Louis and Clark began their journey from St. Louis in 1804, the first stop after St. Louis was five miles north of Atchison," she says. "It was July 4, 1804, and they celebrated by drinking white lightning, blowing a few whistles and firing their guns. It was quite a celebration."
Take your time ambling through the museum; it's a perfect place to get the nutshell of Atchison history without having to drive.
Nearby is the Atchison Rail Museum, which is owned and operated by the North East Kansas Railroaders. Here there are vintage box cars, a snow plow, flat cars, tank cars and a caboose. There are several stainless steel 1940-era passenger cars plus the railway post office and baggage cars.
You can also ride the museum's 12" gauge railroad complete with operating miniature steam engine.
But trains and transportation aside, Atchison's biggest claim to fame -- besides Johnny Mercer's song "On the Atchison, Topeka & the Santa Fe" -- is Amelia Earhart.
Earhart grew up in this city. She was born upstairs in the bedroom at 223 N. Terrace, and spent most of her time in the white house with black windows with her grandparents. Her parents traveled frequently on business, so during the school year she stayed in the house high on the bluffs over the Missouri River.
"People say it was this view that inspired her to become a pilot," says Mary Lou Calhoun, a tour guide at the house. She could be right -- the house has a magnificent view of the river and the hills far beyond.
Earhart was a woman of many firsts: the first woman passenger to fly across the Atlantic Ocean; the first woman pilot to fly across the Atlantic alone; the first woman to make a transcontinental nonstop flight; the first women to fly across the Pacific Ocean from Honolulu to California; the first woman to fly nonstop from Mexico City to New York City; the first woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross and the National Geographic Society Gold Medal.
Earhart disappeared somewhere over the South Pacific. Although rumors abound about her survival, no trace was ever found.
Many of Atchison's attractions center on "Amelia" as the locals call her. But not all. In the past, Atchison was a town of rich industrialists, and the houses reflect that wealth.
Take the time to travel on the homes tour, which winds through Atchison's brick streets. Follow the signs with the blue arrows, though. The street signs that mark each city block are only 3-foot high white cones of stone with the street names carved into them.
The driving tour will take you past the Muchnic Art Gallery, 704 N. Fourth, which is only open on weekends.
But try and stop at the Evah C. Cray Historical Home Museum. Lois Lister guides guests through the three-story home and carriage building as she has for the last 12 years.
Originally owned by the Heatheringtons, the house was purchased for Evah Cray by her husband for a hobby. Cray then devoted the last years of her life to turning the home into a museum of Victorian times.
"Atchison was quite a going place then," Lister says as she guides you through the rooms. Each roomed is filled with furniture, knickknacks and clothes. Ask Lister about the four-poster bed in the upstairs bedroom.
After a trip to Scotland, the Heatheringtons were so inspired by the castles that they had a corner of their home taken off and replaced with a circular tower. The tower is lined with hand-carved wood that was created in Scotland for the tower, imported piece by piece, and placed back together in the house.
Most of the homes on the tour are private and closed to the public, but the owners don't seem to mind if you drive by and gawk.
Marianne and Steve Estes not only don't mind if you gawk, they don't mind if you come on in and eat with them -- providing you've made reservations first.
They are the owners of the Drury Pennell House, 519 N. Fifth. Not only is Marianne the chef, she and her family live upstairs in the house that was built in 1872 and she's started a catering business.
Despite double duty, Estes says she's proud of her restaurant.
"You wouldn't believe who I get phone calls from," she says. "People call from Maryland, Washington and California for reservations."
Every once in awhile, she has to close down for a breather, she says.
The lunch menu ranges from chicken divan to baked brie with salads and soup also available.
The Downtown Mall
A quick visit to the Downtown Mall uncovers a plethora of shops selling a wide variety of everything. Nell Hill's, 501 Commercial, is a browser's delight selling everything from soap to sofas in the three-level shop.
Mary Carol Garrity is another one of those Atchison residents who left for awhile but in the end decided to come back.
"My family owned a clothing store here," she said. "So retail is in my blood."
Her store, named after her maternal grandmother, has been operating for 12 years.
"Atchison is so safe," Garrity says. "It's so different from city life."
And maybe that's the real reason so many people return to Atchison.