Kansas Sampler Foundation promotes state’s rural culture

? Marci Penner loves small Kansas towns.

She’s thrilled to talk about them. She formed a foundation to help them. And now she’s touring the state — visiting all of its 626 incorporated towns.

“To me there’s a real charm to these small towns that are just simple, safe, real. And small towns exist because of the will of the people,” said Penner, who lives in Inman, about 60 miles northwest of Wichita, and whose Kansas Sampler Foundation is devoted to sustaining rural culture.

“These aren’t ordinary people who just are there because it’s convenient or easy. It’s not. It’s not easy to live in a town that doesn’t have all the conveniences. They want to be there. For me it’s a neat energy to go into a town that you wonder, ‘How are they surviving?’ Well, it’s because of the will of the people.”

The nonprofit Kansas Sampler Foundation, whose only paid employee is Penner, encourages people to visit small towns by highlighting attractions and businesses through the Kansas Explorer Club. The foundation also helps small towns save themselves by encouraging civic leaders and showing them successes. Penner puts out two bimonthly newsletters: The Explorer, which tells club members about different places and businesses in the state, and We Kan!, which shares the successes of rural communities.

Raising awareness

“It doesn’t take a lot to help sustain small towns,” said Penner, who lately has been crisscrossing Kansas, visiting each community for a guidebook she plans to write. “It’s someone believing in them or noticing them and appreciating them. Whether people think it’s quirky or nostalgic, whatever it takes to bring in numbers helps a lot.”

Penner grew up in Inman but has lived in other cities before she moved back home and began doing research for travel books with her dad, Milfred.

“While we were out there we noticed two things: one is that Kansans didn’t know much about their own state, and the other was that one town might be doing well, but their successes weren’t being shared with the next town. There was a networking gap or a support gap between rural communities,” Penner said.

In 1990, the Penners held a festival at the family farm for communities to set up booths and swap information. About 1,000 people showed up, Marci Penner said. Each year, the Kansas Sampler Festival is held in a different town, attracting thousands of people.

Kansas Sampler Foundation president Marci Penner reviews the history of Gray County towns as she tours the Santa Fe Trail Museum in Ingalls. Penner toured the museum last month as part of her project to visit every incorporated city in Kansas to compile a travel guide.

In 1993, Penner created the Kansas Sampler Foundation.

Making a difference

One of the foundation’s most famous successes was in 2000, when Penner asked about 1,000 members of her Kansas Explorers Club to spend $5 each at the Lizard Lips Grill and Deli in Toronto, Kan. The media heard about the effort and soon people from across the country were dropping into the deli.

“We still have people come here and walk through the door and say ‘I want to spend $5,'” said Lizard Lips co-owner Carlene Hall.

After the success of Lizard Lips, Penner put together the Make a Difference Campaign, in which she asked people who else they could support.

“There’s nothing selfish about it,” Penner said. “It’s all centered on helping someone, helping some town, helping some business.”

Penner originally came up with eight places — one for each of the rural culture elements she encourages people to look for: architecture, art, commerce, cuisine, customs, geography, history and people. Now, she encourages people to find those elements in their communities and boast about them. She asks members of the Explorers Club to search for them.

Peg Britton, 75, of Ellsworth, inspired by Penner, started a Web log, www.kansasprairie.net/blogindex.htm, last year that promotes events and people in Ellsworth County.

“In my estimation,” Britton says, “Marci does more to help preserve and sustain rural culture in Kansas than anyone else I have met in the 52 years I’ve lived in this part of the state and worked to promote our community.”

Britton, who also is a member of the Explorers Club, said she used items in the group’s monthly newsletter and tried to apply them to her community.

“She (Penner) has been able to show a lot of us that we can survive and succeed and do very well by looking at things a little differently, with new eyes.”