I grew up in rural Grant County. The nearest town, some 13 miles away, was Ulysses. Anyone who knows me knows I love to brag about Ulysses. That's why I was mystified to pick up the paper one day and read a "Sound Off" question that went like this: "Why is Elizabeth Black ashamed to name her southwest Kansas hometown?"
Now in the interest of full disclosure, when the question came in, I provided the name of my hometown to the editors without hesitation. But it wasn't until I saw it in print that I got a little bit sensitive about it. Criticize me, or my views. That's quite all right. Question my love for or loyalty to my hometown, and them's fighting words. (Okay, that's an overreaction. But I suspect most of us feel some ancient tribal loyalties to our home bases, even if we left them for greener pastures.)
I tried to forget about it, but everywhere I went in Lawrence in the next few days, people would ask what that question meant, and some even asked me why I was ashamed of my hometown.
So since some anonymous person asked, I am proud to tell you about the extraordinary town of Ulysses, a thriving community of nearly 6,000 down in the southwest corner of the state. While many other towns on the Great Plains face dwindling population and shrinking economic viability, Ulysses boasts a stable residential base, an expanding economy, and good schools and city services, due in part to a tax base fueled by the natural gas fields that lie submerged between Ulysses and Hugoton.
We're an old cowboy town with a spunky history. George Earp (yes, Wyatt's brother) was one of our leading citizens during our Wild West days. Modern Ulysses boasts some interesting oddities such as a bed and breakfast with an indoor swimming pool and one of the two hyperbolic paraboloid buildings in the state. (The other one is right here in Lawrence at the corner of 21st and Alabama.) The Catholic Church in Ulysses with its sweeping roof and stunning geometric stained glass sides looks like it came right out of The Jetsons. Built in 1963, the design was chosen not because the church wished to make a bold architectural statement but because it was the cheapest bid to come in. We are a very practical people.
I grew up in a lucky time and a lucky place, the beneficiary of terrific schools. Ulysses provided an environment where young people were encouraged to think for themselves and embrace their individuality. I attended a high school with top-notch teachers who loved what they did, a school where they taught several foreign languages, including three years of Russian, and where the debate team was a big deal. Debate taught me to look at both sides of an argument, to research, to be informed. I learned that the world is a complicated place and there is room for many viewpoints. Ulysses, Kansas, taught me to think, to express my views, to stretch my imagination, to dream big and to never let anyone fence me in.
I not only love Ulysses, but I love the people I grew up with in Ulysses. Many of us stay in touch. Ulysses is both the Wild West and the Bible Belt. Kids I grew up with who went wild in their youth - yes, I remember your exploits, and no I won't tell! - are now preachers and FBI agents and farmers and dentists and professors. Every five years we have a giant high school reunion for all classes and the town fills up. We revel in our sameness and our differences. We are an unruly bunch of really good-hearted people - kind of like Lawrence.
Kansas is full of such wonderful hometowns. Spend an afternoon browsing through Marci Penner's Kansas Guide Book for Explorers, and it makes you want to take to the road. Who can beat the stately Chase County courthouse in Cottonwood Falls, or Swedish lingonberry pancakes in Lindsborg, or the 1870s-era Sod House Museum in Hillsboro? Lawrence, of course, is the Mother of all Hometowns in Kansas, with our rich history, beautiful buildings, vibrant downtown and civic spirit.
Speaking of rich history, my hometown has thrived over the years because of its resourcefulness. In 1909, when bad times fell upon the locale, some East Coast bond holders threatened to repossess the town because it had defaulted on payments. So our city fathers surreptitiously moved the town across the river to a new location and gave it the name, "New Ulysses."
The version that appeared in a central Kansas newspaper said that town officials put the East Coast lawyers in jail and moved the town overnight, but I did some research. Ulysses didn't have a jailhouse at the time and the move took several days - pesky little details!
However, the move certainly took place. We have the pictures in our museum to prove it. A rather grand hotel was cut into three pieces, moved in sections and put back together again. When representatives of the bondholders arrived, all that was left of the town was a bunch of foundations and manure piles.
Yeah, we did that. Don't mess with Ulysses.