Atchison, Kan.: It's got scenery, history, and a tree that's been to the moon

Ameliaville 

Atchison, Kan.: It's got scenery, history, and a tree that's been to the moon

Heading north into Atchison, Kan., on the Amelia Earhart Memorial Highway (more commonly known as K-7), drivers see signs proudly boasting the town's claim to fame as the birthplace of feminist aviation legend Amelia Earhart and pointing the way to various Earhart monuments. The signs are punctuated by a small billboard posted on private property that says, "Abortion stops a beating heart" -- an odd welcome to the town whose most famous daughter worked with Margaret Sanger's movement for reproductive freedom.

Nonetheless, the seemingly mixed messages are merely signs of a complex small town. With only 11,000 residents, Atchison has all of the small-town ambience one might expect but certainly doesn't exhibit the lack of arts, culture, and activity so often associated with small towns. Atchison seems to have enough landmarks and visitor attractions to supply a town three times its size. Perched on bluffs overlooking the Missouri River, Atchison's scenic beauty and historical sensibility make it a suitable day trip for Kansas Citians weary of the pretensions of urban life.

On a field trip to Atchison one recent Friday afternoon, the first stop, the Santa Fe Depot and Visitor Information Center at 200 S. 10th St., was free of crowds, with just a few visitors trickling in and out before boarding The Atchison Trolley for a 45-minute narrated tour of the town ($4 for adults). In fact, most of the attractions in town were crowd-free that afternoon, with (at most) only a few visitors at each stop.

Inside the Visitor Information Center, the nearly eerie quiet of the County Historical Society Museum is enhanced by the buzz of a "Santa Fe" neon sign placed over an exhibit of antique weaponry; however, the museum hosts a variety of displays, from a telephone switchboard and collections of old pop bottles to a small space-travel memorabilia exhibit.

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company, one of the best-known railroad routes to the west, was founded in this river town, and its birth is celebrated at the Atchison Rail Museum, which is adjacent to the Visitor Information Center. The museum features an outdoor collection of rail cars, which are open on summer weekends when the North East Kansas Railroaders operate the Atchison Miniature Railroad.

But if you're looking for the other famous Atchison native, plenty of spots detail and celebrate the legendary aviator's life. The County Historical Society Museum has a small display and plenty of souvenirs, but the best place to learn about Earhart is The Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum (223 N. Terrace St.). For a $2 donation, visitors get a self-guided tour of the Victorian house in which Earhart was born, which has been returned to its turn-of-the-century condition. The house belonged to Amelia's grandparents, and Amelia's mother returned from Kansas City to the beautiful home overlooking the Missouri River to give birth to her daughter. Starting when Amelia was 3, she lived with her grandmother during the school year, and this continued throughout her childhood.

The museum houses a variety of artifacts chronicling Amelia's childhood -- as a tomboy whose grandparents didn't always approve of her adventures ("Unfortunately," she once said, "I lived at a time when girls were still girls. Though reading was considered proper, many of my outdoor exercises were not") -- as well as her adult path to becoming in 1932 the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean alone, establishing a new record for the crossing (13 hours, 30 minutes), and becoming the first woman to fly the Pacific Ocean in 1935. Earhart lived a fascinating life, playing a major role in the development of aviation as a mode of transportation as well as symbolizing new roles for women in the '20s and '30s. A trip through the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum captures that story well with such features as furnishings, memorabilia, and photos, as well as newspaper articles and maps chronicling her achievements and her disappearance.

A trip to the Amelia Earhart Earthwork at Warnock Lake is a quirky way to further commemorate Earhart's life. The earthwork, commissioned in 1997 in honor of the 100th anniversary of her birth, is a one-acre portrait created by famed Kansas artist Stan Herd using permanent plantings, stone, and other materials. The observation deck on a nearby hill isn't quite high enough to get the best view, but it does have some weathered placards that provide background on the piece's creation of the piece.

From there, it's just a short trip to the International Forest of Friendship at Warnock Lake, which is described as "a living, growing memorial to those who have been involved in aviation and space exploration." The forest includes a statue of Earhart, a walkway embedded with plaques naming honorees, and several trees representing all 50 states and more than 35 countries in which honorees reside. The coolest tree, however, has to be the Moon Tree, placed in the center of a walkway honoring 10 astronauts who lost their lives in space. The tree has grown from a seed taken to the moon aboard Apollo 14.

Atchison residents and natives will tell you, however, that there's more to the town than Amelia, and they're right. There's the regional artwork displayed at Muchnic Art Gallery, the beautiful Victorian homes on brick-paved streets, plenty of places to gaze at the Missouri, and shopping in downtown, including Nell Hill's, which has a seemingly endless supply of unique home decorations. And for those with architectural or spiritual tendencies, the impressive architecture of St. Benedict's Abbey Church and Mount St. Scholastica Convent is quite a sight.

Atchison will celebrate its annual Amelia Earhart Festival July 21 and 22 with a variety of activities. For more information on Atchison or the festival, contact the Atchison Area Chamber of Commerce at 800-234-1854 or atchcham@journey.com.

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