#TourTrego Sets Locals on A Dream “Staycation” and the Chance to Win

It’s time to hit the road to explore Trego County and join the 36.5 million tourists who visit our state each year!

This May 2-8, we’ll be celebrating National Travel & Tourism Month. Tourism is a vital piece of the Kansas economy, supporting 66K jobs and contributing $7.3 billion to the state’s economy, a $775 million increase since 2015!

We believe our residents are our best ambassadors, so we’ve created the #TourTrego challenge to help spread the word about all the great things to see and do in Trego County. It’s a fun, interactive way for you to enjoy our county by sharing your best selfies on your Facebook page along with he hashtag “#TourTrego.” Each time you do, your name will be entered in a drawing for $50 in Wampum bucks to spend at one of WaKeeney’s businesses.

We’ve put together a list of the most popular places to explore around our county to help you get started.

Hiking, Fishing, and Fun!

Cedar Bluff State Park & Reservoir is Trego County’s natural playground where visitors can explore hiking trails, camp, fish, view wildlife, and enjoy watersports throughout the year. Share a photo of your child hooking a fish at Pa’s pond, located in the Bluffton Area on the North Shore, or find your favorite spot for a selfie along Agave Ridge Nature Trail.

Travel the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway

It’s a well-known fact that Trego County holds many scenic wonders. The Kansas Byways Program has taken notice of this by designating a 60-mile route through Trego as one of their eleven Kansas tourism routes, naming it the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway.

Kansas’s First “Highway”

Along the route, fourteen miles south of Cedar Bluff State Park on K-147 Hwy., you’ll find a stretch of the original Smoky Hills Trail that settlers used to travel from Atchison, Kansas to Denver, Colorado on the Butterfield Overland Despatch. Look for the limestone post marking the trail’s path. Information about the trail is carved into the top of the limestone post, along with an arrow pointing towards the next marker along the trail.

Taking the Kids to an Authentic Prairie Schoolhouse

Continue on K-147 Hwy., turning north when you get to Hwy. 283, and keep an eye out for Wilcox Schoolhouse, a one-room building constructed of hand-cut, native limestone. In May 2006, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and refurbished with grants from the Kansas Historical Society’s Heritage Trust Fund and other gifts.

Built in 1886, the school was named for William Wilcox, the first settler and postmaster of Wilcox township, and served the community as a school, place of worship, and community center for decades. After the school closed, it served as a manufacturing site for the World War II “Cotton Mattress Program” and later it became a local hub for a motorcycle club called the Hi-Plains Gravel Grinders. You’ll find the schoolhouse 16-miles south of WaKeeney on Hwy. 283. Don’t forget to get a photo and tag it with #TourTrego!

Wildlife and Wildflowers

As you drive along Hwy. 283, look for wildlife, such as jackrabbits, mule deer, and meadowlarks, the Kansas state bird. The recently installed interpretive signs along the route can provide you with more information about the prairie and its flora and fauna.

A Rockhound’s Paradise

Get out your cameras out for a selfie at one of Western Kansas’s most notable geographic features!

Castle Rock and the nearby Badlands is a geologist’s and paleontologist’s playground. Along the trails that crisscross the rock outcroppings, earthen pyramids, and striking white towers, or “hoodoos,” you’ll find the fossilized remains of animals from the Cretaceous Period. Look for sharks’ teeth, mollusks, ammonites, plesiosaurs–a predatory marine reptile–giant selfish, mosasaurs, and squid-like animals that have all become part of this unique landscape. There’s also a chance you might find fossils of animals that roamed our prairie in more recent ancient times, such as mammoths and saber-toothed tigers of the pre-historic era.

Digging into Trego County’s History

The Trego County Historical Society Museum has added onto their floor space in recent years and now offers even more for history buffs to explore. Filled with collections donated by the local community, visitors will find everything from prehistoric era fossils, to 20th century home and farm artifacts that have come directly from the families of Trego County. Of special note, is an ornate 1920s facade that once graced the front of the WaKeeney State Bank, the extensive Purinton Fossil Collection, and a mural by local artist Laurie Albin that celebrates our founders and the history of the region.

Honoring U.S. Veterans

WaKeeney is known for its many monuments celebrating the sacrifices of our military veterans.

The Iwo Jima monument at WaKeeney’s East exit on I-70 memorializes the soldiers of World War II in the Pacific Theater. Based on Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by photographer Joe Rosenthal, WaKeeney’s monument was designed and created by local volunteers and veterans, and paid for through donations that came from across the United States.

The metal and rock monument acts as a base for the stars and stripes to unfurl in our famous Kansas wind–a suitable welcome’s into our city where only a mile north on Hwy. 283 you’ll find the Kansas Veterans Cemetery, the final resting place for our state’s military men and women from every branch of service.

The F-14 Tomcat

Plan a stop at Eisenhower Park at WaKeeney’s West exit on I-70 to get up close to an F-14 Grumman Tomcat fighter jet. This decommissioned Air Force jet was one of 712 that served as interceptors, to gain air superiority, and as a multirole fighter between the years 1970 to 2006.

Christmas in July

Enjoy a Day in Our Parks

Begin a game of “Geocache” in one of our beautiful parks. Follow pre-set coordinates to different points around our county and see if there is a treasure left by the last person to find the location in this hi-tech game of hide and seek.

Do you like Frisbee golf? Make your way to WaKeeney’s Boy Scout Park to play the nine-hole course. It’s challenging and fun and is the perfect place for an exciting challenge with friends. Don’t forget to get a group selfie and add #TourTrego as you upload it to your Facebook page!

Celebrating and Shopping in Downtown WaKeeney

WaKeeney celebrates Christmas all year long! Look for all the Christmas trees in front of our Downtown businesses and visit North Pole Park where Santa comes to visit during our annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. There is a new photograph mural depicting the “Christmas City of the High Plains” during the holidays and you’ll need to get your best smile on to get a selfie behind one of the park’s holiday cutouts of elves and snowmen.

New LED lights were installed on the buildings of all our downtown business’s rooftops in 2020 in celebration of the 70th anniversary of our famous 35-foot Christmas tree. They are operational throughout the year, flashing colors during the evening hours.

Get Your Game On

Big Creek Golf Course is a nine-hole course featuring 3,213 yards of golf from the longest tees for a par of 35. The course is part of the Kansas Golf Association with a rating of 36.3 and a slope rating of 111, with several elevation changes that make it more challenging than a typical prairie track. The buffalo grass fairways are comprised of rolling hills that end at watered greens.

A series of tournaments are scheduled on Sundays throughout the golfing season, providing you with multiple opportunities to join other competitive golfers on the links. (Call 785.769.3160 for more details and to register.)

Toast Your Staycation

A Culinary Journey Through Trego County

Lift a glass and take a selfie with your friends at Shiloh Vineyards. They offer twelve wines, including four fruit flavors and eight traditional vintages of dry white, red and dessert wines. Find your favorite inside their tasting room, then take a stroll across the grounds and enjoy the farm life. Shiloh Vineyards is located south of I-70, west of WaKeeney at Exit 120.

WaKeeney has a wide variety of great restaurants with delicious menu options. Put some spice in your life at Tropical Mexican Restaurant or sit down at the Brazen Bull for great local cuisine, steak, and burgers.

The Western Kansas Saloon & Grill serves up a great selection of entrees and beverages, along with the ambiance of the Old West in one of Downtown WaKeeney’s oldest buildings. Look for the unusual A-frame building to find delicious diner food at Jake and Chet’s Cafe and Sundowner Lounge. If you are in mind for something sweet, check out the baked goods at Hometown Bakery. Cakes, donuts, cookies, and sandwiches are all made fresh daily.

For people on the go, we recommend a quick stop at one of our fast-food restaurants. Pizza Hut, Subway, McDonalds, and Dairy Queen will serve you a good meal quickly so you can get back on the road to fun!

Now that you’ve enjoyed your day like a tourist, upload your pictures to your Facebook page with the hashtag “#TourTrego” for a chance to win $50 in Wampam bucks, while spreading the word about Trego County, Kansas!

Where to Go to Enjoy Time Outside in Trego County

Looking for something safe to do with your kids during this unexpected school closure and Spring Break? Trego County has many sites and landmarks that are great places to learn and play outdoors!

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Hiking and Fishing at Cedar Bluff State Park & Reservoir

Cedar Bluff State Park & Reservoir is continuing to rise and it’s currently at the highest point it’s been in years! State Park officials have turned on the water to the Despatch and Hoonii Campgrounds. The North bathhouse (located by the rental cabins) is open for public use.

Your child will be thrilled when they hook a fish at Pa’s Pond. Located in the Bluffton Area on the North Shore, this is a stocked pond with shade trees that are perfect for a picnic when the weather is nice.

The Cedar Bluff Office is closed to public access at this time and staff will be available by phone. We encourage everyone to use the HuntFish KS and Campit KS apps to purchase all your privileges and reservations prior to visiting the park.

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Let your kids run off extra energy at Cedar Bluff State Park’s 5-mile Agave Ridge Nature Trail. The first mile is paved and an easy walk for everyone. Interpretive signs of flora and fauna in the area. The next four miles is a mowed trail that leads to a beautiful view of the 100-ft. bluffs that gives the park its name. This is a more difficult trail for ambitious hikers. Spring is the perfect time to see the blooming flowers and playful animals enjoying the warm weather and this is a great trail to view them.

The Agave Ridge Trail is accessed through the Page Creek Area on the South Shore of Cedar Bluff State Park and is managed on Wildlife Area lands; vehicle permits are required to access the trail head.


NOTE: The bridge over the Cedar Bluff Reservoir spillway is currently under construction on K-147 until August 2020. The road is closed for 1.8 miles, but the rest of the highway is open to travelers. KDOT has created a 60-mile detour around the lake. For a shorter detour, take one of Trego County’s scenic country roads, such as TR CO U or X. Just Make sure road conditions are good, especially after wet weather.

To get to the North Shore: Access to all the north side landmarks can be reached as usual from I-70 at the Ogallah exit traveling south on K-147. (Emanuel Lutheran Church, the Bluffton Campground, Cedar Bluff State Park’s office, Threshing Machine Canyon, and the BOD Marker) 

To Get to the South Shore: Access the South Shore by traveling north on K-147 from Hwy 4 at Brownell. (Page Creek Campground, Agave Ridge Hiking Trail, and the Scenic Bluff Overlook)


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Paleontology on the Prairie

Science class is right under your feet at Castle Rock, the Badlands. Go fossil hunting for sharks’ teeth that date back millions of years to when the Great Inland Sea divided the North America continent in half.

Your kids can imagine the giant prehistoric fish that once lived in the rock’s nooks and crannies and swam right above their heads. The geological features of the Kansas prairie are also a perfect example of how water and wind affect rocks over millions of years.

A Wildlife Safari

Bring your binoculars with you to catch a glimpse of a few of our wild neighbors. White tail and mule deer, coyotes, jackrabbits, and a prairie songbirds, like meadowlarks and red winged blackbirds, fill our prairie. Early morning is the best time to see these animals but beware of rattlesnakes in the rocky areas where they may be sunning themselves.

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Smoky Valley Scenic Byway

The stories of our ancestors come to life at historical landmarks along the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway. Look for one of the Butterfield Overland Despatch (B.O.D.) limestone posts along Hwy. 147 south of Cedar Bluff State Park’s Bluffton Area. It’s just one several markers placed along the historic Smoky Hill Trail in the 1960s to map out the route early pioneers used to travel to the Colorado gold mines over 100 years ago.

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The Wilcox School

Visit one of the last remaining rural schoolhouses in Trego County, Wilcox School. It’s a great opportunity to point out how different students experienced school over a hundred years ago. To get to the school travel 15-miles south on Hwy. 283 south of WaKeeney. Several interpretive panels in the windows tell how the school was used 1886 to the present day and one panel will help you learn more about the native wildflowers found along the byway during the growing season.

Stop at the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway’s informational kiosks located along Hwy. 283 and WaKeeney’s Eisenhower Park at Exit 127 for more lessons on the history and environment of our county and city.

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History and Fun at WaKeeney’s City Parks

WaKeeney is home to great parks and playgrounds. Let them run free on the vast lawn of the Courthouse Square in Downtown WaKeeney.

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Plan a picnic at the Swimming Pool Park. With playground equipment for all ages and covered shelters, families can spend hours at the park without running out of things to do.

Eisenhower Park

City Landmarks

WaKeeney is home to several war memorials that illustrate America’s role in conflicts around the globe and the sacrifices made by the men and women of our military.

Iwo Jima Memorial

You’ll find the Iwo Jima Memorial at I-70’s east Exit #128, an F-14 jet at Eisenhower Park, a Veterans of Foreign Wars Memorial at Courthouse Square, and the KansasVeteran’s Cemetery one mile north of the Iwo Jima memorial on Hwy. 283.

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 Time Out for Parents at Big Creek Golf Course

Spend time teach your kids the game of golf at Big Creek Golf Course. The nine-hole course is arolling prairie with native Buffalo grass fairways and lush, watered greens. With a yardage of 6251, a slope of 122 and a rating of 69.6, you’ll have the opportunity to send that ball sailing in an arc across the big, beautiful prairie sky.

More Ideas

There are even more ways to enjoy time outside in Trego County!

TJH Kay has put together a “Social Distancing Scavenger Hunt” for March 25-April 15. The “Pillars of Education” theme encourages the community to display things in their windows that correspond with the topic of the week. Kids can find them when they are out on walks and enter weekly to win the Family Prize Pack by texting (785) 769-3297 or posting a picture of your participation on KAY Sponsor Stacie Edgett Minson’s Facebook page. (Check out the flyer above for ideas to place in your window.)

Take your little ones on a “Bear Hunt” through town. Several of our citizens have placed teddy bears in the windows of their homes for kids to look for as they pass by. Check out the Facebook page dedicated to the event for more information.

Geocaching is a great way to explore the outdoors through a challenging game and give your kids a lesson about how to use coordinates to locate landmarks.

Anyone who’s attended TCHS knows the glory of “dragging Main,” so let’s crank up the tunes and do it again! Drag Main – WaKeeney! Let’s Do It Again! will be held Saturday, March 28that 8pm. There will be a box on the corner of First Federal for anyone who would like to donate non-perishable items to family food boxes. This is a repeat of an earlier event that saw great success, with over 70 cars and 124 canned goods and other items donated to our friends in need. Check out their Facebook page for more information.

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Family Memories

While it’s important to social distance ourselves at this time, you don’t have to stay indoors. Get out and make some memories with your kids! You’ll find many activities and learning opportunities right outside your door in Trego County.

 

Limestone: Trego County’s Foundation Stone

Throughout Trego County you’ll find unique white rock formations breaking through our vast prairie. These chalky outcroppings are evidence of the great Western Inland Seaway that divided the North American continent millions of years ago. Today, you’ll find the same rock has been used in many of the most notable buildings you’ll find on the Great Plains.

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Niobrara Chalk

The majority of the limestone found within Trego County’s borders is classified as Niobrara Chalk, a geologic deposit created between 85 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period. It is a soft stone formed from calcium deposits that easily flakes apart to reveal fossils of plesiosaurs, mosasaurs, pterosaurs, sharks, and primitive aquatic birds.

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Fossilized Oyster Shells, Image by James St. John

Geological maps show the largest deposits of Niobrara Chalk limestone are located in the southern section of Trego County in the Smoky Hill River Valley, where you’ll find exposed sections at Cedar Bluff Overlook in the Cedar Bluff State Park and Castle Rock southwest of Collyer. More examples are to be found at Monument Rocks in neighboring Gove County and at Little Jerusalem, Kansas’s newest state park which is located south of Oakley. For a tour of these sites head south from WaKeeney on Hwy. 283 to begin at Cedar Bluff State Park & Reservoir, then follow the Smoky Hill River Valley west to each of these formations in Trego, Gove, and Logan Counties.

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Greenhorn Limestone

Greenhorn limestone, or Post Rock, is a hard limestone found along Trego County’s eastern border. It was formed during the Late Cretaceous period along with Niobrara limestone and includes many of the same marine animal fossils found in the softer, chalky variety of limestone. Today, it is quarried along the eastern border of Trego County.

Due to the lack of wood on the grassy prairie, Post Rock limestone was a primarybuilding materialin the 1800’s. Many early construction projects in Trego County relied on this hard stone, when city founders Albert Warren and James Keeney created their “Queen City of the High Plains.” Here are a few of the most notable buildings that utilized limestone quarried in Trego County.

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The Trego County Courthouse

Built between 1888-1889, the grand Trego County Courthouse is an American Queen Anne style building. At the time of its construction it featured an Elizabethan frontage and a 100-foot cupola imported from Europe. The limestone used on its exterior is Post Rock that was quarried locally, as well as limestone brought from Manhattan, KS.

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The building has undergone a few changes since its construction, but still retains its original limestone exterior.

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Kansas Pacific Railway Depot

WaKeeney’s Kansas Pacific Railway Depot was an ornate railway station completed in 1879 with limestone found along the Saline River and Big Creek. On July 4, 1879, Warren, Keeney & Co. held a grand celebration to advertise their land sales. The Governor of Kansas was present and made a speech from the new depot’s platform. At the time, the magnificent, stone railway depot was described as the best and most modern facility between Kansas City and Denver.  It was acquired by the Union Pacific Railroad and housed their operations until the 1930’s, and later demolished.

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WaKeeney Opera House

One of the most impressive limestone buildings in Trego County was the WaKeeney Opera House. In 1884, this large, attractive building was the center of WaKeeney’s activities, and  entertainment. It had a seating capacity of 400 and featured ornate murals on the ceiling and walls and a large brass chandelier with Rochester electric lamps. The Oprah House cost $20,000 to build andhoused grocery stores, newspapers offices, land offices, real estate agents, the post office, a bank, the school, and the opera hall. This fine example of Great Plains architecture was destroyed by fire on February 4, 1895 and today the site is home to the Trego County Health Department.

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Emanuel Lutheran Church

Today’s Emanuel Lutheran Church used limestone quarried from nearby Threshing Machine Canyon located along the Smoky Hill Trail. It was built by Swedish immigrants in 1902 and was originally christened as the Swedish Evangelical Emmanuel Lutheran Church.

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WaKeeney Municipal Building

The WaKeeney Municipal Building was a project planned in 1937 by the Work Project Administration (WPA) as part of the President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative. It incorporates native limestone blocks in a modern design, with a broad staircase that leads up to a sheltered portico.

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The Wilcox School

The Wilcox School, a one-room schoolhouse located 16-miles south of WaKeeney, was built in 1886 with limestone quarried by area’s early settlers along the Smoky Hill River. They cut it from the river’s south shore and hauled the stone to the building site across natural fords or low-water bridges. Visitors can see this historic landmark up close by traveling south on Hwy. 283.

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B.O.D. Markers

A more recent addition of Post Rock to our landscape are the B.O.D. markers travelers can follow along the historic route of the Butterfield Overland Despatch, Smoky Hill Trail. In 1960, Historian Howard C. Raynesford of Ellis, KS researched the location of the trail and had the posts erected at points where it crossed a North/South road. The markers are engraved with “BOD – 1865” and stand on a concrete base that offers more information.

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 Visit the Trego County Historical Museum

To learn more about our region’s limestone deposits we invite you to visit the Trego County Historical Society Museum. Don’t forget to check out the Purinton Fossil Collection which includes many fine examples Cretaceous period creatures that were in both Niobrara and Post Rock limestone.

 

 

The New Smoky Valley Scenic Byway’s Interpretive Signs Have Arrived in Trego County!

Dive deeper into the history and landscape of the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway at each of our recently installed interpretive panels! Each one tells the story of the historical markers and significant natural features that make our byway a Kansas state treasure.

Interpretive Signs, Eisenhower Park, F-14 JetInterpretive Signs, Eisenhower Park, F-14 Jet

An Eight Year Project Becomes Reality

The Smoky Valley Scenic Byway allows travelers to explore the history and landscape of our Northwest Kansas region. They are part of a larger joint effort between several state and tourism agencies to provide more information at 39 tourist attractions on twelve routes located across the state.

In 2010, the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) and the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) received a $220,000 National Scenic Byway grant from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for development of the Kansas Byways Interpretive Plan. Using this funding, Fermata, Inc. of Austin, TX began collecting the historical information & developed the storylines for the project.

In 2015, RDG Planning and Design of Omaha, NE began the design phase and, once finished, general contractor GSR Construction, Inc. of Lawrence, KS started working on the construction of the project. WaKeeney’s Travel and Tourism Director Cathy Albert gathered the stories and images included on the panels and in November 2018 the finished panels were installed at points of interest along the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway.

Smoky Valley Scenic Byway Highway Sign

The Smoky Valley Scenic Byway 

Exploring the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway is now easier than ever! The 60-mile, U-shaped loop is one of the easiest routes included in the Kansas byways’ system. With starting points at either Exit 127 in WaKeeney or at Ogallah, Exit 135. If you begin your journey in WaKeeney, we recommend starting at the F-14 Jet in Eisenhower Park, where you’ll find three signs that tell the story of WaKeeney and Trego County.

Interpretive Sign, Eisenhower Park, F-14 Jet

Interpretive Sign, Eisenhower Park, F-14 Jet

Traveling Through the Smoky Valley

For over a hundred years people have been traveling through the Smoky Valley. Early trails brought settlers to our prairies and a few decades later the American love of the road got them out on the highways that followed those same routes.  In 1956, Kansas native President Dwight D. Eisenhower directed his engineers to route his massive interstate project through the Smoky Valley, and, today, I-70 brings people from all over the world to Trego County.

Trego - Interapretive Signs3Interpretive Sign, Eisenhower Park, F-14 Jet

Settling the Western Smoky Valley and the “Queen City of the High Plains”

Before WaKeeney was the “Christmas City of the High Plains” it wore the crown of a queen. Originally assigned the moniker of “Queen City of the High Plains,” WaKeeney began as a frontier town in 1878 and soon grew to be a center of trade in our county. All this information and much more is detailed on the panel entitled “Settling the Western Smoky Valley.”

Trego - Interprative Signs5Interpretive Sign, Eisenhower Park, F-14 Jet

 “The Earth Provides Shelter and Beauty”

Ingenuity has always been a part of the history of the Smoky Valley. Evidence of this is found in the beautiful creamy-white limestone buildings that dot our landscape. Using rock cut from local quarries, our founding fathers created the churches, schools, and civic and government buildings that were the anchors of Trego County communities. Find out more about the sturdy construction and quality materials that were created by these innovative builders on the “Stone Buildings” interpretative panel.

 

Kiosk, 12 miles south of WaKeeney on Hwy 283

The Smoky Valley Scenic Byway 

The kiosk located 12-miles south of WaKeeney on Hwy. 283 features a double-sided informative panel. It features facts and images about the natural beauty you’ll find along the landscape, as well as a replica of a Butterfield Overland Despatch marker. The original markers helped to guide the earliest travelers along a pioneer trail. 

 

Interpretive Signs, Cedar Bluff Reservoir, South of Smoky Hill River Bridge

Cedar Bluff Reservoir and State Park

A favorite stop along the byway is Cedar Bluff Reservoir and State Park. The reservoir and its dam were constructed in 1949 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to provide water for flood control, irrigation, and the region’s water supply, as well as for recreation. Throughout the decades it has become a natural wildlife reserve and popular playground for outdoor enthusiasts. Three interpretative panels placed in the parking area south of Smoky Hill River Bridge tell the story of Cedar Bluff and include a map of the many inlets where camping, fishing, and water sports are enjoyed.

SVSB Kiosk Attractions

The Smoky Valley Scenic Byway

Planning Your Trip on the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway

Take a trip on the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway and look for our new interpretive signs to learn more about Western Kansas and the history of Trego County!

If you begin your journey in WaKeeney we recommend starting at

  1. F-14 Jet in Eisenhower Park.
  2. Go South 12 miles on Hwy. 283 to the kiosk.
  3. Continue South 14 miles to Hwy. 4 at Ransom.
  4. Turn East and travel 9-miles on Hwy. 4 to Brownell.
  5. Travel North 10-miles on Hwy. 147 to Cedar Bluff Reservoir.
  6. Continue traveling North on Hwy. 147 for 16-miles to end at I-70 in Ogallah, Exit 135.

Each sign provides directions along the route where you can stop and enjoy the wonders of nature, historical sites, and geological wonders of the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway.

Celebrating the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway at the Newly Restored Wilcox School

Fifteen years ago, the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway was given the honor of becoming one of Kansas’s twelve scenic and historic routes. It’s brought photographers, historians and casual travelers to the hazy, blue hills that give it their name and, with the recent restoration of Wilcox School, one of the route’s landmarks invites visitors a peek into Trego County’s past through the eyes of its school children.

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The Story of Trego County’s Historic Wilcox School, District #29

The little, one-room prairie schoolhouse was built in 1886 to serve as a center of learning and as a community gathering place for the newly arrived settlers in the area. Native Niobrara limestone rock cut from a quarry on the south side of the Smoky Hill River was used to construct the building and a local stonemason and a team of volunteers pitched in to do the work. The school was named for William Wilcox, the first settler and postmaster of Wilcox township and from 1886 to 1947 between 3-25 students in grades 1-8 shared the classroom each term.

Education in a prairie schoolhouse brought with it many challenges. There was no water source on the property, so pupils brought their water to school in gallon-sized syrup pails. The absence of indoor plumbing also required an outhouse be available for use behind the school.

The building also served as a house of worship from 1890 to the 1940s, with Sunday school and church services led by ministers from WaKeeney and the nearby town of Ransom.

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A Center for Community Activism

During World War II, Wilcox School served as one location for the Cotton Mattress Program. This federal program helped turn a surplus of government owned cotton into low-cost mattresses for rural families. There were over 250 applications submitted in Kansas for this program and two adults and 8 hours of work went into the construction of each mattress. Over 12,000 families in 79 Kansas counties joined this national effort, making 18,000 mattresses and 10,000 comforters.

After the school closed its doors for good the building took on a new life as a gathering spot for a local motorcycle club called the Hi-Plains Gravel Grinders. After the club moved on the schoolhouse fell into disrepair and was left as a hollow structure for several decades.

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Preserving the Past

New attention was brought to Wilcox Schoolhouse when the Kansas Byway Program added the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway to their roster in August 2003. In May 2006, the one-room schoolhouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, providing Trego County the opportunity to apply for grants from the Kansas Historical Society’s Heritage Trust Fund to go toward restoration of the property. In 2011, funding was awarded to the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway and the WaKeeney Travel & Tourism committee, the organizations leading the effort, and soon plans were underway to save the limestone building.

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The Work Begins

The stonework and the roof were the first projects to be tackled. Metzker Restoration of Ness City reset the foundation, replacing damaged stones, repairing the brick chimney, and installing a new roof on the school.

Planning for the windows, door, fascia, and soffit restoration began when a second grant was received in 2015, and earlier this year Schamber Historic Preservation, LLC of Damar, Kansas completed those projects. Five panels have been installed within the windows to tell the stories of Wilcox School, as well as offering information about the abundant and colorful wildflowers that fill the prairie in spring, summer, and fall.

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Unveiling Ceremony to Celebrate the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway and Wilcox School

Join us on Sunday, October 21stat 2pm at the Wilcox School, just 15 miles south of WaKeeney on Highway 283 to celebrate the 15thanniversary of the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway and the newly restored, historic Wilcox Schoolhouse.

A short program will be held to dedicate the site and to honor Harm Schneider, whose family generously donated the property to the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway in his memory. We invite you to explore the school and several displays featuring school memorabilia and artifacts from the families who settled the area from the 1880s to 1947. Also of note are items from the Hi-Plains Gravel Grinders Motorcycle Club and information about the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway. Refreshments will be served.

Hope to see you there!