The day was a convergence of ideal factors. Blue skies and temps in the 50s, rare for February, are almost unheard-of for a Saturday when I’ve got adventure on my mind. I called my son Matt at his K-State dorm and said, “I’ll be there in two hours. Let’s grab lunch and go searching for the Volland Store.”
I’d been watching developments at the Volland Store since its first write-up in the Kansas City Star in 2013. The red brick building with no roof or floors turned one-hundred years old that year, and its new owners threw a birthday party to celebrate. Four-hundred people showed up, many with fond stories to tell about the old days when Otto Kratzer’s general store was the heartbeat of a Flint Hills community.
The new owners, Patty and Jerry Reece, shared a vision for the Volland Store. They intended to restore the building for use as an art gallery and event space. Never mind its isolated location in the hills between Alma (pop. 783) and Alta Vista (pop. 422). The Reeces were betting that if they did their job, people would seek the place out.
They were right. The Volland Store opened in 2015 with an exhibit of Otto Kratzer’s photography documenting 20th Century life in the Flint Hills. Other art exhibits followed, punctuated by the occasional concert or cowboy poetry slam. The store is also available for weddings and parties, and travelers can rent a lofted bedroom suite.
Matt is a good sidekick for a mission like this one. Long car rides don’t bother him so long as he controls the music, and he has a genuine love for the Flint Hills. He likes to tell me about the bands he’s discovered and the latest computer game his friends are playing, and is equally willing to listen while I wax eloquent about characters and plot points and anything else that happens to be on my mind. Best of all his navigational skills are good—an asset when exploring places with iffy cell service.
We followed the website’s written directions south from Manhattan to Alta Vista, then north out of town on a curvy county road. I only made one false turn, at a place marked “Volland Lane” that turned out to be a farm path. We came to no harm, save for earning the low opinion of a few local horses.
“City folk,” they snickered to one another as I made a three-point turn in the mud.
Back on the blacktop we spotted Volland Road and followed it straight to our objective.
The Volland Store stands with its back to the 21st Century, facing the railroad tracks that gave it life. The red brick building is an anomaly in a landscape of golden prairie grass and native limestone, giving one the feeling that it has wandered away from some bustling frontier town and gotten lost in the country.
The Store’s interior is beautifully restored without its original second floor, so that light from the upper windows (shaded in these pictures) warms the honey tones of the hardwood floor. A door high up in the wall remains to show where the second-story fire escape was.
The current art exhibit, titled Rural/Urban Invitational II, features seven artists from Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma, whose work I found accessible and thought-provoking. The building itself is a fascinating work of art, one I could easily imagine as a backdrop for community and celebration.
We wandered out the front door and across a now-vanished street to the ruined foundation of a house. Concrete steps and foundation stones made for interesting photos, as did the water pump behind the structure.
Before long we thanked the helpful volunteer who hosted our visit and took the county road to Alma to visit the local cheese factory. We arrived fifteen minutes before the cheese store closed, stocked up on curds and bottled drinks, and returned to Manhattan with a sense of mission fulfilled.
Our hot topic on the way back to Matt’s dorm: Why is the color vermilion a shade of red, when words like vert and verde mean ‘green’?
I Googled the answer: Vermilion comes from the Latin root vermis meaning worm, not viridis meaning green. Vermilion first referred to Kermes vermilio, a type of insect used to make a crimson dye.
What did that have to do with our day of adventure? Nothing. And everything.