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Unexpected Treasures in Hutchinson
By Lisa Halvorsen
As you enter you'll see a SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, T-38 astronaut training jet, and a full-scale replica of the space shuttle Endeavour. Many more treasures wait in the Hall of Space Museum including the Apollo 13 command module, Russian Vostok space capsule, and other spacecraft along with spacesuits, a replica lunar rover, and other artifacts. Your one-day mission pass also includes a planetarium and IMAX show, and a visit to Dr. Goddard's Lab for a live science show.
One of Hutchinson's newest attractions is the Kansas Underground Salt Museum, which gives visitors a chance to learn about the local salt mining industry. Like the Cosmosphere, it's one of the last things you would expect to find in the state, especially in a community as small as Hutchinson, which has a population of around 41,000.
Salt was first discovered here in September 1887 quite by accident. Ben Blanchard, a con man and real estate swindler, drilled an "oil well," seeding it with barrels of oil purchased elsewhere in an attempt to drive up land prices. Instead, it was the 400-foot thick salt vein that he found that attracted interest. Blanchard never made any money, however, as he was forced to leave town by angry investors and the local sheriff, but the area benefited greatly from his discovery.
The first salt processing plant west of the Mississippi River opened in March 1888 and by 1910 there were 26 salt companies in the area. The mine, which is owned by the Hutchinson Salt Company, is still in operation today yielding more than 300,000 tons of rock salt annually.
Your visit begins as you descend 650 feet below the surface in a 30-passenger double-decker elevator for "The Dark Ride," a tram tour through the mine that provides a good idea of what it's like to work in a deep mine. You'll also learn about the mining process and the mine's features before being dropped off in the exhibit area where you can view displays at your leisure about geology, mine transportation, uses of salt, and local and state history.
Since the temperature underground is a constant 68 F. with 40 percent humidity, the mine makes an excellent storage facility for everything from documents to movie reels, including original masters of some of the great Hollywood films.
In South Hutchinson you can view a roadside exhibit with giant blocks of salt on display that includes information on Blanchard's discovery and how salt is extracted from the ground and processed. It's located one-quarter mile west of U.S. 50 at the junction of State Routes 96 and 61.
Hutchinson also has the longest grain elevator in the country. It is 2573 feet long, just under one-half mile in length and can be viewed at the corner of 11th and Halstead streets.
Arts, Antiques and Amusements
The Reno County Museum will introduce you to the area's history through its themed galleries on community, transportation, entertainment, recreation, and other aspects of the county. On the grounds you can view an 1876 homesteader's claim house, a farm windmill, and a 1930s outhouse constructed by the Works Progress Administration. Or you can check out the Hutchinson and Northern Railroad electric locomotive switch engine and 1954 Union Pacific Railroad caboose.
The kid-friendly Oodleplex at the museum, designed to help younger visitors develop cognitive skills while having fun, has a puppet theater, general store, dress-up area, model train exhibit, and even a full-sized boat, among its many learning exhibits.
The Hutchinson Art Center hosts traveling and temporary displays of art, as well as offers art classes and sells the works of contemporary regional artists. If you enjoy antiquing, you're in for a treat as Hutchinson has a large antique district with numerous shops including Yesterdays Treasures, a three-level, multi-dealer antiques mall.
Take a self-guided tour of the National Register-listed Houston Whiteside historical residential area, or the art deco county courthouse and the Fox Theater. The latter was restored to its former 1931 splendor and is considered one of the best examples of art deco theater architecture in the Midwest.
In 1994 the State Legislature designated it as the State Movie Palace of Kansas. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places and today is open for live theatrical and musical performances, as well as public tours. You also can see stage shows at the Flag Theatre, the state's only festival stage complex.
If visiting in September, attend the annual Kansas State Fair. It was first held in Hutchinson in the 1870s although the town didn't become the official fair site until 1913. The 10-day event offers all the usual attractions from concession stands to amusement rides, as well as agriculture and live entertainment.
If traveling with kids, stop by the Kansas Kids Museum in the Hutchinson Mall where kids can learn about astronomy at the Star-Tron Planetarium and about science, including geology, through the interactive exhibits. During the summer months, get wet at Salt City Splash Aquatic Center in Carey Park, which features water slides, a competition swimming pool, and various water activities. The Kansas Splashdown Indoor Water Park, located at the Grand Prairie Hotel and
Convention Center and open year-round, is the largest space-themed indoor water park in the country.
Kids and adults alike will enjoy a visit to the Hutchinson Zoo. It's an animal rehabilitation facility and a small zoo housing 160 animals including many native species that can be observed in the Kansas Wildlife Aviary (birds and river otters), the prairie dog complex, and horns and antlers exhibition areas.
The zoo was the first in the state to exhibit and attempt to preserve the black-footed ferret, which is among the most endangered species on the continent. In addition to viewing the many mammals, birds, and reptiles in their natural habitats, visitors can take a ride on the Prairie Thunder Railroad.
Hendricks Exotic Animal Farm in nearby Nickerson offers public tours of its extensive menagerie. The farm is home to a number of exotic species from kangaroos and cavies to giraffes, zebras, zebus, and spurred tortoises. You'll also see typical farm animals including ponies, pygmy goats, highland cattle, and miniature donkeys.
The hour-long tours often include the opportunity to feed some of the animals. Tours are offered by advance reservation only, so call to book when you first arrive in Hutchinson.
At the Dillon Nature Center, a National Urban Wildlife Sanctuary on 100 acres, you can study the ecology and species of central Kansas. Learn about the native wildlife and plants through the terrariums, aquariums, and other educational exhibits at the visitor center or by visiting the butterfly and hummingbird gardens. Walk along the nature trails or stop at the pond to observe many of the area's 200 bird species or to fish for trout, channel catfish, and other species.
The 1123-acre Sand Hills State Park provides access to sand dunes, grasslands, wetlands, and forests, all native habitat for this part of
Kansas. The park has several equestrian trails although many visitors go there to hike or to view the colorful wildflowers.
End your visit with a detour to Yoder, an Amish community located about 10 miles from Hutchinson via State Route 96. Visit Yoder Meats, Yoder Furniture Company, and other Amish-run businesses or enjoy lunch and homemade pie at the Carriage Crossing, a family-style restaurant.
When You Go
Before you go, visit the Greater Hutchinson Convention and Visitors Bureau's website at
or call 620/662-3391 for help in planning your trip.
Melody Acres Campground
2201 South Bonebrake St.
Hutchinson, KS 67501
Hitchin' Post RV Park
3415 East Switzer Road
Yoder, KS 67585
Spring Lake RV Resort
1308 S. Spring Lake Road
Halstead, KS 67056