The Lope: Remembering Greensburg

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Remembering Greensburg

slightly updated on May 27, 2007

As many of you know, the town of Greensburg, Kansas was virtually destroyed by a tornado last night. I visited Greensburg a little over a year ago, on February 9 of 2006. Here are some scenes from that pleasant day in Greensburg, one I had hoped to repeat someday.

Let me start with what was, for me, the highlight.

Richard Huckriede started work at Hunter Drugstore in Greensburg in 1952.

Last I knew, he still worked there, having long ago earned the title of the world's oldest soda jerk. "Soda jerk" was a term used for people, usually young men, who operated a soda fountain. The "jerk" comes from the motion of pulling the levers that added soda water.

What those of us who grew up drinking fountain pop from machines may not appreciate is that the process of making a soft drink used to be more mixology than mechanization.

Convenience stores didn't exist back then, and unless you bought it bottled, getting a soda while out and about meant a trip to a dime store or drug store soda fountain.

Hunter Drug was a typical outlet for its time.

The classic Rexall sign - I see more of these in museums and private collections these days than in actual use.

When I would mention an impending trip to Greensburg to a couple friends who lived there, they didn't just urge that I go to the World's Largest Hand Dug Well. As a matter of fact, Angelique, the young woman in this picture is one of Ace's readers and insisted he be photographed at this soda fountain.

Anyone who enjoys classic Americana loves a "soda guy."

I had him fix me a cherry vanilla coke, as I recall. Read more about Richard Huckriede here.

Vintage advertisements adorned the soda fountain area.

The once ubiquitous and now antique Hamilton Beach malt mixers.

There were walnut and marble booths in the back of the store.

Elsewhere in the store you could find this old display case for Sheaffer's pens.

Many downtown businesses in small Kansas towns still had their old tin ceiling tiles; Hunter Drug was no exception.

This is what I saw just before I walked out of Hunter Drug for what would I didn't know would be the last time.

Hunter Drug was destroyed last night, along with most of Greensburg. 13 people lost their lives in this storm. That rather puts the loss of buildings in perspective. Update, May 11- Richard Huckriede is alive and well, and worked at Hunter Drug until May 4. Angelique is fine too, though she and her family lost their home. I have no information as to whether Hunter Drug will rebuild. See Greensburg Before and After for an update.

Another structure that was heavily damaged is this older Dillon's Food Market. See Greensburg Before and After for an update.

I don't know the status of this old service station across Hwy 54 from Dillon's. I was intrigued by the little rocket. See Greensburg Before and After for an update.

And Greensburg was not without its western appeal. The Cowboy Supply sign was a classic - "Howdy, Podner - COME IN." Judging from video I saw today, it's gone. Update: It's gone; see Greensburg Before and After.

The BIG Well

All is not lost in Greensburg. The town's claim to fame is the World's Largest Hand Dug Well. Although the buildings atop it were destroyed, the well itself survives.

This is the view from the top, looking down through the metal mesh covering. According to the website of the city of Greensburg Chamber of Commerce, the well is 109 feet deep, 32 feet wide, and was dug in 1897. And why dig such a thing? For the steam locomotives of the Rock Island and Santa Fe railroads. Steam engines use a lot of water.

Just past a short stairway under the entrance, there are four long flights of metal stairs. You can see the mixture of color temperatures in the lights they use to illuminate the chasm.

The stairs themselves can be a thrilling experience if you are a little hesitant about heights. They were sturdy, however, and I bet they still are.

From the bottom, you can see through the structure at top.

A metal framed wood platform lies at the bottom. I always found the life preserver on the fence at the edge of the platform to be slightly humorous, though I suppose it's possible someone with not too much sense could leap over into the actual well water.

Speaking of which, here's the top of the water at the bottom of the well. It is very dark and still.

The walls are decorated - if that's the word - with graffiti of varied ages.

Moving back up the stairs, the windows at top are a welcome view to some.

The "World's Largest Pallasite Meteorite" shared billing with the big well. The meteorite was housed in the now-destroyed ticket office, museum and gift shop near the top of the well. And what is a pallasite meteorite? According to Meteorite Central it is "A class of meteorite (stony-iron) That usually contains equal amounts of metal and olivine (a silicate of magnesium/iron). The olivine appears as 'granules' or grains."

"World's Largest" may no longer have been an accurate title for Greensburg's treasure; a larger pallasite meteorite was found recently, also in Kansas. Who's got meteorites? We've got meteorites - Yeah! I saw the new title-holder on display at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center last year. I think the one in Greensburg is far more loved, however. Here's a close-up of the texture of the Greensburg pallasite meteorite; you can really see the metal in it.

The gift shop of the well/meteorite was a good one. It had a nice mix of educational material and just plain fun old-style touristic stuff. It reminds me of the really cool Lincoln Gift Shop in Springfield, IL. In addition to the classic back scratchers and leather pouches, notice that they sold a postcard of an "angel over Greensburg" (in the clouds I presume).

My favorite piece is one that used to be a standard of tourist attractions, but which you don't see all that much anymore - the little plastic slide viewer.

Here's the view inside one of the viewers. For some reason I find these charming; I bought one, of course.

Update, May 11 - The meteorite is safe and sound, having been found to have pretty much fallen in place. I was not worried about it; after all, it survived a fiery plunge through the atmosphere and a high-speed impact with the ground, so it probably laughed at a 205 mph tornado. The Big Well is OK too, though it is closed at the moment. For pictures of the site, post-tornado, see Greensburg Before and After. For info on how to help the Big Well, see

We remember the Big, well. And we hope to visit it again soon.

There's been so much interest in this post that I'm expanding it to include a faux western town which was behind the Faith Tabernacle Church on Hwy 54 on the west side of town. Out front, one could find this slightly googie-style recycled sign. After I requested more information, an anonymous reader kindly supplied the following comment:

"Faith Tabernacle resides (or resided) in what use to be Burke's Restaurant and Gift Shop. Behind Burke's was Burketown, an old western town, which in it heyday, was something to see. When I was growing up in Greensburg, I remember old time stage shows being offered, on occasion, at the opry house. Burke's was the 'fancy' restaurant, and my family always ate at the more common place, the Kansan, on the east side of town."

I visited Greensburg, post-tornado, on assignment for Landline Magazine on May 8 an 9, 2007. As noted in a few places above, I have posted before and after pictures of the sites above, here. It's not pretty

Some of these photos were used in a televised interview CNN conducted with me. See it here.
See also my CNN I-report, here.

"The Lope" Greensburg posts as of June 11, 2007:
Remembering Greensburg
Greensburg Before and After
Greensburg "After" - Downtown
Greensburg "After" - Highway 54


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excelent photos and story. I grew up at Haviland and we enjoyed trips to the drug store. My wife and I had our first date in Greensburg nearly 50 years ago.

Sat May 05, 07:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really well done story and I'm glad you did this. My mom was born nearby, and spent a fair amount of happy time at the drug store. I've been enjoying her reflections about those times today.

Sat May 05, 08:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story and photos. Back in 1998 my family drove across America on a little Griswold style vacation returning from Arizona. With the use of the internet we plotted interesting stops along the way. One of those stops was Greensburg and the Hunter Drug store. It is so sad to see that another slice of Americana has been lost. My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone in that wonderful little community.

Mon May 07, 01:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting these! I lived in Greensburg for a year, in the early 1980's. Hunter Drug was the first thing I thought of when I heard the news. The marble countertops, with worn down spots from all of those elbows (looks like they'd been replaced?). I was last there in 2000, when I took my then-fiance on a tour of Kansas. I was so happy to see Dick still behind the counter, and one of my former classmates running the pharmacy. I remembered everything well, but I am so happy to have your photos to lock it into my mind. I'm also glad I didn't wait to take my husband there. I am thinking of Dick and everyone else who lost their jobs and homes, and lives. I am grateful the death toll is low. Thanks for the memories!

Mon May 07, 06:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i live in wichita and about 1 month ago i drove threw Greensburg going to Medicine Lodge, Ks it's kinda freaky thinking that i just was there a month ago

Mon May 07, 07:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You will be happy to know that Richard Huckriede is alive and well. Also if you go to this link

it has a video on the Hunter and Richard Huckriede(yes I know its a pop-up but it's harmless I swear, also I hope the link works)

Mon May 07, 08:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice work as usual. You're right in that the loss of lives and homes dwarfs the loss of buildings, but as the first two anonymouses (sp.?) point out, these places touched the lives of a lot of people. It hurts when one loses a connection to the past, a place that gave birth to so many memories and good times. At least, the places still live on in our hearts and on the web.

Tue May 08, 12:44:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am a native Chicagoan whose family hails from all around Kansas. I went to KU, and got my M.D. from KUMC. As such, I have always felt much more a Kansan than an Illini. I have been to Greensburg twice, once to visit the well on my way out to Dodge, the other just passing through. I am heartbroken by all of this. A part of me and a part of America was lost the other night. I'd love nothing more than to see this regained. I have great faith in the people of Kansas. They're hard-working, salt-of-the-earth folks, and for them to persevere through this would be a huge accomplishment. ROCK CHALK JAYHAWK!

Wed May 09, 07:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS!! I was born in G'burg and lived there 'til 21, but have returned many times for those wonderful Memorial Day 'Alumni Weekends.' Was planning a trip this year, but . . .sigh. My grandparents, father, brother and I all graduated from GHS. I am grateful for your pictures. I spent many an hour in that old wooden booth at the back of the Hunter Drug Store and am thrilled that Dick is OK.
I'm praying for all my friends and Kansas 'family' in Greensburg. Much love, Bonnie Wibbeler Burtraw, Siloam Springs, AR

Wed May 09, 10:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the great photos and dialogue about your last trip to Greensburg. I grew up on the northern side of Kansas at Norcatur, and get back to visit relatives most summers. Hunter Drug was definately one of those reminants to be treasured. Still visiting Kansas and Nebraska small towns regularly, I haven't seen one of these drug stores for a long time. I've been living in Saudi Arabia for a few years and it's interesting to me that many people connect tornados to Kansas and can't imagine why anyone lives there. The same question can be asked about the searing heat of Arabia...
Thanks for the reminders of the great folks in Kansas. Wouldn't it be fine to see an old fashioned soda fountain in Hunter's Rexall Drug Store rebuilt?

Thu May 10, 02:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Faith Tabernacle resides (or resided) in what use to be Burke's Restaurant and Gift Shop. Behind Burke's was Burketown, an old western town, which in it heyday, was something to see. When I was growing up in Greensburg, I remember old time stage shows being offered, on occasion, at the opry house. Burke's was the 'fancy' restaurant, and my family always ate at the more common place, the Kansan, on the east side of town.

Thu May 24, 09:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent site documenting all this that has been lost. So glad I visited Hunter Drug last time I was home visiting my family who still lives over by Trousdale. Blessings to all who lost something in that storm.

Tue Jun 19, 09:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to live in Greensburg when I was younger with my Mom. I went to school there when Mrs. Ringwald was my teacher. I'm told she's retired.

Burke's restaurant was really nice too.

A nice boy (whom I went to school with) and his family owned the restaurant at the time.

I really loved Greensburg because everyone in the town made me feel welcome. At that time, my family were the only East Asian Indians.

My friend J.B. and I use to explore some of the old abandoned houses near us in search of history. The closest we got to was some newspapers dating back to 1930s with an article about robbers.

It is a great town with a strong unity that will bring it back to life.

My Aunt lets me know that some of my teachers and neighbours still remember me. That is so nice after all these years.

My thoughts and prayers are with everyone in Greensburg.

Tue Jul 31, 08:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was born & raised in Pratt, KS then we moved to Dodge City, Ks then onto Ensign, KS & we would travel thru Greesnburg quite abit to visit my grandmother whom lived in Haviland, KS then she moved to Iuka, KS to be near my aunt & uncle. We would always stop at the little drive thru on the east side of town & get their "Suzie Ques" (curly french fries) & a pop, we would also stop at the "Big Well" & then head back home. I can honestly say that I never got a chance to venture downtown much & be able to go into the Rexall Drug store & sit at the soda fountain, how I wish I had even known about it I would have done all I could have to gone there. But I do want to say that in the town that I now live in, Independence, KS, we do have a rexall drug store that has the old fashion fountain (like the one that Greensburg had), clear down to the old booths & some of the shelving as well as the ceiling tiles & even have pictures sitting & hanging around of the town in its earlier days . They even serve sandwiches & hot chocolate at this soda fountain. So if your ever close to or come thru Independence, KS, please make sure that you visit De Fever's Rexall Drugstore downtown, it will be a sight for those that are "thirsty" for the "good old days"!! My Heart & Thoughts go out for folks of Greensburg, KS, I am so glad to see & hear that they are going to rebuild!!!!

Sun Oct 07, 10:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was born and raised in Greensburg as were my parents. My father's parents were from Germany and settled in Greensburg. It makes me sad to know that the cherished places of my childhood are gone. Many people will remember my grandparents large home on Bay street (Old Crow Mansion) where Judy Marshall was living. I have many photos of this wonderful place and stories of growing up.
Now they are only memories in my heart. Bless everyone who helped the residents during this time.

Mon Oct 08, 05:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved Greensburg, Kansas. My family owns a large ranch there between Greensburg and Haviland. I loved visiting the farm and my family to enjoy a good time. My DREAM was to move there after I complete college and continue helping to run the ranch with my aging family. Due to this tornado, all our dreams are ruined. We're trying to rebuild, but with all the damage, it's too costly. It hurts to know that my childhood dream has been crushed by this one night. If I feel this way, I can't even imagine how my family feels, when they lost their homes along with many many others. I'm sorry for everything!!


Tue Nov 27, 12:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

HI, I have a lot of family history in Greensburg. My aunt and uncle were living in Greensburg when the tornado hit. My mother grew up in Greensburg intil she was in her 20's and my father is buried there. I used to spend lots of time there as a kid visitng the only family I have ever known. I live in Phoenix now, but went back a month after the tornado and the devistation was more than I had even feared. Luckily my aunt and uncle were lucky and survived. I appreciate you putting all these pictures on the web so it can still be remembered for the remarkable town it was and will be again.

Sun Dec 09, 09:40:00 PM  
Anonymous CD Burke said...

I just found this article while searching for info on Burkestown, KS. I'm so sorry about the devastation to Greensburg. I love old places and the history that goes with them. It really is a shame to have lost so much. I'm wondering if anyone can help me learn more about Burkestown. Was it a "tourist trap", a movie set, or what exactly? Who was it named after? I am interested because my last name is Burke and some of my ancestors are from KS. I would appreciate hearing more details. Thank you and God bless!

Sun Sep 26, 10:02:00 PM  

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