Walk Through a small Kansas Town


The High Plains Museum

Goodland, KS

May 7, 2003

Drifting across Kansas with no particular plan in mind, we rode into Goodland, Kansas in the late evening.  Flat land stretched out in all directions. No high rises, no factories,  not much of anything except a large portrait standing on an easel in the middle of the town.  There was one trailer park on the edge of town.  We pulled in and parked outside the office.  Nothing seemed to be moving.  I got out and walked around.  The ram shackled office was locked.  Nobody home, and no note to advise on what to do.  With no other indication on what to do, we drove down the broken road surface to a site which looked like it would hold us.  The water worked, and the power was on, so we set up house.  The next day I went for my usual walk.  The campground was unbelievable.  Right out of a deserted ghost town, complete with drifting, shifting tumbleweed.  It was so overrun that it was picturesque. Even the trees seem to have died long ago. I struck out toward town with my standard plan of finding a USA-Today paper and a cup of coffee.  After an hour or so of looking and not finding, I walked into one of the hotels on the main strip and asked where to find the paper I was looking for.   The receptionist, who obviously had had nothing to do all morning, smiled and advised "We can't get that paper here, no one will deliver it." I was stunned,  I didn't think there was a city, anywhere in the US that didn't have a copy of USA-Today, somewhere.  When I got back I told Laura of my finding and my astonishment.  She laughed, knowing my drive to find a paper in the morning is the very drive that causes me to get out and walk, no mater what the weather.   "Well now" she said "It sounds like you, who often brags that there is no town that you couldn't find a story  in, have your work cut out for you." That afternoon, I set about trying to find something to write about. Well I didn't have to look far.  Fact is you can see this picture from miles around, and this find allowed me to add to my list of the biggest, longest, tallest things I have found.  How about the biggest, tallest painting sitting on an easel.  How big is it?  Well no one I talked to could tell me.  Now I could have gone back to the trailer and ferreted out my old drawing compass and a couple of sticks to make a 45 degree angel and gone back and done the measurement. But if you look at the left leg of the easel, you will see Laura holding up the the whole thing. Again in the insert with our truck in the background. Considering her 5 ft. 7in height, I placed the easel at slightly over 50 feet.  All that I could find out was that the painting was done by a local artist and was placed in the middle of the town as a tourist attraction.  What can I say?  Delving deeper into this quiet community I found that there is a very well done historical map of the town which included pictures and descriptions of some 30 building, developed during the 1900s.  This included a Queen Ann Victorian structure build in 1906.  On a later wandering through the streets we found the main tourist attraction, that is, competitive with the giant easel.  On 17th St. was a single story elongated building which failed to reflect the values found within. The High Plains Museum was a neat little place with all kinds of interesting and enlightening things. Of particular interest to me were the old time photos which they have been gathering for years.  One in particular that caught my eye was the town in 1933 as a dust storm bore down on it.  Here we also meet  Linda Holton, the Director. As we wandered from exhibit to exhibit, she described every aspect of what we saw.  It was obviously a labor of love. A good part of the exhibit was dedicated to the High Plains Indians and the early pioneers.  An idea  I hadn't thought of was made clear by one of those old time photos.  Kansas doesn't have trees in any number,  It hasn't for many years.  This was a particular problem for the very early settlers who relied on open fires for heat and for food preparations. Well, you burn whatever you can, and in this case what they would burn was cow and buffalo chips. The wonderful photo of an early settler "bringing in the chips" in a wheelbarrow was pretty explanatory.  All this was pretty interesting but Linda had held the best for last.  With a big smile on her face, she announced that we were about to see the towns best artifact.  It is believed, by at least the town's people that Goodland, Kansas, was home of the very first helicopter.  Hmmm, I thought,  "Now I knew that the helicopter was invented by an man named Sikorsky, and I don't think he ever came to Kansas."  As we worked our way to the center of the building I caught my first glimpse of "The Machine".  A long slender pole mounted in the middle of a go-cart like frame, which housed a series of gears and two engines.  The top of the pole contained a giant propeller in relationship to the size of the machine.  A second propeller was mounted under the top one.  As told by Linda, so the story goes, there were two railroad engineers working for the Rock Island Line which had a machine shop in Goodland.  One day in 1909, William J. Purvis and Charles A. Wilson got together and decided that if they could invent a flying machine they could get out of what they considered a dead end job.  By Thanksgiving of that year they were well on their way of finishing up a helicopter.  They stored it in a square tower near the train yard's water tank.  It was a curiosity to many with its long central shaft and twin sets of blades. The two inventors, although amateurs in the aviation field, were familiar with Newton's Third Law of Motion. That is "For every action, there is a equal action in the opposite direction.  It had been a blocking point in the creation of a vertical lift flying machine ever since its conception.   As the propeller spins in one direction the aircraft spins in the other.  To overcome this, the bright inventors envisioned two independent propellers, one on top of the other and spinning in opposite directions, thus countering the third law of motion.  Lacking the ability of spinning both propellers on one engine, they decided to use two 7 horsepower gas engines.  In 1909, any gas engine was pretty expensive and they didn't have the funds.  They solved this by creating the The Goodland Aviation Company, giving them the ability to sell shares.  The good people of Goodland and many others bought in and the boys soon had some 30 thousand dollars to work with.  Soon the engines arrived and were installed.  Without the engines the craft weighed over 400 pounds.  Again running low on funds, the boys decided it was time for a demonstration.  Since the vehicle was too heavy to fly by the existing engines, these creative characters decided to attach a 100 foot long belt from a thrashing machine to the helicopter. This would give the machine all the power it would ever need.  The townsfolk gathered as the thrasher started.  What happened next is subject to debate.  Mary Collett Farris, in her short works entitled  "The Short Happy Life of the Kansas Flying Machine" described the incident as follows.  
The steam engine started with a roar.  The belt shook.  The rotors turned slowly at first, then faster and faster.  The blades pounded the air like eggbeaters.  The platform shook so that Purvis fell to his knees.  Just as he was getting ready to crawl off, the flying machine bounded 20 feet into the air.  Purvis, holding on for dear life peered over the side his face ashen. "Pull it down!" he yelped.  
While the flying machine careened through the air, a man jumped for the the rope and gave it a yank.  It wasn't enough to pull it down, but it did tilt the shifting weights.  The platform titled and the machine bucked  a few feet forward.  Purvis almost slid off but grabbed the edge at the last moment and hung there with his feet dangling above the crowd. While people ran helter skelter to get out from under him, Purvis scrambled back onto the platform.  He was just in time to see the water tank coming toward him at alarming speed.  Desperately he stretched out his hand to fend it off, but it was to late.  The blades shattered on the tank and the platform buckled.  The huge iron rotor shaft then plunged into the water tank and  busted it wide open. Thousands of gallons of water cascaded out onto the ground.  Parts of the flying machine pelted the audience.  People dropped to the ground under the aerial bombardment,  just in  time for the water to roll over them.
There were no reported injuries and Purvis, for all his fright, declared himself successful and thus should have gone down in the book of records as the first person to fly on, if not in a helicopter. He would later apply and gain a patent for his miraculous machine.  However word soon spread of the disastrous flight and demise of his beloved machine and he found that there were no more in town who were interested in financing any further attempts at vertical flight.  He and his company soon faded into the annals of history of the intriguing place.  And thus it was in the north east corner of Kansas where every town has a story just waiting for someone to pass by and tell it.

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