Celebrating Kansas’ unusual and obscure offerings

Almost every Kansan knows that Cawker City is home to the World’s Largest Ball of Sisal Twine. Did you know, however, that the hassock (an ottoman that can also store stuff) was invented in the same community? Or that Richardson Manufacturing, maker of the AD Flex blade plow and mulch treader tool, also called Cawker City home?

Roger Ringer’s book “Kansas Oddities” takes us to all corners of the Sunflower State, with a host of short stories about obscure locations, interesting people and amazing inventions.

For instance, not far from Cawker City lay Waconda Springs—the only saltwater spring of its kind known in the world. The saltwater was considered to have healing properties by native Americans. A sanitarium, hotel and health spa were built on the property, and a bottling plant sold “Waconda Flier” mineral water as a health tonic. But in 1951, work began to dam the Solomon River near the town of Glen Elder; the resulting Waconda Lake was constructed and Waconda Springs was bulldozed. That one-of-a-kind saltwater spring is now just a distant memory.

On brighter notes, Ringer writes of a history of innovation in Kansas. Inventors across the state built tractors, combines and automobiles. We know of the Baldwin Brothers combine, which was first built in Nickerson. But near Belleville, Frank Ferguson invented a self-propelled combine with a power unit that could separate from the thresher and be used as an automobile. Only about 10 such machines were made.

Near Sterling, J.A. Hockett patented a gasoline traction engine, or tractor, of which several were made and used in Rice County. It never took off. Meanwhile, near Colby in 1910, farmer Irwin Haynes invented a tractor called the Colby Plow Bow. Three models were built before Haynes’ dream came crashing down. Another concept ahead of its time.

The book has many stories of invention and dozens more of some of this state’s most interesting people. Kansas is known for its cast of premiere lawmen, including Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. But we’ve had our share of gangsters, too. In the 1920s, the Fleagle family took up residence near Garden City. Ringer writes that Ralph and Jake Fleagle—the Fleagle Gang—kept the family farm afloat despite “…not much evidence of actual farming or ranching going on.” The Gang robbed high stakes poker and craps games on the West Coast. Ringer notes that some researchers believe the Fleagles were responsible for 60 percent of the bank robberies in the roaring 20s.

For every notorious villain, Kansas has dozens of upstanding citizens. Ringer writes about Stuart Mossman, founder of Mossman Guitars; Joe Walsh, guitarist for the Eagles and a Wichita native; Ralph Odor, inventor of the Vornado airplane—and the Vornado air circulating fans and many more who contributed ideas and inventions that make the world a better place.

Author Ringer is a musician, writer, carpenter, welder and historian who lives in Wichita. His love for Kansas and natural curiosity led to years of exploring Kansas and investigating local legends and ultimately, this book.

Aficionados of Kansas and history will appreciate Kansas Oddities. The stories are short, a page or three at the most. Avid historians may want for more detail, and there are some misspellings, but the book is interesting and entertaining. You’ll like it.

Bill Spiegel can be reached at 785-587-7796 or [email protected].