By Dennis Minich
The television show “Leave it to Beaver” had a mysterious element. It never revealed what the head of the Cleaver clan, Ward, did for a living. It did say he worked for a big company and it was once hinted it was a Trust Company, but exactly what he did was never explained. But what he did say on multiple occasions was “just another day in the salt mines.” I couldn’t help but chuckle about that line last week when I had a chance to take a tour of an actual salt mine.
My fiancé, Leslie, is from central Kansas and had some business to attend to in Hutchinson. I dragged along by being promised a great meal, which was delivered. While we were in town, we ventured to the Strataca mine which each day tunnels out thousands of tons of salt. It was interesting to note this is the street salt which many areas, including Harrisonville, use to coat roads when icy conditions develop. I had never really thought about touring a salt mine before, but it turned out to be quite fascinating.
First off, you take an unlit elevator 650 feet underground. To put that in perspective, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is not 650 feet tall. Once down deep, you discover miles and miles of tunnels from mining work which has gone on continuously for over 100 years. You see all of the abandoned trash from years gone by, how they ventilated the facility before the predominance of electricity and maybe most eerie, just how dark a cavern can be 650 feet down if they turn off the lights.
I was disappointed to learn they didn’t produce salt you can eat, that comes from another part of Kansas, but it was really fascinating how it is mined and disbursed throughout the country. I think I might have a better appreciation of what goes into salting the streets every winter.
The public part of the tour is an area mined in the 1940s and 50s so it has been around long enough to house a giftshop, of course, as well as serving as a depository for all kinds of movie memorabilia, like Superman’s suit from the movie. Believe it or not, a two-hour tour in the mines actually flies by pretty quickly. The bad news is, when you return to the surface, you are still in Hutchinson, Kansas.
I did round out my 60’s television tour, however, as we drove out to see Leslie’s childhood home in Dodge City. It has been years since I was in Dodge (or had to get out of Dodge, however you wish to view it.) Its tourist area used to be a pretty pathetic display of an old-west town. It was about a block long with one false front with several businesses named on it. A good tour would take about 10 minutes, if you dawdled. Recently, a new museum has been constructed and the front street attraction greatly enhanced. For a few minutes, it actually has an old-time feel and there are pictures of many of the characters and events you can read about in western novels.
I got to fulfill a childhood dream by drinking a beer in the Longbranch Saloon. Watching “Gunsmoke” for many years, the good guys always seemed to drink a beer while the bad guys drank harder stuff out of the bottle. We didn’t stay for the gunfight recreation so I am not sure who the good guys or bad guys were, but I would still put my money on the beer drinkers. Here is a trivia note, which I find hard to believe: According the information at the Longbranch, the beer carried back in the day was from Anheuser-Busch. It was chilled by cutting ice from the river in the winter time and in the summer, ice was shipped in from Colorado. That seems like a lot of work just to be able to offer up a cold one, but I am sure the cowboys coming off the Kansas plains were more than appreciative of the effort.