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By Jim Richardson
Every time I headed back to Cuba, I was afraid the town would be gone.
Driving across the dusty Kansas plains, down ever narrowing roads, past derelict towns and forsaken farms, I feared that Cuba might have gone the way of so many other once vital places on the Great Plains, drained of people, businesses, and hope. Like others whose heartstrings are tethered to a small-town past, I wanted to believe that our rural towns and villages—places we cloak in myths of goodness and simplicity—could somehow survive.
All of us have a place we think of as "our town." Cuba, Kansas—15 miles from the farm near Belleville where I grew up—is mine. As far as I can tell, the town, founded in 1868 by farmers moving westward after the Civil War, was named Cuba after a visitor who'd traveled to the Caribbean island passed through the area. He apparently entranced the settlers with tales of Cubans fighting the Spanish for freedom, a story that must have resonated with the early townspeople, including Czech-speaking immigrants from Bohemia—a region then under Austria's thumb—who came here in the 1870s.
I first made Cuba's acquaintance in the mid-1970s as a young photojournalist who wanted to document small-town America before it was gone. Cuba seemed a ripe subject, a town of fewer than 300 people surrounded by dryland wheat farms that surely the next drought or economic crisis would send to its doom.
I have seen the schools and farms of my childhood vanish, and towns wither away and die of abandonment as people left seeking work or excitement. That's why every time I went back to Cuba, the dread of loss traveled with me. But whenever I turned the corner onto its main street, Cuba was still there, with its silver water tower, wide gravel streets, and community hall—and in the center of it all, Wes Klima's gas station. What a relief to find his place full of men playing cards, perfecting their jokes and tall tales beneath girlie pinups on the walls.
Cuba taught me the recipe for community. It's all about people—because that's really the only thing Cuba has going for it. Every death, birth, departure, and arrival marks an important occasion. Just the other night, I found Curtis Trecek in the café with family and friends. Curtis wasn't even born when I started coming here, and now he was going off to the war in Iraq. I hadn't intended to shoot any pictures, but I couldn't resist. It's been that way for 30 years.
Time can take a toll on small, out-of-the-way towns like Cuba. Long ago trim, freshly painted houses lined the streets. Farmers had money in their pockets and spent it in the town's stores. Two railroads brought trains to town, and on Saturday night the place was hopping. Even Lawrence Welk and his band came here. Today hardly anybody finds his way to Cuba. The trains are gone, many of the old houses are vacant, and farmers are scarce, victims of drought and low prices.
Most casual visitors will swear time has stopped dead, that the only thing growing faster than the wheat is boredom. They're wrong, just as I was when I first came barreling into town. One summer day I found Betty Klaumann taking delight in her geese (they shouldn't have trusted her; she ate them every year). The sight of a farmwife waltzing with her geese reset my mental clock to another era. Since that moment I have relished the rhythms of Cuba. When a baseball game was rained out, people stayed and watched the storm. When the weather turned bad, farmers crowded into the Lazy B Bar. When business was slow, barber Charles "Andy" Andrews talked on his ham radio till the next haircut showed up. Yes, there is a sameness to many days, but that sameness becomes ritual, which makes each day part of a satisfying whole.
Since the Town's founding, farming has been the backbone of Cuba's economy. But try finding many farmers anymore. Agricultural efficiency is a killer of small towns: Bigger farms mean fewer farmers, fewer children, fewer schools, fewer stores. Gone and missed are the Lazy B Bar, the implement dealer, the Mustang Inn. But the work of the town goes on. Some families stay, a few retirees move in, and new shops open. The TV repair shop/beauty parlor is reborn as a café, and the Mustang Inn becomes an antiques market. It helps that citizens wear many hats. City officials teach or hang drywall, and, if needed, build a sidewalk by the Legion Hall.
"If we gave prizes for bizarre behavior, you'd have to hand out an awful lot of them," Jeannine Kopsa, one of the town's tireless festival planners, once said. There are frog races, blindfolded lawn mower sprints, and ladies' cow-chip-throwing contests. Making up fun is a necessity in a place 80 miles from the closest mall. When I first came, all ages flowed in and out of the bars where old folks showed off by ordering beer (pivo!) in Czech. The Czech Club met in the old Mustang Inn to sing, but now it's younger folks belting out karaoke tunes at the new café. Kids ride bikes, hold car washes, and watch high school football—thankful there's still a school to cheer for.
Everybody needs someone to lean on, and in a place with so few people, some folks stand out. The Chizek cousins make house calls as the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, cheering up the elderly. At the gas station, whenever Wes fell sick, his cardplaying pals worked the pumps and put the money in his desk. And then there was Doc, or as the license on his wall said, Dr. C. W. McClaskey. Arriving in 1929, Doc did everything from delivering babies—one in his office doorway—to giving generations of students free sports physicals. He loved to gossip and watch baseball on the waiting room TV, but mostly he loved making people feel better.
On the 50th anniversary of Doc's arrival, the town dedicated its Harvest Festival to him. Kids dressed up like Doc, paunchy with pillows under their clothes, and parade floats carried multigenerational gatherings of "Doc's babies," just a sampling of the 700 he delivered. That evening I asked the "babies" in attendance to come forward for a portrait with Doc. It felt like a revival meeting with all these folks standing up to give praise. Two years later Doc retired; two months after that, he died. The town knows that it's next to impossible to attract another full-time doctor. Now the nearest physician is ten miles away.
There's a message behind the baby contests and the matchmaking that goes on in Cuba: Towns die without children. That's why locals inspect each crop of kids for the spark that will keep Cuba alive. Einer Schou has that spark, a twinkle in his eye and devil in the grin. Einer was a young person who was determined to stay and farm. I first saw that grin when, as a teenager, he tried to ride a horse into the Mustang Inn. I saw it again when Einer danced with his new bride, Connie. They had grown up on neighboring farms, thrown together by matchmaking sisters. And when Einer thinks his son, Wes, might stay to work the farm, I see that grin again.
Recently the obituaries in my local paper noted the passing of Lourine Krob, preceded in death (as the wording goes) by her husband, Ben. I knew them as regulars at the Czech Club, back when Cuba still had enough Czechs to have a club. Among the few reminders left of the immigrant past is a painted backdrop of Old Town Square in Prague, donated by homesick immigrants and preserved on the stage of the community hall. Old-timers have a special feeling about it; the painting was the only thing that survived when the first town hall burned in 1928.
Cuba's history isn't so much written down as it is preserved by the likes of Mary Krasny. Visiting with her, I saw how high school class photographs from the World War I era leapt to life in her hands as she remembered who loved whom (and who didn't). Mary's voice is silent now, her spirit sorely missed.
If I put stock in statistics and trends, I'd be pessimistic about the health and longevity of Cuba. Since 1950 Cuba's population has fallen by a third, to 231; Republic County's high mark in population—19,000—came more than a century ago. But three decades of visiting Cuba has taught me to put my faith in the towns people. I know these folks. They're not done yet.