Between Council Grove and Cassoday is the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway, a 47.2 mile stretch of road surrounded by sloping hills, wildflowers and prairie grasses. The scene hasn't changed much since the time of the Old West-you can almost see the wagon trains crossing in front of you as you follow K-177 south.
About halfway between lies Cottonwood Falls. It is a town of just under a thousand people, and it's home to the Chase County Courthouse-the oldest county courthouse still in continuous use west of the Mississippi.
If you make a right turn from the Scenic Byway onto Friend Street and go into town, you'll cross Broadway-Cottonwood Falls' main downtown street. To the south you'll see the courthouse. If you are looking for Charley Klamm at one of the buildings lining downtown, you'll find him at the Fiber Factory-a blue-and-purple painted storefront. The yellowing sign in front says "Visitors Welcome."
If you ask a friendly person to send you toward Charley's house you'll end up at the same place.
Inside Fiber Factory, the room brims with weaving looms loaded with half-finished projects. Tables showcase completed products for sale-crisscross rugs, scarves, hats and even earrings made from scrap denim. Some of his wife Carol's intricate tatting work-doilies and tiny green shamrocks-are displayed here, too.
"The house, the shop, it's all together," Charley said as he ducked through a doorway into the living room of the home he and Carol share. "I never have to walk to work in the rain."
Charley and Carol moved back to Cottonwood Falls 17 years ago after 35 years in Topeka. There, Charley was a photographer for the State of Kansas in what is now the Department of Transportation. His first camera was a Trusite Minicam that he bought for $7-all the money he had at the time. It sits with the rest of his camera collection on shelves behind the counter at the Fiber Factory.
While the work was consistent, he was restless.
"You can only take a picture of a bridge so many ways," Klamm said. "And I'm a country boy. I wanted to come back."
The Klamms bought the last two available buildings-old offices-in Cottonwood Falls when they returned, renovating them into a home and the store. Their kitchen occupies what was once a boardroom.
The couple has been weavers ever since Carol's mother asked her to pick up the craft from where she left off. Carol took a class and was hooked. Charley picked up a weaving loom from the late 1800s for a song. He restored it to pristine condition, and along the way became a gifted weaver, too.
Now they have nine weaving looms in operation at any given time. The couple's specialty is rugs made from old jeans-evidenced by the piles of them lining the walls. They cut out pieces from the legs, cut those into strips, load them on the loom with huge spools of blue and white yarn, and get to work. A 38-inch rug takes about eight hours to finish. The loom clangs loudly as strips are woven, requiring a good amount of physical effort by the weaver.
"It's a good way to get out your anger," Charley joked.
One doubts that Charley has an anger management problem or even much to get mad about. Since returning to Cottonwood Falls, he has worked hard to preserve the history of his corner of the Flint Hills. He was determined to bring the Scenic Byway designation to the area-the first of what are now 11 stretches of highway in the state. He is president of the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway committee that maintains the road with the help of state and federal grants. It's his voice you hear if you tune into the AM radio station that provides highlights of the Scenic Byway.
Klamm ascribes wholeheartedly to the committee's motto-"Leave it like it is, see it like it is."
"Every mile is a scenic view," he said. "We wanted to preserve it."
He helped plant flowers and still mows the grounds at the Schrumpf Hill Scenic Overlook just south of town. Here visitors can see the Tallgrass Prairie for miles in every direction from the center of a circular platform lined with native stone.
When a local program ended that took tourists on guided treks around the area, Charley began driving them himself. He inherited the presidency of the local historical society when there was no board of directors and rounded up a group of interesting people to renew dedication to the program-and to local tourism.
"When city people come out here and watch the sun drop below the hills, to them, that's amazing," Klamm said.
He explained how he can spot a sightseer as soon as one gets out of a car on Broadway.
"They lock their doors," he chuckled.
Charley admits that determination is part of his success in keeping local stories alive. When the family of famed Notre Dame head football coach Knute Rockne, who died in a 1931 plane crash in a wheat field in nearby Bazaar, called him to loan a specially made Studebaker to the historical society, he was excited-and stumped, because he had no place to put it. He and the society's vice president bought a building from the high school but still had to find a way to get the car into its new home.
"They said, 'You can't get that car in there,'" Klamm remembers. "I said, 'Watch me.'"
They tore down the front of the building, put the car inside and built the front back up around it.
The next time you make the drive down K-177 to the Flint Hills Scenic Byway, take your time. Soak up all the history and beauty of the Tallgrass Prairie. And think about stopping by to say hello to Charley and Carol at the Fiber Factory in Cottonwood Falls. Charley will be happy to show you around.