Meg Perry and family (Photos by Tom Parker)
Where the earth breathes—Kansas by way of L.A.
When Meg Perry’s son, Bear Santos, first laid eyes on the dinky rural town where his mother had moved and was setting up shop, he looked around at the broad gravel streets, the vacant storefronts of what remained of the downtown area, the 20 or so homes and the green fields beyond, and said, “Now I truly know the meaning of ‘the middle of nowhere.’”
Oak Hill isn’t really in the middle of nowhere, it just seems that way. The nearest city with any real amenities is Clay Center, 20 miles to the northeast, and Abilene lies just 30 miles to the south, which to any rural resident is merely a hop, skip and a jump. But Oak Hill doesn’t exist on any major highway or thoroughfare, exists, in fact, somewhere west or north or even south of familiar places, of peopled places, exists uncertainly at the junction of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe tracks and a narrow paved road leading from nowhere to nowhere without any form or semblance of a straight line. Oak Hill is off the beaten path, not far but far enough, but for its 35 residents it’s also home, which is the same thing as saying it’s the middle of everything.
And anyway, as Meg likes to say, being in the middle of nowhere is “a state of mind.”
Meg, who owns and operates the Blackberry Mercantile, one of the town’s two businesses, was introduced to Oak Hill as many people are: accidentally, or, as might best describe it, incidentally, through the fortuitous conjunction with seemingly unrelated events. An invitation from a sister. A trip to a state she’d never stepped foot inside. A friend’s similar quixotic quest. The right place at the right price. A dream dreamed and then realized.
For most of her life, Kansas didn’t exist. She was born in Connecticut and moved to Los Angeles when she was 21. L.A. had everything she needed and wanted except for opportunities to be as creative as she desired and room to branch out. In 1996 she accepted an invitation of a sister to visit her in Zeandale, a tiny town located between Manhattan and Wamego. The distance was more than can be calculated in miles, something Meg was quick to realize.
“It was just a little crossroads town,” she says, “but it really appealed to me. The rural atmosphere, the friendly people, the slower pace of life. It was so different from L.A.”
Kansas was a perfect place to retire to, she decided. With that in mind she bought a house, but her return to L.A. was shadowed by what she’d experienced in rural America. Three months later she quit her job and pulled up stakes, Kansas-bound.
She had been a professional code enforcement officer and as such went looking for a job to match her skills. Manhattan offered her a position as city planner, which she accepted. That led to code enforcement director for the city of Topeka, where she worked for years.
Beside her career, she enjoyed crafts, especially botanical art weaving pressed flowers with vintage and designer textiles. On weekends she’d attend art and craft fairs and sell her works. It was at one such event in Atchison that she met Lonny and Jean Moore, who worked in pottery. They commiserated about the widening of Highway 24 linking Manhattan and Wamego and the concomitant loss of the latter’s small-town charm, and talked of how nice it would be to have their own place and not have to spend weekends packing, hauling, unpacking and then repeating the process. A place in the country would be the ticket, they decided. Some small town as yet unsullied by rampant development. A place off the map but not too far off.
The phone call caught her off guard. “We found the country,” Jean said one day.
Jean’s parents had bought a farm outside of Oak Hill, and the Moores liked it so much they purchased the empty school. It would become their pottery studio—now Oak Hill Pottery—and they knew Meg would be interested. She was, and on first sight. And then she lost her job.
Though never welcome, sudden job losses often lead to a reappraisal of one’s position. “It was time to become self-employed,” she says. “The end of the job expedited the move.”
As in, made the future a little more clear. When a dilapidated shed and house went on the auction block she was there to fight for them. In her mind she could envision a little shop where she could sell her crafts and handmade products, and a house two doors down. The properties needed some work but her son had his own construction company. And so Bear arrived from sultry Atlanta and scratching his head declared the town the middle of nowhere.
“He had the vision to turn the shed into a store,” Meg says. “And I could work with him. We started on Labor Day in 2004 and opened by Thanksgiving.”
And it wasn’t just a shop, it was an extension of her creative self—even as Oak Hill wasn’t just a small Kansas town but a place she’d been looking for her whole life. The two, shop and town, were inextricably linked.“This is where you can hear the earth breathe,” Meg says, with a touch of awe apparent in her voice. “You can hear the wind blowing five miles up. The noises of nature are calming and inspiring. It’s boosted my creativity.”
Her creativity ran the gamut from photography to artworks featuring pressed flowers, Art Deco notecards reproduced from vintage lithographs from the 1920s and ‘30s, pillows, purses, and stationary imprinted with colorful dried botanicals. To round out the inventory she handpicked items from 25 other vendors specializing in Kansas-made products, and networked with other mercantiles across the state in mercantile-hops. Slowly but steadily the business began growing.
Flowers for her artwork are grown outside the front door or in neatly arranged rows in back. She’s also granted access to gather flowers from other gardens around town. Her newest project involves a greenhouse which when complete will enable her to raise and sell starter plants. Recently she brought in a lofted cabin built by Mennonites and had it situated by the greenhouse. The loft area will be used for drying flowers and the lower area for a workshop and storage.
And yet, Oak Hill was more accident than destination, and travelers arrived either knowing the Mercantile or the pottery shop were there, or they didn’t arrive at all. Something had to change.
Inspired in part by the 2006 Hot Wheels celebration in Speed, Kan., an event that swelled the town’s population from 35 to 10,000, even if only for a day, Meg decided she needed to do something for her town. “If that little town can do it, I’m going to try it, too,” she remembers thinking. “I’m a risk-taker, an experimenter.”
The real question was, “What can you do with a town that has nothing?” She fielded it to Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, who gave Meg a piece of advice she took to heart: “Whatever you do, give it a catchy name.”
After some thought, she remembered what her son had said when he first saw the town. And so the Middle of Nowhere Fair came to be.
The first fair drew more than 500 people. The local pastor, in an unofficial survey, used license plates as a means of rating the fair’s exposure. He counted plates from nine different Kansas counties and two states.
“It was better than expected,” Meg says. “In fact, I didn’t sit down until 3:30 that afternoon. I was caught off guard.”
It was, however, a pleasant surprise. And the next fair, held this spring, was not only better organized, she had managed to enlist the aid of townspeople and even her son. The pastor, again in his unofficial official role as license-plate counter, ticked off vehicles from 15 Kansas counties and two states.
“We’re reaching people outside the county,” Meg says. “It’s working.”
Another Middle of Nowhere Fair is being planned for the fall.
“It hasn’t always been easy but I’ve always been busy, one way or the other,” Meg says. “That’s exciting. I’m a lot happier, and I get to be creative, garden, go to auctions and sales, and sell things.”
Meg’s products can be found at her Web site, www.vinestreetcottage.com, or at the Blackberry Mercantile. The Mercantile is open Thursday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m., and by appointment. For more information, contact Meg at 785-388-2665. Or better yet, drop by and see for yourself what the middle of nowhere looks like. It’s not as far as you think.