Cuba, Kansas: Small-Town America with Big-Time Resilience
As a young photojournalist, Jim Richardson set out to “document small-town America before it was gone.” Growing up in north central Kansas, he had seen schools and businesses close in surrounding rural communities as people left in search of jobs or other opportunities in bigger cities. Thinking Cuba was destined to someday become a ghost town, he began photographing the city with a population of less than 300 that was located not far from where he was reared. What developed was a portfolio of people who refused to let their town die without a fight.
Some of what Richardson pictured over 35 years ago has come true. Today, Cuba’s population – at 156 residents according to the 2010 census – has dwindled to just over half of what it was when he began photographing the community in 1975. The school has closed. Also gone are the television repair shop, doctor’s office, liquor store, farm equipment company, feed store, plumber, lumberyard, and laundromat.
However, in an article published in the May, 2004 issue of National Geographic, Richardson focused on Cuba’s resilience.
“If I put stock in statistics and trends, I’d be pessimistic about the health and longevity of Cuba,” he wrote. “But three decades of visiting Cuba has taught me to put my faith in the townspeople. I know these folks; they’re not done yet.”
Although not a picture-perfect scenario, new businesses continue to develop in the small town. A bank, greenhouse, antique store, fertilizer plant and, most recently, a trailer manufacturer join existing businesses that include a grocery store, café, gas station and beauty shop.
But it’s more than businesses, buildings and streets that keep a town alive, Richardson noted recently.
“The people of Cuba realize the core ingredient is community,” he says, adding the Cuba community reaches far beyond the city’s limits to include more than 700 people from the surrounding area. “Over the years what I’ve seen is that Cuba has been fortunate to have a string of people who have the vision and talent for building community, for keeping activities going and for bringing people together. What they’ve shown is that if you can make a town fun and rewarding, people will come.”
The town’s long-running Harvest Festival began with traditional activities such as a City Band concert, baby beauty contest, parade, horse shoe tournament, and street dance. As times changed, new events were envisioned. Innovative minds created a lawn mower race with blindfolded drivers, a two-person sled pulling competition, a cow chip throwing contest, road rally, and Bohemian horse races.
“It just doesn’t matter what the games are,” Richardson says. “The important thing is to have an atmosphere where people have fun. If you go to Cuba, you’re going to have a good time.”
Another longtime event is the Cuba Rock-A-Thon, where the goal is to keep rocking chairs moving night and day for an entire week to raise funds for community projects. Musical entertainment, comedy skits, educational programs, auctions, baking contests, dances, craft sales and plenty of food have all accompanied the rocking. A full day’s activities typically focus on the community’s Czechoslovakian heritage and feature an authentic Czech meal complete with kolaches. This past year’s Rock-A-Thon even offered an “I Want To Be Like Jim Richardson” Photo Contest.
It’s not unusual for Cuba residents to try new things, but the events always feature activities for all ages. For several years, a Frog Fest included a frog leg dinner and a variety of games at the City Park.
The newest event is a Tunes & BBQ Fall Festival in October with a barbecue rib contest, chili cook off, pumpkin carving contest and dance. The event was the result of input from younger residents in the area, whose opinions community leader Dale Huncovsky values.
“My vision is to get some young people involved,” Huncovsky said. “The Rock-A-Thon committee and the Booster Club are people my age or older and we’ve got to figure out some way to keep this town going.”
Dale and his wife, LaVerna, operate the Two Doors Down café and its adjoining Czechers party hall where they sponsor live music concerts throughout the year, a Fish Fry in the spring, and a Halloween Party featuring a frog leg and catfish supper and a costume contest.
They also operate the Cuba Cash Store and a catering business. At the full line grocery, Dale grinds hamburger and cuts meat to order, wrapping it in paper for customers, and he regularly smokes pork chops and brisket. They preserve the community’s Czechoslovakian heritage by selling LaVerna’s homemade kolaches and Dale’s ring bologna and jaternice made from treasured historic Czech recipes.
The hub of the town, the Cuba Cash Store is where people call to learn of community events and how they can help a neighbor in need. Nearly a decade ago when Dale faced health issues, people showed up in a flash to unload the truck that delivers merchandise to the store. They continue to do so for the Huncovskys every week. Working together toward a common goal is what the people of Cuba enjoy doing, and there always seems to be something that needs done.
Just across the alley from the grocery is the historic 1884 limestone blacksmith shop that community members spent countless hours restoring. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the shop is the scene of demonstrations of the dying art of blacksmithing during special events. Huncovsky said plans are underway to park antique machinery nearby.
“We got a grant from the county to pour some concrete slabs to put about a dozen pieces of machinery out there to display,” Huncovsky said. “That’s one project we have going on.”
Another is to beautify Main Street where residents already moved in a country schoolhouse where school pictures and memorabilia are displayed. A peek inside the nearby office building that served the town’s doctor for more than a half-century reveals many of his instruments and equipment in a window display, adding to the historic preservation of the neighborhood.
A majority of the town’s activities occur at the century-old Cuba Community Hall, renovated to include a Senior Citizens Center and roller skating rink. Richardson commends the community members for their work on getting the funding and updating the building.
“How many towns in Kansas would just love to have a facility where people can come for events or for celebrations?,” he said. “You see people from other towns coming to Cuba because they simply have a physical place where things can happen. That whole business of getting the grant and pouring in all the work to really make the Community Hall solid and accessible, putting in an elevator, has proven itself to be incredibly wise over time.”
He also admires the residents’ determination to accomplish great things despite being small in numbers, adding that rural communities have advantages more need to exploit.
“The great advantage small towns have over larger communities is that you can make things happen,” Richardson said. “They have relatively fewer hoops you have to jump through; if you decide you want to have nighttime lawn mower races you can do it as there are only about three people you have to get to say ‘yes’.”
Keeping innovative ideas coming and nurturing a new generation to take leadership roles and try new things is important to those who live and work in and around Cuba, and should be to other small towns as well.
“There are many lessons that come out of that place that can be transferred to other places,” Richardson said. “But all communities are going to have to find their own path.”