In the remote southwest of Kansas, Liberal is a city with a name that describes the area’s first settler, one S. S. Rogers.
He had a reputation for being generous, or liberal, with his water, to the relief of many a thirsty traveler crossing this arid landscape.
Liberal is in the very heart of the Great Plains, and is the largest settlement in an area with land from five different states: Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas.
Something that might strike you about Liberal is its bizarre annual traditions. One is a race on Shrove Tuesday, run by women holding skillets and tossing pancakes, and timed against rivals from a town in Buckinghamshire, England.
1. Mid-America Air Museum
Liberal Mid-America Regional Airport (LBL) started out in World War II as Liberal Army Airfield, a B-24 Liberator pilot training base that was operational for three years.
This heritage makes it an appropriate place for one of the top aviation museums in the region, established in the 1980s after one Colonel Tom Thomas, Jr., donated his collection of more than 50 aircraft to the city.
With more than 100 aircraft on show, the museum is in an immense hangar built by the manufacturer, Beech Aircraft in the 1970s.
The collection represents more than 90 years of aviation development and any enthusiast will feel like a kid in a candy store.
Some of the stars are a Grumman F-14 Tomcat, of the kind that appeared in Top Gun (1986), one of the first jet fighters, a WWII Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star, and a Vietnam-era Bell UH-1D Iroquois.
2. International Pancake Day
The town of Olney in Buckinghamshire, England has an eccentric Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) tradition, thought to date back to 1445.
On this day, also known as Pancake Day in the UK, the women run from the marketplace to a local church around 400 yards away while constantly tossing a pancake in a skillet.
Liberal joined in the fun in 1950, and every year since then has taken part in friendly rivalry, comparing the best time. All of the competitors have to have lived in Liberal (or Olney) for the past three months, and no ringers are allowed.
Liberal has built up a considerable lead over its English counterpart, and you can read up on the history of this event at the International Pancake Day Hall of Fame (more later).
3. Dorothy’s House and the Land of Oz
Even now, one of the things that people associate with Kansas is the Wizard of Oz, and Liberal has an attraction infused with some of that magic.
Dorothy’s House is a quirky recreation of Dorothy Gale’s “home” originally built in Topeka but relocated to Liberal a few years later.
The colorful exhibit combines intriguing historical detail with characters and sights you’ll know from the movie, like the yellow brick road.
You’ll be led on a tour by guides, dressed in Dorothy-style gingham dresses and wearing ruby slippers. The gift shop is brimming with Wizard of Oz memorabilia.
4. Seward County Coronado Museum
On the same campus is a museum dedicated to Native American life in the area, as well as the intrepid expedition by 16th-century conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado through modern day Kansas in search of the mythical Seven Cities of Gold.
The museum’s setting is an elegant residence dating back to 1918, still featuring its original wood fittings and relocated to this site in 1961.
The display traces Coronado’s journey across the Southwest, and has a sizable collection of artifacts from some 300 years later when this corner of Kansas was settled.
You can pore over weapons, quilts, antique medical instruments, historic home furnishings, quilts, as well as artifacts from the Native American people who called these lands home long before Coronado passed through.
5. Liberal Bee Jays
When we compiled this list, Liberal’s baseball team had just switched to the Rocky Mountain Collegiate Baseball League, which is under the National Baseball Congress (NBC). The Liberal Bee Jays are a local institution, with a history reaching back to 1955.
This outfit has claimed five national championships and 14 conference titles and has been coached by three major league managers, and sent more than 160 players to Major League Baseball.
The Bee Jays, named for baseball pioneer Byron Bancroft Johnson (1864-1931), play their home games at Seward County Community College’s Brent Gould Field, with a regular season that runs from June to August.
6. Baker Arts Center
Liberal couple Irene Dillon and Francis Marion Baker left their beautiful home and art collection to the Baker Arts Foundation, to realize their dream of a multifaceted arts center for the community.
There are three galleries at the Baker Arts Center, together with the excellent children’s fun zone, and an educational studio for art and music classes and workshops all year round.
The foundation has a large permanent collection, with selections on display at the main gallery, along with exhibitions featuring talented local and regional artists.
The center is deeply involved in the community, and as well as workshops in the studio there’s a beloved pottery program teaching basic skills.
7. Duck Race Festival
This idiosyncratic event brings a big crowd to Liberal’s Light Park towards the end of September. In the buildup to the Duck Race Festival you’ll be able to sign up to “adopt” a rubber duck for $10.
This can be done at the Chamber Office and a host of businesses downtown with a “Ducks Sold Here” sign.
Then at 2pm on the day, the ducks “compete” in a race that pays out big prize money, with the winning duck earning its owner $5,000. The festival is a whole afternoon of fun, with a chili & soup cook-off, a farmers’ market and a schedule of duck-themed games.
8. International Pancake Day Hall of Fame
To get the background for the curious Shrove Tuesday race you can arrange a visit to the International Pancake Day Hall of Fame, another of Liberals’ lovable roadside attractions.
Found at the race’s finish line, this museum has volumes of history, explaining the origins of the race in Olney and how it was adopted in Liberal.
There’s an abundance of memorabilia from past races, and plenty of charming old photographs of past competitors. You can also pick up pancake themed gifts and t-shirts commemorating past races.
9. Adventure Bay Family Water Park
In summer there’s an awesome public water park at Light Park, between downtown Liberal and the Seward County Community College campus.
You’ve got three pools at Adventure Bay Family Water Park: A lap pool, a family-friendly leisure with basketball hoops and a rope course, and finally a zero-depth children’s pool complete with pirate-themed play equipment and a tipping bucket.
Kids will have hours of fun on the park’s four water slides, and these are grouped in pairs and splash down in the lap pool. Normally the park is open daily, Memorial Day weekend through mid-August, and then on weekends through Labor Day.
10. Pancake House
Liberal takes pancakes seriously, as you’ll discover at this breakfast restaurant, open Tuesday to Sunday until 1pm.
In a humble-looking building that has received generations of diners, the Pancake House has a wide-ranging menu, all on the pancake theme. So you’ve got classic American hotcakes in a dozen different varieties, from buttermilk to blueberry, potato and coconut.
You can also go international with French crepes, Dutch pancakes or Swedish pancakes, while there’s an extensive waffle menu, a big choice of omelets and all kinds of other breakfast dishes, like biscuits & gravy, scrambled eggs and oatmeal.
11. Arkalon Park
If you want to break out into nature there’s a park off of Hwy 54, about ten miles northeast of Liberal.
Laced with water, Arkalon Park rests in the Cimarron River valley and is open to the public April through mid-October.
Awaiting you are ponds for fishing, as well as trails, a sheltered picnic area, a volleyball court, children’s playground and a campground with multiple sites for RVs and tents.
The Cimarron River valley is a honeypot for birdlife, particularly waterfowl and bald eagles, which can be seen perching in the treetops in the winter.
12. Southgate Cinema 6
This multiplex gives you a big city movie experience in a small town package. Initially a four-screen theater, Southgate Cinema 6 added two extra screens when it was taken over by the Mitchell Theatres chain in 2009.
All of the auditoriums here have high-back rocker seats, stadium seating and lots of space between rows.
Each screen is also equipped with up-to-date technology, such as 7.1 Digital Surround sound, digital projection and 3D. Consult the schedule for reduced $4 Films, while matinee prices were a flat $5 for all customers at the time of writing.
13. Willow Tree Golf Course
If you’re a golfer looking for an affordable place for a round, there’s a popular municipal course close to the airport in Liberal.
Laid out in 1967 and open all year (weather permitting), Willow Tree Golf Course is an 18-hole, par 72 on rye grass. Part of the challenge at this track comes from the rolling terrain, and there’s a slope rating of 121.
Most of the holes are pretty straightforward, except for doglegs on a couple of the par 5s and the tricky 3rd hole, which is a par 4. There’s also a driving range, with a large bucket of range balls costing as little as $6 when we wrote this list.
14. Light Park
Scene of the Duck Race, the park surrounding Adventure Bay has plenty of other recreation amenities, all within a short walk of downtown Liberal.
Light Park was given a makeover a few years ago, and is praised for the excellent upkeep of its lawns. If you have children in tow there are two age specific playgrounds, as well as sports facilities for soccer and tennis.
There’s a wide assortment of eateries within a short walk of Light Park, so you could bring lunch or sweet treats for a picnic in the shade.
15. Seward County Five State Fair
The Seward County Fairgrounds are in the west of Liberal towards the airport. Every August this is the setting for a fair that attracts visitors and exhibitors from five different states.
Like the best county fairs, this event is designed to appeal to all ages and backgrounds. So that means 4-H and livestock shows, auctions, art displays, trade shows, craft shows, a carnival and comforting fair food.
Live entertainment is part of the fun, with a mix of community performances and shows by big stars, to go with the KPRA rodeo and high-octane stock car racing.