Founded in 1872, McPherson is a city of 14,000 in Central Kansas, with a reputation for industry, agriculture and education, thanks to two colleges.
It’s no stretch to call McPherson an ideal small town, and there’s a flourishing Main Street, cute public parks, one-of-a-kind events and ample inspiration for things to do.
If you’re a sports fan, you may want to find out how McPherson helped Team USA to an Olympic Gold in basketball in 1936.
This and many more stories are revealed at the awesome McPherson Museum & Arts Foundation, which punches well above its weight for a town of this size.
1. Downtown McPherson
Main Street McPherson is pretty close to a perfect central commercial district. Every business you can find here is locally owned, and it may take you a long time to traverse these few blocks from the railroad tracks down to Skancke Street.
There are one-off stores for antiques, used books, games, doughnuts, health food, flowers, shoes, art supplies, women’s fashion, jewelry, candy, furniture and more than we can list here.
For culture you’ve got the magnificent McPherson Opera House, the VIP McPherson 4 and galleries like The Clayworks, which has a heartwarming story.
And food-wise there’s a cosmopolitan spread, with Italian, Mexican, grills, a BBQ spot, delis, Chinese and the beloved Neighbors Café for breakfast classics.
2. McPherson Museum & Arts Foundation
McPherson lays claim to one of the best local history museums in the state. This was founded in the 1960s when the city and McPherson College combined their collections.
The college’s rich inventory dates back to the 1890s and today the McPherson Museum now has some 25,000 items in its reserves, with specialties in paleontology, geology, fine art, Native American history, pioneer history and McPherson’s local history.
The museum moved into a modern new home in 2013, and has countless exciting things to see, like an intact ground sloth skeleton from the La Brea Tar Pits, paintings and lithographs by Birger Sandzén, meteorites, cultural artifacts from Africa and China and Native American tools, pottery and arrowheads.
There’s also an enthralling exhibit devoted to the McPherson Globe Refiners, a local amateur basketball team that helped team USA take gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
3. McPherson Opera House
A deserved source of local pride, the McPherson Opera House is a thriving performing arts venue dating back to 1889, and completing an $8.5 million renovation in 2010.
Mixing Renaissance and Romanesque Revival elements, this building originally hosted live performances, suffrage meetings and political rallies before being converted into a movie theater in the 1920s at the dawn of the sound era.
The auditorium kept that role until the mid-1960s, and a period of decline then followed. This was all brought to an end by that long-term rehabilitation, which has returned the building to its original splendor, and furnished it with cutting-edge production facilities.
On the menu are concerts by major touring acts, classic and first-run movies, comedy shows, dance performances and children’s shows.
4. All Schools Day
This unique festival dates back to 1914, making it the longest running celebration of its kind in the nation.
The roots of All Schools Day go back to a parade and banquet in honor of eighth grade graduates, and this has evolved into a whole week of events and activities for families to enjoy.
Beginning on the first Friday in May, the program features a week-long carnival in Wickersham Park, a “Madathon” (Youth Olympic-style games) and a May Fete on the Wednesday and Thursday evenings.
Then, on the second Friday there’s a grand parade downtown, attended by 40,000+ people, followed by fireworks after dark.
5. McPherson Community Building
This cavernous brick building downtown dates to 1928, and has recently come through a program of renovations.
Close to a century after it was built, the McPherson Community Building is a vital multipurpose venue, hosting sports events, exhibitions, receptions, meetings and more besides.
In the 1930s the gymnasium was home court to the McPherson Globe Refiners, a successful amateur basketball team sponsored by the local refinery.
Under the guidance of innovative coach Gene Johnson, the Refiners won the AAU national championship in 1936, and formed a combined squad (contributing six players) with Hollywood Universal to represent USA at the Berlin Olympics.
The Refiners’ players starred in the gold medal game, defeating Canada 19-8, 56 years before the Dream Team. .
6. Lakeside Park
On Turkey Creek, this delightful park is in the center of McPherson, roughly between Main Street and the McPherson College campus.
This makes Lakeside Park a natural place to gather for outdoor events in summer. The bandshell hosts a series of movies on Fridays, all through June and July.
Lakeside Park is linked to neighboring spaces along Turkey Creek, and has wide-ranging facilities including a disc golf course, four playgrounds (one ADA accessible), six picnic shelters, the beautiful Swan Court fountain and a fishing lagoon.
7. McPherson Water Park
For an affordable family day out there’s a top-notch public water park next to Lakeside Park and open all through the school summer break.
The headline attractions at McPherson Water Park are an eight-lane 50-meter pool, a 500-foot lazy river, a spacious zero-depth entry leisure pool, a giant water slide, a diving well and a wonderful children’s splash pad area.
If you’re here to kick back and let your children burn off some energy, you can make the most of the sun bathing areas, with ample shade and good lines of sight. Friday nights are Family Night, with discounted entry and a special theme every few weeks.
8. Meadowlark Trail
Years in the making, there’s a multi-use trail taking shape on the Union Pacific railroad corridor. This will soon run the full 12.6 miles between McPherson and Lindsborg to the north.
Lindsborg merits a visit, as we’ll see later in this list, and the trail has been rolled out in several phases over the last 25 years or so.
When we compiled this list, the majority of the trail was open to the public, save for a two-mile section between Rainbow and Pueblo Rds, which required a detour. At the McPherson end you can park at a grass lot found at the corner of Moccasin Rd and U.S. Highway 81.
This little town, reachable via the Meadowlark Trail, is known for its Swedish heritage, having first been settled by farmers from the Värmland in the late 1860s.
Lindsborg has a sister city, Munkfors, in the same part of Sweden, and in on odd years in October celebrates the biennial Svensk Hyllningsfest (Swedish Honoring Festival), with a parade, traditional dancing, cooking demonstrations, arts and crafts, typical food such as lutfisk, and much more.
There are lots of year-round clues to this Swedish connection, including cheerfully painted Dala horses of all sizes showing up on doors, sidewalks and in the gift shops downtown.
You can also dive into the city’s Swedish-American history at the McPherson County Old Mill Museum, which has the 1904 World’s Fair Swedish Pavilion on its grounds, while there’s a gallery on the Bethany College campus presenting the work of Swedish-American landscape painter Birger Sandzén (1871-1954).
10. Dyck Arboretum Of The Plains
A little further out, this attraction at Hesston College displays the botanical diversity of Kansas and the Great Plains.
Begun in 1981, the Dyck Arboretum Of The Plains is on 13 acres, with another 18 acres to the south dedicated to an ongoing prairie restoration.
The original plot has a sequence of gardens growing native and adaptable trees, as well as wildflowers, shrubs, and a rich diversity of grasses.
On a self-guided tour you can learn about the various ecoregions of Kansas and appreciate the Shade Garden, Xeric Garden, Butterfly Garden, Rain Garden, the Buffalo Grass Meadow and Our Mother’s Garden, a touching memorial garden planted with ornamental varieties brought to Kansas by homesteaders in the 19th century.
11. Maxwell Wildlife Refuge
You can get another glimpse of the natural scenery that greeted settlers some 150 years ago at the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge, a short trip northeast of McPherson.
On the southern edge of the Smoky Hills range is a rolling landscape of mixed grass prairie grazed by elk and bison.
The refuge covers more than 2,500 acres, and dates from 1859, when the Maxwell family sought to preserve a parcel of the prairie landscape and its native bison, which were fast being eradicated from the Great Plains.
You can head here for a tour on a covered tram, getting close to the bison herd (and elk in winter), and finding out more about the Maxwell family and the wonders of the Kansas Prairie.
12. Wall Bicentennial Park
McPherson’s largest park is the southernmost of that string of public parks along Turkey Creek.
Here, the creek feeds the four-acre Mingenback Lake, which is traced by a half-mile walking trail. Wall Bicentennial Park is the apt venue for McPherson’s 4th of July fireworks show.
The park is also endowed with plentiful amenities, among them an exercise trail, a skate park, playgrounds for youngsters, a cluster of baseball/softball fields, tennis courts, handball courts, four picnic shelters, restrooms and many acres of open space.
13. The Clayworks
Not to be missed in downtown McPherson is a unique pottery studio and sales gallery supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Artists at The Clayworks decide when they want to make something, and what they feel like creating. They are assisted by professional art educators, helping with kilns, potters’ wheels and other implements.
One hundred percent of the proceeds go to the artists, helping to give them a little extra independence, as well as a creative outlet and sense of accomplishment.
Visiting the studio you’ll get to meet these talented artists and get an insight into the process, while the One Door North Gallery is a showroom for these one-of-a-kind creations.
14. McPherson County Courthouse
Ensconced in the greenery of Memorial Park is the solemn McPherson County Courthouse, built in 1893.
Still in use, the building is in the Richardsonian Romanesque style and composed of Cottonwood limestone quarried some 60 miles west near Strong City.
The defining feature is the 105-foot square bell tower, with a clock that was installed in 1908. The west lawn is a pretty scene, with a pergola, gazebo and memorials including a bronze equestrian statue of Union Civil War General James Birdseye McPherson (1828-1964), for whom the city and county are named.
He was killed at the Battle of Atlanta, becoming the second-highest-ranking Union officer killed in action during the war.
15. Turkey Creek Golf Course
McPherson has a highly-rated public golf course, directly south of Wall Bicentennial Park. Turkey Creek Golf Course was laid out in 1990, and has immaculate bluegrass fairways and perfect bent grass greens.
This is an 18-hole par 70, with a reputation for devilish water hazards thanks to a string of ponds next to Turkey Creek, so it’s a good idea to pack some extra balls.
You may want to get your swing into shape, and there’s an excellent driving range here, at more than 300 yards and with all-grass hitting stations.