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Grainfield, KS : Community News

Sept. 23, 2009 - Hays Daily News
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GRAINFIELD -- A.J. Heier, Riley Anderson, and Lucus and Christian West sat along the sidewalk on Main Street on Friday afternoon with a bevy of toy cars scattered about.

With one in each hand and others within arm's reach, the boys, ages third through sixth grade, raced their cars through the dirt, kicking up plumes of dust.

School was out for the day and the boys, three of whom were sporting team colors, had a couple of hours to kill before kickoff of the Wheatland-Grinnell football game.

"We'll take our cars with us" to the game, Heier said.

Sophomore Marcus West was out, too, roller blading through Main Street and keeping an eye on his younger brothers.

Without a movie theater, arcade or shopping mall to occupy their time, the children and adults in this town of about 300 have to find ways to make their own fun.

On the south side of town, Terry Ostmeyer and Rodney Haffner sat on the back of Ostmeyer's Ford pickup Friday with a can of smoked almonds sitting between them.

They looked out onto a vacant lot owned by Haffner as Ostmeyer's son, Chandler, and Haffner's, son, Kyler, rode their dirt bikes through a makeshift course.

"There were eight or nine of them out here a little bit ago," the elder Ostmeyer said.

The children who use the track don't compete except among themselves.

"It's just novice," Ostmeyer said.

Nearly 20 years after the football teams had combined, USD 291 Grinnell and USD 292 Wheatland combined the rest of the sports teams in 2006 and entered into a cooperative agreement in 2007 to join forces in the classroom.

"We're way better together than we ever would have been apart," senior Logan Stephens said.

The agreement, which comes up for renewal every two years, placed all high school students at Wheatland's facility in Grainfield, all middle school students in Grinnell and allowed each town to keep its grade school.

Prior to the agreement, the districts' junior high schools had joined sports teams, but the need grew from middle school to high school, according to Wheatland Superintendent Darrin Herl.

"Then we decided if we're going to do sports, we might as well do academics," Herl said. "It's a package deal, that way we can have competition in the classroom and we can have competition on the field."

The agreement reached between the districts' school boards was not a unanimous one among the districts' families. Some left. Herl estimated the districts lost about 10 students because of the agreement. But through the first two years, Herl said, most people who originally were opposed to the cooperative agreement have come around.

"(They) have decided this is what's best for the kids, what's best for the communities," Herl said.

The cooperative agreement between the districts has meant a trip to the state basketball and volleyball tournaments for Ostmeyer's daughter, Taylor, that she probably wouldn't have had otherwise.

"It would be hard to argue that we didn't do a good thing," said Ostmeyer, who teaches at Grinnell Middle School and serves as the activities director at Wheatland.

The Dugout
This year's senior class at Wheatland High School went through the transition from two schools to one, and they all agree it's brought a sense of unity among the students, families and communities.

Senior Kaley Tuttle said the students don't notice who's from Grinnell, Grainfield, Gove or Park anymore. They just know they're Wheatland High School students. And boy, do they know them.

"We know the first and last names of every one of them," senior Eric Schoendaler said laughing. "And where they live and who their parents are."

"And what they're going to order at The Dugout," senior Taylor Ostmeyer added.

Renamed and reopened as The Main Street Dugout in April, Grainfield's only restaurant is a popular spot for Wheatland students, as well as parents, the communities and even travelers, according to owner Christy Rathgeber.

"It's busier than what I thought it would be," Rathgeber said. "I'm not complaining, but I wasn't expecting to be this busy all the time."

Rathgeber and her husband, Brian, bought the former Teddy Shack when its owners decided to move last spring.

"We wanted a place for the community and the kids, so we decided to buy it and keep it open," Christy Rathgeber said.

Giving up her job as Wheatland High School's secretary, Rathgeber knew she would miss the students. But she also knew they would stop in to see her at The Dugout.

"After the game, you'll probably see most of us football guys at The Dugout," Stephens said before Friday's game against Greeley County.

And many high schoolers make a habit of stopping in before the game for a drink or a snack. Rathgeber said people from neighboring communities on their way to and from another ball game also have stopped in at The Dugout.

"You may think it'll be slow here because there's no game, but then you'll get Oakley's cross country team or something to stop in," Rathgeber said.

The fire
Losing its starting quarterback to injury in the second week of the season was a blow to the Wheatland-Grinnell Thunderhawks, who had high expectations for the football season. But the other senior members of the team are determined to see the first playoff experience of their football careers this year.

"We definitely want to get at least one or two games into the playoffs," Stephens said. "We've got to do that because I don't even know how long it's been since a football team made it to the playoffs."

It was 2002. The school never has won a football state championship, although the "magical" hallway at Wheatland High is lined with championships from nearly every other sport.

Coach Tyler Flavin said Friday night's homecoming game against Greeley County would show the heart and determination of his football team.

"We stood out there (Thursday) night, and we watched the bonfire," Flavin told his team in the locker room prior to Friday's game. "For 45 minutes, we stood outside and watched that fire. That fire was 20-foot high and 15-feet wide.

"Tonight, 21 men gotta step out on this football field, and that fire is 80 yards long and 40 yards wide."

The fire sizzled most of the night Friday with Wheatland-Grinnell keeping it close until the end of the third quarter, when the Thunderhawks trailed only 8-6. But the fire heated up in the fourth, and Greeley County finished the night with a win, 32-20.

Still, this season is an improvement so far for the Thunderhawks.

"They have made a commitment to get in the weight room, and we're a better football team because of that," Flavin said.

About 65 percent of the team spent 35 days during the summer in the weight room, a bigger percentage of commitment than in any of the last dozen years of football at the school, Flavin said.

In his second year as the head coach, Flavin said there has been more interest in athletics from Wheatland students in recent years. He credits it to programs offered by Quinter's community recreation program, Grainfield's Blue Aces summer softball team, which won state titles in 2006 and again this year, and assistant football coach Ronnie Wolf's flag football program for younger children.

"All those things in a small community certainly strengthen it," Flavin said.

40 miles
Growing up in the Grainfield or Grinnell area, Wheatland's seniors don't think anything of taking a trip to Walmart, albeit 40 miles away in Colby.

"We're close enough," Schoendaler said. "You can always spend a half hour just to go to Walmart for fun."

But for those not accustomed to that life, a 40-mile drive to Walmart, a 20-mile drive to a restaurant besides The Dugout or even a 13-mile drive to the doctor might seem too far.

"Usually if you grew up around here, it's no problem," said Herl, a 1993 Wheatland graduate. "But if your spouse wasn't from here and you tell your spouse Walmart's 40 miles away, forget about it.

"That's the hardest thing to get people to come out to western Kansas, I think, is the remote location."

For Marvin Beougher, a nearly 50-year resident of Grainfield and a 1952 graduate of Gove Rural High School, driving to get the services he needs isn't a big deal, especially since he travels 200 miles every week to see his grandchildren play ball.

"It's only 13 miles to the doctor's office and the hospital (in Quinter)," Beougher said. "That's nothing anymore."

Back on the farm
One of the main forces driving the Grainfield and Grinnell communities is agriculture.

Whether it's Mike Bainter's Better Built Trailers, Frontier Ag or Hi Plains cooperatives or the individual farms, the area's livelihood revolves around the industry.

"It's agriculture directly, or it's related with agriculture," said Bainter, who moved his trailer manufacturing and sales business from Hoxie to its Interstate 70 location in Grainfield in 2005.

Even 95 percent of the business Ron Eberle does in his insurance agency is based on crop insurance.

"It's gotta be agriculture, or the little towns wouldn't be doing much," Eberle said.

The last two years have been good crop years, following about seven years of drought. But Grinnell farmer Duane Vollbracht said the good crops are only part of the industry. High input costs and high prices for only a short time hurt area farmers despite having better yielding crops.

"A lot of people didn't have the grain in the facilities to take advantage of the high prices at the right time," Vollbracht said.

There has been more young farmers than usual coming back to the area to take over the family farm in recent years, and it doesn't look to slow down in the next few.

"(We'll) take over the family farm -- third generation," WHS junior Brandon Heier said proudly of he and his twin brother, Landon's, plans for after high school.

No bad days
Joe Heier was born and raised and even raised his family for a while in the Denver area. His grandfather was from Grainfield but died when Heier was young, so he doesn't remember trips back to western Kansas to visit family.

Instead, it was on a trip to a reunion in Grainfield that he first learned of what the town had to offer.

"We thought it was a nice little town to retire in," Heier said, not really thinking of moving from the Denver area at the time.

Then, the Columbine school shootings happened in Colorado in 1999. Before long, the Heiers were house hunting in Grainfield and preparing to move their family.

"Then we thought Grainfield was a great town and everything just kind of fell into place," Heier said. "We're glad we did, and we love it."

Heier said he never lacks for something to do, although friends back in the city ask if he's always bored.

"I say, "No, you get more involved in your community,' " Heier said.

And he has. He took over as the town's mayor in April, and the city council recently started a Community Development Committee. The committee's goal is to bring people and industry to the town and to build a positive image for Grainfield.

Previously, Eberle said, the Lions Club had completed many renovation projects in downtown Grainfield, and the entire community has gotten involved in fixing up the opera house on Main Street.

For now, though, Grainfield and Grinnell remain like most small towns, according to their residents.

"The school is the social function that everything centers around," Ostmeyer said. "It's the one thing we have every week that we can count on."

Beougher said the town might be small, but it's also helpful and supportive.

"You never have a bad day in Grainfield," Beougher said.

And everybody watches out for each other's children, Heier said.

"It's one of those things where it takes a village to raise a child, and that's kind of how it is here," Heier said.