Independence, Kansas. Population about 10,000. Definitely not the sort of place on your average tourist trail.
But I’m lucky enough to have family here, so I’ve stumbled on its charms that way.
Driving in, it feels a little bit like my stereotyped idea of a small town in the middle of America. Wide streets. Bright light. One main high street. Lots of wooden houses, and lots of them with rockers on the porch. It’s so different from what I’m used to back at home that I kind of loved it. I loved that small-town quaintness.
Ok, so unless you’re visiting people, Independence probably isn’t the sort of town where you want to spend weeks exploring every little detail. I think you can probably see most of the town’s main sights in a day, or two days at most.
But that’s ok. Quality, not quantity.
But there are also a few must-do activities in the town itself:
1: EXPLORE RIVERSIDE PARK
Considering that Independence has a population of under 10,000 people, it has one of the best public parks I’ve ever seen.
For one thing, it’s huge. For another, it has loads of fantastic amenities. If you’re having a get-together, party or family reunion, there are plenty of huts and shelters and picnic areas that you can hire for the day. There’s also plenty for children, with two play areas, a swimming pool (which is very well used in the summer months), and a vintage carousel and toy train.
It’s a beautiful place to play and wander, especially in the morning when it’s a bit cooler. (Which explains why the pool is so well used later in the day.)
It also has a beautiful fountain, which I’ll come onto, and is home to Ralph Mitchell Zoo.
2: FEED THE MONKEYS AT RALPH MITCHELL ZOO
I’m not generally a zoo kind of person. I prefer to see animals in the wild, or in conservation areas, or in a wildlife sanctuary.
But I must confess to having a bit of a soft spot for Ralph Mitchell Zoo.
For one thing, it isn’t a commercially operated zoo – the kind that charges you a fortune for entry and then another fortune for food and again for the little toy elephants and lions in the gift shop on the way out. Ralph Mitchell Zoo is actually totally free, and as you can probably guess, I love a free attraction when I’m travelling – and when I’m not travelling, too.
I also have a soft spot for it because I have childhood memories of visiting on previous trips to Independence.
But the main reason that I love it is Monkey Island.
Monkey Island is exactly what it sounds like: an artificial island with monkeys on it.
It dates from 1932, although it has been updated a bit since then, and was one of the construction projects in Independence during the Great Depression. (Another one is the limestone cemetery wall – which I heard a rumour about, that it’s the longest hand-built wall in the US, though I don’t really have a way of verifying that. What I do know is that if you walk along it, you can sometimes spot pictures and faces that the workers carved into the rocks.)
You can’t get onto the island with them (which is probably a good thing, knowing how mischievous monkeys can be), but you can watch them from across the moat. And if you’re ultra prepared, you can also feed them whole peanuts, then watch them try to outwit or outrun each other to catch them and crack open the shells.
I could have stood for hours and watched the monkeys playing and chattering to each other. At least, I could have done if it hadn’t started to get hot. Which is why, if you go in summer, you want to visit the zoo first thing in the morning, and definitely before 11am.
3: WANDER AROUND THE FOUNTAIN AT NIGHT
The area around the fountain has been redone very recently, and it really looks great.
Of course, to really see what it looks like, it’s probably better to wander around the fountain during the day. The garden around the fountain itself is beautifully planted up, and there are four beautiful statues right by the fountain. These bronze statues represent scenes from three of Inge’s plays, and the fourth state is of Inge himself.
They’re beautiful to look at during the day, but the evening is when the fountain itself is at its best. It lights up different colours, changing from red to purple to blue to green as the water shoots up into the air.
It’s also cooler in the evenings, and you’ll probably see lightning bugs flashing in the twilight.
4: EAT AT LEAST ONE PIECE OF COCONUT CREAM PIE AT THE DRUG STORE
A traditional drug store / diner, the Soda Fountain is a retro/vintage paradise. Walking in off the baking hot sidewalk feels as though you’ve accidentally stepped right back into the 1950s. I half expected to see the cast of Grease sitting in one of the booths.
From the patent red and chrome bar seats, to the small shiny booths, to the pale green retro soda fountain that I’m guessing gives the store it’s name, it’s a place that’s all about the retro. I’m not quite sure whether it’s deliberately retro, or whether (like other places in other small towns) it’s just somehow managed to escape change over the past half century. Either way, it’s a charming place.
They also sell a delicious coconut cream pie. Creamy and light and fluffy and sweet, and generally just delicious. I don’t even normally like desiccated coconut, but even I could easily have gone back for second helpings.
5: VISIT THE MUSEUM
Or Independence Historical Museum and Art Center, to give it its full name.
The museum is another part of Independence that seems disproportionately good in relation to the town’s size. It costs just $5 to get in, and you could easily spend a couple of hours looking around.
There’s a lot of local history here – so much that it actually covers three floors. There’s an old barber’s shop that has been transplanted into a room at the museum. And a log cabin (think Little House on the Prairie), which has a pretty interesting story: it was discovered by a local family when they were renovating their house, and they found that the cabin formed the original structure of the house: everything else was just extensions and extra floors built on top of and around it!
There’s also information there on William Inge, as you might expect, and on another of Independence’s famous residents: Miss Able.
Miss Able was a monkey from the Ralph Mitchell Zoo. She was also one of the first monkeys to survive a trip into space. (Yet another reason to pay a visit to Monkey Island!)
And on top of everything else, the museum is a good way to make use of the hot part of the day, without being stuck out under the blazing sun. (Of course, that coconut cream pie is another good way…)
Have you been to Independence? What’s your favourite thing to do here? Anything you think I’ve left out?