The Muscotah Project: A Rural Grand Slam

By J. Basil Dannebohm

Kansas is home to about 20 of the “world’s largest things.” In Greensburg there is the world’s largest hand dug well. Cawker City has the world’s largest ball of twine. The world’s largest Van Gogh painting is in Goodland. And how could any list be complete without mentioning Big Brutus, the world’s largest electric shovel.

While traversing the plains of the Sunflower State, thousands have stopped to pay a visit to these curiosities taking time to snap a quick photo, often seeking the answer to one question: “Why?

Sometimes there’s a practical answer, take for example Big Brutus or the “Big Well.” Other times it’s simply to see if it can be done, like the ball of twine, which has even received nods in pop culture. The twine treasure has been mentioned by Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Vacation as well as Dr. Sheldon Cooper on TV’s The Big Bang Theory. It was even the subject of Garry Trudeau’s comic strip, Doonesbury.

“These ‘World’s Largest Things’ serve as a touchstone for the communities that build and house them. Each one has a story, each one has a history, each one is a vehicle for a town to tell its own unique story,” said Erika Nelson.

Nelson, who is an expert on “World’s Largest Things,” a member of the Board of Directors of the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas, a Department Editor at American Road magazine and a Lecturer for the Kansas Humanities Council was on hand back in the Spring of 2013 to welcome into the noble ranks another “World’s Largest Thing,” This one to celebrate a hometown hero.

In 1880, Joseph Tinker was born in the small Northeast Kansas town of Muscotah. Tinker would go on to make his hometown proud, becoming a legend of the great American Past-time, Baseball. Remembered most as a player for   the Chicago Cubs, Tinker was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946.

Residents of Muscotah wanted to celebrate their favorite son in a BIG WAY – but how?

The answer was in the water tower.

Yes – the water tower. Several people observed that it resembled a baseball, among them was Julie Roller, Development Associate for the Pottawatomie County Economic Development Corporation and a rural advocate.

As luck would have it, the tower was aging and the city acquired a grant to replace it. When the time came to erect a new one, an ambitious resident named Jeff Hanson, inspired by Roller’s vision, requested that the top of the old water tower be left intact and brought to the ground. Contractors said it couldn’t be done but Hanson was determined.

His determination paid off. On January 27th, 2012, the town’s old water tower was brought to rest on a vacant lot near the city’s baseball park aptly named Joe Tinker Field.

Hanson saw in the 20 foot diameter sphere a magnificent way to not only honor Joe Tinker but to create an attraction that would draw attention to the community of 200 residents.

Not just a dreamer but a do-er, Hanson, with the support of the community began raising funds and working toward the dream of creating the world’s largest baseball complete with a museum inside.

The dream caught the attention of Marci Penner, Executive Director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving, sustaining, and growing rural culture by educating Kansans about Kansas and by networking and supporting rural communities. Penner, along with her teammate, WenDee LaPlant, work tirelessly to make rural dreams a reality. Together, they worked with Hanson and Roller to get the ball rolling (no pun intended) and bring the Muscotah Project the attention and assistance it deserved.

The call was sent out to assist in any way possible. Through an innovative method of online collaboration, supporters were given the opportunity to contribute directly to the cause both financially and through donation of goods, money or even volunteer for the project. It wasn’t long before people started purchasing items such as nails, paint, rebar, even meals for the volunteers through a pilot website, which, if successful, would benefit other dreams in other Kansas communities.

On a gorgeous weekend in May of 2013, about 50 volunteers descended on Muscotah to begin work on the project. The town couldn’t have been happier. The Barn Bed & Breakfast offered volunteers rooms at no charge as a token of their appreciation. News media were on hand to capture the story of how a dream became a reality thanks to a group of people who traveled from far and wide to transform a water tower into a lasting tribute.

“Bob Topping of Lawrence was responsible for spearheading the on-the-ground efforts of the weekend,” said Penner. “We all had our roles, but they wouldn’t have found fruition without Bob’s direction.  He was key to the weekend.”

As the weekend progressed, the once silver sphere became white with red rebar stitching. A concession stand was given a facelift complete with a Joe Tinker mural created by Nelson and her partner, Matthew Farley. Weeds were pulled, fences were erected and a vacant property became something wonderful.

“Having the chance to be a part of that story is what brought a lot of us to Muscotah – in support of an amazing small town, with a big vision,” said Nelson.

That’s the story of how Kansas became the home of the World’s Largest Baseball, a fitting tribute to Joe Tinker and to Muscotah.

If you happen to find yourself traveling through Northeast Kansas, a stop in Muscotah is a must. Not only to see the world’s largest baseball, but to see what happens when a group of determined people come together for a good cause.