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Volland Store revival on Kansas prairie celebrates the spirit of founder Otto Kratzer

In October 2013,  the community gathered to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Volland Store. The birthday party also marked the groundbreaking for the interior renovation.
In October 2013, the community gathered to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Volland Store. The birthday party also marked the groundbreaking for the interior renovation. RICK MCLAUGHLIN

The young man in the photograph smiles confidently at the camera from astride his new 1913 Indian motorcycle. His bowler hat is pushed back to his hairline, so the whole of his dashing, finely chiseled face is awash in sunlight.

A ring of shop keys hangs from a belt loop of his high-waisted, pleated black trousers. His cuffed white shirt sets off his deeply tanned forearms and hands, which grip the long handlebars.

A tiny-waisted woman in a white bonnet and long white dress sits side-saddle in front of him. Despite the passenger, the man balances easily, the tops of his dress shoes planted in the chalky rocks of old Kansas 10 highway.

In that photograph, Otto Kratzer — merchant, adventurer, passionate amateur photographer — had the world by the tail.

More than 100 years later, and 44 years after his death, his charm has been revived.

On a sultry Saturday in June, former residents of this near-ghost town (Volland’s population is now two) and the nearby towns of Alma and Alta Vista crowded in front of dozens of large, museum-quality photographs of and by Kratzer.

The photos adorn exposed-brick walls inside the recently restored building that once housed Kratzer Bros. General Mercantile, a grand emporium filled with big-city wares in a dusty cattle shipping town.

Kratzer was Volland’s Gatsby: daring, flamboyant, self-made and generous.

There is no record of him attending high school after primary education at a one-room schoolhouse in Volland, where his parents were German immigrant farmers.

The youngest of 14 children, Otto Kratzer learned shopkeeping at the elbow of his brother Bill, 19 years his senior. He acquired a taste for nice things and a lust for life.

At the age of 28, Kratzer roared off on a six-month motorcycle trip to California, following the Santa Fe Trail and making it to opening day of the World’s Fair in San Francisco in 1915.

He sold beer at his store during the long-running Kansas Prohibition, which lasted until 1948.

He documented his early adventures and later life as family man, shopkeeper and postmaster with expensive large-format cameras.

Some of those images are on display at “In Focus: The Photography and Films of Otto Kratzer” through Sept. 7 at the Volland Store. They offer a rare and intimate glimpse of daily life from 1905 to 1970 in a town that has largely vanished.

The exhibition also marks the reincarnation of a building that for decades served as the community’s social center.

The story of how the photos and the building were created, nearly lost, discovered and restored involves Kratzer’s granddaughter in Tennessee, a former UPS driver in Wabaunsee County, a Mission Hills preservationist, a Kansas City architect and a photography instructor at Emporia State University.

But it all started with Otto Kratzer.

Otto and his stories

Brown paper sacks of penny candy and refrigerated bottles of pop are the first things most locals remember about Kratzer Bros. General Mercantile.

But Gary Schultz, a retired rancher who grew up down the road, rode his bike to the store almost every day for a different reason.

“I loved listening to Otto tell his stories about riding his motorcycle to California. That was quite a thing for a kid from here at the time,” Schultz said.

Kratzer documented that adventure with a new Kodak Folding Pocket Camera that made penny-postcard size negatives.

The camera cost the equivalent of around $1,000 in today’s money and was heavy to lug around, despite “pocket” in the name. It had a bellows that extended out to set the focus.

Kratzer’s passion for photography started even earlier. In 1905, the year he and his brother opened their first store in Volland across the street from the later brick store, he bought a camera that made glass-plate negatives.

Kratzer married Mabel Meseke, a local girl, in 1918 at age 32. He built his bride a large home next to the new store. When an ember from the smokestack of a passing train caught the house on fire and burned it to the ground in 1929, the couple moved into the upstairs apartment above the store.

The Kratzers had two sons, Vernon and Waldo. Waldo, a special needs child, was fully integrated into life at the store and in the community.

Otto was proud of Waldo and gave him responsibilities such as carrying groceries to customers’ cars and retrieving the mail bag tossed out the window of a train; the store served as the Volland post office.

One photo shows Otto pulling local children around the store in a wagon hitched to a tractor. In another, Vernon and Waldo are sitting in the grass playing with a young raccoon.

In the 1950s, Otto bought an 8mm movie camera and would entertain dinner guests with humorous scripted films acted out by locals. Many featured editing tricks such as a horse galloping backward.

Cindy Appenfeller Smith of Alma grew up two blocks from the store in the 1960s.

“It was a very Norman Rockwell childhood. Having the store was like living in town for convenience even though you were out in the country,” Smith recalls.

She and her friends who frequented the store viewed Otto and Mabel as a second set of grandparents. “Otto was always happy. I never saw him upset. Mabel was more serious, more businesslike, but still kind,” she said.

Smith was a junior in high school when Otto closed the store in 1970 after Mabel’s death; he died a year later.

The blow to the town when the store closed was more emotional than practical. The population had declined to near-ghost town status and remaining county residents could easily drive to stores in nearby Alma or Manhattan.

Rising from debris

The first time David Dowell, principal at El Dorado, a Kansas City architecture firm, stepped inside the ruins of the former store in December 2012, the mood of the scouting party was as bleak as the bitterly cold day.

Dowell was there with Patty Reece, a Mission Hills preservationist who became intrigued with the abandoned store in 2000 when she and her husband, Jerry, bought and restored a stone farmhouse nearby.

“Every time I drove by it I wondered about it,” Reece said.

Answers came in 2011, when Reece was editing the field journal for the Symphony in the Flint Hills, held in Wabaunsee County that year.

A member of the county historical society who drove a UPS route in Wabaunsee County for 50 years, Greg Hoots, turned in an article about Otto Kratzer and his photographs that mentioned the store.

Later, Kratzer’s granddaughter, Karen Durso of Franklin, Tenn., told Hoots someone had offered to buy the store for the bricks, but she didn’t want to see it knocked down: Did Hoots know anyone who would buy it and save it?

Hoots contacted Reece, who offered to buy the store for the value of the land and a promise to preserve the building.

Reece enlisted George Terbovich, a Kansas City designer, and Dowell, both of whom also have second homes in the area, to advise her on bringing the building back to life.

A photo Dowell took that day shows the trio standing with a demolition crew in the basement, because the collapsed roof had smashed through the first and second floors.

Buzzards roosted on the tops of the still-straight walls encircling the debris.

“I’ve never seen more despondent faces in my life,” Dowell says of Reece and Terbovich.

But Dowell saw possibilities.

“The fact that you had this red brick building in Wabaunsee County (where limestone was the available building material of choice) was remarkable. And the masonry was perfect. The corners were true and plumb, and there weren’t even cracks in the mortar,” he said.

The Oct. 24, 1913, issue of the Alma Enterprise covered the grand opening of the building, noting, “This fine new two-story brick store, built at a cost of $7,000 to $8,000, looks somewhat out of place in its surroundings, but it is just what the Kratzers wanted and needed, and they built it.” The story estimated 500 people turned out for what it called “a great day for Volland, the like of which they will never see again.”

Despite her trepidation about the scope and cost of the needed repairs, Reece was driven by a desire to rewrite history and give people who had fond memories of Volland another great day.

On Oct. 19, 2013, Reece invited the whole county to a 100th birthday party for the store complete with lemonade, homemade ice cream and a photo op with about 70 locals who remembered shopping at the store posing in front of it.

The birthday party also marked the end of the demolition work and the groundbreaking for the new construction inside the building.

Now that restoration work is finished, Reece envisions the Volland Store as a community space available for meetings and celebrations. The lower level is an airy, high-ceilinged gallery with a loft apartment at one end upstairs for artists in residence.

Reece declines to say how much she has spent on the building but admits it was “a considerable amount.”

“This was not undertaken as a financial investment but to save a piece of cultural history,” she said. “What we get out of it is the acceptance and appreciation and support we are experiencing presently from the community.”

Candid, caring portraits

Between images owned by the Wabaunsee County Historical Society and those held privately by relatives, Hoots has located and obtained permission to scan more than 2,500 negatives and six hours of 8mm film shot by Kratzer.

Hoots got a grant from the Kansas Humanities Council to mount the exhibition, which involved restoring, printing and framing 34 photographs and creating a documentary about Kratzer’s films.

The photos have an uncanny contemporary feel, in part from Kratzer’s eye for candid moments but also because the scratches, stains and fading that create a sense of distance in most historical photos have been erased.

Photographer Tom Parish, an instructor at Emporia State University, spent hours on each negative, cleaning them up and adjusting contrast and tone for consistency.

Parish, whose large-scale photographs of arched stone caves have been exhibited at the Beach Museum of Art at Kansas State University in Manhattan and the Box Gallery in Kansas City, says Kratzer’s equipment and dedication to his hobby set his photos apart.

“During the time he was actively documenting life in Volland, cameras were generally cumbersome and difficult to get consistent results from. He didn’t shoot with a Brownie but with medium/large format rangefinder cameras. Getting candid images would have been very challenging, yet he captured scenes that give a sense of the character of his subjects with an eye for composition and lighting.”

Kansas City filmmaker Rick McLaughlin produced a short film that runs on a loop at the exhibition. “Volland Memories: The Films of Otto Kratzer” intersperses footage from Kratzer’s films, including a scene showing how a train used to pick up the mail at Volland without stopping, thanks to a metal arm extending from the train that grabbed the mail sack off a hook mounted near the track.

Other scenes feature long tracking shots of cowboys dressed in their best white shirts on shipping day, when hundreds of head of cattle would be loaded from the stockyards across from the store into trucks bound for Kansas City.

More than the historical details, Reece is moved by the emotional content of the immense body of Kratzer’s work.

“Clearly he cared about these people,” she said. “I think his personality and humor show through in the photos, and that to me is the art in them.”

To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to choedel@kcstar.com. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter @CindyHoedel, and Facebook.

‘In Focus: The Photography and Films of Otto Kratzer’

The Volland Store

24098 Volland Road, Alma, KS 66401

TheVollandStore.com

Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. June 28, hosted by longtime Volland resident and Kratzer family member Tony Meseke; check the store’s website for more exhibit hours.

Closing exhibition of the Kratzer photos: Noon to 5 p.m. Sept. 7; visitors are invited to a community picnic on the grounds, with a barbecue grill fired up to cook on and homemade ice cream and lemonade provided by Patty Reece.

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