GREENSBURG, Kan. — Locals here have always been proud of their hole in the ground.
It’s not just any hole. Residents boast it’s the world’s largest hand-dug well—and who’s to contradict them? Back in 1887, laborers who were paid 50 cents a day used pickaxes, shovels and buckets on pulleys to excavate a perfect circle 32 feet wide and 109 feet deep. Passers-by have been admiring their handiwork ever since.
In 2008, a popular vote online tabbed Greensburg’s Big Well as one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas, on par with the Underground Salt Museum in Hutchinson (and a cut above the town of West Mineral’s star attraction—”Big Brutus,” an enormous electric coal shovel).
But proud as that moment was, it can’t compare to this: The Big Well is going big time.
The citizens of Greensburg are planning a $3 million Big Well museum and this month announced a contract with a high-profile design team, Ralph Appelbaum Associates Inc. of New York. The firm has designed exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Bill Clinton’s presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., and the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
And now they’re coming to Greensburg, population just under 1,000, to make the well a star. “It’s hard to put words to it,” says Steve Hewitt, the town administrator. “It blows my mind.”
It’s all the more exciting, Mr. Hewitt says, because—to be painfully candid—the Big Well has lately fallen on hard times.
In the 1970s and ’80s, as many as 75,000 visitors a year would stop by Greensburg to peer into the murky water. They’d drop a coin (or, oddly, a shoe) for good luck, maybe even buy a $2 ticket and descend 105 steps to the claustrophobic depths.
In recent years, however, drivers whizzing past on Highway 400 have been less prone to pull over, despite a series of promotional billboards stretched out over 50 miles to build excitement.
“It lost its appeal,” Mr. Hewitt says.
Eager to reinvigorate the town’s biggest tourist attraction (there’s also a 1,000-pound meteorite, discovered at a local farm), voters in 2006 approved a half-cent sales tax to fund improvements to the Big Well. But before the money could be put to use, disaster struck.
On May 4, 2007, a massive tornado, 1.7 miles wide and packing 200-mile-per-hour winds, barreled through Greensburg. Eleven people were killed and 95% of the town destroyed.
Ever since, Greensburg has been rebuilding with a singular mission: to become the greenest little town on the prairie. The new City Hall, hospital, school and John Deere tractor dealership have been built to top energy-efficiency standards. There’s a composting toilet on display in an empty field, and a solar-powered shower as well. Planet Green, a Discovery Communications network, has chronicled the rebirth in a TV series.
To residents’ astonishment, Greensburg has become a destination for eco-tourists by the thousands.
After they’re done marveling at the dual-flush toilets in businesses all over town (one button for solids, a second for liquids), visitors generally make a pilgrimage to the Big Well. Sales at the tiny gift shop, which stocks Big Well flip-flops and coin purses as well as T-shirts and mugs, soared to $135,000 in 2008, then hit a respectable $75,000 last year.
The constant jingling of the cash register gave civic leaders an idea.
The tornado had dinged up the Big Well viewing area and rattled the interior stairs. Those would need fixing. But why stop with that?
“We have an opportunity to start from the ground up,” says Stacy Barnes, who manages the Big Well for the city. “Why not have a bigger vision?”
That vision turned out to be a world-class museum, including a gallery built 10 feet below ground level to expose the well’s massive stone walls. BNIM Architects of Kansas City, Mo., sketched out a circular structure, built around the well, with room for artifacts on the tornado and reconstruction collected by Project Explore Inc., a nonprofit museum consultant. Appelbaum, the New York firm, will design the exhibits.
City officials have set aside $3 million from insurance proceeds and state and federal grants to build the Big Well Museum—a hefty sum, considering Greensburg’s annual budget is $3.6 million.
The scale of the project boggles promoters of other roadside attractions, like the world’s largest ball of twine, in Cawker City, Kan. At 19,119 pounds, made of 7.98 million feet of twine, the ball succeeds as a tourist attraction because it’s free and out in the open, available for anyone to pat, says Linda Clover, the twine’s caretaker (or, as she refers to herself, “the belle of the ball”).
A museum, Ms. Clover says, wouldn’t feel right. “For what we are, this is all we can expect,” she says. “It’s out there for people to enjoy it. And they do.”
Some Greensburg locals admit a twinge of unease about their museum; they ask whether a well two hours west of Wichita will really attract that many tourists when publicity about the tornado recovery fades.
“Hopefully, it’ll fly,” says Dustin Sypher, whose great-grandfather drilled the pilot hole for the Big Well. “Sometimes I wonder.”
Though she’s a huge fan of the Big Well, Susan Reinecke, owner of a glass-art shop in town, says Greensburg’s pride and joy has often been little more than a pit stop.
“It’s like, ‘We need to stretch our legs, so let’s stop at the Big Well, then go on through boring old Kansas,’ ” Ms. Reinecke says.
A museum designed by a top-notch firm has the potential to be a more genuine draw, she says, “a major, major attraction.” Then again, “if I told you I wasn’t worried, I’d be lying,” she adds.
The museum experts in New York express no such anxiety.
“How can you go wrong with the world’s largest hand-dug well?” asks Tim Ventimiglia, who is directing the exhibit design.
On one hand, he says, the museum will be a collection of “curiosities”—the well, the meteorite, a tornado-battered teddy bear, an old-time soda fountain emblematic of small-town Kansas. But Mr. Ventimiglia also sees a larger theme linking a feat of pioneer-days engineering to present efforts to rebuild Greensburg as a cutting-edge eco-town.
His one qualm: that a sleek museum will detract from the eccentric essence of the Big Well as roadside oddity. He hopes to keep the charm by incorporating voices from Greensburg in the exhibits.
“I understand the value of small-town quirk,” Mr. Ventimiglia says. “I do want to protect that.”
If he fails, Seneca, Kan.—home of the state’s second-largest hand-dug well—stands ready to capitalize.
City administrator Tami Dandliker says Seneca, population 2,000, has no plans for a fancy museum. But if tourists really are drawn to historic excavations, Ms. Dandliker points out that while Greensburg’s hole in the ground is deeper, the Seneca well is wider, by a full 2 feet. “We could definitely play that up,” she says.