Kansans have a knack for thinking big – world’s largest type of big.
Consider, in the pantheon of Kansas big, Cawker City’s ball of twine. Wichita’s acrylic mural on a grain elevator. Goodland’s Van Gogh painting on a mammoth easel, Muscotah’s baseball, Mineral City’s Big Brutus, Wilson’s big Czech egg. And Garden City’s monster hairball.
Now comes a giant belt buckle.
Not just any belt buckle – a purported world’s largest belt buckle – at 19 feet and 10.5 inches wide and 13 feet and 11.25 inches high.
It’s pull-off-the-highway-and-snap-a-selfie type of big.
And it’s a curative for a pandemic that for two years nearly stopped the flow of tourists everywhere, and left a central Kansas tourism director all but alone with time to dream big.
“During COVID, we cut all additional staff, and for two years, I worked at an office of one,” says Julie Roller Weeks, director of the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The pandemic greatly affected tourism organizations around the world. … Without overnight stays, the CVB (convention and visitors bureau) didn’t have funding. The staff cuts, paired with reserve funds, allowed us to continue our marketing efforts – but it was tough and depressing.”
But Roller Weeks never stopped thinking. When there were occasional gatherings around Abilene, she’d throw out her dinner party question as only a tourism director can do – if you built the “world’s largest,” what would it be?
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Daring to ask the Biggest Question
Because of its legacy as a Kansas cowtown, Roller Weeks thought her town’s World’s Largest Whatever should have a Western theme.
Abilene holds a distinctive spot in the history of Kansas and the West. For four years starting in 1867, it was the rail head of the Kansas Pacific Railway and the end of the fabled Chisholm Trail. Its hastily built cattle pens and shipping yards provided Texas cattlemen with a place to sell their herds and ship them eastward.
But Abilene is also known for another tourism draw – home of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.
Adding another significant attraction could represent a leadership challenge of sorts. Would it be possible to create another tourist draw without siphoning visitors from established attractions?
“Some say we’re a 50-50 town, but it’s true,” Roller Weeks says. “Half are enthusiastic about Abilene’s Wild West Days; the other half identify with and celebrate Eisenhower. We must balance these two dynamic stories, so we do not alienate the other half.”
Other big attempts Abilene has made in telling the Old West story have included a Big Spur.
From 2002 to 2016, Abilene was home to the World’s Largest Cowboy Spur – at 28 feet tall. But then, Lampasas, Texas, stepped in with a spur that’s 35 feet tall and 20 feet wide.
Roller Weeks kept researching big titles and claims.
• Seattle claims the World’s Largest Cowboy Hat at 44 feet wide and 19 feet high.
• San Antonio claims the World’s Largest Boots, a pair of colossal fake ostrich-and-calfskin cowboy boots 35 feet tall and 33 feet long.
• Dallas formerly claimed the World’s Largest Belt Buckle at 10 feet tall and 14.4 feet wide until Abilene super-sized it.
• Prior to Dallas’ buckle, Uranus, Missouri, had buckle bragging rights with a buckle 10 feet tall and 13 feet wide.
What if Kansas out-bragged Texas?
“At the time, the World’s Largest Belt Buckle was in Missouri. It moved to Texas during our building process. Then we built it,” Roller Weeks says. “Belt buckles are walking community billboards, making it the perfect tourism-oriented/promotional world’s-largest project. Looking back, I see the buckle as a symbol of our community surviving the pandemic and moving forward in a big way.”
But how well would this Dickinson County town of 6,400 residents buy in to her idea?
It helped that Roller Weeks is a known entity around town.
She grew up in Dickinson County, was a 4-Her and returned to Abilene in 2016 to accept the tourism director’s position.
“Abilene has a longstanding reputation as a tourist community. The organization was ready for a refresh,” Roller Weeks says. “When I returned, I didn’t immediately change things. That’s a recipe for a short-term career in town, and I don’t want to be a job hopper. I want to be part of building something. … The 4-H motto comes to mind, ‘To make the best, better.’ So, I asked a lot of questions.
She also followed a philosophy she picked up from the Kansas Sampler Foundation, a nonprofit that works to preserve and sustain rural culture, about “Successful Integration Into Small Communities.” (Full disclosure: The co-director of the foundation, Sarah Green, is married to The Journal’s executive editor, Chris Green.)
“If I had done this (the largest belt buckle) the first year I was back here, it would not have worked,” she says.
Timing is everything.
It’s also about making incremental changes that bring about positive change.
And that is where the pandemic played a role in creating the belt buckle bonanza.
“I needed something happy to get excited about, and I looked around to see if there were some largest things we could beat and if we had the local talent to build it.”
She began looking for ways she could positively make changes within the community.
“I started celebrating the positives both through work and personal channels.”
#AbileneProud became her go-to catchphrase.
“Money and manpower gravitate to positivity,” she says.
Abilene, at the time, had gone through some leadership changes, especially at City Hall.
“Constant change makes projects and risks challenging,” she says. “Every time there is a leadership change in a small, rural community, you start over. Residents and businesses tire of change and are slow to accept new people. But the only way we will accomplish great things is with stable leadership.”
Roller Weeks became administrator of a grant program that enabled the city to purchase new trash cans and benches, and buy at auction a one-of-a-kind piece of local history: a hand-carved wooden bull’s head sporting real horns 40 inches across that in the 19th century had hung in the Bull’s Head Saloon, owned by local character “Shotgun Ben” Thompson.
Thompson’s saloon was one of several in town that catered to the cowboys who herded cattle from Texas to Kansas during the late 1860s and 1870s. Nearly 80 people donated $200 each to bring the historic bull’s head home to Old Abilene Town.
In addition, several murals were added downtown proclaiming the town’s Old West heritage and the hometown of the nation’s 34th president.
“People are philanthropic for things that they want to be philanthropic to – it has to be something they care about,” Roller Weeks says.
Like a snowball gaining momentum, Roller Weeks says, she witnessed a renewed enthusiasm and spirit in Abilene.
It comes from a can-do spirit. It also comes from tapping people locally to help tell the town’s story.
When people believe in a project, Roller Weeks says, “they will give everything for it. I think my genuine excitement about it (helped). People gave before they had an idea what the design was. They did it to support the project and to support the community. They gave to support me. And, I really appreciate that – and that’s not something I would want to jeopardize or take lightly. I saw it as a vote of confidence. They knew we would get the job done.”
To move the buckle project forward, she needed an artisan.
And that was Jason Lahr at Fluters Creek Metal Works.
“His bread and butter is welding – cattle panels and stair rails and all those things,” Roller Weeks says. “But he is also a really, really good artist. He would never tell you that, but he is. And I came up with this crazy idea. I told him I’d need to write a grant. He gave me a number. I came back a few months later and said, ‘I have the money.’ He said, ‘Let’s get going.’”
A farmer’s eye
Lahr was already well-known around Abilene for a piece of artwork he co-created with Donnie Knauss: the Abilene Cowboy, a sculpture that stands more than 15 feet high and weighs a ton.
“I am always up for a challenge,” Lahr says. “(The buckle) just seemed like something that might be interesting.”
A sixth generation Kansan, Lahr lives on what once was his grandparents’ farm.
“My dad and my son both farm and I help as much as I can on the farm. But I’ve never been considered an artist. In fact, I’m sure when I was in seventh grade it seems my art teacher told me I’d be better off in home ec than art class.”
Back in the early 1990s, Lahr began constructing metal buildings – machine sheds for farmers around the area. He’s built handrails and benches, and is willing to apply his welding skills to most any project.
“I’m just dumb enough to try these kinds of things,” he says. “Sometimes I speak before I think. And so, when she (Roller Weeks) asked, I said, ‘Sure.’ Then, you step back and scratch your head and you go, ‘What have I done?’”
It’s what farmers do, Lahr says. They make things.
And he comes from a family that makes things. A great-grandfather, Harry Ausherman, held several patents and invented a rasp bar for grain threshing cylinders and a chain tightening means for self-propelled combines.
“He and his brother came up with a self-serve gas pump, which I believe was in Industry, Kansas, which is just north of Abilene about 20 miles or so,” Lahr says. “So, when it comes to a creative mind, I think it might be a little bit of heredity.”
The bulk of the six-month buckle project was paid for with a $22,000 Attraction Development Grant from Kansas Tourism. In addition, 100 donors bought replica belt buckles at $200 each, affording them the honor of having their names placed on the back of the big buckle.
“Honestly, it could have been done quicker, but I started on it and then I had several buildings to do. So, I did that and then got back to the buckle.”
Lahr designed it using four pieces of sheet metal and incorporating symbols the town is identified with – a C.W. Parker carousel pony, representative of the company’s presence in town at the turn of the 20th century; a likeness of Eisenhower; a steam engine of the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad excursion line; a longhorn for the town’s turn as a cowtown; the historic Seelye Mansion; a greyhound recognizing Abilene as the Greyhound Capital of the World; a vintage telephone symbolizing C.L. Brown’s Telephone Company, which evolved into Sprint Corp.; and, of course, Old West legend “Wild Bill” Hickok.
And it can be added to, if needed, Lahr says.
“I was actually going to kind of make it like a leaf table to where you could just pull it out – but then, there was kind of a limited budget,” he says. “I wanted to make it to where we can just unbolt the pieces and slide another chunk in there.”
In addition, Lahr designed and made the circular staircase that winds its way up to a platform in the Central Kansas Free Fairgrounds in Eisenhower Park, where visitors can get a good view of Abilene and have pictures taken of themselves “wearing” the big buckle.
The buckle was unveiled last December, just days before Christmas.
To help boost the buckle’s status, Roller Weeks created a video featuring Jefferson White, an actor from the TV series “Yellowstone,” who plays Jimmy Hurdstram.
The video was the single-most popular video ever shared by Abilene’s tourism center.
“Howdy friends, how you doing?” White says, looking directly into the camera. “Listen, you know that I would risk my life for a good belt buckle, and I’m so excited that my friends in Abilene, Kansas, which was named a True West Town of the Year and Best Historic Small Town, are building the World’s Largest Belt Buckle. … The buckle is huge. … You can contact my friends at Visit Abilene to learn more. Their office is in the train station downtown. So, this one time, go to the train station, you all.” train station downtown.
And indeed, the buckle has proven its worth as an attraction.
Erika Nelson, creator of the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things in Lucas, strategically bought the 100th belt buckle. Hers is the first name you see climbing up the buckle’s stairs.
“It was made by a welder who didn’t call himself an artist and who let his art come through because he knew in his head what it was supposed to look like,” Nelson says. “It’s like the perfect kind of community art – where it brings people together to create something. And that is what art should be.”
Room to grow
But is it really the world’s largest?
It won’t be certified.
“Did you know Guinness charges for certifying World’s Largest Things for commercial projects?” says Roller Weeks, who indicates the potential fee was in the $20,000 range. “After consulting with a World’s Largest Things expert, we were advised not to pay the astronomical fee – not that we could anyway – and just ‘claim it.’
“But anyone with a smartphone ruler app, tape measurer, can measure and see we are the world’s largest. So, we bought the domain www.worldslargestbeltbuckle.com and are promoting it as such.”
And that, she says, is invaluable.
“The WLBB has been featured on every Kansas TV station, in newspapers, radio stories and magazines,” Roller Weeks says. “And then there’s social media. Everyone who takes a photo with the WLBB shares it with their audience and promotes Abilene. We could not buy this level of publicity – especially since the pandemic significantly limited our budget.”
The community backing
Elizabeth Weese, director of the Dickinson County Community Foundation, says she attributes much of the success of the buckle project to Roller Weeks and her contagious enthusiasm.
“She really did it,” Weese says. “We have the right people in the right position. It’s been teamwork. A lot of people are working together and partnering together. Truthfully, when we work together there is nothing we can’t accomplish.
“It means bringing all your tools to the table, and maybe taking on a challenge that’s not necessarily in your lane or wheelhouse – but you are willing to step up and do it. That’s what has been beneficial to our community. We are all willing to say whatever it takes to move our community forward.”
The community has also supported a Cowboy Boots project, which pays homage to T.C. McInerney’s Drovers Boot Store from the 1870s by placing 11 decorated cowboy boots throughout Abilene – similar to how Lindsborg is identified with Dala horses.
The payoff has been huge.
Here are some of the rewards Abilene has received in the past two years:
- Finalist, Best Historic Small Town by USA Today.
- Best Promotion of a Historic Place by True West Magazine.
- Destination of the Year by Midwest Travel Network.
- Favorite U.S Small Town by TravelAwaits.
- #1 Favorite U.S. Small Town
“Other towns would love to have just one of these awards in a lifetime career; ours keep multiplying,” Roller Weeks says. “It’s incredible! We literally shout the news from the rooftops with over-the street banners, press releases and social media campaigns.”
A version of this article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.