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Background Image Motor car that was used to transport passengers, goods, and mail from Marysville through Onaga until 1955. Black and white.

Onaga: Embracing the Past, Imagining the Future

What elements of a community’s past help enrich its future?

This question is at the heart of Onaga, Kansas’s online exhibit, “Crossroads into the Future,” featured as part of Humanities Kansas’s Crossroads: Change In Rural America initiative. Anchored by a Smithsonian traveling exhibition of the same name, Crossroads is designed to spark dialogue about how rural communities are adapting to change today. It is supplemented by ten additional exhibitions, including Onaga’s, that, collectively, tell the story of how residents are keeping the rich history and vibrant traditions of Kansas rural life alive for future generations. 

Onaga, located in northeast approximately 60 miles northwest of Topeka, is a rural community that boasts both an independent spirit in its citizens and an inclination for collaboration to enrich their lives. Dr. Charles Fleckenstein founded Onaga’s first hospital in 1947, and in the mid-1950s, when many rural hospitals across the state were considering closing their doors, Onaga created a tax-supported hospital district to keep their hospital running. In 2013, they funded the construction of a new hospital, Community Healthcare Systems. When a fire unexpectedly destroyed the community’s grocery store in 2010, a resident opened a new market the following year. Even Onaga’s famous past residents are remembered for excellence and innovation in their chosen fields.

View the Online Exhibit


Major Reed Chambers, AEF 94th Pursuit Squadron, pictured in front of a plane in France, 1918.

Reed McKinley Chambers, Onaga native and World War I ace aviator, pictured in France, 1918.

Questions for Discussion

Take a few minutes to explore the “Crossroads into the Future” exhibit, and then answer the following questions:

  1. Many rural communities across Kansas are struggling with decreasing population numbers that can make it hard to garner investment in major infrastructure—e.g., hospitals, wireless internet, or even something as basic as grocery stores—from outside businesses and corporations. Onaga’s solution to this problem has been to get investment from the community itself by creating a special tax district. What other ways could communities address this problem?
  2. The story of Onaga’s fight to maintain a robust healthcare system for its citizens, maintain local access to food and other goods, and provide services to farmers and ranchers compels us to think about the best way to balance the needs and desires of the individual with the needs and desires of the community. How do you do this in your own community?
  3. The history of Onaga’s healthcare system clearly shows a commitment to the wellbeing of the community – in terms of both the town and its residents. How does your hometown or current city show its commitment to the community? What could improve this relationship?

Community HealthCare Systems in Onaga

Community HealthCare Systems hospital in Onaga.

Go Further

Now that you’ve explored the “Crossroads into the Future” online exhibit, consider the following activities as ways to enhance your learning:

  1. Take the Road to Healthy: Explore healthy ways to eat, move, and relax in your community in HK’s online version of The Road to Healthy exhibit. Find creative ways to get moving, learn some relaxation techniques, and take a “healthy selfie” to share on social media. The Road to Healthy is made possible with support from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas Foundation. Visit The Road to Healthy.
  2. Conduct Your Own Community Survey: Do a survey of the healthcare facilities and access to fresh food in your own community.  How many miles would you have to travel to get to the nearest doctor’s office, the nearest hospital, the nearest grocery store?  Then research how much time it would take for you to drive to these locations vs. biking, taking public transportation, or walking. How accessible is healthcare and healthy food for people in your neighborhood?
  3. Research the Legacy of Your Hometown: Famous names from Onaga include Silas Seth “Sox” Griffis, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame; Al Jolley, a professional football player and coach and member of the Wyandotte Nation; and Reed McKinley Chambers, a flying ace in World War I and pioneer in the aviation industry. Who are the famous people from your community? What are their claims to fame, and how does the community remember them?

Whatever you do, don’t forget to tell us about it!  Share your community’s survey or stories from your hometown with us on Facebook by tagging us @HumanitiesKansas and using the hashtag, #CrossroadsKS. We can’t wait to hear what you’ve taken away from these Kansas crossroads!


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