October 6, 2023 in Kansas

The Green Phoenix: How Greensburg, Kansas Rose from the Ashes After a Destructive EF5 Tornado

Early History

Greensburg was founded in 1885 and named after D.R. “Cannonball” Green, who worked for the Chicago, Kansas and Nebraska Railway. As the railroad expanded westward, Greensburg became an important transportation hub and center of commerce in southwestern Kansas.

The town saw rapid growth in its early years due to the railroad and agriculture. Farmers settled the area to take advantage of the rich soil, growing wheat, corn, milo and raising cattle. The beef industry thrived, with large cattle drives passing through Greensburg on the way to shipment points.

By the turn of the century, Greensburg had emerged as an agricultural and ranching center. In 1900, the population was over 1,000 people. The town boasted multiple hotels, liveries, banks, churches, newspapers and other businesses to serve the surrounding farms and ranches.

The railroad and agriculture fueled Greensburg’s prosperity well into the 20th century. Though subject to boom and bust cycles, the town continued to grow as a regional hub for farmers, ranchers and merchants.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression was a worldwide economic crisis that severely affected Greensburg and the surrounding rural areas. The dust storms and drought of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s made farming difficult in the Plains states. With falling crop prices, many local farmers lost their lands and equipment to foreclosure. Businesses on main street struggled to stay open as people had little money to spend.

The economic decline was exacerbated in Greensburg when the Farmer’s State Bank closed in 1932 at the start of the Depression. The bank had financed much of the development of the town in the 1920s, including paving streets, building a high school, and bringing electricity. With the bank’s closure, many loans were recalled which forced more businesses and farms into bankruptcy.

In 1933, New Deal programs provided some relief through crop subsidies, rural electrification, and jobs programs. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired local laborers for construction projects like building a city auditorium and library in Greensburg. While beneficial, the New Deal aid was not enough to reverse the decline as the troubles of the Great Depression continued through the 1930s. The tough economic times made community events like Chautauqua and band concerts an important outlet. The Depression finally ended for Greensburg when wartime manufacturing revived the economy in the early 1940s.

World War II

World War II had a significant impact on the small farming community of Greensburg, Kansas. Hundreds of young men from Greensburg and the surrounding area were drafted and served in the armed forces. Families anxiously awaited any news from the frontlines where their sons, brothers, and fathers were fighting.

On the homefront, residents of Greensburg did their part for the war effort through rationing and by purchasing war bonds. Rationing limited the amount of goods civilians could purchase, including food staples like meat, dairy, sugar, and coffee. Citizens planted “victory gardens” to supplement their food supply. Community members also purchased war bonds to help fund the massive costs of waging World War II. Local businesses promoted the sale of bonds, and children participated in bond drives at school.

The local economy in Greensburg received a boost from wartime manufacturing. However, the loss of so many young men to the armed forces was deeply felt, as agricultural production was limited by the reduced workforce. The community pulled together, supporting each other and praying for their soldiers overseas to return home safely once the war ended. World War II touched nearly every family in Greensburg in some way, shaping the town’s character and identity.

1950s Prosperity

The 1950s brought newfound prosperity to Greensburg after the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II. The population grew steadily during this period as people moved to Greensburg seeking economic opportunities.

Several new businesses opened up in Greensburg in the 1950s to serve the growing population. The downtown area saw an expansion with clothing stores, restaurants, hardware stores, and other retail shops. Agriculture and farming continued to be strong economic drivers, as they had been for decades before.

New infrastructure projects enhanced Greensburg’s development. In 1952, a municipal power plant was constructed which brought electricity to the entire town. Greensburg High School was built in 1959 to accommodate the town’s youth. Overall, the 1950s represented a time of growth, community bonding, and optimism in Greensburg.

While still a small rural town, Greensburg was beginning to modernize and keep pace with the changing times. The community pulled together and invested in itself, setting the stage for future prosperity while retaining its agricultural roots and small-town values. The 1950s remains a fondly remembered period in Greensburg’s history.

Decline of Downtown

In the 1970s and 1980s, Greensburg’s downtown area began to decline, mirroring trends seen across small town America. The rise of shopping malls and big box stores on the outskirts of cities drew consumers away from traditional downtown shopping districts.

In Greensburg, the opening of large retail chains like Walmart and Dollar General provided competition that many local mom-and-pop shops could not withstand. As consumers flocked to the convenience and lower prices of these larger stores, longtime downtown businesses were forced to close their doors.

By the 1990s, Greensburg’s Main Street took on a neglected appearance. Empty storefronts prevailed, and lack of foot traffic made it difficult for remaining businesses to stay afloat. Building facades fell into disrepair, signs of urban decay like broken windows and faded paint visible. Overall, the once vibrant downtown district lost its energy and allure.

Without a contingent of shoppers and diners populating the area daily, public safety also became a concern. Vagrancy increased as vacant buildings attracted transients. The deserted streets felt unsafe after business hours.

Though Greensburg’s decline was part of a broader trend, it was still heartbreaking for lifelong residents who remembered the heyday of downtown’s bustling streets. The downward trajectory was difficult to reverse, as business owners struggled to attract customers who now favored easier parking and modern conveniences over Main Street’s charm. Overall, the deterioration of Greensburg’s downtown was emblematic of the challenges faced by many small towns in that era.

Tornado Outbreak of 2007

On May 4, 2007 an EF5 tornado struck Greensburg, Kansas causing catastrophic damage to the town. Winds were estimated to have reached 205 mph, making it the strongest tornado on record in the state. The massive tornado was on the ground for nearly 2 hours and 22 minutes, carving a path of destruction 1.7 miles wide and 22 miles long through multiple counties.

The tornado completely leveled the town of Greensburg, with about 95 percent of the city either damaged or destroyed beyond repair. Numerous homes, businesses, and public buildings were wiped out including the hospital, schools, city hall and police station. At least 11 people lost their lives from the powerful twister.

In the aftermath, city officials and residents faced the monumental task of rebuilding their devastated community. With financial assistance from FEMA and other organizations, Greensburg was able to start the recovery process. Rather than simply reconstructing the town as it was, Greensburg took the opportunity to rebuild in an environmentally-conscious way, with a focus on sustainability and renewable energy. Homes and buildings were constructed to LEED standards. Greensburg also installed wind turbines and solar panels around the city to move towards 100% renewable energy dependence. While rebuilding efforts continue today, the town has made remarkable progress since the tornado’s destruction. Greensburg has become a model for green living and innovative city planning in the wake of disaster.

Greensburg Today

The rebuilding of Greensburg after the devastating 2007 tornado has transformed the town into a model sustainable community. With assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy, Greensburg has focused on green design principles and promoting renewable energy.

The population of Greensburg today is around 800, having rebounded after hitting a low of under 600 in 2010. The economy relies heavily on agriculture, with farms specializing in wheat, sorghum and livestock. Tourism has increased as Greensburg has become known for its focus on sustainability and green living. Attractions like the Big Well and the Greensburg Wind Farm draw curious visitors.

New municipal buildings like City Hall and the Kiowa County Courthouse showcase geothermal heating, solar panels, recycled materials and energy-efficient lighting. Greensburg aims to source 100% of its electricity from renewable energy. Businesses are also encouraged to follow green building standards, and many downtown shops showcase eco-friendly construction.

Greensburg has a vision to be the greenest rural community in the nation. Civic leaders promote sustainability not just for environmental reasons, but also as an economic driver to attract eco-minded residents, businesses and tourists. The town’s long-term plan aims for 500 homes by 2030 through incentives for green construction. Greensburg envisions a vibrant future as the heart of a green agricultural community on the Kansas prairie.

Notable People

Greensburg, Kansas is the hometown of several notable figures. Here are some of the famous people who hail from Greensburg:

Athletes

  • Nate Robertson – Major League Baseball pitcher who played for the Detroit Tigers, Florida Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies. Robertson had a 10-year MLB career from 2002 to 2011.
  • John Riggins – Legendary NFL running back who played primarily for the Washington Redskins. Riggins was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992 after retiring as the all-time leading rusher for the Redskins.
  • Jack Taylor – Basketball player who competed for the New York Knicks and Cincinnati Royals in the 1960s. Taylor was a two-time NBA All-Star.

Politicians

  • Keith Sebelius – Served as a Congressman from Kansas’ 1st district from 1969–1981. Sebelius was known for his bipartisan approach and compromises.
  • Mike Hayden – Was the 42nd Governor of Kansas, serving from 1987–1991. Hayden previously served as Kansas Secretary of Wildlife and Parks.

Artists

  • Darryl Starbird – Well-known automotive customizer and inventor known for his futuristic car designs. The annual Darryl Starbird National Rod and Custom Car Show is held in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
  • John Steuart Curry – Painter and muralist associated with the Regionalism art movement. Curry’s paintings focused on rural American life in the Midwest. His work hangs in the Kansas State Capitol.

Historic Sites

Greensburg has several historic sites and landmarks that reflect its cultural heritage and history. The most notable include:

Big Well Museum – Located in downtown Greensburg, this museum is built around the “Big Well,” which was part of the city’s original water system. At 109 feet deep and 32 feet wide, it was the world’s largest hand-dug well at the time of its construction in 1887-1888. The museum has exhibits on the history of the well, life in early Greensburg, and the 2007 tornado.

Round Barn – This distinctive barn was built in 1912 and is one of the few remaining round barns in Kansas. It was rebuilt after being damaged in the 2007 tornado. The barn exemplifies the ingenuity of pioneer architecture and hosts community events.

Greensburg City Hall – Built in 1909, the restored City Hall anchors Main Street. It originally housed city government offices, the fire department, and the city jail. The building survived the tornado and represents Greensburg’s resilience.

Metzler Haus – This property includes an 1886 stone house that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It belonged to early settlers and shows the craftsmanship of skilled masons who built homes and businesses for the new town.

Greensburg Depot – The restored Santa Fe railroad depot now serves as a visitor’s center. It was originally built in 1915 and survived the tornado. The depot is an example of standard depot architecture used system-wide by the Santa Fe railroad.

Great Western Hotel – Constructed in 1883, the Great Western Hotel catered to cattlemen, salesmen, and travelers. It was later converted to apartments before being damaged in the 2007 tornado. Though no longer standing, it remains a symbolic part of Greensburg’s early heyday.

Culture and Events

Greensburg has developed a vibrant arts and cultural scene focused on celebrating its heritage and small-town identity. The town is known for its community festivals and events that bring residents together and attract visitors from across Kansas.

Some of the most popular annual events include:

  • Big Well Days – Held each summer, this street fair celebrates Greensburg’s claim to having the world’s largest hand-dug well. Activities include a parade, live music, carnival rides, craft booths, and a 5K run.
  • Kiowa County Fair – Dating back over a century, the fair hosts 4H exhibits, a rodeo, demolition derby, carnival, and live concerts. It’s a beloved tradition for county residents.
  • Greensburg Arts Walk – On the first Friday of each month, downtown galleries and shops stay open late for an evening art walk featuring local artists, open studios, live music, and refreshments.
  • Holiday Home Tour – Each December, historic homes decorated for the holidays open for tours to benefit preservation efforts. Carolers stroll the streets spreading holiday cheer.

Greensburg also has a growing arts scene. The 5.4.7. Arts Center showcases works by local and regional artists with rotating exhibitions in its downtown gallery space. Many restaurants feature live music on weekends, and community theater productions are staged at the Twilight Theatre.

Food culture is defined by classic Americana like diners, steakhouses, and cafes serving comfort fare. But newer eateries are starting to expand options with dishes influenced by Mexico, Asia, and beyond. Greensburg takes pride in its small-town charm and sense of community.




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