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Sometimes when Cole Herder has a free moment he likes to get up from behind his cluttered desk at Humboldt City Hall and go stand by the bank of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the town square.
He remembers what the view once was: a city hanging by its nails, a downtown with half its teeth knocked out, a decaying hotel whose only guests were ghosts.
How things change. These days, downtown Humboldt is tingling with so many projects and new businesses that Herder, the city administrator, struggles to keep track of it all.
On a recent afternoon, Herder gazed out onto his rapidly revitalizing hometown, hands in his pockets, sunlight pouring in through the glass. “The things that have happened in this town,” he said, “I could never have dreamed of it.”
A music venue. A brewery. A book shop. A cocktail bar. A honky-tonk bar. A golf-simulator bar. A five-room luxury hotel. A fitness center. A gift shop. A coffee shop. A confectionery. All have either opened in recent years or are coming soon to this southeast Kansas town of 2,000.
Most of these ambitious enterprises are organized under a civic group called A Bolder Humboldt, which formed about six years ago, said Paul Cloutier, one of the group’s founding members.
“I’ve lived in a lot of big cities, and the thing I loved about them was that they had complete neighborhoods, with a grocery store and a dry cleaners and a bar and little restaurants,” Cloutier said. “Which is basically what a small town is, or used to be. So our model here is sort of, let’s build the actual small town that people think small towns are.”
What is happening in Humboldt at the moment doesn’t fit cleanly into established patterns of social and economic development. It is idealistic, but it’s not an intentional community, which implies hippies starting from scratch out in the woods (Humboldt was founded more than 150 years ago). And it’s not quite right to call Humboldt a company town, though you can easily draw a line from the millions of dollars being invested outside Herder’s windows straight to B&W Trailer Hitches, a fast-growing company that employs more than 700 people in the area.
Whatever it is, Humboldt has begun to draw interest from outside its sleepy corner of Kansas. Earlier this year, The New York Times called Humboldt one of 52 places to visit in the world in 2022. Gov. Laura Kelly recently declared, “There’s no better example of the growth and success we’re seeing in Kansas than in places like Humboldt.” And it has begun to poach young, creative citizens from places like Kansas City, just two hours away.
“I can barely wrap my head around it,” said Rob Bingaman, an artist who recently relocated from Kansas City. “Whatever’s going on here works unlike anything I’ve ever been around.”
First things first. How did Humboldt, Kansas — a place with one stoplight and an annual Bible parade and an old sign that points you four blocks to a museum honoring the birthplace of a man you’ve never heard of — end up alongside Kyoto, Monaco, and the Red River Valley of Vietnam on the New York Times’ list of 52 Places to Visit in 2022?
Short answer: It never hurts to know somebody who works at The New York Times.
“In 2021, we invited photographers from all over the country to come to Humboldt for a conference,” said Cloutier, who in a previous life was the publisher of JPG, a photography magazine. “One of them works for the Times, and she spent several days photographing the town. And my understanding is that when they were compiling the 2022 list, they were thinking how travel should be different coming out of the pandemic. And what we were doing here, I think, seemed different.”
That photographer, Gabriela Herman, whose husband then worked for the Times, wrote that Humboldt was “an unexpected and affordable oasis of cool surrounded by fields of wheat and soybeans”; a subhead in the story compared Humboldt to Marfa, the west Texas art outpost.
It was not the first time the national press took note of Humboldt. NBC News came to town in 2009, at the height of the recession, to highlight a feel-good story unfolding out of B&W Trailer Hitches, Humboldt’s largest employer. Like other businesses, B&W had hit a downturn. But rather than laying off any of his 180 employees, founder Joe Works lived up to his name and kept everyone on the payroll and instructed them to improve the town: painting churches, pruning trees, cleaning up playgrounds.
Business eventually picked back up, but Joe Works’ commitment to Humboldt seems only to have deepened. Three of Works’ children — Josh, Beth and Tony — moved back to Humboldt in recent years. (The fourth, James, somewhat hilariously lives in Humboldt, Iowa.) With Joe’s blessing and financial backing, Works’ children have embarked on a variety of projects aimed at transitioning Humboldt from a humdrum rural town to a place where, as Josh Works put it recently, “we can have really nice things.”
“We have a unique set of inputs here,” he said, sitting in Octagon City Coffee, which he opened with his wife, Jessa, in 2018 on the east side of the town square. “There’s the financial success of B&W, and this willingness of my dad to invest in Humboldt and see it rise. But there’s also the fabrication abilities that we have access to because of B&W. Metal fabrication, wood shop, tools, heavy machinery, this whole toolkit that we can draw on to build these projects.”
He pointed out across the street, where a scissor lift was parked outside a building being rehabilitated. “For example, I don’t know what it would cost to buy one of those — probably five figures,” he said. “But because of B&W, it’s basically free for us to use.”
What would become A Bolder Humboldt is rooted in the friendship between Josh and Jessa Works and Cloutier and his wife, Alana. They met because of Instagram.
Before settling in Humboldt in 2015, Josh and Jessa spent four years traveling the country in an Airstream trailer with their son, Jack, documenting their experiences on the then-fledgling app.
“We found a little community of people on Instagram, and Paul (Cloutier) was one of those people,” Josh said. “He invited me to coffee and we sort of became pen pals after that.”
By 2016, the Cloutiers were thinking about getting out of the Bay Area. They visited Humboldt over Thanksgiving, and Josh gave them a tour of the town. By then, Josh and Jessa had opened a frame shop and Joe Works had purchased a handful of crumbling buildings downtown.
“And it turned into this bigger conversation of, like, what if we came up for a plan for the kind of town we wanted to live in?” Cloutier said. “I don’t know if it was as ambitious then as it’s ended up being. But the general idea was to create a nonprofit focused on regenerating the local economy in this town of Humboldt.”
The Cloutiers talked it over and decided to take the plunge. They packed their bags in Oakland and were Humboldt residents inside of a year. They now own a house and a triple storefront downtown that they bought for $10,000 cash. Paul is president of the Humboldt City Council and is the owner of a soon-to-open bar downtown called the Hitching Post. Alana is the Democratic Party chairperson for the 2nd Congressional District in Kansas and is currently running for state representative. Her bookshop, Idle Hour Books, is set to open in a few months.
Their lives, Cloutier said, illustrate the opportunities available to creative people in rural parts of the country.
“I always wanted to open a bar,” he said. “But it costs $400,000 just for a liquor license where we came from. And you would have to work every minute of every day for that to be a success. Here, our liquor license costs $1,000 a year. I can be open three days a week and still do a ton of other stuff.”
“You can be ambitious and have dreams here at a reasonable scale,” Cloutier continued. “It’s a very different thing than being ambitious and creative in a city. You want to be an artist? Come to rural America. You can dedicate almost all your time to making cool stuff happen.”
Are you ready for the country?
Rob Bingaman’s first trip to Humboldt was back in 2012. He had never met Josh Works in person, but he knew him through Instagram — like Works, Bingaman was an early adopter on the app.
“I put it out on Instagram that I was trying to do this project and I needed special equipment to make it happen,” Bingaman said recently. “And Josh messaged me — he was out traveling the country somewhere — and said, ‘I’m not there right now, but I have an unboxed iMac at my place and you can have it. The door’s unlocked.’ So I followed his directions to Humboldt, walk upstairs in this empty house, and take his computer. I never met this guy in my life. In return I made him a painting of his Airstream trailer.”
Bingaman now lives in that Airstream trailer, in Humboldt.
After about 15 years in Kansas City, Bingaman said he needed a change of pace. The plan was to move to New York. In December 2021, he came to Humboldt, ostensibly to finish work on a video project documenting A Bolder Humboldt’s work in the town. He ended up sticking around. He keeps an art studio in a former church a block off the town square and spends a lot of time riding his bike around the Kansas countryside. He’s thinking about buying a house.
“My friends in New York like to say, ‘Anybody can live here, you just have to choose what you’re gonna have and not have,’” Bingaman said. “Well, anybody can live here and you get a lot more. And it’s not just materials and space. It’s the pace. You can spend a week being interested in something and your costs are low enough that you don’t have to call it a ‘sabbatical.’ The things that make it hard to exist New York or LA or even Kansas City — those problems just aren’t here.”
Laura Wagner has shaken drinks and designed beverage programs all over Kansas City, with stints at SoT, Fox and Pearl, Monarch, Il Lazzarone and The Restaurant at 1900. She moved to Humboldt in February to serve as the general manager of A Bolder Humboldt’s most ambitious project: The Bailey, a five-room hotel with a breakfast restaurant (Honeybee Bruncherie) and a cocktail bar (Perrenoud’s) attached.
Wagner got hip to Humboldt last summer, when her friend, Kate Frick, invited her down to build shelving for a bike barn at Base Camp, a campground with three modern, Scandinavian-style cabins built along a quarry near the recently opened Southwind Rail Trail.
Frick, whose resume includes opening the well-regarded but short-lived Myers Hotel Bar in Tonganoxie, had moved to Humboldt to manage Base Camp and work on the opening of the Bailey. She also briefly ran a sandwich shop in town called Noon. But family issues called Frick back to the Lawrence area, leaving Josh Works without a general manager to help get the Bailey project online. Wagner agreed to take over Frick’s role. She moved to Humboldt in February.
“It was more about being part of what’s happening in this community than my passion for cocktails,” Wagner said of her reason for relocating. “And I also think, working with Josh, there’s an opportunity to solve some of the pay and equity issues I’ve observed over the years in the hospitality industry.”
She said Honeybee and Perrenoud’s are guaranteeing a $15 minimum wage and will be experimenting with tip pooling between front and back of house workers. The same will be true, Wagner said, at Calamity Mae’s, a farm-to-table restaurant she and Miles Kim, a sous chef at Rye in Leawood, plan to open within the year.
Wagner said some of her friends in the Kansas City service industry have lately been reaching out to ask about moving to Humboldt. “They want a more peaceful life, where you don’t have to work 70 hours a week and stress about making rent on some crazy expensive lease in the Crossroads,” she said.
Staffing all these new businesses is a source of concern, Cloutier acknowledged. They will be able to draw upon some existing residents, but the town is small and housing in Humboldt is tight.
“People want to come here, but we don’t yet have enough places to put them,” Cloutier said. “We’ve talked about building worker housing, and we’re talking about experimenting with cooperative employment, where maybe somebody works at the bookshop during the week and the bar on the weekends, and it’s kind of scheduled through A Bolder Humboldt. But it’s tricky.”
He added: “One thing I’ve found living here, both through the work we’re doing at A Bolder Humboldt and also my work on the city council, is that to get things done you have to start looking at slightly alternative models to what came before. Because a lot of that just doesn’t work in these places anymore.”
Open for business
When Josh Works was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, Humboldt held an annual event called Water Wars. They’d close down the town square for a day and turn it into a water park, full of Supersoakers and slip-and-slides and water balloon launchers.
“It was this really pleasant memory I’ve always carried with me, something that I felt could only exist in a small town like ours,” Works said.
Works helped revive Water Wars in 2018, and after a two-year pandemic-induced hiatus, it returns Aug. 13. By then, if all goes according to plan, several long-planned Humboldt attractions will finally be up and running. That includes the Bailey Hotel, Perrenoud’s Cocktail Bar and The Hitching Post, Cloutier’s bar.
“Our whole approach here has been to move really aggressively with a lot of projects,” Works said. “You can’t sustain a small-town economy with one successful little coffee shop. We have to build an audience, which means a tourism industry where we get people from other places coming in to Humboldt. And you do that by having a lot of different things for people to do when they get here.”
Herder, the city administrator, said he recently learned about one of A Bolder Humboldt’s new projects through Facebook, noting that it’s unusual for a city manager in a town the size of Humboldt to be surprised by plans in motion for a new business.
“At first I was like, how are they doing this without me? I was used to being involved in everything that happened in Humboldt,” Herder said. “Then it hit me like a brick: That’s actually pretty cool, to have such an active group of people in your town. I don’t need to be involved in everything. I shouldn’t be involved in everything.”
In late June, after a Thursday morning brunch at Honeybee, Cloutier walked next door to give a quick tour of The Hitching Post, which he envisions as a “slightly sophisticated honky-tonk,” with high-end whiskeys, vinyl records and a little stage in the corner for weekend performances.
Cloutier has aimed to connect the bar to Humboldt history wherever possible, from the rustic indoor canopy made from wood rescued from a local barn to the neon sign that’ll hang outside, restored by Kansas City-based artist and neon maker Dylan Steinmetz. “My hope is that it will fit well within the community,” he said.
An older gentleman strolling past on the sidewalk stopped and poked his head in. On the roof of the Bailey hotel is a flagpole that dates back to the building’s construction in 1904, and the man wanted to know if Cloutier and his group had plans to put anything on the empty pole. Cloutier explained that they had actually found the original Bailey flag in storage and were in the process of having it repaired. Soon, Cloutier assured him, the flag would be back on the pole, flapping in the Kansas sky.
“Well, that’s just first class, isn’t it,” the man said. “You guys have done such a great job for the city of Humboldt. I don’t know any other city that’s put in as much thought and time and effort and money as you all have. I just hope when you build it they’ll come.”
This story was originally published August 7, 2022 5:00 AM.