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Discover Mid-America — September 2007

Jim Rutlader always
wanted his own town

by Rhiannon Ross
Photography by Ron Johnson

All eyes are on the illuminated stage. Out from behind the curtain walks the man in black.

No, not Johnny Cash from the Great Beyond but someone who knew and played his songs well: Kansas’ singer and songwriter Johnny Western. His wife, Jo, of 41 years, joins him.

The Middle Creek Theatre prides itself on being family friendly with a house band, The Middle Creek Opry, gaining attention.

“She's my child bride,” he tells the audience. “People said it wouldn't last. Actually, she was the one who said it wouldn't last.”

The audience laughs. Then, Western, 72, touted as one of the last of the singing cowboys, strums his guitar and belts out, “Mama, Don't let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys.”

It's Saturday night at Rutlader Middle Creek Theatre, part of the Rutlader Outpost, a 25-acre complex located seven miles south of Louisburg, KS along the Frontier Military Scenic Byway (old 69 Hwy).

Resembling a frontier border town, Rutlader includes a community center, RV park with fishing pond, and storefronts for an antique and gift shop, a furniture and carpet store, a woodworker, a sign maker and muralist, Monte Sink, an internationally recognized taxidermist, and a golf store, in addition to the Middle Creek Theatre. A cowboy re-enactor group, the River Gang, performs at the Outpost spring through early fall.

On this night, Western, best known for writing and singing the theme song “The Ballad of Paladin” for the classic TV western Have Gun Will Travel and as a guitar player for Cash, is being inducted into the Kansas Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. He’s the second inductee after Marina McBride, who hails from Sharon, KS, southwest of Wichita.

Bill and Brenda Harris opened the theater more than six years ago, which also is home to the Middle Creek Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

The couple purchased the property, depicted as an “Ole West Border Town,” almost a decade ago from longtime local James Rutlader, for whom the Outpost is named. Rutlader, now 86, still resides next door in a modest, two-story home on the land where he raised his family.

Bill and Brenda say Rutlader, whom they refer to as Jimmy or Ol’ man Rutlader, had one goal in mind when he first bought the property. He wanted to build his own town.

Owners of the Rutlader Outpost, Bill (r) and Brenda (l), present Johnny Western with a plaque designating his induction into the Kansas Country Music Hall of Fame. (photo courtesy Rutlader Outpost)

“All that was here in the beginning was the house he lived in and he built another building and started a furniture store,” Brenda says. “He wanted his own town so he kept building.”

“He built one building after another, each with a 12-foot front porch,” Bill adds.

The first businesses in Rutlader’s town were a furniture store and an antique store. Linda Evans, a former interior designer from Kansas City, now owns the Rutlader Antique & Trading Co., which includes home décor items and a health food section. She bought the store from Bill and Brenda about 10 years ago.

“It’s a casual atmosphere down here,” says Linda. “People who come here become friends.”

In 1990, Rutlader and his late brother Joseph gave 125 acres to Kansas with a promise from state officials they’d put Rutlader on the map. The donated land is now the Rutlader Wildlife Area while the “town” still bears a Louisburg, KS mailing address.

But this didn’t stop Jim Rutlader from installing his own sign — “Rutlader: population 11.” The sign is displayed in front of the Outpost.

“He counted everyone in his store and in his family,” explains Brenda.

“If we count everybody that lives here now and the people in the cemetery back behind the house, maybe we have 11,” she adds, laughing.

The road to Rutlader

The journey that led the Harris’ to launch the state’s first and only Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and own the Outpost had all the surprises of a winding country road.

Nine years ago, the couple had recently retired from corporate jobs at Yellow Freight. On the side, they dabbled in real estate, owning and managing 24 rental houses in the Kansas City area. On a day trip to Louisburg, known for its cider mill and antiquing, they spied a vacant high school and decided to buy it and renovate it into an office complex.

Louisburg Plaza was a financial success.

For this effort, the Harris’ were well known and respected by the locals, including Jim Rutlader.

“Ol’ man Jimmy Rutlader seen me on a street corner in Louisburg, introduced himself, and asked me if I wanted to buy his place,” Bill says.

At the time, the Outpost was a near ghost town, consisting of only two open storefronts, the furniture store and the antique shop. From the antique shop, Rutlader sold oriental imports, old glass and collectible figurines such as Precious Moments and Hummels. He also boasted the Midwest’s largest collection of Fenton glass.

“I’d go inside the antique store and say, ‘It’s dark in here, turn on some lights,’” Bill says, laughing. “And he’d say, “Stand still, your eyes will adjust.’”

After several months of negotiations, the Harris’ decided to purchase the complex. They later would purchase more property from Rutlader, including his home, and allow him to continue living there.

However, the decision to run a complex did not come without some skepticism from Brenda.

“It was not my desire. My husband is always into something, always trying something new,” she says. “But we saw the potential of something here.”

Jim Rutlader with Rutlader Antique Mall owner Linda Evans. Rutlader first opened the antique store.

The first venture was revamping the antique store, now owned by Evans. And being developers at heart, they couldn’t bear to see the rest of the empty storefronts go to waste.

“We weren’t sure what we were going to do with it,” Bill admits. So they flirted with the idea of hosting music shows.

“Our mission was to create a country and western border town with an all-family atmosphere, for old people on walkers and in wheelchairs to be comfortable, to young girls with babies in strollers,” Bill says.

“But we had no music background,” adds Brenda.

The couple talked with some music-minded people and decided to make a go of it. They renovated one of the vacant buildings on the north end of the complex to house the theater and opry. But the business venture lasted only several months and the couple ended up trying to manage the music show themselves. And then, through friends, they met Elijah Chastain.

“When we heard Elijah pick a guitar, we were blown away,” Brenda says. “He was only 29 at the time. He’s a tremendous talent. He’s been playing professionally since he was 10 on stage. He knew a lot of people, had contacts. Plus, he’s a nice young man with a good heart.”

The couple hired Elijah to manage the theater.

“But we had no intentions of having a country music hall of fame,” Bill says. “That came later.”

The Kansas connection to music

First, there was the research. “We didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” says Bill, about establishing the Kansas Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

After finding out their Hall of Fame and Museum would be the “one and only,” Bill and Brenda sought not-for-profit status. They set up a board of directors, with by-laws. The board is responsible for both nominating and electing inductees. By January 2005, the Hall of Fame was official. However, this year is the first year they have inducted members, says Elijah.

In May, country crooner from Sharon, KS, Martina McBride became the first inductee into the Kansas Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Johnny Western from Wichita followed in July as the second inductee.

“The goal is to induct musicians annually with Kansas connections,” Elijah says. “They can play an instrument, be the publisher, in production or be songwriters. It’s not just for singers.”

Singer and songwriter Chely Wright, who lived in Wellsville, KS, and singer Little Jimmy Dickens, who hosted a radio show in Topeka in the late 1940s, are both being considered as nominees for next year. However, official nominations have not yet been made.

“I found out later that I once performed on stage with Chely Wright but I don’t remember it,” Elijah says.

Musician Elijah Chastain books many of the performers at the Middle Creek Theatre.

“I told my wife there must be something wrong with me if I don’t remember playing with her,” he adds, joking.

A Wall of Fame located inside of the theater, in the small eating area to the right of the entrance door, showcases memorabilia owned by inductees. Items are encased in glassed-in shadow boxes constructed by the cabinetmaker in the complex.

Western donated a favorite shirt and McBride plans to send something. Old glass, Precious Moments and Hummel figurines from Rutlader’s antique store also are displayed in this room, along with a life-sized cut-out of Elvis.

Elijah has managed the theater and opry for more than six years. He’s no stranger to music, having performed professionally on stage since he was 10 years old. He’s played for the Kansas City Opry and the Northtown Opry in North Kansas City, MO, and was lead player and bandleader of The Big Creek Country Show in Pleasant Hill, MO.

“The Harris’ gave me the opportunity to put together my own band — The Middle Creek Opry,” he says. “It was a great opportunity.”

The Middle Creek Opry, which bears the name of the local lake, boasts a full six-piece band that performs bluegrass, gospel, country and western, and old rock and roll. Solo treats include banjo and guitar pickin' and the audience is encouraged to sing-a-long. The City of Louisburg hires the opry to perform each year on the 4th of July.

While the theater hosts local and regional artists, Elijah says the goal is to draw more national talent as well as stars from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. The theater currently brings in about six or seven national acts a year. Two upcoming shows are TG Sheppard, Sept. 8, and Gene Watson, Nov. 17.

“I’m really proud of our guys down here,” Elijah says. “(Singer) Gene Watson told me last time he was here, after he heard our band, he took me aside and said, ‘Where in the world did you find these great musicians out here in the middle of nowhere?’”

Elijah says national artists are expressing interest in working with the Middle Creek Opry.

“Artists didn’t used to want to leave Nashville because they didn’t want to leave their bands and work without a band or someone else’s band. Like the Grand Ol’ Opry has its own staff band.”

Elijah says this will allow Middle Creek Theatre to continue to keep ticket prices affordable.

“It let’s us afford to bring in the artists,” he says. “The price goes up if we have to house the band and pay for the show. We want to keep the ticket prices more affordable for anybody to be able to come and see their favorite country stars.”

Another nice offering, says Elijah, is the family atmosphere.

Many showcase acts such as Trisha Yearwood have made appearances in the Middle Creek Theatre where there isn't a bad seat in the house.

“People are not a bit afraid of what they’re going to hear. We’re one of a few places left that has a family atmosphere that still plays music,” he says. “We call it Branson without the price tag.”

Locals Jim and Beverly Looney, and friend Lila Holler of Paola, KS, say they have been Rutlader regulars for years.

"It's a fun deal,” Jim says of the music.

His wife agrees. “We used to come by a lot when Tate Stevens was here.”

“We really miss him,” Jim adds.

Stevens is now a country vocalist for the national band Outlaw Junkies.

The three say Middle Creek Theatre also is a great place to hear Kansas and Midwest artists.

“And for the price, you can't beat this place,” says Lila. “You go to Branson and you pay $30.”

“It's well worth the money,” agrees Beverly.

The theater, which seats nearly 600, is reminiscent of a lodge with its cathedral ceiling. The decor is Western kitsch, with wall-upon-wall of black and white framed photos of celebrities like John Wayne and musicians Johnny Paycheck and Mickey Gilley. Life-sized cutouts of The Lone Ranger and Tonto stand in the back of the room, as if enjoying the show.

The snack bar offers barbecue briquette and burgers, chicken breast and pork loin sandwiches, Polish and hot dogs, homemade slaw and potato salad and popcorn.

The Outpost boasts cowboy shoot-out reenactments by the River Gang the second Saturday of each month from April through October. A summer flea market is held in stalls behind the outpost that resemble a Wild West town with storefront names such as saloon, bank, doctor, undertaker and jail. The community center offers RVers a place to meet and play card games and bingo, with the Harris’ catering the food.

What Rutlader offers folks, says Bill, is the opportunity to return to simpler days and ways.

“Rutlader’s is a country western border town with a country atmosphere,” he says. “It’s 25 minutes from the metro Kansas City area, yet it’s down in the country where it’s nice and quiet.”

Contact Information

Rutlader Outpost
33565 S. Metcalf
(7 miles south of Louisburg, KS)
913-377-2722, 1-866-888-6779

Hours: Mon.-Sat., 10 am-6 pm, summer months; 10 am-5 pm, winter months.

Tickets for Middle Creek Theatre and Opry are $12.50 for adults and $12 for seniors on local and regional acts. Children 12 and under are $6. Prices vary for national acts and Hall of Fame inductions.

The Rutlader RV park has 72 sites with full hookups and 24 pull-through sites.

Town father Jim Rutlader still drops by the theater from time-to-time to check on how things are going.

“He’s quite the character,” Elijah says. “I see him driving his little Ford Ranger truck. Every now and then he comes up and pops his head in the door. He doesn’t stay long. He just checks in on things, then he’s content and right back out the door.”

“We admire what he started,” Bill says. “We’re just adding on to what he had.”

Looks like Ol’ man Rutlader finally got his town at last.

Rhiannon Ross is a Lenexa, KS-based writer.

‘It’s just the way I am’

Ask Jim Rutlader and he’ll tell you a town is not complete unless it also offers a final resting place.

“Have you seen the cemetery?” he asks, his blue eyes bright with excitement. “I’ll drive you back there.”

A short drive around the corner from Rutlader’s Outpost reveals the first entrance leading inside the 12-acre Rutlader Cemetery. A big “R” is emblazoned on the front of the cream-color, wrought iron gate. Inside, about a dozen, tiny white grave markers dot the roadside. A picnic table stands beneath a lone pine tree.

Jim Rutlader welcomes all to spend a day at the town he founded.

A second black wrought-iron gate, also touting an “R”, leads to an enclosed sanctuary with larger, more impressive headstones, including several statues of angelic beings. An engraved headstone propped against a carriage house reads: Rutlader, Kansas.

“This used to be a cornfield,” Jim says.

He walks past a series of headstones heralding the family name and points at the last one. It bears his name and birthday — June 21, 1921. The date of his death is, of course, left blank.

His parents, as well as his brother Joseph, are buried in this cemetery. Jim has lived on this land, which once totaled 360 acres, since he was 11 years old. He only left when he served in the Medical Corp for the U.S. Army.

“We have Buddhists buried here, too,” he says, pointing to two Asian designed headstones. “They don’t usually bury. They usually want to be cremated.”

He’s constructing a vault that will hold their ashes. A rock garden borders one side of the plot; a tiny, white ceramic bench is positioned in the center.

“Different religions have different ways,” Jim says.

Not only are all faiths welcome in Rutlader’s Cemetery, he also offers free plots to anyone unable to afford burial. It’s the same generosity and vision that led him to pursue his dream of building a town — but not just any town.

Jim said he and a friend in Kansas City had planned to build a town where homeless girls could live and work.

“But I didn’t get to do what I wanted to,” he says.

But this didn’t stop him from continuing to build a town, one building at a time.

He and his first wife raised two daughters in the house he still lives in, next door to Rutlader’s Outpost. He was a stay-at-home dad for six years.

The first building Jim constructed in his town was a furniture store, followed by the antique store. The white posts outside the furniture store are dated 1878 and weigh 800 pounds each. He retrieved them from a bank that burned down in Louisburg. The bank is dedicated to the memory of his late brother.

He sold Asian imports from the antique store, which he admits had more than a little something to do with his second wife, who was Chinese. He also used to have a fine collection of antique cars.

“I even had my mother’s Hupp-Yates electric car,” Jim says, smiling at the memory. “All my cars were pre-1920s.”

His dream of having a town named after him also led him to Topeka, where state officials promised they’d put his name on the map if he donated some of his land for a wildlife preserve. Today, 125 acres serves as the Rutlader Wildlife Area. The town name change never came to pass.

“Everything is politics,” he says. “Administrations change, everything changes. They make promises from the past and they don’t mean anything.”

But he doesn’t regret giving the land.

“I can’t take it to my grave,” says Jim. “I like helping the community, giving them all of this land.”

While he enjoys the people who come and go at Rutlader’s Outpost, he admits he’s not much of a music fan.

“I can’t help it,” he says, almost apologetically, “It’s just the way I am.”

Instead, he enjoys tinkering around his house, hanging outdoors or going into Louisburg for lunch at the Timbercreek Restaurant — where he pays for his meals with gold dollars.

“I like to put new coins into circulation,” he explains.

And Jim spends time with his 10 cats.

“I used to have 32 cats,” he brags. “They get food some human beings don’t get.

“Animals have a feeling,” continues Jim. “If you’re kind and they know it, then they’ll be kind to you.”

As for the population sign that reads “11”, he says he thinks it’s time he updated it.

“I’ll take a wild guess. There are about 22 people now,” he says.

“There’s me and Bill and Brenda. Down the road there’s two young bachelors. Up the hill, there’s six more people,” he says, continuing to count.

And of course, Jim says he includes all the people that work at Rutlader’s Outpost.

Rhiannon Ross

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