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Returning home


LUCAS -- In this Russell County community of approximately 400, there's a quirky edge that sometimes divides its residents.

Not so for Miller's Park, a longtime Lucas fixture many considered the town's community center. Much of it has returned home.

Rabid supporters were undaunted by true Kansas weather -- temperatures that dropped to 12 degrees one day only to rebound into the 50s the next. And never mind the overwhelming odds of safely moving rock-on-concrete-and-chicken sculptures never designed to be moved once, much less several times.

Even the less-rabid supporters simply were too curious to stay away, driving by or dropping in to the empty city-owned lot next to the iconic Garden of Eden to view the 45 sculptures.

Created by the late Roy and Clara Miller, the sculptures were the heart-and-soul of Miller's Park, a stopping-off point for travelers along Kansas Highway 18 when it passed through the center of Lucas.

The park also provided a playground for children, picnic tables and fresh running water -- the ultimate goal of the Millers, who often traveled to Colorado and other places, returning home with what must have been a car full of rocks.

The rocks are, after all, the building blocks of the sculptures, reincarnations on a smaller scale of Pike's Peak and other Colorado mountains. But there's also the first general store in Elbon -- the town's name later became Lucas -- and the community's churches, looking much like they do today.

It took six trailer loads to haul the 45 pieces from the now overgrown Frontier City on the northwest edge of Hays to Lucas, its rightful location.

It's been an ongoing project for some Lucas residents to retrieve Miller's Park, but especially so for artist Erika Nelson, whose intimate involvement with the nonprofit Kohler Foundation and the Garden of Eden brought the quest to reality.

After getting assurances the Kohler Foundation was willing to restore the sculptures -- just as they did the Garden of Eden -- Nelson sent a text to Henry Schwaller, whose family owned the sculptures and Frontier City.

"He immediately said yes," she said, agreeing to donate the sculptures to the Kohler Foundation, which will send its team back to Lucas to restore the park, now next to the garden.

"When they're done, they will gift it to the Friends of the Garden," Nelson said, the same process that took place when Kohler restored the Garden of Eden and then donated it back to the community.

It will be a daunting task restoring the sculptures as the restoration crew will be forced to stabilize many, and find rocks -- of similar size and shape -- to make them whole again.

The Millers were frequent travelers, often visiting Colorado and the Pikes Peak area.

They returned home to Lucas laden with a myriad of rocks from the area, including petrified wood.

Because of their passion for traveling, the Millers set up a watering stop on the outskirts of Lucas for fellow travelers.

It continued to grow, as sculptures were developed and additions -- swings, slides and picnic tables -- were added.

There even was a baby-feeding station, a touch that's quick to bring tears to Nelson's eyes.

"There's nothing left of the site now," she said. "There's one foundation left."

Until now, when a dedicated group of volunteers brought the sculptures home.

One of those was Tim Scheck, a Russell oilman who was the first to offer two trucks and trailers when the call went out for volunteers.

"Everybody needs help," he said. "They have a neat project going, and we'll try to help them get this done."

Brothers Larry and Doug Hickman also volunteered.

Larry Hickman said the park was a key gathering spot for the community, and he was a frequent visitor.

"This would have been back in the '50s when I was spending time there," he said. "We didn't have video games or TV."

Schools would take field trips to the park, he said.

"Almost a community center," he said. "A community park."

There even was a small museum at the park, said Lois Cooper, now the president of the Lucas Historical Society. Much of it was sold off and spread out.

Cooper's mother was a frequent traveler with the Millers.

"Mrs. Miller had asthma, and in the Kansas summers, she didn't feel good," she said.

She remembers the park as a centerpiece of the community.

"I got married in '52," she said. "It was customary to have a community shower, and that's where the shower was.

"We didn't have a city park. Anything that went on outside, it was at Miller's Park."