Sunrise tradition part of Alton's pride

By GAYLE WEBER
gweber@dailynews.net

ALTON --  Illuminated only by a full moon and a lit cross at the top of the bluffs south of town, dozens of people gathered their lawn chairs in the lea below to watch the re-creation of Jesus' first and last moments before resurrection.

A tradition more than 50 years old, the Easter Sunrise Pageant brings together congregation members from numerous area churches to portray the series of events from the Nativity scene at Jesus' birth through the palm procession and last supper to the crucifixion atop a hill and Jesus' eventual resurrection.

"It was wonderful," said Paula Kitzman, Alton, who saw the pageant for the first time this year. "It brought tears to my eyes. More people need to come see this."

Before the sun rose Sunday, 40-some people dressed in robes had gathered near the bluffs to bring the scenes to life. Lifelong Alton resident Jay Carswell has been doing so since he was a child, and his family now joins him.

"I think it's just being outside hearing the sounds of nature with the music and the message," he said.

"It makes it authentic," Paula Carswell added.

As actors portray the scenes, music and narration play from a loud speaker. But when the crowds followed Jesus, portrayed this year by Layton Hill, carrying the cross up the hill, everything fell silent -- except for nature.

"That's amazing the way they put them up on the cross," Kitzman said.

"There's nothing like that right over there," said Pat Nichols, a longtime Alton resident, of the crucifixion scene. "That tells the story."

Working together

The Rev. Homer Smuck with Mt. Ayr Friends Church south of Alton is one of the organizers of the annual pageant. But his involvement in the community doesn't stop there. He and his wife, Lois, also operate Bull City Cafe, a focal point for the community of 100. Both ordained ministers, they came to Alton in 1994, left in 2004 and returned again in 2008. Approximately a year and a half ago, they took on the cafe.

"It's a huge value to this town," Homer Smuck said. "It is a lot of work, but the thing that I love about it is the people and interacting with the people."

Lois Smuck makes homemade pies and specials each day --  including fried chicken on Fridays. And the couple also employs additional people, something the Bull City Community Foundation was hoping for when it was looking to boost economic activity in the community a decade ago.

"We finally decided that a cafe, or a restaurant, would be the thing that could draw people in," Smuck said.

A Bohemian hall was moved in from the countryside and restored to its rustic look. It now houses not only the cafe, but many local events to keep people in the community.

Taking charge

Everything the Alton PRIDE organization does is an effort to keep people actively involved in the local community, providing activities for youth and adults "to keep them in the community rather than having to drive somewhere," said PRIDE president Wilda Carswell.

Established in 1985 in Alton, PRIDE is a volunteer program administered by the state to encourage quality of life improvements in local communities. The town has received state grants to help accomplish the group's mission. A Get It Do It grant through Kansas State University Extension helped complete a skate park a few years ago, and the city park was refurbished thanks to the group.

"There's kids down there playing nearly every day during the summer," Wilda Carswell said.

PRIDE sponsors activities monthly including a Valentine and Halloween party for children, a Ladies Night Out for local women, Easter egg hunt and summer reading program for youth, and the Summer Jubilee, Alton's largest event of the year.

Carswell said PRIDE spends most of the year planning for the Jubilee, which is always the fourth Saturday in August.

"We already know something we're going to do next year," she said.

Bull City

Maybe the most unique aspect of Alton is tucked away in an unsuspecting metal shed on the southern edge of town. Bull City Gun Shop started 13 years ago with just a handful of guns. Roy Ballard owned the business until he turned it over to his son, Brice, in October 2011. Brice Ballard, 25, grew up in the shop and is getting familiar with running the business with help from store manager Kelly O'Connor.

"It kind of keeps the little community of Alton going with traffic coming through here," O'Connor said.

The Bull City name in the gun shop and cafe is derived from the town's original name.

The shop, one of the largest in the state, sells guns to other smaller gun shops and does business nationally. The store stocks, guns of all kinds including some for women and some for collectors, archery, ammunition, clothing and other accessories.

"We continue to grow at a fast pace," O'Connor said.