Cuba Celebrates 150 Years of Life on the Plains
I’ve been happily occupied this last week printing pictures for the upcoming 150 Anniversary of the founding of Cuba, Kansas. These large panel prints will hang in the Community Hall this coming Saturday as Cuba celebrates their annual Harvest Festival, this year built around honoring the hardy people who built the town — and made it a rich community for life.
Newcomers to Small World Gallery sometimes get confused when I tell them I’ve been photographing Cuba for 40 years. I can’t blame them; you’d naturally think of someplace like Havana when Cuba is mentioned. And any place worth 40 years of attention must be exotic, you’d think, celebrated and renowned.
But my Cuba is right here in Kansas, a small town near the Nebraska border, not so far from Belleville where I grew up. As a boy on the farm Cuba was all rumors to me, I never went there. Rumor had it that folks in Cuba had fun, something frowned upon on general principles amongst my English heritage stock. Cuba was Czech. A polka kind of place. We didn’t polka.
Too bad. Turns out the rumors were true — Cuba did have fun — something I discovered in 1975 when, as a young photographer, I went there, started hanging around, photographed everything in sight, and just generally made myself a fixture. They put up with me. Wes Klima welcomed me to his gas station where the old guys played cards and the dog was named Nixon. The Mustang Inn was handy for food, gossip, and beer. Doc McClaskey’s office was just across the street but I’d more likely find him holding court on the end stool in the Mustang Inn. Elmer Dolezal, the town plumber, led the town band. For a documentary photographer the place was loaded.
It was never a place for major news, at least not the sort that would attract reporters and film crews. (Maybe that’s what I liked about it, that the “news” in Cuba was more fundamentally human scale, deeply important but in an “Our Town” sort of way.)
Regardless, over time as the body of pictures grew it did attract attention further afield. CBS News Sunday Morning came in 1983. Then they came back in 2005, the same year National Geographic published a story on Cuba, part of a larger coverage of life on the Great Plains. American Photographer published their largest story ever (50 pages) on Cuba, somewhat remarkable for a publication that covered photography the world over. And many people around the world came to know (and love) the people of Cuba through all those pictures. It’s a testament, I think, to the power of photography to transcend boundaries and connect lives.
I seems to me that all those people who know Cuba though my pictures are attracted to many of the same things that first attracted me. Cuba was — and is — full of life. While the standard dogma says small towns are slow and boring, I found a place full of complex characters, rich with the concoction of meaning, and vastly talented in the art of creating a sense of community. It’s reaffirming, a comforting message that life has true meaning — but only if we make it so. Not bad for a town of 300 (when I started.) Even now with the population under 200 it is a marvel to see how they have managed to keep things going, to not fall into the easy acceptance of decline.
So if you are in striking distance of Cuba, Kansas on July 21 stop into town and join in the celebration. You are always welcome in Cuba.