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How Greensburg Rebuilt Its Tourist Attraction — And Itself — After A Devastating Tornado

Lu Anne Stephens
Caitlin Matile stands inside the Big Well Museum in Greensburg.

The Big Well Museum stands as a tribute to the spirit of Greensburg, which went from being a typical western Kansas town to being leveled by a tornado to being rebuilt as a truly “green” community. The museum tells the story of the town’s journey.

Greensburg has the distinction of owning the “World’s Largest Hand Dug Well.” The Big Well was built — as advertised — by hand in 1887 and is still considered an engineering marvel for its time. Thirty men, earning 50 cents a day, worked for nine months with pick axes and shovels to create the largest hand-dug well in the world: 32 feet wide, and 109 feet deep.

The well became a tourist attraction for Greensburg in the late 1930s and attracted millions of tourists over the decades — even though it was basically a large hole in the ground with a small gift shop behind it.

But all that changed in 2007, when the town was leveled by a two-mile wide, EF-5 tornado.

Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW
A display at the museum shows some of the damage from a 2007 tornado.

The tornado decimated the town including the gift shop and – with few exceptions — everything above ground level.

Greensburg has been rebuilt into a modern, sustainable community and the small gift shop has been replaced by a stylish building that stands as a tribute to the small town’s history and survival.

Caitlin Matile is the manager and tourism director of the Big Well Museum.

“We do a very good job of displaying things … what it was, what it is now,” she said.

Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW
A visitor looks at a display in the Big Well Museum.

The circular museum surrounds the well, and as you walk through, you see the history of the town from inception to today. That includes the construction of the well, of course, but also a way of life that was lost forever when the town was destroyed.

"A lot of our elder population moved away when the tornado hit, moved where their families and stuff are, so I’d say average population here in Greensburg right now is anywhere from the age of … 25, 26 to the 50s," Matile said. "We still have some of the elder population here but not many."

The museum has captured many of their memories — including the night the tornado hit — on video recordings, which are located in interactive kiosks along the museum’s wall.

Visitors now come to learn about the tornado and the town’s rebirth as a "green" community. It really is green, with "100 percent sustainable energy, 100 percent of the time," as the town’s website likes to point out.

But the well itself is still the star of the museum.

Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW
Looking up from near the bottom of the well.

A new spiral staircase takes you down 84 steps. A lot of what you see in the museum is relatively new but the well itself is pretty much as it was when it was built.

You can see slots drilled into the stone for two-by-fours, pieces of lumber put in place to hold the walls of the well as it was being built from the bottom up.

"It’s pretty cool to see those [wood] remnants still in there," Matile said. "If you look in there closely, there are still some pieces of wood.”

There are platforms along the way so you can get the full effect of looking down — or stop to catch your breath: 84 steps down is 84 steps back up.

The Big Well Museum is open daily except Sundays.

Lu Anne Stephens is KMUW's Director of Content Strategy. She has held many positions over many years at KMUW. Lu Anne also produces KMUW’s New Settler's Radio Hour and the Hidden Kansas segment for KMUW’s weekly news program The Range.