Lawrence, Kansas: Lively, Livable and Steeped in History

A can-do ethic permeates this university town whose citizens appreciate healthy living and a rich cultural life.
By David Wann
October/November 2012
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The University of Kansas' limestone buildings overlook Lawrence. 
Photo Courtesy KU University Relations/David McKinney

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Lawrence sits on beautiful, rolling prairie on the eastern side of the state. “It has an active population of down-to-earth people,” says resident Nancy O’Connor. She came to Lawrence 25 years ago for temporary work and never left. For two decades, she’s worked at the Merc Community Market and Deli, which boasts about 6,000 enthusiastic members. The store prides itself on its responsiveness to customers. “Want to know how far that veggie was shipped?” asks one member. “Look at the handy ‘Miles to the Merc’ label!”

Lawrence boasts 54 public parks, including community and neighborhood parks, trails and nature preserves. Clinton Lake and the Kansas River (also known as the Kaw River), which flows through Lawrence, provide recreation opportunities. Geocaching and Frisbee golf have many devotees here, and a well-used bike path skirts the west side of the city.

Though the Lawrence lifestyle is easygoing now, its early beginning was the precise opposite. The epicenter of the “Bleeding Kansas” pre-Civil War conflicts, Lawrence was founded by abolitionists, making it the target of proslavery guerilla forces such as those of William Clarke Quantrill, who sacked the town in 1863, burning a quarter of its buildings and killing at least 150 people. Though quite diverse politically and culturally, contemporary Lawrence is known by some wags elsewhere in the state as “The People’s Republic of Lawrence,” a dot of Democratic-voting blue in a deep-red Republican state.

A can-do ethic permeates Lawrence, a community that appreciates sustainable and healthy living. The same folks who go crazy for the University of Kansas Jayhawks basketball team (sport network ESPN calls KU’s home court the loudest college basketball arena in the country) also celebrate farmers markets and local foods.

An iconic dam on the Kansas River provides a template for how the country’s 56,000 existing dams could be put to use generating electricity without additional stress on waterways. Sarah Hill-Nelson’s great-great-grandfather first generated renewable energy on the Kansas River in 1874 with the Bowersock Dam. After a major makeover, the Bowersock Mills & Power Co. now produces enough electricity to power 4,500 homes.

Thanks to its connection to KU, Lawrence residents enjoy the university’s museums, events and ongoing educational opportunities. Haskell Indian Nations University has been educating Native American students for more than 100 years, and its cultural center features exhibits from the university’s collections. Massachusetts Street, the city’s main drag, comes alive at night with a lively music scene, and every major holiday presents an occasion for an enthusiastically attended parade.

With more than 100 entries, the annual Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade is said to be the nation’s largest horse-drawn carriage parade, attracting participants from around the country and creating the perfect launch to the holiday season. In summer, the annual Buskerfest and Kansas State Fiddling and Picking Championships draw spirited crowds despite the August heat.

Stats: Lawrence, Kansas

Population: 87,643

Climate: Continental climate; 40 inches avg. annual precip.; January avg. high: 39 degrees; July avg. high: 91 degrees

Median Household Income: $41,290

Median Home Price: $172,900

Check out the other towns featured in our 2012 installment of 8 Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard Of.

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