Lebanon, population 206, sits a quarter-mile north of Route 36, in Smith County, which borders Nebraska. It’s a place where you can put the word the in front of everything. The grocery is Ladow’s. The hair salon is Betty’s Beauty Bar. The shop is Hoss’s Antiques & Gifts (run by Marcum’s dad). The gun shop is Higby Bros. (by appointment only). There’s the elevator—a large conveyor belt that deposits grain into a big silver silo—but nearly every town in the area has one. Sometimes it’s the only structure left standing. Agriculture is life out here, and in Lebanon, other businesses are few and close together. There were once two hotels in town: One became Hoss’s and the other looks to be abandoned, paint stripped, and in bad shape.
“Last month a white supremacist came knocking on doors, asking about property,” recalls one resident, who asked to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of this ongoing threat. “The mayor came by and asked if anyone had seen him.” The folks in town believe the man was in the area trying to start up an Aryan utopia—a feat white nationalists attempted in Leith, North Dakota (they ultimately failed). There’s plenty of empty lots in Lebanon, but there’s no room for men like him. The townspeople guided the stranger to Route 36 and told him to get out. “I miss all the good stuff,” the resident says. “You never wanna miss a good kicking out,” replies a friend.
Smith County has one of the oldest populations in all of Kansas. You can count the number of kids who can drive in Lebanon on one hand. There used to be a primary school, but now the inside has been converted into a local man’s workshop, and the entrance is guarded by a pack of New Hampshire Red chickens. The foxes can’t get at the Hampshire Reds in the front of the single-story building because the streetlights scare them off. Just next door, also appropriately on School Avenue, there sits a boxy, brick, two-story high school building, which is now a genealogy center and storage for antiques. According to one resident, “nobody pays much attention to it.” Nowadays, the few school-aged kids in town get bussed 14 miles to the west, to Smith Center, the largest city in the county with a population of around 1,600.
There are few if any structures lining the 15-minute drive between Lebanon and Smith Center, just a single-lane road and hay and rows of corn. It’s a visually simple and beautiful part of the country, if a little eerie, especially this time of year when the fields are green-brown and it’s light-jacket-cool in the mornings. Smith Center is the sister town to Lebanon, and together they are part of this often overlooked but deeply fascinating region of the country.