By Kevin Murphy
MUSCOTAH, Kansas (Reuters) - The 176 residents of this fading Kansas town have high hopes for their old water tower.
Volunteers from around the state converged earlier this month to paint the structure to look like a baseball and to build a small replica of Chicago's Wrigley Field — all in the hope of capitalizing on the town's ties to native son Joe Tinker, a National Baseball Hall of Fame second baseman.
Muscotah, 90 miles northwest of Kansas City, is like many towns across rural America - looking for quirky, offbeat and boutique attractions to invigorate declining local economies.
Rural counties are home to about 15 percent of Americans, but population numbers dropped overall between April 2010 and July 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. Depopulation often brings financial hardship: Muscotah has lost its school and grocery store. Its only remaining businesses are a mercantile store, a bait shop and a post office.
"I just don't want to see these small towns die, and if we can do our little part, that is what we are going to do," said C.J. Hanson of Muscotah, who along with husband Jeff Hanson is a leader in the local effort to create the Tinker museum.
The Hansons joined a group from the Kansas Explorers Club to help paint the tower, which is expected to open next year. They will build an outfield fence and hope to use some sprouts of ivy from the fence at Wrigley Field, where Tinker played for the Chicago Cubs in the early 1900s.
The Explorers Club, with about 1,500 members, helps towns in Kansas develop and promote attractions - quirky and otherwise.
One Kansas town, Cawker City, boasts a 9-ton ball of twine, "the world's largest," that a resident started making in 1953. It is stationed downtown under its own shelter and visitors are invited to add twine, which is a strong type of string used in farming to bind together bales of hay.
Pam Grout, author of "Kansas Curiosities," says she has heard of people who have driven hundreds of miles to see the Cawker City twine. In fact, the town of Darwin, Minnesota, has a rival twine ball attraction - it is billed as the world's largest twine ball rolled by one man.
In McPherson, Kansas, the hide and stuffed head of Leo the Lion, who roared in the beginning of old MGM movies, has been in a local museum for years. This autumn, the lion will get its own theater display in the museum.
ROADS LESS TRAVELED
On other back roads of Kansas, Norton has an art gallery devoted strictly to also-rans in American presidential elections. The town of Plains says it has the nation's widest Main Street. In Piqua, there is a Buster Keaton museum. The silent film star was born there 118 years ago.
"These things create energy within a town and make people feel like they are doing something to sustain it," said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, which launched the Explorers Club.
Other states have their share of oddities as well. Texas has a museum devoted to barbed wire and a "Cadillac Ranch" with 10 autos planted nose-down into the ground. Florida has a handmade coral castle dedicated to a lost love; New Jersey has Lucy the Margate Elephant, a 65-foot-high wooden sculpture built to attract land buyers to the area.
It may be a stretch to expect boutique attractions to work miracles in battered towns like Muscotah, but Penner describes it as "a matter of scale."
"If they just get any more people in town that feels pretty darn good," she said.
In Muscotah, Hanson said people already are coming to take pictures of the 20-foot-diameter steel baseball, which will showcase town memorabilia and a film about Tinker, who moved from Muscotah to nearby Valley Falls, Kansas, as a preschooler. He died in Florida in 1948 on his 68th birthday.
Richard Smalley, marketing manager of the Kansas Tourism Division, said it is hard to know how many people visit offbeat attractions, but he believes that their cumulative impact is probably significant to tourism in the state.
In Cawker City, the twine ball gives the city name recognition with benefits that go beyond the community, said Linda Clover, the unofficial caretaker of the ball.
"Even if someone doesn't buy anything here, within a few minutes in a town either direction they may stop at a Dairy Queen or a Pizza Hut," Clover said.
Penner said some people make fun of the lengths at which small towns will go to draw tourists, until they realize the pride that goes into those efforts and that they actually get results.
"When they know the layers of the story," Penner said, "they stop laughing."
(Reporting by Kevin Murphy; Editing by Greg McCune, Arlene Getz and Maureen Bavdek)