Steak and Stagecoaches in Kansas City

A visit to the Great Plains can mean great food, and a look into travel history
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What's a guy to do on business in Kansas with bucks to burn and something to learn?

If you are in Overland Park, say, visiting one of the many corporate headquarters (it's got Applebee's, Sprint-Nextel and Petrol Oil and Gas, to name a few), you can find yourself with a choice: barbecue, steak or a trip into past travel practices.

Or, in my case, all three.

Barbecue and steak can, even at top dollar, prove lifeless tropes in too many other areas of the country, but not here -- where it sometimes feels like you can walk out back behind the restaurant to pick your individual cow. Stay right where you are in Overland Park, if you wish, and hit

Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue, one location of a small, high quality local barbecue chain.

If you are looking to take advantage of the high-end steak scene, travel north toward the Kansas City stockyards (I'm a devout carnivore, so my mouth waters just as I type "stockyards") and all the great steakhouses it has to offer, hopping over the border to the Missouri side of Kansas City -- less than an hour's drive -- for one of the best options,

Plaza III Streakhouse.

Take a jaunt south to Olathe. For an inexpensive barbecue experience there, hit Smokin' Joe's Bar-b-que, which is in a converted gas station and sells giant slabs of barbecued ribs for about $10. Don't confuse it with a higher-end experience and if you go for lunch, plan to nap the rest of the afternoon away.

Then, spend some time getting a window onto how first-class travel was more than 100 years ago, as Olathe is a center of travel history.

The methods of traveling here are obviously as modern as anywhere: airport security, sitting knees-to-nose in a plane, nearly missing a connecting flight and trying to pick up your rental car right when the customer-service person's computer blinks to black.

But Kansas was once a center of stagecoach travel. Those going westward from Missouri could travel by stagecoach, the "first class" option of its time. A trip from Kansas City to Santa Fe along the Santa Fe Trail could run $200 in the mid-1800s, which was about half what the average person might earn in a year. At 150 miles or so a day, that trip typically took about two weeks, but was better than, say, riding on horseback.

Instead of airports or New Jersey Turnpike-style rest stops for refueling, food and bathrooms, there were stagecoach stops. There were three main types: the kind where horses would simply be swapped, the kind where horses would rest and travelers would be fed and the sort that also offered sleeping accommodations. The Santa Fe trail ran from St. Louis to Santa Fe and many -- including Mark Twain -- made mention of the poor nature of stagecoach accommodations further along the trail toward New Mexico.

One former stagecoach stop in Olathe is now a museum. The

Mahaffie stagecoach stop sat on what was a 500-acre farm owned by a transplant from Indiana, J.B. Mahaffie, who sold his farm there for $4,000 and became a successful businessman and politico in Kansas.

The Mahaffie shop offered respite for horses, and in the basement of the modest stone farmhouse was a dining room where between 80 and 100 travelers ate every day.

Each stagecoach held six to 12 people and would be pulled by four to six horses, depending on the terrain and number of passengers. There was even, effectively, a coach-class option -- perching on the roof and hanging your feet off the back, with a wood bar to rest them on. You saved money and, presumably, passed time by praying to avoid thunderstorms.

(Stagecoach rides are still given at Mahaffie, but unfortunately not on the day I was there because of the cutting prairie winds.)

As the railroads came, mostly running east/west, a lot of stagecoach stops like Mahaffie closed. With fewer railroad routes running north/south, some servicing those routes lasted longer. But Mr. Mahaffie served on the board of an early railroad, so he didn't suffer as much as others might have when the change came.

Clearly, even back when the buffalo roamed, diversification helped.

Marek Fuchs was a stockbroker for Shearson Lehman Brothers and a money manager before becoming a journalist who wrote The New York Times' "County Lines" column for six years. He has contributed frequently to many of the Times' other sections. For his "Business Press Maven" column on how business and finance are covered by the media, Fuchs was named best business journalist critic in the nation by the Talking Biz Web site at The University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Fuchs is a frequent speaker on the business media, in venues ranging from National Public Radio to the annual conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;

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