Two Favorite Sons for One Kansas Town

Wheat, oil, and hard work are mainstays of Bob Dole and Arlen Specter's boyhood home on the plains

MARION COUNTS is a retired oilman who happens to live in the hometown of two United States senators -- a fact that has made it hard for him to get a haircut lately.

That's because the two senators have become presidential candidates, and when either of them comes to town, hordes of press and camera hounds follow, poking through quaint shops and causing disruptions in residents' daily routines.

So it was for Mr. Counts, who, on a recent Saturday morning while waiting for his turn under the shears at the Blue Chair Barber Shop, suddenly found himself bumping down a dusty road playing tour guide for two more visiting journalists.

Every four years the map of the political stars gets redrawn. In the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter put Plains, Ga., in the spotlight. Clinton's presidency gave Hope, Ark., its moments of fame. Now the press is trooping to Russell, Kan., in search of hometown nuggets about the characters and lives of Sen. Bob Dole and Sen. Arlen Specter.

Russell is a small, windswept interruption on the endless Kansas plain. The center of town is marked by simple storefronts and red-brick intersections overshadowed by two grain elevators. Ceramic Dalmatians dot the front lawns of homes, and children ride bicycles unaccompanied by parents.

Folks here embrace visitors with a mixture of pride, humor, and curiosity. They identify themselves to strangers according to their ties to favorite sons: 'I played sports with him,' or 'I did business with his parents.'

And if pancakes stacks are any measure, Dole takes the griddle-iron popularity prize over Specter. On a recent Dole visit, the whole town turned out for a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) pancake breakfast held in his honor. When Specter came, there was no pancake party.

''The nice thing about Russell,'' Senator Dole teased a neighbor who greeted him with the formalities of Washington, ''is that it's always Bob here -- none of that other stuff.''

In Russell, the people are as unpretentious as the surrounding prairie that stretches out in gentle undulations dimpled with bobbing oil pumps.

Mr. Counts pulls up to Carrie Oswald No. 1, the first oil well drilled in the area back in 1923. He points to a bygone oil camp, where workers and their families lived and educated their children.

A few miles away, the road dips down into a shallow valley with a wheat field ringed by more oil pumps. Counts grew up here and still owns a half dozen wells. In the days before electricity, he used to help his father grease the rods that ran from a gas-powered engine to the pumps. His swimming hole was a vast, crude-clotted wooden tank.

Counts, like many folks here who have spent a lifetime laboring outdoors, has little sympathy for white-collar woes. ''You know what kind of burns me is baseball,'' Marion says over a whining pump. ''When a guy makes a million dollars a year, it burns me that he'd go on strike.''

Russell's roots are oil and wheat, and to work either field develops a certain mental and physical toughness that comes from constant exposure to the temperment of the weather and the economy.

It was wheat -- and an offer by Russian czarina Catherine the Great -- that brought the first influx of immigrants to Russell. Back in the late 1860s, the Union Pacific Railroad owned checkerboard plots across the plains. But trains need something to haul back to the east, and once the rails were up, Union Pacific went off in search of people to farm the land.

The railroad found them in the Ukraine. Nearly a century earlier, the czarina coaxed German farmers to migrate to the Ukraine to grow wheat, offering them 100 years of immunity from military service -- a promise Catherine soon broke.

Thus, when Union Pacific advertised prime wheat-growing land at $1.50 per acre in 1876, the Germans came in droves. By the end of the year, the community that had been established five years earlier by 60 Wisconsin Congregationalists had more than 1,000 people and three Lutheran churches.

That was the first boom. The second came with the sinking of the Carrie Oswald oil well in 1923. By the middle of the century, Russell had become the oil capital of Kansas, with 7,000 residents and 2,910 operating pumps. All the major oil firms -- even the Rockefellers -- had a foothold in the town.

But today, the fenced-off yards of rusting machinery on the edge of town tell the rest of the story. When oil prices crashed in 1987, Russell lost 75 percent of its financial base overnight. Two savings-and-loans, a bank, and the largest oil trucking outfit shut down. The large companies withdrew. Houses fell vacant. Now Russell is a made up mostly of retired couples, merchants, wheat farmers, and small-time oil men.

''The No. 1 concern here is the price of oil,'' says Allan Evans, publisher of the Russell Daily News. ''The second concern is what the Contract With America people will do with the '95 farm bill.'' Several prominent Republicans in Congress are calling for the elimination of farm subsidies.

Late one recent afternoon, Dean Banker stood outside his clothing store on Main Street and pondered the possibility of a Republican presidential ticket with two candidates who spent boyhood years in Russell. ''I think a Dole/Specter ticket would be an obvious winning combination of two gents from the heartland,'' he says. Then he goes on to betray Russell's true political sentiments. More than being just a Republican stronghold, simple hometown values are prized.

''If [Dole and Specter] follow in the footsteps of Eisenhower and Truman, the heartland influence will be good for the country,'' Mr. Banker says. ''Hard work and honesty are a tough combination to beat in the heartland.''

Earlier in the day, Edith Schultz joined the crowds at the VFW hall for pancakes. American flags fluttered in the chest pockets of denim overalls. And as the high school band played ''Yankee Doodle Dandy'' for the sixth time, Mrs. Schultz pondered the opposition. ''Arkansas isn't even in the US, is it?'' he asks, referring to President Clinton's home state. ''Heck, they can't even pronounce Kansas down there.''

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