Something about an old barn in southern Kansas called me back to see what was inside.
Story and photos by Jennifer Denison
A few weeks ago I was assigned to photograph Erin Taormino, a cow horse trainer at Gardiner Quarter Horses in Ashland, Kansas. Erin is one of five up-and-coming trainers the staff selected for a feature that will appear in July’s special youth issue. I left my hotel in Wichita, Kansas, at 4:30 a.m. to make sure I made it to the ranch around dawn to capitalize on flattering morning sunlight for the photos. Most of the two-and-a-half-hour drive across southwestern Kansas was in the dark, so I saw few sites. On the way back after the shoot, however, I noticed a barn and sign that I couldn’t get out of my mind.
Driving east along Highway 160 I saw several old, rickety livestock barns, each with its own weathered charm. A large, gray, gabled barn a few miles east of the small farming community of Sharon caught my eye. Staked into the side of the driveway was a hand-painted sign promoting a concert in the barn. It sounded like a novel idea to gather locals on a Saturday night. I drove about 10 miles farther and saw another sign for the concert. This sign piqued my interest enough that I turned around and headed back to the barn to find out who was performing at this concert. I rarely turn down the chance to see live music of any kind, and knowing that country singer Martina McBride’s hometown is Sharon made me wonder what other talent might exist in the area.
The barn doors were open so I walked in and was greeted by Debbie Norman, owner of the barn. She explained that she is part of the Gospel of Grace Ministries, which hosts regular concerts at this barn and one in Benton, Kansas, featuring local gospel and country musicians like herself. Besides music, there are also free hot dogs and hayrides. Donations received from the events benefit the Kid-n-Calf Mentoring Program that allows at-risk youth to care for calves of their own, which are kept on the farm in Benton. At the end of the season, the calves are sold and the money goes toward helping kids in the program with wellness, tuition, activity fees or other needs.
After our visit, Debbie invited me to peruse the inside of the barn, which was set up like a small theater with a stage and plenty of seating. I didn’t wander much past the entrance when I noticed a familiar piece of artwork hanging on the plywood wall. Debbie said someone donated that print, but she didn’t know the man in the pencil drawing. She was surprised when I told her that the drawing is a portrait of former Western Horseman publisher Dick “Pony Tracks” Spencer, created by artist Cat Deuter.
When the magazine was headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a framed version of the print hung outside my office. For more than eight years I passed by the print several times a day, and Dick was always smiling like a familiar friend. I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t have a hand in guiding me back to the barn.