(Fred Burgess and Jim Mathes were on the PEP board where I also serve. It has been a privilege to count them as my friends.)
Thursday, May 24, 2007 Great Plains SALINA JOURNAL
By The Associated Press
TROUSDALE — In the space of just months, Fred Burgess lost his health, his partner and the grand home the two of them had furnished and decorated in the manner of a French chateau — with real French antiques.
Burgess, 63, was out of town May 4, when an EF4 tornado roared across Edwards County and smashed Prairie Oaks Farm, which had been in the family of his late partner, Jim Mathes, for 100 years.
“If I had been there, I would have died of fright,” Burgess said.
Instead, as economic development director of Edwards County, he was in Garden City for the Kansas Sampler Festival. He could only watch on a motel room TV as warnings went up about tornadoes — the EF5 that devastated the Kiowa County town of Greensburg, and later the twister that hit Prairie Oaks Farm near Trousdale.
What remained of the house were three walls, exposing mud and straw freshly plastered on French antique paneling dating back several centuries.
Inside the once-grand living room, the chimney had crashed through the parquet floor. But the box holding the ashes of Mathes, who died March 27 of pancreatic cancer, remained intact on the mantle.
“You’re just kind of numb, and that’s a good thing,” Burgess said. “But, you’re also so uplifted by all the people who come to help and want to do anything and everything.” Burgess himself was diagnosed during the winter with lung cancer. He moved Thursday into South Wind Hospice Home. Prairie Oaks Farm, he said, won’t be rebuilt.
Even if it weren’t beyond repair, the farmstead could never be returned to its pre-tornado grandeur. It was truly one of a kind.
Mathes and Burgess returned to Edwards County in 1985 from the West Coast, where they both worked in broadcasting.
Before returning, they came upon a French antiques store in Hollywood that was going out of business. The store had 10 rooms of hand-carved wood paneling brought from France in the 1920s and ’30s.
The business had leased the paneling to film studios that needed to create French chateau-style interiors.
They knew they wanted to add on to the farmhouse in Kansas. “We built the rooms around the paneling.”
Burgess recalled that he and Mathes entertained in the home with gourmet meals. They taught cooking classes in the 20-foot by 30-foot kitchen and gave tours of their greenhouses filled with orchids and the aviary filled with tropical birds.
Just a year ago, they were planting flowers and a big garden, enjoying the peacefulness of the rural Edwards County countryside.
Nancy Mundhenke, of nearby Kinsley, spoke of attending Christmas parties at the farm with six or eight couples.
“They served an absolutely beautiful seven-course meal, with sorbet in between the courses,” she said. “It was lovely, and we always had a wonderful time. It was always a special occasion for us.”
Debbie Call, Burgess’s niece, spent time in recent days overseeing the salvage of some of the French antiques. A crew of about 100 volunteers from Youthville of Dodge City and Newton were picking up the rubble of what had been the 100-year-old barn on the property.
The volunteers were like “manna from heaven,” said Sally Frame, who was helping her good friends Burgess and Call with the cleanup.
Burgess declared the paneling ruined beyond use, although he was happy to offer the kitchen countertops and cupboards to the Methodist Church of Trousdale, which was also damaged in the tornado.
For Burgess and Call, the saddest part is the toppled burr oak trees, more than 120 years old.