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With guest houses, woman turns Flint Hills into a home away from home

Kris Larkin, part-owner of Ad Astra Food and Drink in Strong City, operates nine guest houses in Chase County. The properties were all rented out the weekend of the 2019 Symphony in the Flint Hills. (Photo by Easton Thompson)

By Easton Thompson

Nearly 7,000 people flocked to the Cottonwood Falls area for the 2019 Symphony in the Flint Hills. Kris Larkin, part-owner of Ad Astra Food and Drink in Strong City, helped to fill the need for guest lodging in the area even though the event was canceled.

“I own and manage nine guest houses,” Larkin said. “Eight of them being in Cottonwood Falls itself, and one in Strong City.”

The majority of guests who stayed in Larkin’s available guest homes over the weekend were from out of state. Larkin had a few guests from Missouri, Georgia, North Carolina, Colorado and Texas.

After the Symphony in the Flint Hills was canceled due to storm damage, there were two different guests that ended up staying for longer than they had originally planned.

“That was what was so remarkable,” Larkin said. “People actually got to enjoy the Flint Hills.”

Larkin felt sorry that the symphony was canceled, but she was glad that her guests got to explore the area more.

“Our guests from Georgia, they drove all over,” she said.

Larkin said she believed that more of her guests would have stayed, but her properties were all booked. 

At Ad Astra, the Strong City restaurant, business was good for the entire weekend. With so many people not going to the symphony, they found local businesses to visit.

Larkin said that Ad Adstra had around 900 patrons over the weekend, which is much more than normal.

Larkin’s properties are booked almost every weekend at each location except for in January and February.

“I kind of just breathe a sigh of relief in January and February, to be honest with you,” Larkin said.

There are events going on in the area all year long, but Larkin said that weddings give her a spike in business.

“People are starting to use this area as a destination wedding place,” Larkin said, “so in August this year, every weekend, every single weekend, I have everything booked because of weddings.”

Larkin also said that they get a lot of business from Europeans that have read the book Prairie Erth by William Least Heat-Moon.

“I want them to experience it,” Larkin said. “The grasslands are as important as the rainforest, and people haven’t been educated on that. It’s an absolutely beautiful thing.”

Larkin’s friend from Texas, Velda Rickstrew, a co-creator of the Crossing Boundaries nonprofit, attended her first Symphony in the Flint Hills in 2016 on the South Clements Pasture in Chase County. She planned to attend the 2019 signature event in Chase County and to visit Larkin.

Rickstrew has stayed in two of Larkin’s Cottonwood Falls guest homes.

“The first time, we stayed in the small, one-bedroom house,” Rickstrew said. “This time we stayed in the church.”

The church is next door to the small house and can accommodate up to 10 people. 

“It’s a beautiful home,” Rickstrew said.

Rickstrew lives in Colleyville, Texas with her husband, Emerson, who has been a certified public accountant since 1971.

When Larkin and her husband, Pat, first moved to the Flint Hills, the Rickstrews had no idea what the area was like. They had never been in Kansas before.

“It’s fun to just explore the smaller towns and the little shops,” she said.

The Rickstrews were disappointed when they found out the Symphony was canceled.

“We didn’t get to hear the symphony and we didn’t even see the venue,” Rickstrew said.

Instead, Larkin took the Rickstrews to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and they got to see a few different towns in the surrounding area of the Flint Hills.

“We had an incredible hostess and we enjoyed our weekend,” Rickstrew said.