August 10, 2016
For use: Immediate
Finney County Historical Society
Contact: Steve Quakenbush, 620-272-3664


Johnetta Hebrlee of Finney County Museum interviewed for “Great American Railroad Journeys”

When British television viewers tune in early next year to a popular series called “Great American Railroad Journeys,” they’re going to learn a little bit about Finney County and Southwest Kansas.

That’s because the education coordinator at the Finney County Historical Museum was recently interviewed for the series aboard an Amtrak train rolling westward down the tracks between Garden City and Lamar, Colo.

The interview took place Aug. 4 with Johnetta Hebrlee, who has served with the Finney County Historical Society since 2010. The weekly travel documentary series is made by a company called Boundless Media, which produces programming for the BBC.

The show focuses on historical developments along major American rail lines, following present-day routes that were first described in the Appleton’s Railroad Guide of 1879, the year Garden City was founded by John Stevens, James and William Fulton, and C.J. “Buffalo” Jones.

“This has turned out to be my year for some wonderful experiences in history,” said Hebrlee, who rode in the nose of a World War II B-17 bomber earlier in the summer, getting an aerial view of the community that her family has called home for five generations.

Assistant Producer Frances Beere, of London, first contacted the museum in May, with an interest in the story of hard red winter wheat, brought to Kansas during the 1800s by Russian German immigrants. Those seeds, and varieties descended from it, have been credited with making Kansas a leading world source of wheat in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

German immigration to Finney County, however, occurred later and was connected more to sugar beet production than to wheat, so Beere decided to combine the aspects of local German immigration with the waves that came earlier and further to the north.

Hebrlee met the seven-person British TV crew at 6:20 a.m. Aug. 4, at the local depot, and rode with them to Lamar, where she was picked up by Laurie Oshel, the museum’s assistant director and research librarian. Through the interview, the British audience will learn about wheat and sugar production, immigration to Western Kansas, and some of the early-day development of Finney County. They’ll also see how wheat and sugar beets became staple crops in Western Kansas.

A major sugar factory operated from 1906 to 1955 at the Southwest edge of Garden City, with thousands of acres of sugar beets cultivated throughout the area. The crop led to the establishment in 1916 of the Garden City Western Railway. The line still exists today, and the original steam locomotive, “Old Two Bits” is displayed inside Lee Richardson Zoo at Finnup Park, near the museum. Hebrlee’s own heritage is linked to I.R. Holmes, an early leader in the local sugar industry.

Depending on what footage is used from the interview, viewers in the UK will also see some locally-produced wheat that Hebrlee took aboard the train; and watch the host of the show, Michael Portillo, enjoying some bread that Hebrlee baked in her oven the night before.

The episode is slated for broadcast during February, and the Boundless personnel said it would be posted later on YouTube. The program debuted in February of 2016, and the first 15 episodes covered history along two Northeast U.S. railroad routes through New York and Long Island, as well as Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

In addition to the TV program, Portillo is writing an accompanying book that is scheduled for release through Simon and Schuster in February of 2017.