Visiting Big Brutus, a Really Big Shovel in Kansas

Big Brutus, a National Historic Landmark in southeast Kansas, is a destination for big boys and big girls who like big toys. They really don’t get much bigger than this.

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Coal Mining in Kansas

Kansas is not the first place that comes to mind when thinking of coal mining in the U.S. But this region in southeast Kansas was once home to a large deposit of bituminous coal. It was so abundant here that coal could be found above ground, lying on the surface like rocks.

The first mines opened in 1866. By 1914, Crawford and Cherokee Counties produced more than one third of the coal consumed in the United States.

Big Brutus arrived on the scene in 1963, working about 11 square miles. He would rip the first 50 feet of dirt from the surface, exposing the seams of coal. Then smaller, but still really big shovels would dig into the coal.

They would then load it on the some of the biggest dump trucks you can imagine. Some of those dump trucks are among the outdoor exhibits here.

Over the years, they removed more than 9 million tons of coal from this area.

Big Brutus is an electric shovel, so plugging it in and powering it up each day was quite the event. Old timers in the area say that lights in area homes and offices would dim as Big Brutus got up to speed. The last month of operation for Big Brutus, in May 1974, the electric bill was $27,000.

So by 1974, most of the best coal was gone. Combined with the rising cost of electricity and guidelines being implemented by this new government agency called the Environmental Protection Agency, the Pittsburg and Midway Coal Mining Company decided to shut things down. Big Brutus was considered too big and too expensive to dismantle and ship elsewhere, so there you have the start of this unusual mining museum in southeast Kansas. Those trucks and other equipment are a part of the museum grounds, making a lovely place to walk and explore on a nice day.
The company also donated all of the land and helped create an environmental treasure from what could have been an ugly spot in southeast Kansas.

Mined Land Wildlife Area

Today, the entire area that Big Brutus and his little brothers and sisters worked is known as the Mined Land Wildlife Area. Those big holes that Big Brutus created are now called pit lakes. There are more than 1,000 of them spread across nearly 15,000 acres. The state of Kansas stocks them with blue gill, crappie, catfish and more. One pit lake is devoted entirely to trout. Fishing licenses are available in nearby Mineral Springs.

The unmined area is fabulous for hiking, camping, wildlife viewing and picking wild berries. This is not flat, western Kansas. You’ll find some nice hillsides, big trees and fairly challenging conditions. Camping and picnic facilities are also available at the Big Brutus museum.

Where to Eat Near Big Brutus in southeast Kansas

The coal miners who came to southeast Kansas immigrated from the Balkan nations, including Austria, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Hungary. At the height of coal production here, more than 12,000 miners and their families called Crawford County home.

When the miners were injured, and eventually they all were, women had to come up with a source of income. When her husband lost his leg in the mine in 1934, Annie Pichlar started serving fried chicken dinners from her little home. Very quickly, she earned the nickname Chicken Annie.

A few years later, her friend Mary Zerngast, who lived just a few hundred feet away, also opened a fried chicken restaurant in her home. And she became known as Chicken Mary.
Today, descendants of Chicken Annie and Chicken Mary still make fried chicken every day following the exact recipes their grandmothers used, including potato salad, cole slaw and more. Potatoes and onions are still peeled and chopped by hand, chickens are fresh, never frozen, and yep, they still use lard to fry the chicken.

The original homes have been taken down, but modern restaurants now operate in the exact spot where Chicken Annie and Chicken Mary first served the miners of Crawford County. Both restaurants are only open in the evening.

Learn more about mining in southeast Kansas and how it shaped the culture here with a visit to the Crawford County Historical Museum and the Miners Hall Museum.