By Brogan Gillmore
During the hot spring days of late May, Chase County holds its annual rodeo, with bull riding, mutton busting, calf scrambles and plenty of beer. And in the thick of it all is Toni Schneider, director of the Chase County Chamber of Commerce, and arguably one of the most involved people in the Chase County community.
Schneider says that she’s plenty busy with the rodeo, from handling the media to setting up the opening ceremony, “and whatever else is needed.”
“Last year I sold beer.”
That “whatever else is needed” attitude has led Schneider into being nearly everywhere in Chase County — always with a smile on her face.
Schneider moved from Wichita to Chase County in 1991 when she married a local boy. That was when she fell in love with the Flint Hills and its people.
“What I love most about Chase County is that no matter how long you’ve been here you feel like you’ve lived here all your life. You’re family,” she said.
Although Schneider and her husband divorced, she remained in her new home, taking up ranching and farming.
In 2000, she tried moving back to Wichita, but promptly returned to Cottonwood Falls saying she felt isolated in the city.
“I had grown where I really liked small town life, where everybody waved, and if you had a problem you could just reach out to your neighbor,” Schnieder said.
In 2018 she became involved with the Chase County Chamber of Commerce and the following year, she became the director.
When asked if she would take the job Schnieder responded, “Sure. I’d love to,” planning to initially take up a part-time position.
As the director of the Chamber of Commerce in Cottonwood Falls, she oversees the ongoings of Chase County. Working with the local businesses and promoting tourism are only part of her responsibilities.
Schnieder is also on the board for the rodeo, has volunteered for the Symphony in the Flint Hills, organizes the River Suite — the largest event put on by the Chamber of Commerce — and engages with the community through a local women’s club.
Schneider said that she still farms and ranches, but not nearly as much. She and her boyfriend have close to 300 head of cattle and 5,000 acres — shared with her boyfriend’s family.
She can name almost everybody in the area and does so while grinning ear to ear. And she is always willing to talk about the latest local news with anybody who walks into the Commerce building in Cottonwood Falls.
In all her roles, she finds that some things remain a constant.
“The weather,” she said.
Weather affects much of Schnieders work, from farming to commerce. Adding that all the flooding recently has put their farming behind. Along with the flooding came misfortune as Schneider’s house flooded with the rest of the crops. But members of the community worked to help one of their own.
“My coffee ladies got together and there were 10 people working on my house and helped me clean up after the flood, which was just incredible,” Schneider said, beaming as she recalled the incident.
The weather also had an ill effect on the Symphony in the Flint Hills this year, causing its cancellation for the first time in 14 years. When the symphony is in Chase County, it’s a boon for the local businesses, increasing commerce and tourism for the area, Schneider said.
“Whenever it’s not in Chase County, the businesses, I don’t want to say suffer, but really feel it,” Schneider said. It’s just business as usual, she said, not the boost they see when the event is close by.
With the cancellation of this year’s symphony, it seemed like it would be business as usual for the shops and restaurants. But that wasn’t the case, which Schnieder credits partly to an article in the Smithsonian putting a spotlight on the Flint Hills and the Symphony in the Flint Hills.
“It’s [the symphony] always been a really popular midwest event. People from Kansas City and Wichita come, but this year, I noticed there were travelers from even farther away,” she said.
Because of the influx of out-of-state ticket holders she said that more people stayed in lodges and took advantage of all Chase County offered. Schnieder said that this year had an even bigger impact.
“When the symphony was canceled, they weren’t going to pack up and leave, they were going to make the most of it. And really, I think, did,” she said.
Schnieder pointed to one man from Arizona who attended the River Suite the night before the symphony, bringing along 10 guests and adding to his experience.
Whether it is her work with the Chamber of Commerce and rodeo, or her involvement with the Chase County community Schnieder is everywhere with a smile on her face ready to help. When asked why she does it, Schneider said “I just love it, you know? They’re my people, this is my family.”