Matthew Fulkerson, a custom woodworker by trade, has a habit of giving worn items new life.
"Every job is kind of different, whether it’s restoring an old 1944 Woody or building brand new kitchen cabinetry for a luxury house," Fulkerson said. "It’s about taking somebody’s vision and turning it into reality."
This time, Fulkerson has a vision of his own.
In 2013, Fulkerson and his wife, Leigh Ann Fulkerson, purchased an Atlas F missile silo near the the north-central Kansas town of Wilson — one of 72 Atlas F silos the U.S. government commissioned in the 1960s during the Cold War.
Fortunately, Matthew said, the Atlas rocket was never used as a weapon of mass destruction.
"Instead, it was used to send our first four astronauts into orbit around the Earth, set up global communication satellites, and also do supply runs to the international space station where we worked together with our former enemies," he said. "Really it’s been amazing how this rocket technology has brought us together as a human race."
The Fulkersons' missile silo has been empty for more than 20 years, but the couple has big plans to use the site to bring people together.
"It’s a really big benefit to be able to take sort of the government remnants, what government left behind, and transform that into something that is very interesting and useful again," Leigh Ann said.
Matthew and Leigh Ann hope to eventually transform the silo site into an "eco-adventure resort," complete with guest suites, a spa, gym, lounge and pool areas, creative spaces, an educational center, a library and so much more. The silo's launch control center would serve as headquarters for Matthew's nonprofit, the Ad Astra S.T.E.A.M. Institute. The institute focuses on public education in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.
"Ad Astra — that’s Latin for ‘to the stars,’ which we feel is pretty relevant considering this was rocket technology that was used here," Matthew said.
Matthew and Leigh Ann want the eco-adventure resort to supply the energy it uses.
"We’re trying to come at this from an ecological approach," Matthew said. "What we’re looking at is a variety of different power sources that are out there. We live in the wind belt of America. ... We definitely look at tapping into that."
They also hope to harness solar power and "find innovative, new ways of creating energy," Matthew added.
Topeka-based Architect One, a full-service architecture, planning and design firm, is helping the Fulkersons bring their vision to life.
"This is kind of the epitome of entrepreneurship," said Scott Gales, president of Architect One. "It's fun working with guys like Matthew because you know they're just trying to leave the place a little better than they found it."
Gales said Architect One works with clients from the initial brainstorming phase of a project to the end. The firm generates design concepts and blueprints and serves as a manager throughout the construction process.
"This concept about the eco hotel, the adventure camping and kind of creating a destination where you can take your family or your company team — it's not your grandma's Holiday Inn," Gales said. "That's what's been fun with the design, because we've looked at it from a creative perspective of how do you create space that is exciting to be in but capitalizes on its location ... and creates opportunities for science and other things."
That eco-adventure resort, though, is the couple's ultimate goal, and they admit they have lots to do to make it happen.
"We’re taking it small and building it up — from camping to the tiny houses to the kind of mini resort to the whole large resort," Matthew said. "This could really expand rapidly with the right finances, with the right support."
The project is primarily self-funded. Leigh Ann expects it will take millions of dollars in funding to complete the project, so for now, they take it step by step.
Matthew considers himself a "weekend warrior." He doesn't have the money to hire help so he does most of the grunt work solo, visiting the site at least every other weekend to chip away at his to-do list.
"The place is kind of a construction zone right now," he said.
Matthew has also received some unsolicited help from locals. He and Leigh Ann were relaxing on the property late one afternoon when their dog, Buddy, started barking.
"We look out the window, and there’s this truck pulling up," Matthew said. "This guy comes out — him and his wife. They heard we were doing an Airbnb, and they wanted to check it out. So I gave them a tour of the place, and he goes, ‘Do you need some help?'
"I can’t afford to hire anyone. I can’t even afford to pay myself. He goes, ‘Well, I have a construction company. Seriously, I just think this is a cool project. How can I help you?’"
The men spent two days removing outdated heating, ventilation and air conditioning parts and cutting out old plumbing. Since the silo is positioned underground — and goes down nearly 180 feet — they had to walk the old parts up multiple flights of stairs to the surface.
"We hauled up over 5,000 pounds, just in metal," Matthew said.
Despite the silo being a work in progress, Matthew and Leigh Ann host visitors regularly.
For now, they focus on "primitive camping." Guests can book a camping stay through Airbnb for $59 a night.
"We’ve had guests come from China, from New York, from San Francisco, from Texas," Matthew said. "It’s kind of fun getting to meet all these different personalities, all these different people who are like ‘We just wanted something that was different.’"
Leigh Ann and Matthew hope to attract locals, too. They said it is a great vacation spot for people who might not be able to "drive all the way to Florida for Disney World or Colorado for a ski trip."
Though guests don't stay in the silo just yet, they still have the opportunity to tour.
"We usually start out right on top of the missile silo," Matthew said. "I talk about the missile that was underneath them.
"Then I take them underground. They get to see the launch control center where the missilers lived and learn all about everything from the escape hatch to the launch control desk that could open up the doors and lift the missile to the surface."
Guests also get a tour of the property. Matthew said he has mowed a number of walking paths on the 24-acre site, and visitors can choose just about anywhere to set up camp.
"They can go hiking around and find this cool little cubby where there are a bunch of trees and they see deer walking by the pond or whatever," he said.
As hosts, Matthew and Leigh Ann build a campfire at night, directly above the missile silo, for their guests. Sometimes they sit around for hours getting to know each other.
"A lot of people are actually wanting to get primitive," Leigh Ann said. "They want to unplug. They want to just get away from the city for a minute. It’s great to be able to provide a space for that. I think that’s really important for your mental health, for your physical health — to just kind of remind yourself that there are stars in the sky."