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“The Heartland” Vol. 13, Chap. 14 – The Prairie

 

Wichita to Kearney, NE

If a line is drawn on a map of the United States from Minneapolis, MN, to San Antonio, TX, one would essentially divide the vast eastern forests from the tall grasses of the Great Plains. Northeast from Wichita the plains and forests intermingle. Away from the broad Arkansas River Valley around Wichita, the thick woods give way to waves of grass dotted with trees.

The plains give way to a low range of rolling hills that curve through central Kansas, the Flint Hills.

 

The Cottonwood River winds through the hills and the small town of Cottonwood Falls is the historic county seat. Cottonwood Falls sits along the river and was founded in 1859. The 1877 courthouse is the oldest Kansas courthouse still in use. The fate of Cottonwood Falls was sealed in 1871 when it was bypassed by the Santa Fe Railroad two miles to the north. The one-block town center runs north of the courthouse.

Rising north out of the wooded Cottonwood River Valley we pass through the Flint Hills. For the most part trees are confined the banks of creeks, the hills flow by in waves of grass. Once the tall grass prairies covered over 170,000,000 acres across the Great Plains, gently swaying under the ever present wind. Today barely 4% of that total remains. The Flint Hills are the site of one of the remaining original tall grass prairies, primarily because the soil under the grasses was too rocky to plow. The majority of the property in the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve was originally a ranch put together in 1878-1888 by Stephen F. Jones in the hills west of the fertile Fox Creek bottoms. While the bottomland along the creek could be farmed, the hills were prime grazing land for cattle and sheep. Thus, while most of the prairie elsewhere was plowed under, the land here was never plowed and became an island of refuge for many prairie plants and animals.

The original buildings constructed by Jones were kept relatively intact throughout the years until the National Park Trust purchased nearly 11,000 acres of the ranch to be preserved in the 1990’s for future generations. The ranch headquarters are nestled on a gentle hillside above the Fox Creek bottoms. The house is nearly hidden in the clump of trees on the right.

The original 1881 home and outbuildings were used up until the time the ranch converted to the preserve.

The view east from the front porch is down and across Fox Creek to the hills beyond.

The interior of the home (which again, was still in use by the ranch foreman until the 1990’s) is essentially the same as it was in the early 1900’s.

Underneath the house is the spring room, where the Jones stored perishable food. Cool spring water entered the house from a cistern atop the hill west of the ranch house and was diverted into a channel that ran around the perimeter of the floor. Glass and ceramic containers of milk, cheese and other perishables were immersed in the cold spring water, helping to preserve them for longer periods of time.

Out back, made out of the same Kansas limestone, are the outhouse and a large curing shed used for hanging hams.

While the house had running water courtesy of the cistern, there were no bathroom in the house for many years. Normally outhouses were made of wood and simply moved when the original pit was full of waste. Obviously a limestone outhouse wasn’t moveable, so a different technology was used. There are two chambers under the outhouse to hold waste, used one at a time. When one of the chambers was filled, lime was added to the pit to aid in the decomposition of waste and the other side was then used while the first side decomposed. That’s why there are two adult toilet seats, one for each pit (note that the Jones also accommodated their young daughter with a “kiddie” seat.)

Due to the lack of trees on the prairie limestone was the primary building material, including for fences. Jones owned the ranch during the implementation of the “Herd Laws” which ended free-ranging cattle grazing on the prairie and forced land owners to fence their property. Despite being very labor intensive, over 30 miles of fence were built of limestone blocks on the Jones ranch.

Northeast of the ranch is where the first wagons heading southwest on the Santa Fe Trail in 1821 paused at a grove of trees alongside the Neosho River. Four years later commissioners from the US Government met with chiefs of the Osage Indians at the same spot and agreed on safe passage for those traveling the trail. As traffic on the Santa Fe Trail grew, a small town grew up in the area and was named Council Grove. As we have seen elsewhere, the late 1800’s were a time of wealth and growth along the frontier and Council Grove saw its’ share. Most of the buildings along the main street were constructed before 1900 though one of the earliest businesses, the Hay House, was built in 1857.

At the center of town is the 1893 Farmers and Drovers Bank.

Northwest of Council Grove we emerge from the Flint Hills out onto the prairie again. A lone windmill stands sentinel over the waving grass.

Storm clouds begin to threaten as we near the Smoky Hill River. It has been an unusually wet fall in central Kansas and the land is green. The grass plains have given way to ranch and farmland.

The grain elevators of Abilene rise in the distance above the trees.

In 1857 a stage stop was established on Mud Creek just north of its’ confluence with the Smoky Hill River. The first cabin in the area was built in 1858 and other settlers began to move into the area, known as Mud Creek. In 1860 a town was formally established and named Abilene from a passage in the Bible. The railroad came to town in 1867, the same year the first stockyards were built in the city. Abilene grew quickly and became the first “Cowtown” of the west. The famed Chisholm Trail from Texas ended in Abilene at the railroad and huge herds of cattle were driven up the trail, loaded on trains, and shipped to the hungry East. The stockyards shipped 35,000 head of cattle in 1867 and over the next four years over 400,000 cattle were shipped out of Abilene. As railroads were built further south the cattle business slowly declined but was gradually replaced by homesteaders farming the prairie. Abilene straddles a number of railroad tracks. Those a block south of the main street are home to the ornate 1928 Union Pacific depot and adjoining freight office.

Today a town of around 7,000 people, the small downtown center of Abilene dates from the late 1800’s. 3rd Street is bracketed with enormous grain elevators on the east and a couple of blocks to the west is the 1931 Sunflower Hotel, now offices and apartments.

A block north of 3rd Street is the 1878 Trinity Lutheran Church.

Frankly, I was surprised at how small the commercial center in Abilene is today. The interstate passes north of town and there is a small cluster of activity there, but people generally travel about 20 miles west to Salina or 20 miles east to Junction City for any major shopping. In today’s America, perhaps the most telling indicator of the retail activity in Abilene is that there isn’t even a WalMart! This is clearly a different situation than in the late 1800’s when Abilene was a wealthy town. Numerous large Victorian mansions dot the town, testimony to an earlier age. The 1880 Leobold Mansion was built on the site of that very first 1857 log cabin.

Just a few other examples include:

The crown jewel of Abilene’s mansions is the 1905 A. B. Seelye Mansion. Dr. Seelye made a fortune manufacturing patent medicines for both man and animal, eventually creating over 84 different products that were sold around the Midwest.

South of the city center Abilene’s most famous citizen is honored on a spacious campus. The 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, though born in Texas, moved to Abilene at the age of two and was a life-long resident. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Library and Museum consists of five buildings set amongst lush green lawns and towering trees: the visitor center, boyhood home, museum, library, and chapel.

The museum and library are mirror images across a large central plaza. A ceremony honoring veterans was about to get underway on the morning I visited.

The chapel was being prepared for a funeral service so I was not able to see the interior.

The museum is currently undergoing a large renovation so it was closed. Thus my visit to the Eisenhower complex was pretty much limited to seeing a film in the visitor center and walking the grounds. However, across the street, another unique unexpected opportunity beckoned, the Greyhound Hall of Fame.

I really can’t tell you why, but Abilene bills itself as the “Greyhound Capital of the World” and the Greyhound Hall of Fame has been open across the street from the Eisenhower complex since 1973. The museum traces the history of the greyhound through the ages, explores greyhound racing in the United States, and honors both dogs and individuals who have played important roles in the history of the greyhound.

A key to a greyhound race is the lure.

I must confess that in my misspent youth I spent more than one occasion at the Multnomah Kennel Club, a track much like the model below, in east Portland rising to the sound of “Is Rusty ready?”, the cry of the announcer prior to each race.

The Hall of Fame is quite expansive, this is only a portion.

Greyhound racing is on the decline in the United States (my Multnomah Kennel Club was torn down a couple of years ago) but the exit from the museum takes one past a display of tracks still operating.

A surprising find on the Kansas prairie. Another surprise happened the last morning in Abilene when Joey and I enjoyed this view during our early morning walk.  He loved it, me not so much…

Fortunately the snow quickly melted and we hit the road. Striking northwest the Smoky Hills roll through north central Kansas north and west of Salina and while no one will mistake this “bumps” for Mt. McKinley, they are definitely different from the plains to the southwest. Our next stop is a brief detour to the town of Minneapolis (yes, Minneapolis, Kansas, NOT Minnesota) and Rock City, an attraction that has inspired numerous billboards around southern Kansas. In the spirit of “why not?” a side trip to Minneapolis is in order.

Rock City and Minneapolis
Leaving the freeway a short drive on a narrow country road leads to a large sign for Rock City and so we head up a dirt road into the hills. A short time later the sign for Rock City appears and I’m a bit puzzled. Clearly home-made and not particularly well done, it points down a gravel drive to a ramshackle cottage. “In for a dime, in for a dollar” comes to mind and so in we go. This turns out to be one of those few occasions on this trip when a side trip is somewhat of a bust! “Rock City” consists of about an acre on the side of a small hill where odd rock formations are sprinkled across the landscape. Since I took the effort to go, you get to take the effort to look at the pictures. Curious, but not worth the $3 entry fee. Make of them what you will!

Just down the hill from Rock City is the small town of Minneapolis, Kansas. Founded in 1866 as Markley Mills, the town changed its’ name to Minneapolis in 1871 in honor of Minneapolis, MN. The current population is around two thousand. It reminds me of the quintessential small Kansas farm town. There is a certain “sameness” to these central/eastern Kansas prairie towns as they were all settled at approximately the same time, populated by my “peeps” (pale, Anglo-Saxon, blue-eyes, blond hair), dominated by a grain elevator on the edge of town, and experienced a period of economic well-being in the early 1900’s that allowed the building of at least a few substantial homes in the community. So, sit back and enjoy small-town Kansas!

 

Just east of the six block downtown area there is a block of large restored homes. Even in a small town like Minneapolis prosperity was on display.

Northern Kansas is not flat but rather a rolling landscape currently in the middle of the corn harvest.

What, one wonders, do these farmers do during the harsh winters?  Apparently one option is to collect twine. Cawker City, KS, is a small farm town that has clearly seen better times but the pride of town is a Guinness World Record, granted in 1993, for the world’s largest ball of twine.

 

Small towns crop up about every 10-15 miles, denoted by “prairie skyscrapers”, the grain elevators rising above the trees that cluster along small creeks and rivers.

This is a sparsely populated land, mostly settled after the Civil War by homesteaders.  One of those was Dr. Brewster M. Higley, a doctor who homesteaded on the banks of West Beaver Creek in 1871. He and a group of friends built a cabin which still stands in the original location.  Dr. Higley lived in the cabin until the early 1880’s, including a couple of years after he married his wife Sara and had three children.  Subsequent land owners used the cabin for a variety of uses, including as a chicken coop, but essentially the structure stood unchanged. The Rust family were the last owners and upon their death, they established a foundation to preserve the site and surrounding creek banks.  The cabin was restored in 2013 and presents today a picture of how it might have looked when the Higley’s lived there.  The site is on the east bank of West Beaver Creek just a half mile down a dirt road.

All that is interesting but it’s not the primary reason for the significance of this site.  Turns out that when he was single and first lived in the cabin, Dr. Higley wrote poetry.  In 1871 he wrote “My Western Home” describing the beauty of the site that he had chosen for his homestead. Dan Kelly, a friend who played in a local band, set the poem to music.  Now entitled “Home on the Range”, the song quickly became popular around the west and then across the world fifty years later when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared “Home on the Range” as his favorite song.  Come on, admit it, those of you in the United States of a “mature’ age are now humming  “Home, home on the range.  Where the deer and the antelope play…”

Heading north into Nebraska the hills melt away and fields greet the sun in all directions.  Small clumps of trees denote the presence of a farm house and outbuildings, using trees for protection from the harsh weather and strong winds common to the plains.

 

Next up: Corn, Cows and Connections