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Preserving the Prairie

By Michael Schuman
for The Boston Globe

STRONG CITY, Kan. -- There is something mystical about the prairie. It extends forever, belying the Earth's natural curves. It evokes migration. The famous overland trails were named for places beyond the prairie: the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail. It seems that the prairie was never a destination. It was the obstacle to be crossed to get where one wanted to go. Even today, many Midwesterners view Kansas as the hell you have to cross to get to Colorado.

Indeed, the very idea of crossing the prairie a century and a half ago stirs up images of conflict: prairie fires, prairie rattlesnakes, disease, tornadoes, skirmishes with Native Americans, endless days, endless nights.

But, despite the foreboding image of the prairie, people did settle here, where they went on to exploit the land, just as they had back East. In fact, the last significant portion of this infinite sea of grass nearly disappeared until some preservation-minded individuals became involved.

The Flint Hills region of east-central Kansas includes the only remaining tallgrass prairie in the United States. Yes, there are hills here. They roll quietly rather than command, but come here and you will see that Kansas is not all flat.

What helped save this last vestige of tallgrass prairie is the flint rock that juts out from Earth in these parts. Because of the rock, the land was never plowed over. Hard to believe that the tallgrass prairie you see here once extended through the nation's midsection from Canada to Mexico.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is the name of the nearly 11,000 acres protected here. It was purchased by The National Park Trust, a private, non-profit land conservancy, for future management as a unit of the National Park Service.

The centerpiece of the preserve is the Z Bar Ranch, also known as the Spring Hill Ranch, a prairie paradise built in 1881 by a pioneer cattleman named Stephen F. Jones, who, according to settlers, had ``money sticking out of every pocket.'' Although the apparent raison d'etre of the preserve might be to protect the prairie, it is just as important that the Spring Hill Ranch, a huge chunk of human history, is preserved too.

National Trust staff members stress that their full purpose is to interpret three things: the natural history of the prairie, the cultural history of Native Americans, and the legacy of ranching in the Flint Hills.

The majestic Jones ranch house might not be typical of the simple homes of the sodbusters who settled Kansas, but it is proof that not everyone who traveled the prairie planned on traveling through it. The mansion is also a regal reminder of the day when cattle ranching was king. In 1887, the editor of the Strong City Independent, a newspaper published in the nearest sizable town, wrote that the Jones house ``stands on a very prominent hill and can be seen for miles, either way. At a distance it could be readily taken for an old Scotch castle, with secret stairways and underground passages. It is a magnificent structure . . ..''

Perhaps that editor had never been to Scotland. Anyone who has will have trouble with the Scottish castle metaphor. With its mansard roof and dormer windows, the ranch home fits the full image of a late Victorian period mansion. That 19th-century editor's hyperbolic claim lets us know just how impressive the exterior of the 11-room, three-story home must have appeared in its day as a big house on the prairie.

The interior is no less fixating. Like many Victorians, the Joneses reveled in the ``trompe l'oeil'' (fool the eye) style of design. Check out the ``marble'' fireplaces in the music room. They are limestone, painted to resemble the more eye-pleasing marble.

The rest of the tour takes visitors around the grounds to the outbuildings, including a behemoth of a barn, 110 by 60 feet, and with a roof that alone required 2 1/2 tons of tin. The story goes that the barn fell just two feet short of being the biggest in Kansas.

Jones stabled his array of fine horses, cattle, and hogs on the bottom floor. The second and third floors held hay, vital for ranchers on the naked prairie. Like most ranchers, Jones kept his cattle outside on the tallgrass throughout the year. Bitter Kansas winters cause grasses to lose their nutrients down to their roots, so masses of hay are necessary to keep livestock truly live.

The barn's biggest oddities are the ramps leading to its third floor. Jones had an ingenious idea of building ramps so teams of horses could bring loads of hay, or perhaps grain, easily inside the big bulky building.

The tour also takes you to the ranch spring house, the root cellar, the smoke house (with meat hooks used to hang prime Kansas beef), the ice house, the privy. The privy has a cute touch; next to two full-sized seats for adults is a kid-sized lower seat. Yet as guide Karen Siegler said, ``How many times does one actually go with someone else?''

There is an added option for visitors. You can take a half-mile jaunt through the prairie to the one-room Lower Fox Creek School, built on land Jones donated in 1881. The school sits alone on a knoll, a silent reminder of the near half century when farm and ranch children braved wind, rain, and biting cold to come to learn their three R's. A black stove in the rear of the room warmed the young pupils, belying the brutality of the outdoor elements, while hanging on a wall above the blackboard is the obligatory portrait of George Washington.

Those who prefer not to walk the trail to the school can drive a half mile to visit it. However, you will miss out on the answer to one obvious question that is asked by anyone not visiting in fall: ``Why is this grass called tallgrass, when it looks no higher than my Uncle Fred's front lawn?''

In spring, when we visited, the tallgrass was still short grass. In midsummer, it is usually two- to four-feet high. It is in autumn when one can get lost among it. Heights of up to eight feet are common. Pioneers wrote how the grass was higher than a saddle horn on a horse. That is not the case in far western Kansas, where less rainfall causes the grass there to grow significantly shorter.

Siegler told us that the ground we were walking on was once part of the hunting lands of the Kansa and Osage tribes. The ancient hunters had a wide variety of animals to choose from. The gentle prairie hills and gushing streams are home to roughly 200 kinds of birds, 31 species of mammals, and 29 varieties of amphibians and reptiles. You might encounter white-tailed deer, badgers, perhaps a more bold coyote, and in the sky, red-tailed or marsh hawks. The massasauga rattlesnake makes its home here, too, but it is highly timid, and chances of encountering one are extremely rare.

If you cannot make it to the see the tallgrass of the Flint Hills in fall, spring is the next best time to visit. In addition to the animals, there are nearly 400 species of plants. In June, the wildflowers are at their most abundant and prettiest and include the purple coneflower, the blue false indigo, and the scurf pea. Come then and maybe you will understand why Stephen F. Jones decided not to travel through Kansas, but to Kansas.

INFORMATION: Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Route 1, Box 14, Strong City, KS 66869; telephone 316-273-8494.