The Flint Hills
by Jim Hoy
The Flint Hills of Kansas run in a north south band some 50 miles wide from near the Nebraska border in Marshall County through Chautauqua and Cowley Counties, where they merge with the Osage Hills of Oklahoma. This area, widely famed for its sweeping pastures and for its fertile river-bottom farmland, is home to many cow herds, both registered and grade, but the major use of its rich bluestem grasses is to fatten transient cattle, to put a quick and economical gain on steers and heifers shipped in from outside the region for the pasture season, a continuing practice that has been followed since at least as early as 1856.
Pasturing transient cattle has led to a distinctive folklife for the farmers and ranchers who live in this island of grass surrounded by a sea of farmland, the remaining one percent of a tallgrass prairie that once stretched from Canada to Texas, from Indiana to the High Plains. There is in the Flint Hills, for instance, the singular figure of the pastureman, an entrepreneurial cowboy (or sometimes a cowgirl) who fills pasture (to use the vernacular) by leasing grass, often form one f the many absentee landlords who own much Flint Hills acreage, then contracting for cattle with Kansas or Texas or other out-of-state cattle owners. The pastureman is accountable, by custom if not by contract, for the welfare of the livestock under his charge, providing salt and water and ensuring the count at shipping time with either live bodies or the brands cut of dead ones; the pasture owner pays taxes and provides major capital improvements (such as fences, windmills, or ponds); the cattle owner delivers the cattle at the beginning of the pasture season (mid-April), receives them at the end (mid-October), pays the pasture fee to the pastureman, who, in turn, pays rent to the landowner.
Another characteristic of Flint Hills ranching is the annual spring burn-off of pasture. Once practiced throughout North America (by Indians as well as by Europeans), the deliberate burning of old grass encountered strong popular opposition in the late nineteenth century and equally strong popular opposition among agronomists in the next. By mid-twentieth century the only place in the nation where controlled pasture burning continued on a widespread regular basis was in the heart of the Flint Hills. At about that same time range management experiments proved scientifically what Flint Hills folk wisdom had held for over a century--that regularly burned pastures had healthier grass with fewer weeds and woody plants and produced better livestock gains than did unburned grass. Today, controlled intentional range burning is being encouraged throughout the country (although Kansas, with 1.5 million acres deliberately burned each year, still leads the nation). Had pasture burning not survived in the folk culture of the Flint Hills, this economically efficacious and environmentally sound practice might have been lost.
Shipping, a major part of cattle work in the Flint Hills, has undergone three major changes over the years. In the nineteenth century cattle were driven overland from Texas to the Flint Hills for fattening, then on to markets and railroad cattle pens. In the later 1880s railroad lines penetrated the Flint Hills, and shipping by rail to and from pasture was common from the late nineteenth century to the mid-1960s. For the past 25 years, all shipping into and out of the Flint Hills has been by truck.
Rodeo has been important to the Flint Hills since the early 1880s, when George Miller of Winfield staged one of the first roping and riding exhibitions in the West. Over the years six of ten world champion rodeo performers from Kansas have lived in the Flint Hills, including Marge Roberts, champion lady bronc rider in 1941. Others include Marge's bronc and bull riding brothers Ken and Gerald, bronc rider John McBeth, bulldogger Joel Edmondson, and roper Fred Beeson.
Many changes have occurred in the nearly 200 years since Zebulon Pike gave the Flint Hills their name. The Texas longhorns that replace the bison have in turn been replaced by contemporary beef breeds. The tents and picket ropes of open-range herders have been replaced by flatbed pickups and stock trailers. The Indian camps of the river valleys have been replace by prosperous farms and ranches. But two things have remained: the grass and the rocks, providing both the wealth and the beauty of the Flint Hills.
Arnold David. "Prairie Country, Kansas," National Geographic Traveler, March/April 1989, 62-67. Photographs by Bern Ketchum. This piece of travel journalism begins with a description of the tallgrass prairie as experienced on an excursion with the Flint Hills Overland wagon train, mentions several roads that can be taken and some things to see and do.
Baker, Maurice F. Prairie Chickens of Kansas. Lawrence: University of Kansas Museum of Natural History, 1953. The Flint Hills is one of the last strongholds of the prairie chicken.
Begley, Sharon and Patricia King. "The Prairie's Last Stand,"Newsweek, 3 June 1985, 76. Authors give a brief history of the tallgrass prairie in mid-America and an overview of attempts to establish, restore, and preserve it.
"Bluestem and Cattle: A Winning Team," Kansas!, no. 3 (1970), 12-13. This offers a brief description of the history and lifestyle of the Flint Hills.
Brigham, Lalla Maloy. The Story of Council Grove on the Santa Fe Trail. Council Grove, KS: Morris County Historical Society, 1921, third ed. 1975.
Brown, Irene Bennett. Answer Me, Answer Me. New York: Atheneum, 1985. This young adult novel by an award-winning writer is set in the Flint Hills of Chase County.
Brown, Myra Lockwood and John Bird. "They Don't Need Progress." The Saturday Evening Post. 2 November 1957, 38-39, 83-86. This article may be the most influential piece of journalism ever written about the Flint Hills.
___and James R. McCauley. Roadside Kansas: A Traveler's Guide to Its Geology and Landmarks. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987. This book is useful to those interested in the variety of rock formations in the Flint Hills.
Chandler, Allison. "The Horse-car Interurban from Cottonwood Falls to Strong City,"Kansas Historical Quarterly, 24 (1958), 385-93. This article describes the line with historical detail and interesting anecdotes.
Clark, Penny. "Saturday Night in Alta Vista," Heritage of the Great Plains, 18, no. 3 (1985), 17-26. This article documents the folklife associated with and the decline of Saturday night.
Coldsmith, Don. The Sacred Hills. New York: Doubleday, 1985; Bantam, 1988. The eighth volume in the Spanish Bit series is set in the Flint Hills. The Bantam edition includes a historical introduction on the Flint Hills.
Dobler, Grace. "Oil Field Camp Wives and Mothers," Kansas History, 10, No. 1(Spring 1987), 29-42. This article depicts the home life of women in the oil fields of Greenwood County from the mid-teens to the mid-1950s.
Ellis, Randy and Sandi Fournet. The Flint Hills of Kansas. Manhattan: Kansas State University Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, 1976. Produces as a class project in magazine-writing, this collection includes photographs and articles on a variety of topics.
Ernst, Hank. "Flint Hills Tug-of-War." Kansas Farmer, 18 March 1989, 6-7,9. This article examines the controversy over the Audubon Society's proposal to convert the Z-Bar Ranch in Chase County into a Prairie National Monument.
Evans, Terry. Prairie Images of Ground and Sky. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986. This collection contains several color photographs from the Flint Hills.
Farney, Dennis. "The Tallgrass Prairie: Can It Be Saved?" National Geographic, 157, no. 1 (January 1980), 37-61. This article presents proponents and opponents of tallgrass national park.
Fields, Wayne. 'Lost Horizon," American Heritage, April 1988, 54-64. The author visited a number of sites including Konza Prairie Research Natural Area in the Flint Hills.
Frye, John Chapman. "The Erosional History of the Flint Hills," Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, 58, no. 1 (1955), 79-86. This article gives a succinct account of the composition and formation of the Flint Hills.
Hagar, Dan. "The Flint Hills of Kansas," Ford Times, July 1978, 55-59. This is a journalistic account of a drive through the Flint Hills.
Hammer, Charles. Me, the Beef, and the Bum. New Your: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984. This novel for juvenile readers tells the adventures of a young girl and her pet. Charolais steer who spend the winter in an abandoned ranch house in Chase County.
Harsh, Marie. The Tales of Turk. This is a collection of stories of Ray "Turk" Harsh, a character from the Flint Hills.
Hickey, Joseph V. "The Social Impact of the Transient Grazing Industry: The Thurman Example." Kansas History. 11, no. 3 (Autumn 1988), 201-13. The author, an anthropologist, dug up the agricultural community of Thurman.
Hind, Steven. Familiar Ground. Lawrence, KS: Cottonwood Review Press, 1980. The author captures the spirit of the place in this collection of poems.
Howes, Charles C. This Place Called Kansas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1952. The Flint Hills are featured prominently in chapter 22.
Hoy, James. The Cattle Guard: Folk Technology in the Flint Hills of Kansas," Kansas Quarterly. Vol 13, no. 2 (Spring 1981), 45-55. This article contains a field study of the use of cattle guards in the Flint Hills.
___."Kansas Bootmakers: Jim Holenbeck," KS Magazine, (April 1986), 56-57. The subject of this profile is a boot and saddle maker whose shop is near Alma.
Isern, Tom. :Farmers, Ranchers, and Stockmen of the Flint Hills," Western Historical Quarterly, 16, no. 3 (July 1985), 253-64. This article analyzes the influences of geography, technology, and cultural assumptions and influences on the agricultural history of the Flint Hills.
___."Reading the Range," Kansas!, no. 2, 1989, 32-33. The central Flint Hills are depicted in this description of the Flint Hills Adventure Tour sponsored by the Emporia Chamber of Commerce.
Lyle, Wes and James Fisher, Kansas Impressions: Photographs and Words. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1972. Many of the scenes in this collection are from the Flint Hills.
Malin, James C. "An Introduction to the History of the Bluestem-Pasture Region of Kansas." Kansas Historical Quarterly, 11, no. 1 (February 1942), 3-28. This article documents the history of the grazing industry in the bluestem-pasture region of Kansas.
McCormally, John. "Bluestem," Kansas Magazine, (1949), 47-49. The article deals with the origin of pasturing Texas cattle in the Flint Hills.
McKinney, Florence. "Old Houses Have Seen Time Pass By." Kansas Farmer. 20 April 1946, 14,17. This illustrated article gives a brief description of striking examples of limestone architecture.
Metzler, Dwight F. "Water Management in the Flint Hills," Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, 69 (1966), 175-96. The author presents a thorough survey of water resources in the Flint Hills.
Perry, Stephen. The Flint Hills of Kansas. Topeka, KS: Kansas Department of Economic Development, 1973. This promotional booklet contains general information about the geology, flora, fauna, and physical structures (buildings, bridges) of the Flint Hills.
Phillips, Glen A., Jr. "Skyline Drive," Kansas!, no. 2 (1969), 22-23. This article describes and illustrates the major sites along this scenic route through the northern Flint Hills.
Roe, Jon. "The Flint Hills," Wichita: Eagle-Beacon Publishing Company, 25 July 1968. This compilation of interviews with Flint Hills personalities is readable and informative.
Schneider, Richard H. "Wagons West!" Guideposts, June 1987, 24-29. The author describes his experiences on a Flint Hills wagon train trip.
Thierer, Joyce. "Kafir culture in Wabaunsee County, Kansas, 1920-1939." Heritage of the Great Plains, 21, no. 3 (Summer 1988), 11-18. This article examines the folklife associated with raising kafir in the Flint Hills.
Unrau, William W. The Kansas Indians: A History of the Wind People, 1673-1873. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971. This book depicts the Kansa in detail and includes information about their Flint Hills area reservations.
Wedel, Waldo R. An Introduction to Kansas Archeology. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 174. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1959. This study contains descriptions of aboriginal sites in the Flint Hills.
Wilson, Anne Browning, ed. Flint Hills Folklife. Madison, KS: Madison High School, Spring 1985. The information in this pamphlet was collected by students in Wilson's English class.
The Great Plains gave America its one unique sport--rodeo. Rodeo is the only major professional sport based on skills used for manual labor. Ball sports originated in play; field sports (such as running, archery, fishing, and hunting) developed from survival skills or our prehistoric past. Other than rodeo, none of these is a big-time spectator or participant sport. Tuning work skills into play is just another aspect of the uniqueness of the Great Plains cowboy.
After the railroad boom of the 1880s, the Flint Hills of east centra; Kansas became the center for grass finishing of cattle shipped in by rail from the southern plains. Feeble, aged steers--more than 400,000 a year by the 1920s--staggered down the chutes at isolated sidings in the spring. Fat ones boarded boxcars for Kansas City in the late summer. The bluestem pastures filled up with Herefords, Brahmas, and mysterious critters of uncertain parentage form Mexico and the Southwest. Enterprising pasture men hustled leases that brought together landowners and cattlemen. Commission men in Kansas City got rich. Consumer tastes abandoned grass-fattened beef by the 1960s, but Flint Hills pastures remain an important source of steers and heifers for the feedlot.
Jim Hoy is a member of the Great Plains faculty at Emporia State University. "Plains Talk" was a series of public service announcements for radio produced by the Center for Great Plains Studies between 1980 and 1990 and distributed by the Kansas Information Network.