One of the last major segments of the Tallgrass Prairie that spread from Texas to the Dakotas. We all think of Texas and Wyoming when we think of cattle ranches, but the earliest and the some of the most prosperous were in the tallgrasses of Kansas.
I arrived just at closing. The Superintendent, let me and a few other late arrivals into the brand new visitor center. The ranch is open to the public from sunrise to sundown, but after 5 there is likely to be nobody to answer questions. There is plenty to do and a guided tour out into the prairie. Becase of it's remoteness from the larger town, you'd be best to stop for the night in one of the larger towns (Emporia, Newton, or Salina) and drive down in the morning.
Cottonwood Street, the main traffic artery through Strong City, is KS-177, also known as the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway.
This picturesque two- lane road offers an excellent opportunity for those who want to get off the beaten path and see a remnant of the vast tall grass prairie that once blanked much of Kansas and surrounding states.
The scenic vistas and quaint towns along this 47-mile stretch of highway give the traveler a sense of re-discovering the area where the west begins. As I drove the Byway I could almost see wagon trains raising clouds of dust over the rolling Flint Hills, with herds of shaggy buffalo grazing on the horizon.
The W. B. Strong Memorial Railroad Park is located in downtown Strong City, next to the railroad depot. Both the park and the town are named in honor of William Barstow (W. B.) Strong, general superintendent and later, president of the Santa Fe Railway System.
It is a small park, but a pleasant place to relax in the shade or maybe explore the old Santa Fe Railway caboose which is the park's centerpiece.
There was a time when the American prairie seemed to go on forever. Unfortunately, we seem to be trying to pave it all but if you want to see tallgrass prairie, you will probably have to go to Kansas. 95% of the tallgrass prairie left on the planet is in Kansas and the National Park Service has decided to try to preserve some of it. There are three long but not particularly trying hiking trails within the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve just outside Cottonwood Falls in the Flint Hills of Kansas. They range from four to six miles in length and wind through mostly gentle hill country offering views which made me reflect back on what the wagon train pioneers must have seen as they crossed this vast continent.
If time is limited, but you wish to get a closer view of the grasslands, walk the nature trail from the ranch house to the Prairie Outlook. From this vantage point, you get a splendid view of the virtually treeless land once thought to be worthless because the soil was to rocky to be plowed and farmed. Hint - if it seems that there is even a light breeze at the ranch house, you had better be prepared for a stiff wind at the hilltop outlook! Hold onto your hat.
If you have the time, it is an interesting experience to take the inexpensive "tour" with one of the park rangers out into the prairie preserve. It's neat to be able see little more than green grass and cattle or bison for twenty miles or so in any direction. We learned so much - how the preserve's trust status works, how the grazing of cattle is intended to simulate the grazing of herds of bisons in earlier years, and that a goal is to re-introduce larger numbers of the native prairie animals in years to come.
I rode with Ranger Ron, who welcomed questions, stopped on occasions to take us on short walks away from the van to see geological formations, wildflowers in bloom, and to point out edible plants used by the Indians and early frontiersmen.
For more photos of my tour, see the travelogue, below.
Stepping inside this school house made me feel old. After all, this is a historical exhibit, I remember schools just like this. I did not actually attend one, but my four cousins who lived on a farm in my home county did*. I visited there on several occasions. My mother taught at a couple of these during her teaching career. Boys and girls up to the eighth grade attend classes in the same room, quite a challenge for a teacher. In those days, the teacher was often young and had no more than a high school education.
For those of you not acquainted with education in these schools, let me point out one unique feature - the recitation bench. Because little paper was available to the classroom, lessons (or test answers) would be recited to the teacher at the bench just in front of the teacher's desk, while other grade levels would be at their desks reading their lessons or practicing penmanship or ciphering on slate chalk-boards.
It's easy to stand on this hilltop and envision girls with braided pigtails and long skirts and aprons hurrying to the limestone school building while the none-too-eager boys find more interesting things to do - flush a prairie chicken from its nest, or chase a jackrabbit or bullsnake. In spite of the state highway running in front of the school, you can feel like you are in the 19th century here; there are no convenience stores, drive-thru banks, or sub-divisions within sight. The Lower Fox Creek School sits in solitude, but not in desolation, for it is surrounded by prairie grasses and wildflowers.
The picture of the barn shown here belies the fact that this barn is actually a three-story limestone structure. Because it is built into the side of a hill, making the lowest level out of sight from this angle, farm workers could move livestock, equipment, or hay and grain directly into any of the three levels. And, unlike the wooden barns built on most farms and ranches, this limestone model was sturdy, fireproof, and cool in the summer. It's the biggest barn I've ever seen.
In the 1880's the ranch, then known as the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch, was owned by wealthy Colorado cattleman, Stephen Jones. The impressive, showcase ranch house completed in 1881included innovative practical adaptations to this location and to life on the prairie. Don't miss the interesting home tour led by park rangers.
Look for this sign on Hwy 177 north of Strong City. It marks the entrance to the prairie preserve, formerly the Z-Bar Ranch. The preserve encompasses 10,894 acres, most of which is owned by a trust. Only 32 acres are owned by the federal government.
The Annual Flint Hills Rodeo is one of the best. It is held the first full weekend of June each year. Prizes total over $50,000 and cowboys and cowgirls from all over come to compete for the prize money.
Along with the rodeo there is a parade and a dance held. Other smaller rodeos are also held in the same location.
My favorite thing in this area is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The ranch house was built in the 1880s by a wealthy cattleman. He hired a stone cutter and architect to help build it. The house has a distinctive mansard roof on it. All the out buildings at the ranch head quarters are made from native lime stone and you can park your car in the corrals and take a tour of the place.
The ranch has been called Spring Hill ranch. A spring under the ranch is a source of water. There is a place to go down below into the spring house. Cool water comes up out of the ground and is channelled into troughs. Crockery with food in it could be set in the cold water to act as a primitive refrigerator.
It takes a lot of barbed wire to fence this much ranch land. This ball of wire was discovered in the barn. Why in a ball? I don't know.
This was definitely not the typical Kansas rural home in 1881, nor would it be now. It was quite extravagent, and a ranger tour is full of interesting information and some surprises.