Sunday, April 24, 2011

From Tallgrass to the Land of OZ

Our plan was to add Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri to our state map on the way north, but we were not really sure what we wanted to see in Kansas. That was until Sandy, a former co-worker, sent me the book, Prairy Erth, by William Least Heat-Moon. After reading the book I knew that Chase County in the Flint Hills and the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve were a must see. We stayed at the Council Grove COE campground which is a great base for exploring the area. The drive to the park was all on two lane roads. This was typical of the roads we traveled, narrow with rolling hills and almost no traffic. There were only a few very small towns, but many farms and ranches along the way. There were also thousands of acres of burned prairie grass and the smell of smoke in the air.

The town of Council Grove was an important stop on the Santa Fe Trail.

Top is the Last Chance Store, the old calaboose, remains of an elm tree that was on property owned by George Custer, of Little Big Horn shame, and a Madonna of the Trail statue, one of twelve Madonnas across the US. Middle is a Santa Fe Trail wagon and the Hays House that was built in 1857 and is the oldest continually operated restaurant west of the Mississippi River. Bottom is the Guardian of the Grove statue, that honors the Native American Kaw and Kansa Tribes, the remains of the Council Oak and the old M-K-T railroad depot. Council Grove was a major stop on the Santa Fe Trail as it was the last place where pioneers could get supplies and where trees were available if wagons needed to be repaired. The town's name comes from the grove of trees where, in 1825, a council was held by representatives of the US and the Osage Indians to sign a treaty that allowed Americans and Mexicans free passage along the trail.

Much of the book talks about the town of Cottonwood Falls. This is Broadway and the Chase County Courthouse. There is not really much in the town but the 10 room Grand Central Hotel is the state's only Four Diamond hotel. We got out on to some of the country (dirt) roads to see more of the places Heat-Moon wrote about. He really is a very talented author having the ability to write an interesting 600 page book on this very sparsely populated county.
The main attraction near Cottonwood Falls is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Only about 4% of the prairie that once stretched from Texas to the Dakotas remains. Much of the 4% is in the Flint Hills because the stones in the soil meant the land was not good for farming. It was good for ranching which was not that different from the grazing of the buffalo. This made it an ideal place to restore the land to its natural state of tallgrass prairie. Part of the preserve is the Spring Hill Ranch that was built in the late 1870's. Most of the buildings on the Ranch were built with native stone. Top left was my favorite, the three hole stone outhouse, middle is the Second Empire architecture ranch house that was built into the side of the hill to take advantage of the earth's natural insulation and also gave a safe place to go during a tornado. Right is the Lower Fox Creek School that was built in 1882 on ranch property. Bottom are the stone chicken coop and the huge three story stone barn.

The black area is a section of prairie being burned. Ranchers and the park burn the grass every year or two to keep out invasive plants and to encourage new growth. The idea of burning the grass was learned from the Indians who noticed the buffalo herds would move into areas that had recently burned from natural causes to graze on the new growth so they began setting fires to bring the herds to them.

This is a good example of the effect of the burning. The brown grass was not burned this spring while the green is new grass that is growing where the prairie was burned just last month.

The pictures do not come close to capturing the vastness of this land. You can see for miles and miles. One day we hiked out into the prairie and after we crossed the first ridge other than the trail we could not see any sign of human habitation. The small dark spots near the green are the fourteen buffalo that have just been put on the preserve. This is as close as we got but we saw signs of their presence everywhere.

A few common things we saw in the area.

Top an up close look at a prairie fire, one of many stone fences, and a bird. Middle is a small snake. Bottom are a few flowers that were just starting to bloom and in the middle, one of the many signs of buffalo we saw. The background shows the very rock landscape. We enjoyed this area much more than we thought we would even though it was too early in the spring to see blooming new grasses or the tallgrass that will be there in the summer.

We added another day to our stay so we could drive to Wamego to tour the OZ Museum. Above are a few of the characters from the books, plays and movies surrounding the all important OZ. (Not really, OZ was a fake and I am for real.) This is a very well done, small museum that does a great job of telling little known info about the author, L. Frank Baum, the stars and the making of the movie. Did you know Baum got the name OZ from the drawers of his file cabinet, one labeled A - N and the other O - Z. Many people wanted Shirley Temple to play Dorothy. ToTo (Terry) got stepped on during filming causing a delay while the dog recovered. The original Tin Man was Buddy Ebsen (The Beverly Hillbillies, Barnaby Jones), but the silver powder of the costume made him sick so both he and the powder were replaced. And, these are just a few of the very interesting tidbits. There is even an OZ Winery in town that offers a selection of appropriately named vintages (Oil Can, Ruby Sippers, Flying Monkey, etc.) If you are driving across Kansas on I-70 Wamego is a worthwhile stop.

That same day we drove into Manhattan and found the Tallgrass Brewing Co. where we did a tasting and bought a few of their great craft beers. There are some very neat stops in Kansas.