A Window Into The Past

TALLGRASS PRAIRIE NATIONAL PRESERVE –It seemed a move contrary to the national sentiment, heading east when most were looking west for prosperity, but for Stephen and Louisa Jones, leaving Colorado for the Flint Hills of Kansas cemented their legacy.

“He was about 52 when they arrived, she was about 46. So right there, you are telling a different story than the little house/covered wagon kind of Overland Trail,” Eric Patterson told me as we roamed through the tallgrass on the Southwind Trail of Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. “This was like the next generation, kind of at the fulcrum, the tipping point between the open range, the ‘Wild West,’ which probably wasn’t as wild as Hollywood made it out to be, and the more settled and stable and established way of life that is still the way life out here today.

“So 1878, the Joneses came with money to spend and with knowledge and age and experience and how to spend it,” added Patterson, an engaging storyteller for the National Park Service who regales visitors with the history of the preserve, both that from the 19th century as well as the 21st. “They spent $25,000 on the main house, another $15,000 on the barn and outbuildings. … The money they came with, $100,000, I think it equates to $2 million today.”

It was a wise investment for Jones more than a century ago, one that today is reflected in a unique unit of the National Park System that holds a chapter of natural and cultural history. Along with the ranch the Joneses raised on the prairie, the preserve harbors a small herd of bison in the tallgrass ecosystem they evolved with through the centuries.

Springhill Farm And Ranch

Jones certainly left his mark on the Flint Hills landscape of Kansas. The 11-room mansion he had built out of native limestone stands tall just above Kansas 177 and just below a reliable spring. It contains two parlors, Jones’ office, a dining room complete with dumbwaiter for hauling meals up from the kitchen, and three bedrooms. In the basement is a spring room that once kept perishable items in a trough flowing with cool spring water. Not far from the backdoor stands a rather elaborate outhouse, one built with limestone blocks and featuring three “seats,” including a child-sized one for the Joneses’ young daugther, Loutie.

Closer to the house is a curing building for salting meats, while across from the house stands the three-story barn, an imposing 100-foot-long by 60-foot wide structure with two ramps that lead to the second level where equipment and hay were stored. There also was a sod-roofed chicken house, complete with an adjoining “scratch shed” for the hens and roosters to roam and search through straw for grains and other foods during the winter months.

The 11-room mansion that Stephen Jones had built at the Springhill Farm and Ranch/Kurt Repanshek

On 7,000 acres that they named the Springhill Farm and Stock Ranch after the reliable spring behind their home, the Joneses raised Hereford, Polled Angus, Galloway, and Durham cattle. Thirty miles of dry-stacked limestone fence lines that negated the need for barbwire fencing are a striking artifact. In addition to ranching, Jones was president of the Strong City Bank, a position that surely helped him expand his commercial interests. They only owned the land for 10 years, though, before selling to a neighbor.  

“They came, they saw, they expanded,” Patterson said of the Joneses. “They acquired about 7,000 acres. We take that for granted, [but then] the buying and selling of land was a huge deal. Purchasing land, the closure of the open range. Many folks kind of came out into the wild west to make a living on that open range. It didn’t require the purchase of land or really a lot of capital upfront. They just hook up with a cattle crew and then just do their thing. But as time went on, and money became spent, as the business became more lucrative, and as railroads started to crisscross the countryside, especially the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe, that really revolutionized the cattle business, because no longer did you have to track a herd from somewhere in Texas up to Abilene or Wichita, Dodge City in Kansas, a dangerous trek, you could just stick them on a railroad car and ship them to market.”

A National Preserve

But eventually ranching here faded away. Down through the years the ranch was subdivided and passed on to various other owners, the last being George Davis, who enlarged it to 11,000 acres and renamed it the Z Bar Ranch. In the 1980s, the idea of creating a national park, one to interpret the vanishing prairie, was proposed for the Flint Hills of Kansas. While the National Audubon Society was negotiating to purchase the ranch in 1989, other parties came forward with hopes of having the lands added to the National Park System.

But opposition to the federal government coming to Chase County to manage a unit of the National Park System blocked the move and the initiative stalled until 1994, when the National Park Trust, a nonprofit land trust established by the National Parks Conservation Association, entered the picture. In June 1994 those two groups purchased the ranch for $4.7 million with the intent of having the Park Service manage it. Efforts to officially add it to the National Park System were ongoing until November 1996, when that goal was achieved through passage of the Omnibus Parks and Public Lands Management Act that year. (Find a more detailed description of the acquisition here.)

“Anyone could find Yellowstone or Yosemite, and I highly recommend it. But in my head, it takes a true believer to find your way to a place like this in the middle of Kansas, which for many people is just something you drive through on your way to a Yellowstone or Yosemite or Rocky Mountain.”–Ranger Eric Patterson

The legislation restricted the Park Service’s ownership of the ranch to just 180 acres, though today it owns outright just 33 acres, with the remainder held by The Nature Conservancy. The two organizations jointly manage the land as a unit of the park system.

Not only does the preserve today embrace a remnant of North America — a fraction of the roughly 4 percent of tallgrass prairie that remains from the 170 million acres that once covered the continent — but it also is home to what is believed to be a genetically sound bison population, one descended from the herd at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota that is believed to be free of cattle genes.

“The Flint Hills are tailor-made for grazing animals. Lots and lots of grass,” Patterson tells me as we slowly walk the prairie, stopping to watch butterflies and birds. “Of course, that grass was grazed by buffalo,  bison, which were by 1872 totally wiped out of the state. There were no wild bison by the early 1870s, which roughly coincides with the other dark thread that runs through our red, white, and blue, and that is the wholesale kind of transformation and removal of the indigenous peoples of the area. The Pawnee, the Osage, the Wichita, and the Kansa, for whom our state gets its name. In one of the more kind of ironic bits of history, the Kansa, I mean, the name the state is named for, the Kansa, but 11 years after the state was established, the Kansa were more or less removed from it.”

From a start of 13 bison in 2009, the herd at Tallgrass Prairie has grown to about 90/NPS file

Today the preserve’s bison herd, which started out with 13 from Wind Cave in 2009, number about 90. Earlier in the morning we spotted a bison cow off by herself with what looked to be a newborn calf.

“Tallgrass Prairie received its bison from Wind Cave as kind of an extension of that long-running ‘restoration species maintenance’ efforts,” explained the ranger. “So it’s kind of cool that little old Kansas, land of Dorothy, Toto, and tornadoes — Yes, I’ve heard the jokes — can also be a place where there’s some cutting-edge species protection preservation going on and having an isolated herd like this, if some sort of tragedy should befall the Wind Cave herd, it gets sick, a pandemic perish the thought, and that herd should be injured in some way, the animals here at Tallgrass could be utilized kind of as, as a storehouse of genetic information. To help rebuild a second herd or something like that.” 

The Tallgrass Prairie bison are not easily spotted. Prior to the Covid pandemic, there were bus tours that navigated through the Windmill Pasture the bison roam, but those were suspended in a bid to limit transmission of the disease and have yet to resume. As a result, if you want to spot some of the big animals you first need to walk about a half-mile along a dirt-and-gravel road that leads to the acres of prairie the bison call home, and then hope the bison aren’t too far away. The road continues across the prairie, bending, rising, and falling with the landscape. You could find yourself walking a quarter-mile, or several miles, before spotting any members of the herd. I was fortunate the morning after Patterson and I walked a slice of prairie off limits to the bison, as not more than 100 yards into the bison preserve did I spot two of the shaggy animals rather close by, and a few more a mile or so distant.

“It will require some work,” Patterson replied when I asked about how visitors can spy the bison. “The larger part of that pasture is about a half a mile from the visitor center complex. So half a mile walk to enter the pasture, and then you’re kind of living on their time. So, they may in fact show up, be grazing right at the front door, right at the front gate, and you can check off the bison box right away. Or they might make you work for it a little more, and they might make you work for it and then you not see them at all.”

A Remnant Prairie

During my visit in late June the prairie was only a couple feet tall, still two or three months away from reaching its full nodding height of five or six feet or more. The eastern slash of the Great Plains province that greeted Europeans three centuries ago gained a bit of height and structure by switchgrass that reached 10 feet into the sky, and Big bluestem, another prairie grass that rose 8 feet above the soil. During the growing season, asters and sunflowers dapple more color and some height. Perennial bunchgrasses still today are found in most, if not all, states east of the Rockies. Along with providing forage for bison, pronghorn, and deer on the Plains, the grasses offer cover and nesting habitat for a variety of bird species. Ample rainfall drives the vegetation’s growth. These plant species anchor deep root networks, locking the soil in place while also adding organic matter that encourages farming. 

Butterfly milkweed at the preserve attracts Regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia), whose habitat has shrunk along with that of the tallgrass prairie/Kurt Repanshek

“Generally, springtime is a good time to see shorter plant life because the grasses haven’t really awakened yet,” Patterson told me. “But then July and August, the tables turn, the shorter forbs and flowers get overshadowed by the taller, grassy plant life, and then by September usually the grasses have become far more identifiable. Right now it’s just an anonymous blade. So you need like a doctorate in biology, a doctorate in botany, and a magnifying glass to tell one species from another. But they will get taller out here, I would say waist-high along the Southwind Trail. So yeah, it’s a good place to rewind, to kind of let your mind kind of scramble around a little bit. Relax a bit. It’s a place to put your wellness money where your mouth is. You’ve people saying, ‘I need to get away from it all I need to relax. I need to turn off my phone.’ This is where you do it.”

You do have to stray from the well-trod path through the National Park System to arrive at Tallgrass Prairie, but it’s worth the effort.

“Anyone could find Yellowstone or Yosemite, and I highly recommend it,” said Patterson. “But in my head, it takes a true believer to find your way to a place like this in the middle of Kansas, which for many people is just something you drive through on your way to a Yellowstone or Yosemite or Rocky Mountain. But we have things to see and do here that are perhaps a little different than what you may have come to expect from a national park. It’s a very cerebral place. We have no Grand Canyons or Grand Tetons here, but we have ‘Grand Prairie.'”

That grand prairie is in short supply. There’s a sliver at Homestead National Historical Park in Nebraska, and The Nature Conservancy operates the nearly 40,000-acre Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma that has a 2,500-head bison herd. In Illinois, the U.S. Forest Service manages the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, a more than 20,000-acre preserve that has a small bison herd.

These “pocket” herds of bison are viewed as “conservation” herds intended to preserve the genetic makeup of the species. While some believe that as genetic testing continues to evolve all bison one day will be found to harbor traces of cattle genes, the result of early 20th century experiments to cross cattle with bison to create a hardier, yet gentler, livestock. Those experiments failed, but the damage was done.

These conservation herds carry hope with them, and they offer side benefits, too. The largescale removal of bison from the landscape in the 19th century greatly impacted ecosystems by disrupting natural processes that other native species thrive in and rely upon. The cascading ecological impacts are clearly visible, both in terms of fauna and flora. As bison and tallgrass prairie go, so, too, go a number of other species that evolved alongside these cloven-hoofed creatures and which also have been slowly squeezed by development that turned the plains into suburbia and conglomerate agricultural tracts. Swift fox, black-footed ferrets, and Greater-sage-grouse all face precarious futures without society’s intervention. So does the colorful Regal fritillary, a butterfly whose population has plummeted with the loss of tallgrass prairie and which some conservation groups believe should be listed as a threatened species.

Wandering Tallgrass Prairie’s landscape and carefully taking note of the ecosystem and its inhabitants offers hope that restoration of the prairie can be duplicated elsewhere if the will is there.

“I think initially, when the park was envisioned, it was seen as not necessarily as a one-stop shop for all of your tallgrass prairie recreation needs,” Patterson told me. “It was seen more as a catalyst, as a spark for perhaps others to take up the torch and build upon the park’s presence.”