There’s nothing quite like a road trip through the Kansas Flint Hills to refresh the mind and restore the soul.
According to Wkipedia, the explorer Zebulon Pike first coined the name the “Flint Hills” in 1806 when he entered into his journal, “passed very ruff flint hills.” The underlying bedrock of the hills is a flinty limestone that has defied any human attempt to plow it for crops. As a result, it basically looks today as it has looked over the past several million years.
Myself, graduate assistant John Baker, graduate student Ye Xu, and advertising lecturer Luis Peon-Casanova were returning to Lincoln, Neb. from a journalism educators conference in Norman, Oklahoma today when we decided to take a detour through the Flint Hills.
It’s faster to stick with Highway 81 as you return to Lincoln. It’s a four lane highway all the way home. It’s faster, but not very stimulating. So, my scholarly colleagues didn’t protest when I suggested we take a slower route home through the heart of the Kansas Flint Hills.
It was 2 p.m. Saturday by the time we turned off I-35 about 30 miles east of Wichita. As we began rolling north on Highway 177, every mile we drove took me deeper into the pioneer past.
This is one of the most scenic byways in America. It stretches across 130 miles of Flint Hill country between Cassoday and Manhattan, Kansas before folding into Highway 77 which rises through Waterville on the way to Nebraska.
Along the way, we passed by several cattle ranches, long abandoned limestone settler’s homes, an 1800’s prairie schoolhouse and dozens of panoramic vistas filled to the horizon with the tallgrass prairie. This tall grass once covered 140 million acres of North America.
The white man began settling this area in the 1850’s.
A decade or so later, the railroads arrived, opening transportation routes for the cattle that grazed in the tall grass prairie and the grain that was grown in the area’s fertile river bottoms.
Long before that native Americans, the Osage, Kanza and other tribes, crisscrossed the Flint Hills. They prized the hard chert rock found here for the spear points and arrowheads they used to hunt game for survival.
Today, less than four percent of America’s tall grass prairie remain. Most of what’s left is found in the Kansas Flint Hills where it fattens-up a million cattle that replaced the bison that used to graze here.
We stopped in Cottonwood Falls for a late lunch at the restored Grand Central Hotel and Grill after marveling at the Chase County Courthouse. It’s the oldest functioning courthouse in Kansas.
This French Renaissance masterpiece was built in 1873 from limestone quarried within a few miles of the courthouse.
As we walked along Cottonwood Fall’s wide brick lined Broadway Street, the old building facades and faded, rusting metal advertising signs reminded me of how bustling this city must have been in the past when cattle ranchers and farmers made up most of the area’s inhabitants.
The place was so hopping back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that Cottonwood Falls had a horse-drawn inter-urban rail line connecting city residents to the Santa Fe Railroad.
Little known history about Cottonwood Falls (Unless you attended Notre Dame University) – In March, 1931, Transcontinental & Western Air Flight 599 crashed ten miles south of Cottonwood Falls, killing all eight on board, including Notre Dame University football coach Knute Rockne.
Just north of Cottonwood Falls lies the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The preserve features 10,800 acres of the tallgrass prairie managed in a unique partnership between the Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service.
The preserve lies on the former Z -Bar cattle ranch and is open to the public.
On the northeast edge of the ranch lies the Lower Fox Creek School. Built in 1882, the school had an average enrollment of between 1-19 students of all grades until it closed in 1930.
According to the National Park Service, the early Kansas settlers wanted schools to help Americanize the children of immigrant families, American Indians, and former slaves so that they could be assimilated into mainstream American society.
The schools taught basic literacy and respect for duly constituted authority. They were given the task of supporting the moral and religious values of the communities they served.
This is one small slice of the amazing history surrounding the mystical Flint Hills of Kansas. If you ever pass through this part of Kansas, I strongly suggest you take a detour through one of the world’s most beautiful regions. You’ll be glad you did. It’s a feast for the eyes and food for the soul.