Friday, July 24, 2015

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve – Kansas

Our next stop in our short tour of east central Kansas was just north of Strong City.

This is the Visitor’s Center for the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  For some reason, I don’t remember much about the visitor’s center, but I do know that we purchased another souvenir pin for Laurie’s pin-laden vest.  We both thought that the visitor’s center was unattractive and in our opinion it didn’t fit the site… Inside the building visitors will find has restrooms, water fountains, a short orientation film, Jr. Ranger activities and a number of exhibits pertaining to tall grass prairies. 

FYI, tall grass prairie once covered 170 million acres of North America. Within a generation the vast majority had been developed and plowed under.  Today less than 4% remains, most of it in the Kansas Flint Hills.  The preserve protects a nationally significant remnant of the once vast tall grass prairie. 

In my opinion, this photo supports the view that the Visitor’s Center (at the left) clashes with the big stone barn and the era it represents. 

Note the bus… Daily Park Ranger guided bus tours are offered at 11 AM.  The Preserve covers almost 11,000 acres and a herd of buffalo reside out on the Prairie.  One can also walk the trails through the grasslands… With the exception of 180 acres owned by the Park Service, the rest of the preserve is owned by the Nature Conservancy.

The Nature Conservancy is our favorite charitable environmental organization and we’ve been a member for many years.  It works in more than 35 countries, including all 50 states.  The Conservancy has over 1,000,000 members, and it has protected more than 119,000,000 acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers throughout the world.  The Conservancy also operates more than 100 marine conservation projects globally.  The organization's assets total $6.18 billion as of 2014.  Although critics complain that the Conservancy is too close to business, we both applaud this collaborative approach…  To learn more, just go to

The Spring Hill Farm and ‘Z-Bar’ Stock Ranch is at the core of the Tallgrass Preserve.  It was a showplace for cattleman Stephen F. Jones and his wife Louisa.  In 1878 they came to Kansas from Colorado wishing to graze cattle on the “fine prairie grasses” of the Flint Hills and then ship them by rail to market in Kansas City.  The ranch grew to 7,000 acres, specializing in Hereford, Durham, and Galloway cattle.

Stephen Jones used his massive 60 x 110 foot limestone barn to house animals, shelter equipment, and store the hay and grain that fed the livestock during the winter months.  In 1885, Jones’ livestock numbered 200 swine, 30 horses, 8 milk cows, 4 mules, and hundreds of cattle foraging on the ranch’s prairie grasses. The barn was built into the side of the hill for natural insulation. 

This is the second floor of that huge limestone barn… It is massive and impressive.  The barn cost $15,000 to build back in 1881.  As per the Strong City Independent Newspaper on 12/24/1881, "It will take 5,000 pounds of tin to cover the mammoth barn of S.F. Jones on Fox Creek, and the tinners are laying it on."  The limestone blocks used to build the barn, historic house, and outbuildings weigh over 160 pounds per cubic foot.

Part of the lower level of the barn is built into the hillside.  We didn’t see it but it was used to stable some of the livestock and for storage of saddles and harnesses in the tack room.  It retains many of the original stalls and feed bunks from the 1880s.

Mr. Jones found an abundance of limestone on his property.  As per the 1885 census, he had built over 30 miles of stone fence.

The views are vast indeed… This is truly ‘big sky’ country!

Most settlers judged this almost treeless land to be worthless.  However, some pioneers soon realized the value of the prairie’s rich soil.  Although the Flint Hills were too rocky to plow, settlers discovered its many resources, something long known by American Indians.  For eons, the Flint Hills furnished people with edible and medicinal plants, year-round spring water, stone for tools, weapons, fences and buildings, wind for power, rich bottomland for farming, and lush grasses for grazing. 

This is the Curing House… It was used to cure meat.  Inside there are hooks in the ceiling rafters used for hanging the meat.  A lack of smoke and soot residue in the ceiling and its close proximity to the main house suggests that it wasn't a smoke house.

Butchering usually took place in the fall. Hams and other meats were salted down, wrapped in cheesecloth, and hung on hooks in the ceiling of this building. The three port holes caused air to be drawn in from the outside, forcing the salt to move inward toward the meat's interior.

The home’s Spring Room is located under the Curing House.  It was reached via a tunnel from the house.  Spring water was piped through the kitchen, down the tunnel, and into the spring room where it collected in a trough. The directed and constant flowing cool, underground spring water encircled crocks filled with milk, butter, and cheese, keeping the food at a consistent temperature.  After encircling the room, this "used" spring water exited the spring room via a narrow interior trough and collected in an underground cistern located to the east of the spring room.  (Very innovative!)

This is the family’s outhouse… Stephen Jones sure didn't cut corners on his buildings!  The exterior walls are substantial and beautiful, built with block limestone and keystones with a hammered face and tooled stone edges. The corner stones also have tooled edges.

When I was in the 4th grade we had a 2-seater all brick outhouse at the home we lived in near Jonesville Michigan. (Not great fun in mid-winter!) I must admit that I’ve never seen a3-seater before!

Note that there two adult and one child’s seat.  One purpose for this was biodegradability.  On the adult side as one area filled, lime was used to break down solids.  Meanwhile, the other opening would be utilized until the waste was dissolved.  Of course another reason for 3 seats may have been to provide each individual member of the household, (Mr. and Mrs. Jones and their daughter Loutie), their own personal ‘throne’. 

Winters were colder in the 1800s and rivers would freeze solid.  The Cottonwood River had an ice cutting factory and large blocks of ice were scored and cut by an ice plow, then sold.  Blocks of ice were then carried by wagon to the icehouse for storage.  For insulation against melting, ice was stored between layers of prairie hay and sawdust.

The icehouse was built of native limestone in 1882.  The original doorway was located on the north face of the building.  Placing the entrance on the north side of a building denies sunlight from reaching the ice.  Some icehouses placed the entrance several feet off the ground because the interior cold air, (from the ice), flows downward.  Keeping the entrance to the building near the top of the structure wouldn’t allow the cold air to escape.

You can disregard the old gas pump…but can you guess what this sod covered stone structure was used for back in the 1880s? 

Can you believe that this was the chicken coop…or in this case…house!  The structure was built into the hillside with a barrel arched ceiling that is topped with a sod roof.  The hillside and the roof…as well as the thick limestone walls all served as insulation for Mr. Jones' chickens.  Even in the heaviest rain, the chicken house remained dry and the chickens kept warm.  Ventilation is also important for egg productions, so Mr. Jones provided the chickens with two skylights through the sod!  This was definitely the Cadillac of chicken coops!

This impressive 11-room ‘ranch house’ was completed in 1881.  The Second Empire architecture included practical adaptations to the location and life on the prairie.  Tall opposing windows took advantage of the prevailing summer winds, allowing a cooling draft through the home.  By building the house into the hillside, Mr. Jones took advantage of the earth’s natural insulation to aid in heating and cooling this large structure.

Stephen F. Jones spent the modern equivalent of about $1.9 million building the Spring Hill Ranch complex including the stone fences.  However he only owned the property for 10 years and occupied the limestone ranch house for a mere 5 1/2 years.  The house cost $25,000 to build in early 1880s dollars…
Of course as luck would have it, when we stopped by for a visit the house was closed for repairs…so we didn’t get to see the inside.  It has since been reopened for tours.

Remember David Rettiger who I mentioned in my previous post?  He was the builder of this impressive home.  Rettiger also built the Montezuma Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico in the mid 1880s and in 1871-72, he worked on that impressive Chase County Courthouse in Cottonwood Falls Kansas from one of my previous posts. 

The native limestone used in this home building was quarried and dressed at the Rettiger home quarry, north of Strong City.  Individual building stones are square cut on all bearing surfaces and have a rough-hewn face. The stones are all the same size.  The expensive hand-cut stone would be financially impossible to reproduce today.

Just a little south of the Z-Bar Ranch with its big house and barn, you can see the Lower Fox Creek School.   Residents of the Fox Creek area decided in 1878 - 1879 that a school district should be formed for the education of their children.  
The site for the schoolhouse was donated by Stephen F. Jones with the stipulation that the deed would revert back to the ranch owner when the place was no longer used as a school.   Built in 1882, this one-room school provided a setting for educating local area students until 1930, when it was abandoned and then it reverted to the ranch owner.  It is now part of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is located on Kansas Hwy. 177 just 2 miles north of Strong City or just 17 miles south of Council Grove.  To learn more, you can go to  Admission is free!

That’s about it for now… Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them.

Thanks for stopping by for a visit!

Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

1 comment:

  1. I love these beautiful pictures, love these old buildings look amazing David!!!