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Archive for Sunday, April 2, 2006

On the trail with the ‘Flint Hills Cowboys’

Author lets serene landscape speak for its rugged inhabitants

April 2, 2006

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It's happened to every Kansan.

While driving through the Flint Hills with someone from outside the state - someone who better knows tall buildings, busy beaches or cute boutiques - the conversation turns to the grass covered hills visible through the window.

Inevitably, the passenger asks: How can anyone stand to live here?

Indeed, the Flint Hills are an acquired taste.

To some - most, perhaps - they are unbearably plain; to others, they are unmatched in their beauty.

But it's a beauty that's more subtle than breathtaking.

"I tell people the Flint Hills are not spectacular," said Jim Hoy, an English professor at Emporia State University who grew up on a ranch outside of Cassoday.

"They're not about 'spectacle,' they're about serenity," he said. "You don't go to the Flint Hills to have your breath taken away. You go for a chance to catch your breath."


A small herd of young steers heads into the wind late in the day near Bazaar in Chase County's Flint Hills.  A new book titled "Flint Hills Cowboys" captures the history and folklore of the area.

A small herd of young steers heads into the wind late in the day near Bazaar in Chase County's Flint Hills. A new book titled "Flint Hills Cowboys" captures the history and folklore of the area.

In his new book, "Flint Hills Cowboys," Hoy, 66, lets the Flint Hills speak for themselves and for their rugged inhabitants.

"This is cowboy country," he wrote in the introduction. "In my mind's eye, I see the big old Texas steers of my youth, the open-range roads, the cattle guards, the railroad stockyards. I hear the click of the horseshoes on flinty rock and see sparks from their hooves while riding home across nighttime pastures after loading cattle onto trains."

Oral histories

For more than 20 years, Hoy has collected oral histories from the region's old-timers.

"You could write a lot of different kinds of books about the Flint Hills -the oil culture, the small towns, whatever," he said. "I just focus on the cattle part of it, the cowboy part of it."

Cowboy Roy Morgan has lived in Chase County in the heart of the Flint Hills since 1939. Morgan has gathered and chased cattle, and he's broken and shoed horses. Today he's slowed a little by arthritis and emphysema, but he still rides his horse in a feedlot nearly every day. The lives of cowboys like Morgan are chronicled in "Flint Hills Cowboys."

Cowboy Roy Morgan has lived in Chase County in the heart of the Flint Hills since 1939. Morgan has gathered and chased cattle, and he's broken and shoed horses. Today he's slowed a little by arthritis and emphysema, but he still rides his horse in a feedlot nearly every day. The lives of cowboys like Morgan are chronicled in "Flint Hills Cowboys."

His cast of characters - none of them famous - include:

¢ Lou Hart, a cowhand poet whose poem, "Springtime at Crockers," was recited for 50 years before reaching print in 1958.

¢ Bud Gillette, once thought to be the world's fastest man.

¢ Mary Ann Clark, a woman who forgave her husband's murderer after her son spent 12 years bringing him to justice.

And then there's John Badger, and his brother, Granville, who became local legends for their honesty, horsemanship and hard work.

Hoy writes, "I've been told that they knew the country so well that even on a moonless night under a cloudy sky, they could ride across a thousand-acre pasture and always hit the gate on the far side."

While riding home after a long day in the early 1950s, a neighbor offered John Badger a ride in his pickup truck. His horse could go in the back.

Badger declined, saying his horse wouldn't get in the truck. But when the neighbor opened the tailgate, Badger's horse jumped in.

According to the neighbor, as they drove to the Badger place, his passenger ": slouched down in the seat with his hat held up in front of his face in embarrassment, afraid someone would see him riding in a pickup, hauling his horse instead of riding it as ordained by God and Nature."

"Oh, I love that story," said Robert Day, whose novel, "The Last Cattle Drive," is a classic among the books with Kansas settings.

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Day supplied a friendly "blurb" for the "Flint Hills Cowboys" dust jacket after reading an advance copy.

"It's like any good book. It sings," Day said. "It documents things that - were it not for black marks on white paper - would be lost."

Comparisons to 'Prairyerth'

"Flint Hills Cowboys" is sure to prompt comparisons with "Prairyerth," William Least Heat-Moon's best-selling, 640-page ode to Chase County.

"A lot of the old-timers who spent time with Heat-Moon thought they were misrepresented," said Suzan Barnes, who owns and manages the Grand Center Hotel in downtown Cottonwood Falls.









Other books by Jim Hoy

Jim Hoy is a professor of English at Emporia State University and director of the Center for Great Plains Studies. Other books by Hoy include: ¢ "The Cattle Guard: Its History and Lore" ¢ "Plains Folk: A Commonplace of the Great Plains," co-written with Tom Isern ¢ "Plains Folk II: The Romance of the Landscape," co-written with Tom Isern ¢ "Riding Point: A Centennial History of the Kansas Livestock Association" ¢ "Cowboys and Kansas: Stories from the Tallgrass Prairie" ¢ "Vaqueros, Cowboys and Buckaroos," co-written with Lawrence Clayton and Jerald Underwood

"'Prairyerth' has done a lot to promote the Flint Hills," she said, "but it's a book that I'd have to say is more appreciated by people who don't live in Chase County than those who do."

Barnes expects a warm reception for "Flint Hills Cowboys."

"Heat Moon wrote what Jim Hoy lives," she said. "Jim Hoy is from here. His family is ingrained here. He's part of the Flint Hills."

Hoy praised "Prairyerth," noting that Heat Moon accompanied him on some of his interviews.

"I thought it was a fascinating book," Hoy said. "But he barely touched on the thing I'm most interested in, which is the cattle culture."

'Home country'

Hoy, who lives in the Flint Hills south of Emporia and whose son, Josh, runs the family ranch near Cassoday, said "Flint Hills Cowboys" was part memoir, part history and part folklore.

"This is my home country," he said, "so I have some pretty strong feelings about the Flint Hills."

Most Kansans do as well, said Rex Buchanan, who, as co-author of "Roadside Kansas: A Traveler's Guide to Its Geology and Landmarks," has spent time on just about every back road in the state.

"I've noticed over the years that where you're from means a lot," Buchanan said. "If you're from western Kansas, you may not care for southeast Kansas, and if you're from the northeast part of the state, you may not care for the southwest part. But there's a uniting quality about the Flint Hills.

"If you're from Kansas, you appreciate the Flint Hills."

It's an appreciation, he said, that's rooted in humankind's search for peace.

"I get asked all the time about where to go for the best scenery in the state," Buchanan said. "And I've learned that the least disturbed landscapes are what people want to see the most."

He added: "If you take the cut-across between Matfield Green and Madison, you'll see some landscapes that are untouched. They look the same as they did when the white man arrived."

Published by University Press of Kansas, "Flint Hills Cowboys" is in area bookstores now.

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