Editor’s note: This is one in a series of occasional stories written in conjunction with Kansas’ 150th birthday.
Smith County — As the sun dips below the skyline and the bone-chilling cold of a long winter’s night settles over Brewster Higley’s cabin, all signs of the 21st century disappear.
No neon lights.
No whirring motors.
No sounds but hooting owls and howling coyotes from somewhere upstream on Beaver Creek.
It was from this postage-stamp-size patch of land nearly 140 years ago that a frontier doctor penned a six-verse poem he called simply “My Western Home.”
It spoke volumes about his tiny home along the creek, of seeing animals on the ever-changing prairie and of a sky that often overtook and overwhelmed the bowl-shaped horizon.
Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word
And the sky is not clouded all day.
In time, those words became a famous song.
Each month, about 100 visitors from across the country drive down the dusty lane in Smith County to walk in Brewster Higley’s footsteps.
The guest register includes names from Florida, Tennessee, Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa.
But the fame of the song stretches far beyond the United States and far beyond this tiny cabin.
Go anywhere — Ireland, Africa, Russia and China — and people know the song.
“That song is the most famous cowboy song in the world,” said Orin Friesen at the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper near Benton. “When the Wranglers played in China, we played ‘Home on the Range’ and sang it in Chinese. If you look at the songs other states have — like the ‘Tennessee Waltz’ and put all the state songs on a list and ask people from across the world which ones they recognize, I bet ‘Home on the Range’ would be No. 1. It’s the most famous state song of all.”
But in the fall of 1872, Brewster Higley’s thoughts were simply written in poem form on a scrap of paper.
He tucked it away in one of his books.
Brewster Higley was down on his luck.
At the end of his fourth marriage, Higley was seeking refuge and a little solace when he left Ohio in 1871 and homesteaded on the banks of Beaver Creek in Smith County, Kansas.
His first three wives had died from illness and injury. The fourth, Mercy Ann McPherson, a woman from Indiana, was temperamental, at best. He quickly left his three children with relatives in Illinois and moved far away from the matrimonial discord.
On the Kansas prairie, he found peace. To pass the time, Higley often played the violin and wrote poetry.
His first home was a simple dugout — dirt floors, roof and walls.
A year later, he built a cabin with three limestone walls; on the south wall, he put in logs.
He kept the dirt floor and added two small rectangular windows on the south and north walls and built a door with a latchstring lock.
Oh, give me the gale of the Solomon vale
Where life streams with buoyancy flow,
On the banks of the Beaver, where seldom if ever
Any poisonous herbage doth grow.
Two years later, Higley was treating a patient for a gunshot wound while another man waited — Trube Reese of Smith Center.
Reese began thumbing through Higley’s books and came upon the poem.
He reportedly told Higley:
“This is plumb good, you should have it printed in the paper.”
So, in 1873, the Smith County Pioneer printed the poem with verses such as this one:
How often at night, when the heavens are bright
By the light of the glittering stars,
Have I stood there amazed and asked as I gazed
If their beauty exceeds this of ours.
That same year, Higley presented the poem to Dan Kelley of nearby Gaylord, who’d been a bugler during the Civil War and had enough background in music to give it a distinctive melody.
Kelley then gave the song to Judge John Harlan and his family, who first played and sang it publicly.
The Harlans added a chorus to the song:
A Home — A Home — Where the deer and the antelope play — where seldom is heard a discouraging word— and the sky is not cloudy all day.
None of the men attempted to copyright the song.
How Kansas almost lost out
The song spread like wildfire throughout the West.
It gained popularity along the cattle trails and in small-town dance halls, where its melody and heartfelt words about home were quickly learned.
By then, with the cowboy influence, the chorus of the song had shifted to “Home, Home on the Range...”
Jim Gray, cowboy historian from Ellsworth and publisher of the Kansas Cowboy newspaper, said the song was simply the voice of the prairie.
“That song is stuck in our DNA,” he said. “It is in the spirit of what it represents — it is not only the spirit of Kansas but the spirit of the Old West.”
Kansas historian Thomas Averill said that sense of a home is interchangeable with Kansas.
“The word home is important to our identity,” Averill said. “When Frank Baum wrote ‘The Wizard of Oz’ in 1900, Dorothy said ‘There is no place like home.’ Brewster Higley wrote ‘Home on the Range’ before that. By the 1930s, people were identifying Kansas as the home place — it was the center of the heartland.”
Still, at the turn of the 20th century, that sense of identity — that sense of home — had come to mean almost anywhere “out there” in the Old West. And “Home on the Range” gained folk song status.
In 1910 it was published for the first time by John Lomax, a Texas college professor researching folk music of the Old West.
He labeled it “Home on the Range” and published it in the book, “Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads.”
It was published as sheet music and the refrains of the song were heard everywhere from pianos and pump organs in home parlors to recording artists who recorded it for phonographs and sang it over radio airwaves.
And still, the song’s popularity continued to grow, along with a number of variations — each claiming home ties with Texas, Colorado and other states.
In 1934 William and Mary Goodwin of Arizona claimed they wrote the song, “An Arizona Home,” and filed a lawsuit against radio giant NBC and various publishing houses demanding damages and prohibiting the song from being played in public.
It was only after Samuel Moanfeldt, an investigative lawyer for NBC and the publishing houses, was hired to track down the roots of the song that the lawsuit was resolved and the melody could once again be sung in public.
Moanfeldt traced the song back to Kansas — to Higley publishing the poem in the Smith County Pioneer.
A cabin’s fate
In 1947, the Kansas Legislature declared “Home on the Range” the official song of Kansas.
In the early 1950s, the Smith County Rotary Club revamped Higley’s cabin, putting in 1870s vintage logs where rotted logs once stood. In 1980, area farmers braced the stone walls with maintainer blades and rebar.
They were farmers’ fixes.
“The good news was they didn’t sell it; the bad news is that they didn’t maintain it very well,” said El Dean Holthus.
Holthus, whose aunt and uncle, Ellen and Pete Rust, owned the property for nearly 75 years, credits them for saving the cabin and keeping it standing in Kansas. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The land and cabin are now maintained by the Rust Family Trust.
In the past two years, the Rust Family Trust repaired the roof on the cabin and removed dead trees that threatened to fall on the building. The trust is trying to raise money to restore the cabin.
Holthus estimates it may cost as much $100,000 to restore it to its original integrity.
The cabin is iconic enough for artists and singers to make pilgrimages.
Dave Zerfas, a western balladeer from Manhattan, is one of those people.
“It paints the hopes of people who came here searching for a new life,” Zerfas said. “It is a snapshot of the idyllic prairie before the buffalo were all gone.”
“To me, that song is the dream of Kansas.”