The second half of a road trip through the Flint Hills of Kansas reveals more about modern life on the prairie and the pioneer spirit of the ranchers, entrepreneurs and artists who make the Flint Hills their home.
In my previous article, I covered a few of the surprises that await travelers to the Flint Hills if they leave the freeway and explore the tallgrass prairie of Kansas. But, the fun of a road trip here in the center of America is as much about meeting the people as seeing the unique environment of the prairie.
They’re the people bestselling Kansas author Sarah Smarsh wrote about in a New York Times op-ed “Something Special is Happening in Rural America” where she reported “a prairie trend of young people, drawn by family ties and affordable entrepreneurship, returning to rural and small-town homes” and bringing new life to the region.
Says Smarsh, “From where I sit, they are heroes of the American odyssey — seeing value where others see lack, returning with the elixir of hard-won social capital to help solve the troubles of home.” Some are young, yes, but you’ll also meet people staking a claim in the Flint Hills as a second career. They’re all pioneers, re-settling parts of this region that have emptied out. Like their forebears, they’re ready to take risks and pack with them an outsized dose of imagination and optimism. The newcomers are joining Flint Hills folks who have stayed for generations. They’re happy to share their ranching heritage whether you’re putting down stakes or just passing through.
Where the Deer and the Antelope and the Symphony Play
For imagination and optimism, you can’t beat The Symphony in the Flint Hills. Who would think of hauling gigantic pieces of sound equipment, generators, huge tents, stages, and the musicians of the Kansas City Symphony to a location in the wild tallgrass prairie? That’s while working to protect the delicate terrain below the feet of the 7,000-plus people who attend the annual event. And gutsy? Consider the likelihood of the Kansas weather holding out for an outdoor event in this land of twisters.
The Symphony in the Flint Hills debuted in June 2006 and has moved every year to different Flint Hills sites. The event also features educational activities and speakers who explore a variety of topics including the ecology, the people and the future of the region. It gained followers, plenty of press, and drew people in to experience the area’s small towns, activities, and art…until last year.
In 2019, storms slammed the concert venue with howling winds that shredded the huge tents and saturated the ground so completely it made parking in the pastures impossible. The event was cancelled and that left Symphony in the Flint Hills with huge bills to pay. Yet, with true prairie gumption, they’ve sprung back and plan to hold the next big event in Wabaunsee County, Kansas, on June 13, 2020.
New Life in Small Towns
Bill McBride loves the prairie. You have to have an overwhelming passion for open spaces, nature and trains, too, to trade Chicago for tiny Matfield Green which sits adjacent to the Flint Hills Scenic Byway and the BNSF railroad. McBride, a Harvard-trained architect ran a successful firm in Chicago and designed prize-winning buildings until he chucked it all and moved to Matfield Green about 13 years ago. Once a small town of 350 with shops, a post office and a school of its own, the village almost vanished into the prairie like a tumbleweed until a small band of artists, writers and musicians came here lured by the beauty of the prairie and and affordable real estate. They’ve upped the population to around 60.
Now McBride concentrates on sculpture. Our journey with Prairie Earth Tours stopped to see his work along the PrairyArt Path. It makes a great place to take in McBride’s large sculpture installations while strolling through prairie grass and flowers, over a stone arch bridge, and through the remnants of Matfield Green’s historic cattle pens. Also on the property: old railroad bunkhouses that once housed workers for the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe railroad. They’re among the very few such bunkhouses left in the country and lasted only because they were used as storage. McBride and friends restored the bunkhouses and turned them into guest casitas now called Matfield Station, and you can rent them on Airbnb.
For a more posh place to rest your head, check into the Historic Elgin Hotel in Marion, Kansas, where you’ll meet other modern-day prairie pioneers. Wichita natives, Jeremy and Tammy Ensey operate the Elgin which was built in 1886 and billed as “a monument to Marion’s glory and a common pride to citizens.” The hotel offered 42 rooms and shared bathrooms. From those glory days, it gradually collapsed into disrepair before it was renovated and re-opened in 2009.
Guests of the Elgin’s shared-bathroom days in the 1800s would be astonished to see its 12 plush suites with bathrooms equipped with jacuzzi tubs and spa showers. The Enseys took over the property three years ago and added a restaurant, Parlour 1886, and imported executive chef Michael Trimboli from New York City.
Back at the Ranch
A good portion of the Flint Hills lies in Chase County, or simply “the county,” to many locals. In his book PrairyErth, William Least Heat-Moon describes Chase County as the most easterly piece of the American West. The county, he says, “looks much the way visitors want rural western America to look.” Drive the backroads here—with vast open spaces, cattle ranches and wild mustangs—and you’ll see just what he’s talking about.
The county looks much the way visitors want rural western America to look.
We stopped by Pioneer Bluffs Center for Ranching Heritage, a 12-acre homestead that is now a National Historic District. Their mission is to preserve the heritage of the Flint Hills and to educate the public about ranching in history and how it’s practiced today. You can tour Pioneer Bluff’s classic 1908 farm house and log cabin. They’ve also amassed vintage film clips and filmed a series of interviews with Flint Hills ranchers and cowhands that are great to watch. It’s especially interesting to hear the pride everyone takes in their long family connection to the land, something few people experience.
For an extra dose of cowboy and cowgirl culture, we spent the night at the Flying W, where fifth generation cattle ranchers Josh and Gwen Hoy run cattle and entertain guests on their 7,000 acre ranch. I was delighted to learn that Josh Hoy is related renowned plainsman Charles Goodnight, who was the inspiration for the Woodrow Call character in Larry McMurtry’s classic novel, Lonesome Dove. See more about Goodnight in my article about Amarillo, Texas.
After a chuckwagon dinner, we saddled up for a sunset horseback ride, ride, posse-style–no boring nose-to-tail riding here. Guests may also participate in cattle drives, go hiking or simply put their boots up and relax in accommodations that include a large lodge, a bunkhouse, and smaller cabins, all appropriately western and rustic.
Mosey Into town
With its old brick streets and vintage buildings, the town of Cottonwood Falls in Chase County looks like a great watering hole for not only the cowboys of the 1850s, but also modern-day cowhands and girls in search of a weekend getaway, too. Read about the historic red-roofed Chase County Courthouse that crowns Broadway street in my post about the jail there. Stroll the Broadway’s three-block span and you’ll find art galleries (including the lovely Symphony in the Flint Hills shop/gallery), boutiques, Metamorphosis Day Spa, restaurants and antique stores with merchandise that would please HGTV “Fixer Upper” fans.
After living in southern California for over 20 years, Kris and Pat Larkin settled in Cottonwood Falls to pursue what seems like a very ambitious “second act” in life. They bought and renovated numerous historic properties (including a church) around town and in neighboring Strong City and turned them into guest houses. They also opened the popular eatery, Ad Astra. “We love it here,” says Pat. “The values, affordable entrepreneurialism, and especially the people.”
You can kick back with Flint Hills residents at Emma Chase Friday Night Music. These free jam sessions take place indoors at the Prairie PastTimes artist cooperative. Or, in summer, bring your lawn chair and plunk it down right in the street for a concert in front of the Symphony in the Flint Hills gallery. Depending on the Friday, you’ll hear local musicians perform bluegrass, country and gospel music.
You may not want to move from your home in the city to put down roots here on the tallgrass prairie. But for a short time, even visitors can tune into the Americana vibe that is part of life in the Flint Hills.