Tag Archives: prairie

Kansas: We’re not in Illinois, Toto

Everyone knows that the Midwest is flat, but leaving Illinois and heading west, across the Mississippi River and then the Missouri River, one learns that “flat” is a relative term. Granted, there were no towering mountains, but the terrain I was crossing was a lot more varied than that of Illinois.

In fact, after Florida, which is largely close to sea level, Illinois is the nation’s second flattest state, so Missouri and then Kansas are far more topographically interesting. They are also a lot more open. Missouri has about half the population of Illinois, and Kansas has about half the population of Missouri.

Knowing this, I had actually expected wide open spaces in Kansas. What I hadn’t expected was to find it so enchanting. As I drove into the Flint Hills region, en route from Topeka to Wichita, the phenomenal greenness of the area led me to imagine that, if the farm hands were the inspiration for Dorothy’s Oz companions, the Flint Hills were the inspiration for the Emerald City.

A friend would later tell me that the Flint Hills are not always as astonishingly verdant as I was seeing them, but what I witnessed was glorious, and it is the image I currently carry with me of the heart of Kansas. Plus, the Flint Hills are home to the world’s largest continuous tallgrass prairie, so even if not always so green, they will always be remarkable.

This is not my photo, as I was on a highway. It is from a Visions of the Flint Hills exhibition, and it reflects what I saw—though I tend to think what I saw was even more beautiful, and it was certainly far more extensive.

.Flint Hills

Tales of Wichita will wait for future posts, but one more thing is worth mentioning about this handsome region. Returning north, I headed through the Flint Hills region to historic Council Grove. During this drive, along more rural (but still excellent) roads, I encountered a touch of whimsy that delighted me. Just off the road, on hills and rises around Council Grove, there are metal statues recreating once-familiar scenes. It is hard to judge from a car, but the statues appeared to be life size—though I imagine that to create that impression they would need to be larger than life. The two I saw were a cowboy on horseback roping a calf and a Native American gazing out over the hills. I have, since returning home, searched and found photos of other of these Flint Hill statues, but the surprise of seeing the two I encountered was sufficient to make them vividly memorable.

But these were not the only things to love about Kansas. More to follow.

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Sodbusters and Sod Houses

For those who have seen only nice, soft, grassy sod being unrolled onto lawns, it may be hard to imagine what sod was like on the prairies and plains of the Midwest when the first settlers began trying to farm the region. It was not soft and definitely couldn’t be rolled up. It was almost a solid mass of tough roots and rhizomes extending four or more inches into the earth. The plants growing on the prairie were ideally suited to an environment where flood and drought alternated and brush fires were common. Deep, strong roots meant survival.

Sod was so tough that, before blacksmith John Deere created a plow that could cut through the sod, people often resorted to using axes to chop through the sod, to get to dirt where they could plant seeds. Farmers in the region became known as “sodbusters,” because they really did have to “bust” the sod if they wanted to plant anything.

However, sod could be useful. It was thick and heavy and nearly indestructible. In a region virtually defined by a lack of trees, this rough, thick, woody mat was often cut up and used as building material. In Nebraska, it became known as Nebraska marble. Soddies—houses built of sod—became a common sight on the early prairie. Walls inside and out would be “plastered” with clay, to keep dirt from crumbling into the house, and to protect the exterior from the weather.

I had read of sod houses, of course, when studying U.S. history, but at Pioneer Village, I had the chance to tour one. I thought that, for all its roughness, it was surprisingly handsome. Definitely “prairie style.”

NE-Pioneer-Vill---Sod-House

It took eleven acres of prairie sod to make up the three-foot-thick walls of this soddie. I was surprised by how much cooler it was inside the soddie than it was outside. A sod house, with its thick, insulating walls, would have been ideal in this region of temperature extremes.

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Filed under Agriculture, Culture, Farming, History, Language, Midwest, Travel