National Geographic : 1952 Apr
Hays, Kansas, at the Nation's Heart Plains Where Indians, Gun-toting Sheriffs, and Buffalo Roamed Now Shape an Empire of Wheat, Cattle, and Oil BY MARGARET M. DETWILER With Illustrations by National Geographic PhotographerJohn E. Fletcher OUR home in Hays, on the wide plains of Kansas, lies just 75 miles southwest of the geographical center of the United States. Located at the heart of America, Hays is itself American to the core. The little city, crisscrossing the shallow valley of Big Creek, is an island of trees and rooftops in a rolling sea of wheatland and cattle range. In summer the restless Great Plains wind ripples the encircling miles of grass and grain. Hays bears a family resemblance to dozens of western towns. Mostly they are "look alikes," with grain elevators, water towers, flour mills, and ruler-straight railroad tracks. Yet, behind their neat but undistinguished exteriors, each place is unique. The touch stone to test the stuff they are made of is often -as with Hays-a leafing through the pages of their past, almost certain to be colorful in these longitudes of the United States. Viewed down the long perspective of history, Hays and other west Kansas communities are indeed "Johnny-come-latelies." Yet how much Kansas has achieved since the twilight of the pioneer era! It was 1861 before Kansas gained state hood, and the Civil War's wounds were start ing to heal before the first transcontinental railroad pushed steel across the lonely plains. No town in this part of the State is more than a hundred years old. Bound for a New Home When I learned that Hays was to be my new home, the prospect was unalluring. Washing ton, D. C., where we lived at the time, natu rally was in the thick of events. Exchanging the Nation's Capital for what sounded like a prairie crossroads seemed like exile to a re mote no man's land. This impression shows that my knowledge of Kansas then was practically nil. In less than a year our little family was quite at home in the friendly city of Hays. With my little girl I flew from the East as far as Salina, Kansas. In the small plane that took us on from Kansas City, we followed the Kansas, or Kaw, River for more than a hundred miles. We noted the thinning of the trees and the increasing distances between farmhouses, and felt a surge of excitement as we crossed the threshhold of the real story book West.* As we stepped out at Salina, we were struck -l iterally-by the wind, to me the outstand ing feature of the Kansas plains. At Salina my brother met us and we motored west the last hundred miles to Hays. My brother is a doctor; I went west to keep house for him. We were pleasantly surprised to find the country not so flat as we had expected. In fact, there are some quite presentable hills. The roads, however, generally following sec tion lines, mostly run straight east and west or north and south. Farmhouse lights, which appear near at night, take a long time to reach. My little five-year-old, used to the more winding roads of the East, kept asking why there were no turns in the highway. Ditches Serve as Flood Insurance Having heard much of the rich Kansas wheatlands, I was depressed at first by the appearance of the farms, bare of trees and often with unpainted buildings. The coun tryside in brown winter garb somehow was not appealing. Indeed, it was easy to see that times could be hard on the open plains, with little water and the persistent winds. Trees along the streams and dry creek beds we passed offered some relief. Along the side roads huge ditches, twelve to fifteen feet wide and four or five deep, had been dug for drainage. Cactus, sage, and Russian thistle (a kind of tumbleweed) vied with the grasses to fill them up. What could be the purpose, we wondered, of such broad ditches in so dry a land? Later we watched them prove their worth during heavy spring rains and floods (page 484). They also act as catchment ditches for snow blown off the roads by blizzards. We passed a couple of Osage orange hedges, but for the most part yellow limestone fence posts held the barbed wire that kept the Here ford, Black Angus, and Galloway cattle in their dry pasture. Just beyond the fences the ground was plowed for several feet as a guard against the spread of prairie fires. Fields of * See "Speaking of Kansas," by Frederick Simpich, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, August, 1937.