Spirit of Place

The following is a column written by Andy Raun. Thank you Andy. (Copyright 2014, The Seaton Publishing Co. Used with permission.)

Of farming, poetry and the spirit of place - Kansas cabin story uplifts a Nebraskan

ATHOL, Kan. — Last Sunday afternoon, down here in the hills of northern Smith County, scores of people mingled on the bank of a dry creek running across a piece of Pleasant Township farm ground.
I saw farmers and ranchers, doctors and lawyers, musicians and political dignitaries. Old and young, rich and poor, they swatted away flies and took their turns inspecting a small, fairly nondescript cabin standing in their midst.
On this fine day, they could have been drilling wheat or cutting soybeans in the surrounding fields. They could have been watching football on TV or raking leaves in their backyards. They could have been back in Hastings or Grand Island, Great Bend or Dodge City, Abilene or Topeka, Houston or Tucson, or any of the other faraway places from which they had traveled. They could have been anywhere else — maybe even taking a prized Sunday nap.
So what brought them together here? The answer, I think, can be found in a three-word term invoked several times during the day:
“Spirit of place.”
Kim Goodnight, area manager for local government and community affairs for ITC Transmission, was the first to mention the term in his remarks at the rededication of the Home on the Range Cabin northwest of Athol.
Goodnight’s company, not universally loved in Tribland while it was building a high-voltage electrical transmission line from Axtell to Spearville, Kan., a few years back, was one of the corporate sponsors of the weekend’s rededication activities.
Whatever you think of ITC or its high line, Goodnight knows what he is talking about when he addresses spirit of place — a term that relates to a given location’s cultural value and significance. The 38-year Dodge City resident is chairman of the Kansas Chapter of the Great Western Cattle Trail Association, working to increase awareness of a rich and storied chapter in the history of the American West.
When he speaks, he does so as one with experience standing on the sun-splashed, windblown prairies and plains of rural Kansas and knowing that, in that moment, he is resting in the giant footsteps of American history.
That’s how I felt Sunday when, at the end of the rededication program, I joined everyone in singing “Home on the Range” — a song based on a poem penned on this very farm 143 years ago, by the man who the next year built this very cabin with his own hands, and who spent several years living here, perhaps lonely for human companionship but overwhelmed by the beauty of flora and fauna, land and sky:
“Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play; where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day.”
The poem, called “My Western Home,” was written by Dr. Brewster Higley VI, an Ohio-born physician who had come to Smith County for a fresh start as a homesteader, farmer and frontier doctor.
Most likely in fall 1871, Higley wrote the poem exulting in what he had found on and along West Beaver Creek, which ran through his homestead claim.
While he was living alone in those days, Higley evidently found solace in the natural world with which he was communing. This land, which may have appeared desolate to some, obviously was teeming with life — a fact not lost on either the scientist or the poet in him.
Before long, Higley’s poem was set to music, altered a bit, and became “Home on the Range.” It has been Kansas’ official state song since 1947.
Clearly, Higley’s sentiments struck a chord with Kansans and all those captivated by the ideal of the American West. Over time, the song became familiar the world over and beloved by those who revel in cowboy and western lore.
For many years, Ellen and Pete Rust owned the land where the cabin stands but didn’t have much money to fix it up. They even kept chickens in it for some period of time.
Ellen, long widowed, died in 2008. Before her passing, she arranged her estate in such a way that landlord’s profits from the farm would continue to support the cabin’s upkeep.
Cousins El Dean Holthus of Smith Center and Gerald Caspers of Gaylord, both nephews of Ellen Rust, have done an inspiring job of honoring their aunt’s wishes that the cabin not be lost to time and the elements. Working together under the auspices of the Ellen Rust Living Trust, the two senior citizens launched a fundraising campaign that attracted donations from far and wide to supplement a key grant from the Kansas State Historical Society — more than $100,000 in total funding that literally has saved the building from collapse while giving the entire historic site fresh appeal to the public.
Now, the cabin is not only structurally sound once again, but also has a roofline restored to its historically accurate height, is outfitted with period-appropriate furnishings, is reachable via a handicapped-accessible pathway, and is complemented by a nature trail along the creek.
El Dean has been a highly effective “front man” for the project, giving media interviews and cultivating connections with donors and supporters from near and far. Gerald has worked behind the scenes in essential roles. An accomplished carpenter and woodworker, he built the furniture now in place in the cabin.
To me, a large and edifying part of this most recent chapter in Home on the Range history involves the time and work Holthus and Caspers have poured into saving the cabin out of respect and family loyalty. Relatives, including children and grandchildren, have joined them in their endeavor — along with everyone from country music celebrities like Michael Martin Murphey, who played a benefit concert for the cause, to Kansas schoolchildren who donated a lowly dollar or two to the preservation fund. (Ownership of the property now has been transferred from the Ellen Rust Living Trust to the Peoples Heartland Foundation, a nonprofit group that can receive tax-deductible gifts.)
All those involved, including relatives of Dr. Higley himself, seem to realize that Home on the Range — the cabin, the land it stands on, and the cultural phenomenon that arose there — deserve their stewardship. At the same time, they know the Home on the Range legacy belongs not to any one family or community, but to all of Smith County, all of Kansas, and all the American people. (The cabin has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973.)
“It is the heart of America,” Kansas Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer said of the song in his remarks at the site Sunday.
As the program closed and the audience stood to sing, I had a sense not only of the history around me, but of becoming part of that history. I remembered what speakers had said minutes before about the past and future meeting in this time and place, and was struck by the respect being paid to the courage and creativity of the American pioneer. In that singular moment, I didn’t need to be a Kansan to get a chill up my spine.
My wife and I first visited the Home on the Range Cabin on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in July 1998. Back then, the place seemed lonely — a forgotten roadside shrine on the path of American progress. Now, it is a true Tribland jewel — a fitting monument to the promise of western settlement, rural life and agriculture.
Yes, this place has spirit. And a little of it lives in me.