Home on the Range

Alice Mannette
Jim Gray of Ellsworth, a cowboy storyteller, was the keynote speaker on Feb. 25 at the Cheney Lake Watershed Annual Meeting in Arlington.

Understanding how cities in Kansas blossomed and grew during the 19th century involves understanding the cowboy movement during that time. When Texas ranchers wanted to move their cattle into Missouri during the 1800s, issues developed. Eventually, the cowboys settled on Kansas for their new enterprise.

Jim Gray of Ellsworth, a cowboy storyteller, was the keynote speaker on Feb. 25 at the Cheney Lake Watershed Annual Meeting in Arlington. More than 80 people attended the lecture that was sponsored by Humanities Kansas.

Gray is the author of “Desperate Seed: Ellsworth Kansas on the Violent Frontier” and is the co-founder of the National Drovers Hall of Fame, located in Ellsworth. Up until a few years ago, Gray ran COWBOY - Cockeyed Old West Band Of Yahoos - a society to promote and preserve Kansas’ cowboy heritage.

According to Gray, ranchers from England, known as drovers, met up with ranchers from Mexico, known as vaqueros, in Texas. They Raised Texas Longhorn cattle – a breed that can handle low water conditions.

These herds of animals were called droves and the herdsmen, drovers. At issue was how to transport these animals from Texas up to St. Louis or Chicago. Longhorns have long legs and hard hoofs and made an ideal trail cattle.

“Drovers were the people who pushed the frontier,” Gray said. “Daniel Boone was a drover. He raised livestock and then he would sell them.”

After the Civil War, many Texas drovers were robbed in Missouri. So they decided to try to take trails up through Kansas. Many began their journey in Baxter Springs, Gray said.

“In 1867, Kansas is this wide open country; a railroad is just being built,” Gray said.

Because of the influx of cattle, the drovers needed a cattle depot. Abilene, a quick whistle stop along the line, fit the bill.

“By the end of the 1867 shipping season, he (the owner of the depot) had shipped 35,000 head of cattle by rail,” Gray said. “They threw up piles of dirt every mile to Wichita to show them (the cowboys) how to get to Abilene.”

Soon a depot opened in Newton and then Ellsworth. Eventually, Dodge City became the new market

By 1898, Gray said 700,000 head were riding the rails north, mostly to Chicago.

Eventually, trail driving wound down, but the cities that were built around the cowboy business remained. By telling this history, Gray is handing down a culture to the next generation.

“It’s preserving a way of life that’s still there, Gray said. “It keeps the memory alive.”

Lisa French, project coordinator for the Cheney Lake Watershed, is also interested in Kansas history. She loves a good story.

“He talked about places they (the Kansas farmers and ranchers in the audience) know,” French said. ”It grounds them into the history of place. When you’re taking care of the land, the more you understand its history, the more you understand it and the more connected you are with it.”