Boundless skies, strong roots

One of the better ways to learn and understand how much energy was sapped out of the settlers’ tired bodies when, in the 19th century, they undertook the journey west is to sign up for a covered wagon ride in the Flint Hills of Kansas. You will learn quickly, although you will find it hard to understand how they ever managed, and you will be filled by awe and admiration. Also, you will make sure you get the hell out of the wagon before it has taken you a half mile out on the prairie. There is no comfort in a wagon that stumbles through country where roads are absent, where the relentless wheels bump against each and every rock, where the whole heavily loaded contraption dives repeatedly into unforeseen holes, and where there is no relief from the sweltering sky, or the freezing snowflakes, by any type of air-conditioning other than the hot, or cold, or wet, winds. It was (and is) a backbreaking ride.

That’s why most settlers, whether young or old, sick or pregnant, chose to walk along with the wagon train. They kept going, day after day, hundreds and hundreds of miles, until they reached the destination of their dreams — y’all know those “romantic” stories … They settled in areas that were populated nor cultivated. They settled in the poorest of circumstances and nevertheless had no hesitation with preparing and working the rough faraway land. One of the settlers in what now is Chase County was Charles Rogler. When he came walking “more than 300 miles from Iowa to build a new life for his family in Kansas, he took the first steps towards a dream.”

This line from a brochure explains the excitement of preserving and restoring Pioneer Bluffs, just north of Matfield Green in the Flint Hills of Kansas, as a center for prairie heritage education, which is the dream of today’s pioneers. They came together in 2006 to purchase property at the old Rogler Ranch.

Rogler, an immigrant from Asch in rural Austria, who was accompanied by his Swiss friend Henry Brandli (later named Brandley), staked his claim in the valley of the South Fork of the Cottonwood River and began stewarding his land at the confluence with a creek, “in a mix of rich bottomland prairie, and in the protective shadow of a substantial limestone bluff, and with miles of open prairie for summer livestock pasturage.” He was 23 years old and already six years gone from his family, who, not yet having received any sign of life, feared he had died. His family, also coming on foot, joined him less than a year later “with a supply of precious flour” everyone in the area came to “borrow” a cup of. Together with their borrowing neighbors they tamed the prairie. Community was, and is, not a dirty word in Chase County.

Before becoming a state of the Union, Kansas was still a “Free State” ratifying a constitution that abolished slavery. Statehood came in 1859. In an 1860 census report the Leavenworth Herald said that of Chase County’s total population of 900 five-hundred were living “in utterly destitute and suffering conditions. Entire families had lived for ten days without a mouthful of bread. The condition of the people is a real sad one. A long winter is at hand, their scanty supply of provisions is exhausted, and starvation absolutely staring them in the face.”

The Roglers did better. Rogler’s modest homestead already started to become a diverse farm that supplied virtually all of the family’s food as well as a modest living. Son Henry and in turn grandson Wayne later “took the reins of Pioneer Bluffs and made the farming and ranching operation one of the most prominent in the region. They were advocates of proper range practices based on sound science and they influenced proper land management throughout the Flint Hills.” In the words of Wayne Rogler, who became a Kansas State Senator, “To those of us with that inheritance the hills are more than just an economic livelihood — they are grass and cattle, soil and water. They are the cradle of our triumphs and sorrows, they are our very life blood.” The older ranch house made place for a new mansion in 1908, a new huge barn was added in 1916. The barn dance they organized to celebrate attracted three-hundred to the dance floor.

With no heirs remaining in the area the family holdings were sold at auction. Today’s pioneers, a small group of people with big ideas guided by core values decided to preserve the heart of the original homestead and create the next steps for Pioneer Bluffs. “We invite visitors to join us in building this place where rich history ignites the imagination with possibilities for the future, a place with boundless skies and strong roots.” Visitors are welcomed to step into a classic rural family farmstead setting, “where values of cooperation, community, diversification, and exploration of sustainable ways to live in harmony with nature are cultivated and healthy lifestyles are demonstrated.”

Pioneer Bluffs sits along Highway #177, designated a Scenic Byway, which leads from Cassoday in the south through Matfield Green and Cottonwood Falls to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and ultimately to Council Grove in the north. The South Fork’s valley has the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks as its manifest western border. Old oak trees line the river and other watersheds and form nice windbreaks. Over the last century, surprisingly little has changed about the peaceful setting behind the distinctive limestone fence. The classic farmhouse looks elegant and at the same time enough down to earth to eternally pay tribute to the sober diligence of the family that built it. Like so many other ranch main houses it is painted white (in the past, I now learn, the words “white house” were common usage to indicate the main house on a property — is this where “The White House” stems from?). Most Pioneer Bluffs barns and outbuildings are in a far from hopeless shape. Now the buildings and grounds are listed in the National Register of Historic Places as ‘Pioneer Bluffs Ranch Historic District’.

The change to educational center, with help from fifty unbelievably active volunteers who indeed show amazing values of cooperation, who work in splendid harmony with nature, who care enough for their community to abolish all individual ego, and who cultivate a healthy lifestyle, is in full swing. Along Crocker Creek a nature trail offers a glimpse into the treasures of a clean-flowing prairie stream. ‘Experience the Flint Hills’ tours stop at the ranch. CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, has its base in the 35,000 square foot gardens, where Ans and other volunteers plant and harvest, rain or shine. ‘Prairie Talks’ have become a hallmark already — Adaline Rogler Sorace returned from New York City back to the Flint Hills at age 93 to share stories from her past; former Rogler Ranch cowboys Jim Hoy and Tim Burton talked about “Working for Wayne”; hayloft swings and barn dances were revisited when Joyce Thierer, Ph.D. shared “Stories from the Barn”; and Ustaine Talley, descendant of freed slaves who flocked to Kansas following the Civil War, led a dialogue during Black History Month. The granary building is being transformed into spaces for conferences and presentations.

Some time ago, on the grounds of Pioneer Bluffs the new documentary film ‘Return to PariryErth’ by filmmaker John O’Hara was premiered. It was twenty years since William Least Heat-Moon’s now famous book ‘PrairyErth’ was published after many years of meticulous research. Everyone thought it was a great idea to have a picnic-premiere at Pioneer Bluffs as well as a book signing by the author, not knowing that an enormous publicity would be generated that made people from as far as Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Colorado and even farther away jump into their vehicles and drive to Chase County, Kansas. Suddenly traffic problems had to be solved, parking areas had to be created, shuttle buses hired to run to and fro. A first aid team with an ambulance had to stand by in the soaring heat, and the number of pre-ordered meals needed to be extended to more than 500. Surprise: altogether more than 900 people showed up; the crowd created a traffic jam on the, in other times, so lonesome road, and made frequent use of a row of “prairie potties.” The film had to be shown three times to accommodate all; it was eventually aired on National Public Television. Ans and I are figuring in it. Since reading ‘PrairyErth’ brought us to Kansas in the first place, in 1995, when we lived near Matfield Green in a little house on the prairie, Least Heat-Moon was instrumental to our future change of life and therefore wanted to meet us. While enjoying many beers and glasses of wine, we easily became friends.

Sometimes jazz music is played in the magnificent barn with its proud roof, held high and carried safe and sound through almost a full century of Kansas sunshine and blazing winds by enormous hardwood trusses. In my eyes the second floor’s cathedral ceiling resembles a huge Viking ship upside down. I understand that, in 1916, the barn was bought from Sears Roebuck’s “wish book,” its catalog, with the pieces delivered by train before they were loaded on horse wagons and in many runs transported to the ranch. This barn will provide a memorable site for many more future concerts and events. Today’s pioneers dream even of building a new bunkhouse to accommodate overnight guests and of creating a theater up in the big barn.

Wayne Rogler, after arriving in the Flint Hills, first built a cabin. A replica of this simple structure, still standing and constructed from logs strong enough to survive a couple of more centuries, is not far from the spot where later the main Rogler residence was constructed. It is in this well-preserved white house, behind the patio on the first floor, that Ans and I were invited to open a contemporary art gallery not unlike The Tin Moon Studio / Gallery we ran in Abiquiu, New Mexico for twelve years in a row. Our new gallery is elegant and spacious. We are presenting work by Bill McBride, a Chicago architect and sculptor now living in Matfield Green; painter and sculptor Julie Wagner and ceramist Amber Archer, as well as painters and sculptors Toshi Miki and Mike Edge, all from our old stable in New Mexico; jeweler Jan Gjaltema from “Old” Mexico, formerly an architect who worked with Rem Koolhaas; “flat flowers” photography by Dutch artist and designer Suseela Gorter; and many other artists, such as Lisa Grossman from Lawrence, Kansas. Six times a year, different artists are asked to join us. In the rooms upstairs we created an art space for changing exhibitions of contemporary art more or less related to the area, or created by (also a new initiative) artists in residence. In other rooms of the main house historical photos and art with a clear tie to the area are on display. In the grounds a sculpture garden is growing.

The grounds, the barn and the granary, as well as a mobile commercial kitchen, are also be for rent for reunions, weddings, parties, seminars, conferences — for Pioneer Bluffs Foundation has a constant need of new funds, of course. The founders recognize they have a multi-million dollar vision that will take not just pioneer’s bluff but time. “As we build capacity for this great dream we take small steps,” is what they say. Ans and I are stepping with them, and it is pure joy.

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, July 2010

Photo: Marva Weigelt, Matfield Green, KS