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Newly renovated 'Home on Range' cabin ready for visitors

Published on -5/5/2014, 3:41 PM

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By Beccy Tanner

The Wichita Eagle

SMITH COUNTY -- The trees have that first whispering hint of spring green, and their limbs are filled with a cacophony: the drumming of hungry woodpeckers and the chipper songs of warblers, cheery robins and whistling cardinals.

Spring has finally arrived at the "Home on the Range" cabin, built in 1872 by Brewster Higley, the frontier doctor who penned the words to one of the most famous folk songs in the world

The cabin has undergone a massive renovation, paid for by Kansans in a grassroots effort to save the structure.

At the time of the state's sesquicentennial in 2011, the cabin was nearly in ruins. The wind roared through missing mortar chinks between the logs. The cabin's interior smelled musty, and its walls were faltering.

The cabin was last inhabited by humans in 1888 and was used until the 1950s as a chicken shed.

In the early 1950s, the Smith County Rotary Club revamped Higley's cabin, putting in 1870s vintage logs where rotted logs once stood and creating a little tourist spot in the middle of nowhere. In 1980, area farmers braced the stone walls with maintainer blades and rebar.

Those were farmers' fixes. By 2011, the cabin -- which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- needed professional restoration.

More than $113,000 was raised to preserve and restore the cabin to its original integrity. Work was needed to remove dirt on the north side of the cabin that was pushing on its wall as well as to landscape 15 acres surrounding the cabin.

Some of the money was used to build nature walks, footbridges and a wheelchair-accessible entry to the cabin.

The cabin and surrounding land inspired Higley, in the fall of 1873, to write a six-verse poem he called "My Western Home." It was later set to music and became the words to "Home on the Range," the Kansas state song.

The first thing you notice when you enter the newly refurbished cabin is the smell of fresh wood.

But that's not what longtime Kansans who visited the cabin remember.

"I remember that musty smell," said Mark McClain, a Smith Center native who toured the cabin as a child in the 1960s. "You remember those kind of things as a child.

"It was kind of creepy. But at the same time neat, too. It was obviously rustic. As a small-town kid, I had never seen anything like it."

When the cabin was renovated this time, renovations were done as faithfully to Higley's original intent as possible. A loft was installed along with a rope cot.

"I challenge anyone, when they go there, that they will have a better sense of what it was like when the cabin was built," McClain said. "You will be able to become a part of what Dr. Higley was witnessing at that cabin."

For now, the cabin is bare. There is no furniture. Nothing but a marker about the cabin and the folk song's history.

That will soon change, said El Dean Holthus, whose aunt and uncle Ellen and Pete Rust owned the property for nearly 75 years. He credits them with saving the cabin and keeping it standing.

A wood-burning stove will soon go into the cabin, although there will be no fires allowed in it. It was donated by the Orschlen Farm & Home store in Smith Center. Evidence shows Higley may have used such a stove with a pipe chimney, Holthus said.

A bench made from some of the cabin's original logs was built and donated by the contractor.

"We've read that Higley sat outside his cabin on a bench and played his violin," Holthus said.

There will also be a travel trunk and dry sink added as cabin furniture, complete with a coffeepot and cast iron skillet.

"We will keep it very minimal and not put anything in the loft," Holthus said. "He was single when this cabin was built, so that's why we only have one cot. And the less stuff you have, the less trouble you have with rodents."

All the furniture, Holthus said, will be in place by Flag Day, June 14, when the Daughters of the American Revolution have planned an installation of a flag pole at the site.

Visitors from Nevada, South Carolina, Illinois, Colorado, Nebraska, Florida and Ohio have come. So have Kansans -- from Kensington, Portis, Wichita and Salina.

"The further people live away from it, the more they appreciate it," the 81-year-old Holthus said. "We still have peoplewho live here locally and who haven't gone up to see it."

Late last month, Lucy Gordon and Janet Heller, Red Cross employees from Wichita and Hutchinson, stopped at the cabin.

They didn't know it existed until locals in Smith Center told them. The two women made a pilgrimage to the see the cabin and sing the song, after a little prompting.

Since the restoration, Holthus said, some are critical that the cabin looks too new. That's because the wood hasn't aged yet, he said.

The cabin's future

The "Home on the Range" cabin will be rededicated to Kansans on Oct. 3-5. The weekend will be a Kansas-wide celebration and will include concerts and skits, re-enactments of how the "Home on the Range" story evolved, plus a planned appearance by Gov. Sam Brownback.

Within five years, plans are to make the tiny cabin and its surrounding acreage a tourism destination, where people can host meetings and reunions, ride horses, have chuckwagon suppers and perhaps even get married, Holthus said.

Ideally, it would include a Pawnee tipi to tell the story of the American Indians who inhabited the land before Higley, and an F-30 Farmall and 1929 John Deere farm equipment, owned by the Rust family, to help tell the story of the land during the 1930s.

There are long-term plans to host an event every other year, such as a Home on the Range symphony with the Western Music Association -- similar to the Flint Hills symphony -- a celebrity golf tournament and more.

Already in the works is a "Home on the Range" documentary planned by Ken Spurgeon, a Kansas historian and filmmaker.

"You can't just fix it up to watch it fall down," Holthus said. "Those days are gone. We have a trust now that establishes its continuity."

Pastoral setting

Part of the charm of visiting the "Home on the Range" cabin is seeing Kansas much as it would have been in Higley's time.

Beaver Creek still runs yards from his house. Deer tracks can be found less than 8 feet from his door.

Higley came to Kansas in 1871 looking to heal. He was at the end of his fourth marriage.

His first three wives had died from illness and injury. The fourth, Mercy Ann McPherson, a woman from Indiana, was temperamental at best.

He built the cabin near a creek abundant with wildlife. At night, owls still call in the distance. Stars are bright.

It is a place where humans become insignificantly small on a bowl-shaped horizon and on equal footing with the creatures inhabiting the valley.

In the mornings, turkeys can be heard gobbling from across the sunlit meadow.

Maybe that's what prompted Higley to write the following:

"That I would not exchange my home on the range,

"For all of the cities so bright.Home, home on the range."

(c)2014 The Wichita Eagle

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