Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Red Hills Voices from the Past

          I am afflicted with an insatiable appetite for history. 
In past blogs, I've posted about the very ancient history of the Red Hills in describing hundred million year-old fossils from the Cretaceous Period found in sandstone and shale deposits. For this post,  I'm skipping nearly all that geologic time frame straight to the age of humans. While emphasizing the early settlers and eventual ranching culture, I offer some insight to the hardships and perseverance of early pioneers as well as some obvious joy in early living in the Kansas Outback.

     The earliest humans of the Red Hills were plains tribes who fought over the rich hunting grounds of the area. In "Empire of the Summer Moon," S. C. Gwynne describes some of the travels of the Comanches into this area. Perhaps it was one of Quanah Parker's warriors who painted these pictographs on the ceiling of one of its caves.

         A marker identifies the final resting spot of a native American just
southeast of Ashland in Clark County.

The Lodi Cemetery southeast of Medicine Lodge
  bears gravestones from some of the first white settlers
of Barber County. 

The earliest birthday found in the Lodi Cemetery. 
Some distant relative obviously replaced and updated
the original headstone. Nicely done!

Dora Reaves was less than a year old and one of the
earliest burials in Lodi. Was she one of the Jewish settlers
who came to this area as well as other parts of Western Kansas
during the 1880's? Jews from the east and Europe attempted to
make livings in a land very inhospitable at the time to humans
with severe droughts, floods, and winters through the 1880s. Google
"Kansas Jewish settlements" for some very interesting history! 

And see the reference at the end of this post.

Many Civil War Veterans homesteaded in Kansas. J. W. Rhodes
ended up in Barber County and eventually in the Lodi Cemetery.

The extreme weather that contributed to the Jewish settlements failures also put an end to the Comanche Pool. Still standing is most of the original commissary of this organization at Evansville in Comanche County. This was an organization of ranchers who pooled their herds in the open range in the early 1880's. As many as 80,000 head were grazed through the growing season in a huge area of 4,000 square miles in primarily Barber, Comanche and Clark counties in Kansas and extending into Woods County, Oklahoma. Scan the internet for more on this amazing early day open range grazing effort and see my reference at the end.

Thomas and Charles Watt met violent deaths from local
open range advocates when they were carrying a load of
barbed wire across southern Barber County. These graves

are in a very remote tract of red dirt prairie.
A local resident views the last standing headstone in the Nescatunga
Cemetery southeast of Coldwater, Comanche County. Many small
communities sprang up and flourished--for a while. Then they slowly
died or were moved at the mercy of railroads, county seat battles
and many other reasons of hard living in this country.
This homestead and settlement of several structures reside on a
ranch near the Medicine River. Reports are that it was still
occupied in the 1950's.

Some locals used the accommodations of area caves to distill spirits. These are remnants of
a still from, you guessed it, Still Cave in Barber County. First settlers searched for nearby water sources to build their first shelters which were dugouts into hillsides. Many times
springs from caves were highly desirable for homestead sites. Later, after a year or two,
these pioneers might find materials for log and rock cabins.

This rock cabin was reportedly owned by a former President, probably
Calvin Coolidge as per a local resident. It's in a very remote area north of the Medicine River
in a very secluded canyon next to a spring. 
Of all the violent deaths witnessed by the Red Hills, perhaps none are as
heart-wrenching as Rosa's. A thoughtful rancher friend donated this
memorial near Thompson Creek in Kiowa County.

The cowboy heritage runs deep in the red soil of the Kansas Outback.
This is a more modern day depiction of this respect in the
Sun City Cemetery.

The people and places of the Red Hills offer endless opportunity for study and adventure. Reading on-line and library research is a great way to start. Going to some of these places completes the passion. For more extensive history of the Jewish settlements and the Comanche Pool, reference http://kancoll.org/books/harris/sod_chap09.htm . (Thanks to Dennis Angle for the reference.)

Locations of some sites not available due to consideration for private property rights. The Lodi and Sun City cemeteries are both accessible.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Eight Natural Wonders of the Red Hills

     Over the past few years, I've presented what I feel are the best 8 Natural Wonders of the Red Hills in separate installments. I brought them all together in this one post with respective links (see picture captions) to each posting. 

     Perhaps you've heard of the 8 Wonders of Kansas at https://www.kansassampler.org/8wonders/? Any self-respecting Kansan should be aware of and have been to this wonderful site developed by the Kansas Sampler Foundation and a whole bunch of fine folks led by Marci Penner. There are other 8 wonder sub-categories including such subjects as Architecture, Art, Cuisine, History and others. I'm expanding on this theme by presenting my own selections for the special place in Kansas I call the Kansas Outback. The Red Hills represents the proverbial counter to the claim of a flat Kansas. While all of Kansas offers so many interesting features in so many categories, the Red Hills is a particular land of enchantment and treasure trove of natural surprises. Recognizing there are certainly more great wonders in this Kansas Outback, here are my selections of the best 8 Natural Wonders of the Red Hills in no particular order of rank. 

[To navigate to each respective post, place the caption's url link in your browser bar and search or block out the caption and then right click. Tap the "go to..." and it will take you there.]



Big Basin Preserve and St. Jacob's Well


"It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see."  Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Frosted Red Hills

     A winter day in the Red Hills presented a silvery-laced scene recently. The combination of heavy fog, freezing temperatures, and windless weather painted a fascinating landscape. It was just the right conditions for creation of hoar frost--frozen water vapor that forms extensive crystals on all plants and other features of the land. The fleeting moment was short-lived as the Kansas wind awakened the following day to nearly wipe the canvas clean. 
A frosted grassland west of Belvidere, Kiowa County.
A hoar-frost portrait of sumac.
Pic. by Lee Ann Brunson

Trees and Red Hills hill capped with white.

Thompson Creek

A frosty, steamy pond in the middle of the Red Hills.

A somewhat dreary day imparts a special and
subtle beauty of soft color.

A diverse land usually quite tan in the dormant season,
gets highlighted with the touch of frost.

A lone bison in a field of frosty grass.

A lone cedar adorned with frozen leaves.

A misty scene on a cold day on a foggy lake. 

Used up and laid to rest, even heavy metal
tastes the icy layer.

A frost-laden canyon through a hoar-frost fence.
Pic by Lee Ann Brunson
A small cholla cactus seems out of place in this frozen prairie
in Kiowa County.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

A Red Hills Year

     The Red Hills is a very diverse country of about two million acres in west, south-central Kansas and extending a short portion into Oklahoma. In Kansas, it encompasses in part or whole seven counties. The heart of the Red Hills is considered to be in Barber, Comanche and Clark counties with a portion in the southeast corner of Kiowa County. To capture the enchanting essence of this beautiful country takes much more than one blog post to comprehend. But this will be an attempt to portray some of the Red Hills' charm through the seasons.

A small winter stream scene imparts frozen beauty.
Pic by Lee Ann Brunson.
An early winter scene along Dog Creek with
a backdrop of silver sky.

Ranching is the essence of the Red Hills. Some over-wintered
cattle herds need supplemental hay to get through hard times.

Some remnants of the last snow storm accent the north slopes
of the hills.

Early spring means start-up of prescribed burns
with neighbors helping neighbors.

The Medicine River greens up, nourished by the
constant lifeblood of the land.
Summer awakens the hills with explosive expression.
The rangeland brings forth productive forage
for the resident cattle herds and wildlife.

Prairie winecup (Purple poppy mallow)
toasts the glory of summer.
Smooth sumac reddens the fall features. 
Sand lily signals the onset of fall and the
everchanging annual landscape.

    The Red Hills, enjoyed by appreciative residents as well as visitors, cycle through another year. Each year brings some surprises--some catastrophic such as large wildfires and some quite wonderful with ample rainfall and sustenance to a grateful land. Each season prompts changes which enlighten one's soul. A boring land it would be to be a slave to routine. Such is life on this prairie and welcomed by those who appreciate its beauty, the quiet solitude it can supply and the bountiful joys of nature it shares.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

In Honor of Horny Toads

     The Texas Horned Lizard, known humorously as the Horny Toad, is not a toad but a lizard. Nor is it a frog as is characterized by the Texas Christian University mascot, the Horned Frogs. Its scientific name is Phrynosoma cornutum. It looks like a little dinosaur with the spikes on its head and short barbs on its back but is a harmless and interesting animal. Unlike some of the other lizards of the Red Hills, this one does not lose its tail under attack. However, an interesting and unique defensive behavior is its ability to squirt blood from its eyes although this is rarely experienced by herpetologists. Another more commonly seen behavior is that when caught, the animal will puff up so as to appear larger in an effort to dissuade predators which may be convinced it is too large to try to force down a gullet. 
     This cold-blooded animal is one of the most enjoyable, wild hand pets for kids and adults. However, they are hard to keep for long periods since their wild diet consists mostly of ants. Many Kansas kids can enjoy these creatures as they occur in many areas of the state, particularly in the Smoky Hills, Flint Hills and our own Red Hills. Horny Toad populations have declined greatly in some parts of its range south of Kansas and it is on the Species In Need of Information list in this state. This simply means that it receives added attention for those studying its populations. We hope that this fascinating lizard will always be a part of the Kansas Outback and the other wild lands of this state. This post is not only about this lizard's general nature but also a report on a particular nesting success this summer near my home.

The Texas Horned Lizard is a common resident of the Red Hills as well as much of Kansas. 

This female lizard was observed
excavating a nest on June 26 of this year by my wife.
This offered a great opportunity for observation of the
success and number of eggs in this clutch.

Observed through about a 36 hour period, this mother
laid her eggs in the nest hole then covered it with sand
and gravel which can be seen immediately in front of her.

While this species is not known for nest guarding after laying eggs,
this female did hang around for about a day and a half. This pose

seems to suggest some added attention being given to the site for a
while after egg laying.

She was quite gaunt after her egg laying.

We decided to cage the area
to determine how many young would hatch. Clutch
sizes can vary from less than 10 to over 30. An average
is a couple dozen. Our nest was below average as
only 6 known young were known to emerge from
this nest over a period of about a week. After waiting

for over a week to give time for any more hatchlings,
the nest site was excavated to determine total number
of eggs and if any eggs or egg part remained. There 
was no more sign of any eggs.

The first nestling emerged from the dime-sized exit on August 24,
60 days following egg laying which is normal. Five more young
emerged over the following five days. These six nestlings were
well below the average of about 20 for this species. The day-
old nestlings were observed both staying very still as well as
running as fast as little legs could work once they were observed. 
This follows behavior of the adults as well.

Here are the tiny day-old lizards
compared to an older individual of probably
about a 1-2 months.

Exhibited is the normal behavior of
these lizards playing dead once turned
onto their back. Even the babies do it.

Another interesting first observation was
the ability of these lizards to swim. While
not that surprising, it is not a very common
opportunity to get to see these animals in a
situation where they may need to swim.