"Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play." The words to this classic folk song were written by Dr. Brewster M. Higley of Smith County, Kansas, back in 1874. Sometimes called the "unofficial anthem" of the American West, in 1947 it became the official Kansas state song. Who would have thought that between the time those words were written and the time it became our state’s song that the land referenced, 150 million acres of tallgrass prairie, would be all but gone?
What happened to the tallgrass prairie? Between 1850 and 1910, the tallgrass prairie, which got its name from the native grasses that reached six to eight feet tall, was slowly converted into farmland. The rich soil was perfect for farming. With the introduction of mechanized farming equipment in the first half of the 20th century, farmland spread at an ever increasing rate. By the late 1950s, this “ocean of grass” as the pioneers described it, was essentially gone. What wasn’t cultivated, was converted to pasture for livestock. Accounts vary, but the amount of tallgrass prairie remaining today ranges from about 4% to 13%. Kansas contains about 80% of the remaining tallgrass prairie in the U.S.
The Flint Hills in Oklahoma and Kansas (3.8 million acres) is the only intact remnant of this once expansive grassland. This prairie remains only because the steep slopes and shallow, rocky soil was unsuitable for farming. Efforts are underway to prevent further loss, increase awareness, and create tallgrass conservation easement programs in Kansas. One of the best places to see this prairie and learn more about its history and preservation is the Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve (180 acres of prairie) located just 60 miles southwest of Topeka where you can enjoy bus tours, hiking and, if you’re lucky, actually see the buffalo roam! Make it a day trip.