Burning Kansas

A few lines in yesterday's post referred to the 17th Governor of Kansas, one Edward W. Hoch. Subsequently, Dar dug up a little more information on the man from the Boston Evening Transcript. In the 1903 article, Hoch is referred to as: "... a tall, angular, slow-moving man. His face is so homely the farmers' wives of Kansas agree it would sour fresh milk." Well, considering these new facts he might very well be a closer relative than I thought.

Yesterday, we explored a wider area near Melvern Lake, including the towns of Melvern, Williamsburg, Pomona, and Lyndon... a loop drive that included another COE dam project named Pomona Lake. These little towns all have one thing in common -- they're dying. Their small business areas are mostly vacant and falling-down. There might be a school, but what's going to keep any of these kids here when they're old enough to make that choice? One Kansas historian, Daniel Fitzgerald, estimates there are hundreds of ghost towns and thousands of dwindling communities in Kansas. There's just not much to keep people out on the prairie, especially when the larger cities beckon with promises of opportunities, jobs, and vibrant retail and night-life choices.

This "rural flight" phenomenon isn't unique to Kansas, but Kansas' situation seems, in my opinion, to bring it to a higher level. The decline of a community is as depressing, maybe more so, than it's original rise was invigorating and exciting. The people that built it saw so much opportunity and promise. They built houses and businesses, made homes, raised families, and took pride in their accomplishments. And when, eventually, those accomplishments included cheap easy transportation on a scale never imagined by those early pioneers, much of the economic purpose of their small towns was eclipsed by the economics of scale available in the larger cities. There's nothing that realistically could be done... water doesn't flow uphill. When the number of people in an area no longer support local grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, hardware stores... the necessities, those remaining wonder why they are driving 20, 30, 40 miles to buy bread and milk. And rural flight continues.

Last night we were sitting around our campfire, enjoying a warm and pleasant evening. Our campsite is on the edge of the park, against a small wooded area and a corner of a privately owned field. Dar noticed how there was a glow coming from the field and wondered what it was. As we watched, the glow got brighter and widened. It was orange-ish in color. Shortly we heard ATV's, two of them, and could see the silhouettes of two riders setting fire to the grass in the field. What the heck?

A little research found that burning the prairie in this part of Kansas is a traditional and accepted practice. In fact, most farmers burn their fields every year or two, in the Spring. There are two primary reasons... the burning puts nutrients back into the soil and promotes lush new grass growth. The other reason is to inhibit the intrusion of woody plant growth (shrubs, trees, etc.) into these grazing fields. Livestock thrive on the new grass growth, weeds are controlled, and fields are kept healthy... the way it was for thousands of years before settlers arrived and storm created wildfires burned the prairies with the same result.

But the Safety Director wasn't happy about these fires so late at night and so close to a campground. What if the fire made it's way into the woods, got into the crowns of the trees, and started a forest fire? Oh Boy! For a couple hours we were on fire-watch. Strangely, I didn't see any concern at all among the other campers -- most of which were from Kansas, and most of which just take the burning of Kansas each year in stride. "It's the way it's always been done!"

Eventually, though much later than I'd hoped, the fires mostly burned themselves out and sleep was now possible.

What a surreal scene though... camping in the woods, your own small campfire crackling away, stars salting the black sky, a slight breeze wafting through, and the bright orange glow of burning Kansas just on the other side of the fence, maybe 200 yards away. It's a picture I'll not soon forget.



Kansas and fire. You would think those two should not mix. However I attended the best 4th of July fireworks show that I have ever seen in Peabody, Kansas. What I was accustomed to as a finale they were accustomed to as routine. Their finale was unbeleivable. And right next to miles and miles of wheat dried up by the summer sun. But that Peabody show is over 80 years old and I guess it hasnt been a problem

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