Long before William Least Heat-Moon documented the history of Chase County in ?PrairyErth,? the Flint Hills have been acting as a siren song to visitors.
On the first Saturday of every month, 30 to 40 people gather at Pioneer Bluffs, one mile north of Matfield Green on Kansas Highway 177, for a volunteer workday. Some come from as far as Wichita and Kansas City to the former Rogler family homestead.
“I just love it out here,” said Ken Grochowsky of Newton, who mows the grass on the 12-acre property every two weeks. ?The Flint Hills are so beautiful and peaceful. People are so nice.?
Patriarch Charles Rogler felt the pull of the prairie when he walked from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to his future home in 1859, according to Lynn Smith, executive director of Pioneer Bluffs. His parents sent the 16-year-old Austrian to the United States so he would avoid getting drafted into the Prussian army. Ironically, he received his 160-acre claim in Chase County by signing up for the U.S. Army.
Rogler sent for his family, which settled in cabins along Crocker Creek. His dream of farming his new possession was dashed by a historic drought. Conditions, which included grasshopper plagues, were less than suitable for growing crops, but the tallgrass prairie is perfect for raising cattle.
Through ingenuity and perseverance, he developed his holdings into an 1,800-acre farmstead. The red barn he constructed in 1870 and the limestone fence from the same period still stand.
Henry, the youngest son of Charles and Mary Rogler, eventually took over the operation. He and Maud Sauble married in 1901, and together they built the house in 1908. The big white barn, emblazoned with ?Pioneer Bluffs 1859,? was ordered out of a Sears catalog and erected in 1916.
?They were very proud of their pioneer heritage,? Smith said.
Charles and Maud lived in the house until they died two months apart in 1972. Their oldest son, Wayne, continued with the family business, a ranch that spanned 60,000 acres, 5,000 of which he owned, Smith said.
Wayne and his second wife, Elizabeth, left behind no heirs interested in becoming ranchers, and the property was sold at auction in 2006 for nearly $7 million.
At this critical point, the Rogler property again worked its magic by attracting a benefactor from far away. Strachan Donnelley, heir to a Chicago publishing giant, donated $500,000, which went toward buying the homestead and 12 acres for $350,000 and setting up the Pioneer Bluffs nonprofit organization.
Smith said Donnelley was dedicated to the relationship between humans and nature.
On a recent Wednesday, a group of Chase County third-graders received a primer on that relationship during one of the many ?A Day on the Farm? events held at the ranch for schoolchildren. Students hiked along the creek, learned about Native American history on the plains and made art with nature materials.
?First of all, it?s a huge treasure in Chase County, and they?re Chase County children,? said their teacher, Carrie Riggs. ?They need to know this is here. This is their heritage.?
Riggs said the material the children learned, taught by some of the more than 100 volunteers associated with Pioneer Bluffs, fit with their curriculum. She also said the best thing for the children was when they went down to the creek and skipped rocks.
One of the volunteers, Judith Haffner of Butler County, pointed out the educational day of life on the farm was held in conjunction with Earth Day.
?This is a wonderful educational opportunity, and kids need to be reminded where we came from, and this is the beginning of Kansas,? she said.
Tracey Graham, who has a doctorate in geological and earth sciences from the University of New Mexico, taught the children about the anthropological roots of the Flint Hills.
She said her interest in volunteering at Pioneer Bluffs during the past five years was related in part to how the ranch felt like home. She also said the eclectic mix of volunteers felt like family.
?For me, it?s like mental floss,? she said.
Smith said more than 2,000 people were on the Pioneer Bluffs mailing list. All but 3 percent of the $80,000 in operational costs for the nonprofit organization are raised through donations. Last year, supporters contributed $350,000 that will go toward a barn restoration project, construction of a parking area and creation of interpretative exhibits.
About 30 percent of Pioneer Bluffs funding comes from bus tours ? Harvey Interurban recently took a group there ? and rental fees from private functions. Additional money comes from a share of profits made by The Gallery at Pioneer Bluffs.
Ton Haak and Ans Zoutenbier run the for-profit gallery in the old Rogler house. It features local to international artists, and like the rest of the homestead, is open Friday through Monday.
Haak and Zoutenbier, as with so many others, were drawn to Chase County after reading ?PrairyErth.? When they first came to the United States from the Netherlands, Pioneer Bluffs was among the first places they visited before they opened a gallery in Abiquiu, N.M. Smith said they were between projects when they decided to return to the Flint Hills.
One key person to the story of the Roglers and their ranch also will be returning to the land he documented so well. Smith said Heat-Moon, who gave a Prairie Talk lecture in 2010, will be returning to Pioneer Bluffs in 2016 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his historical look at Chase County.
by Blake Spurney