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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Concert will raise funds for 'Home on Range' cabin

BY BECCY TANNER
The Wichita Eagle

A grassroots effort to save the cabin where the words to the state song, "Home on the Range," were written is gaining momentum.

The Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper is joining cowboy singer Michael Martin Murphey for a benefit to restore the historic cabin.

Murphey, best known for his 1970s hit "Wildfire," recorded "Home on the Range" on his "Cowboy Songs" album, which earned him a gold record.

Orin Friesen, operations manager at the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper near Benton and a local country radio personality, launched the effort last month.

In less than a month's time, more than $2,000 has been raised for the project, some of it donated by Kansas schoolchildren.

Friesen said that money, combined with proceeds from the concert and the upcoming Prairie Rose Western Days festival, will significantly contribute to the cabin, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"It needs to be done," Friesen said.

"We're not just talking about fixing up somebody's shed. It has to be done historically correct and last for a long time. We don't want to repair it again in 10 years."

Cabin's significance

In the fall of 1872 in Smith County, a frontier doctor named Brewster Higley penned a six-verse poem he called "My Western Home."

It was later set to music and became the words to "Home on the Range."

It spoke volumes about his tiny home along the creek, of seeing animals on the ever-changing prairie and of a sky that often overtook and overwhelmed the bowl-shaped horizon.

The tune quickly spread along the cattle trails and towns throughout the West.

In time, states like Texas, Colorado and Arizona laid claims to the song.

In 1934, William and Mary Goodwin of Arizona claimed they wrote the song, "An Arizona Home," and filed a lawsuit against radio giant NBC and various publishing houses demanding damages and prohibiting the song from being played in public.

It was only after Samuel Moanfeldt, an investigative lawyer for NBC and the publishing houses, was hired to track down the roots of the song that the lawsuit was resolved and the melody could once again be sung in public.

Moanfeldt traced the song back to Kansas — to Higley publishing the poem in the Smith County Pioneer and to the rough-hewn log and stone cabin along Beaver Creek.

Because of the popularity of the song, the cabin was nearly taken out of Kansas. People offered at least twice to buy and move the cabin from Kansas.

The Rust family, owners of the property where the cabin sits, remained firm it should stay in Kansas and be open to the people of Kansas.

But now, in order for the cabin to survive, it needs major repairs, which are expected to cost between $80,000 and $100,000.

The cabin's restoration will include landscaping to restore a slope that is causing the north wall to fail.

Rallying to help

Greg Kite, president of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Wichita and Sedgwick County, said this is a project all Kansans should embrace.

"There is only one Brewster Higley cabin in which our state song was written,'' Kite said. "Authentic and historically correct restoration can be extremely expensive."

His group has offered to fill out the application forms for grant funding for the project, even though the cabin is not in Sedgwick County.

"On the occasion when there is a unique and emergent situation beyond the county, it is more important to us to get the appropriate result than to worry about Sedgwick County's border," Kite said.

That kind of response was exactly what El Dean Holthus hoped would happen.

"We've been asked why we didn't seek corporate funding for the cabin's restoration and it's because the cabin has always been owned by a family — from the Higley family to the Rust family," said Holthus, whose aunt and uncle, Ellen and Pete Rust, owned the property for nearly 75 years. He credits them for saving the cabin and keeping it in Kansas.

"We want it so that if you bring your children and grandchildren to it, you can say, 'I helped save this cabin.'

"We want individual contributors to have a sense of ownership. It gives everyone a connection to Kansas."

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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