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200-mile cattle drive across Kansas Cattle drive treks 200 miles across Kansas

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Sep. 11, 2011, at 12:09 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, Sep. 12, 2011, at 10:28 a.m.

At the cow camp near Harper, it was a quintessential Kansas moment: Four-year-old Carter Toothaker of Clearwater strapped a pair of plastic six-shooters over his crimson and blue KU T-shirt and shorts, plunked a black cowboy hat on his head and shyly handed the trail boss his loot, a heavy gift bag nearly half his size.

"Carter? How are you? Oh my goodness, what is this?" trail boss Mike Clover exclaimed as he pulled out a giant bag of Tootsie Rolls.

Four generations of Carter's family arrived Wednesday to give the cowboys treats. It was the third time last week the family had come in contact with the 200-mile longhorn cattle drive that's making its way across the state.

The drive is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Kansas' statehood and acknowledges the contribution the cattle industry has played in the state's heritage. This weekend, the cattle and cowboys are expected to be in Kingman.

In the first week of the drive, people have been pulling onto the back roads of Kansas to watch cowboys and cattle meander past.

Others find the cowboys in their evening camps and offer their thanks for pulling off the seemingly impossible.

"These are things they have never gotten to experience," Crystal Toothaker said of her three sons: Brock, 9; Carter, and Will, 1. "This is stuff we only get to read about and to actually get to see it is pretty cool."

From Caldwell to Ellsworth, the drive — which began Labor Day — is expected to take most of September. The herd will roughly follow the old Cox Trail to Ellsworth.

The drive has already taken them along back roads and across rivers, railroad tracks and through prairie grasslands.

At night, as wood smoke drifts across the camp and the cowboys tip their hats and settle down in the bedrolls, Jim Gray — one of the cowboys — says they've heard the cries of coyotes, seen the stars and the moon overhead, and have woken to see the first strands of sunlight peering across the horizon.

Gray, 61, is a longtime rancher and cowboy historian from Ellsworth who publishes the Kansas Cowboy newspaper.

"Even with a sore rear end, this is fun," he said.

Fiction, history, reality

This cattle drive across Kansas, some say, may be a rare opportunity to see fiction, history and reality meld together.

In the 1860s through the 1880s, Kansas towns — Abilene, Newton, Wichita, Caldwell, Ellsworth and Dodge City — became cattle and railroad hubs.

Most historians agree that those three decades marked the birth and development of the Old West.

Thousands of cattle from Texas were driven into Kansas cowtowns. In Wichita alone, more than 230,000 head of cattle were shipped out from 1872 to 1876.

In more recent decades, Robert Day's book, "The Last Cattle Drive," offered a rollicking fictional account of a 1970s-era cattle drive from a ranch near Hays to the Kansas City stockyards.

The book was selected this year by The Wichita Eagle as a must-read for Kansans celebrating the 150th birthday of Kansas. It has been said the book served as the inspiration for Billy Crystal's two "City Slickers" movies.

Organizers of the 2011 cattle drive said their idea for the drive was conceived not from Day's book but by the success of a similar drive in Oklahoma in 2007, which celebrated that state's centennial.

The will to drive cattle across country is similar in both Day's fictional account and the 2011 cattle drive, said Leo Oliva, a Kansas historian and writer, and a friend of Day.

"The comparison is good from the standpoint they are trying to do this under modern conditions and facing the same obstacles," Oliva said.

Re-enacting the old drives helps give modern day Kansans a sense of time and place, said Thomas Fox Averill, a Kansas historian and professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka.

"It makes you more fully human to experience these things," Averill said. "When you travel 150 miles over horseback in five days it gives you a different perspective on time and distance.

"Whether it is the cowboys on the trail or in feedlots today, they are all celebrating not only the past but our current economy."

Legends and lore

The modern-day cowboys on this drive to Ellsworth may not have it quite as rough as their 19th-century counterparts or as slapstick as Day's fictional characters.

So far, they haven't undergone any severe weather. No calamities, per se.

There was, however, a mini-version of a stampede when some of the cattle broke through an electric fence near Caldwell on the opening day.

"When the cattle stampeded ... "Gray started to say.

"There was no stampede, Jim," Clover insisted.

"When the faux stampede happened and the cattle broke through the electric fence south of Caldwell and took off running across the field, we did this little circle," Gray said. "We circled them back on themselves.

"The old cowboys always talked about how that's the way you stop them is to circle them. To actually experience that was more fun than enlightening. I knew what would happen, it would slow them down. But to see it was just fun."

The drive has had at least one mishap. Gray, riding his horse, Moon, stumbled across a hidden wire. He wrote on his daily blog, "The Drover's Diary," that he got to fly over the Moon.

"It was not a good thing," Gray said. "That was a very dangerous moment, not for me but dangerous for the horse.

"He is great. He has got so much heart in him. I just let him walk it out at his own pace and in a few miles he was moving just fine."

They are making good time, Clover said, 16 to 20 miles a day, driving from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

With 70- to 80-degree temperatures each day, the cattle are walking at a brisker pace than had been envisioned.

It's not hard to find the herd. The tracks and other things cattle leave behind provide enough evidence to see a herd has passed by.

"People keep saying, 'How do we find you? How do we find you?' " Clover grinned. "It's not hard, just follow us. People from Fort Worth found us yesterday."

Some people are charting the drive's progress at www.kansascattledrive2011. com.

The lead steer is Roger, a pudgy red-and-white, mottle-faced steer who sets the pace for the rest of the 200. By the trail's end, the herd is expected to have 400 longhorns. This summer's drought and the lack of available feed has affected the numbers of the herd along the route, Clover said.

Most of the cowboys and cowgirls on the drive are experienced hands around animals.

"I don't ever want to see this type of thing die," said Wes Koontz, 64, of Hutchinson. "If you consider everything that has happened in the last 100 years — well, if we'd go back a hundred years, we'd be better off."

Another rider is Duane Brozek, a nephew of Samuel Dinsmore — the Civil War veteran from Lucas famously known for creating the Garden of Eden, an 11-room house and yard filled with hand-crafted concrete biblical and political sculptures.

Brozek, 62, said he sees this trip as his last hurrah.

"I just like cowboys is all," he said.

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

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