J.M. Thies of Topeka considers his family’s land paradise.
Most Kansans probably agree.
The Thies family has put nearly 13,000 acres of the Pyramid Ranch in Gove County – home to Monument Rocks – on the auction block.
So far, there have been no bids, said Chris Faulkner, a broker with Faulkner Real Estate of Ulysses, which is conducting the auction. But Faulkner expects that will change once word gets out what a treasure trove the land holds.
Bids are being taken through Aug. 14. The buyer will purchase all outstanding shares of Thies Pyramid Corp., and the surface and mineral rights. Gove County is about 250 miles northwest of Wichita.
The working ranch includes some of the most scenic land Kansas offers: Monument Rocks, also known as the Chalk Pyramids, listed as a National Natural Landmark.
The property includes farmland, rolling ranch and pasture. It contains minerals, oil, gas and other resources. It is rich in wildlife, with antelope, mule and white-tailed deer, prairie chickens, pheasants, rattlesnakes and other critters traversing the hills and terrain.
It also is rich with history, including ties to Gen. George Armstrong Custer, and is considered sacred among some Native American tribes linked to the area.
“I would prefer strongly not to sell,” Thies said Tuesday.
“It has gotten complicated, as do most family corporations,” Faulkner said. ”People die and it gets passed down; the next generations get larger and larger as it is distributed among the heirs.”
And, as Tom Thies, the family historian, acknowledges, the Thies family is looking for “the best bidder, not the highest bidder.”
“How do you place value on something like this?” Tom Thies said. “It is a real bittersweet thing for us.
“I would say this: My family has had great respect for the people, history and heritage of Kansas. Our company is a model for how private ownership and public interest can work together. … As we do this bid process, we want to know those same values will be upheld by the next owner.”
In 1946, brothers H.P. “Hody” and Fred W. Thies, of Great Bend, bought the land at auction. But the history of the land goes back as far as 87 million years, to the Cretaceous and Permian periods, when it was covered by a vast ocean, said paleontologist Mike Everhart of Derby, an expert on the Western Interior Sea. Some of those sea-bottom mineral deposits have helped create today’s oil and gas industry. It also created one of the best fossil beds in the world.
“Historically, the whole valley along the Smoky Hill River is very significant for fossil collectors,” Everhart said.
World-renowned paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope led expeditions in the 1860s into the Smoky Hill chalk beds of western Kansas. It was also an area well known by George and Charles Sternberg, who made careers collecting the fossils of Kansas.
A clash of cultures also played out on the land.
Butterfield’s Overland Dispatch – a mail and freight service – had a station on the ranch in the 1860s, and the military had a small installation where Western notables such as Kit Carson and Custer stopped, said Leo Oliva, a Kansas historian and writer. Legislation has been proposed to make the Butterfield’s Overland Dispatch trail, also known as the Smoky Hill Trail, a national trail because of its historical significance.
“In many ways, it was the most important overland trail because it connected the Missouri River with Denver,” Oliva said. “It was the most contested route by the Indians of any trail in Kansas.”
The U.S. 7th Cavalry, led by Custer, worked to protect railroad workers and frontier Kansans against Native American tribes such as the Cheyenne and Arapaho, who considered the land sacred. The area near Monument Rocks, says Manhattan artist Jerry Thomas, was where those tribes conducted annual sun dance ceremonies.
“When you go from the prairie land and drop down into the Smoky Hill Valley, it just takes your breath away,” Thomas said. “Native Americans celebrated and made their annual journeys from the Dakotas and the Plains all through that area.”
During World War II, the area was used as a bombing range. It’s not unusual to still find .50 caliber shells left by bombers from seven decades ago.
“I hope it remains open as far as the new owners allowing everybody to see the wonderful chalk pyramids,” Thomas said. “I am concerned and want to make sure our natural history is preserved. I’d hate to see any of the landmarks take on any degradation.
“I know Kansas is going through a tremendous boom in mineral development. But I hope the new owners respect the land.”