As Kansas celebrates its 153rd birthday Wednesday, plans are underway to honor one of the state’s most iconic buildings.
The “Home on the Range” cabin will be rededicated to Kansans on Oct. 3-5. The weekend will be a Kansas-wide celebration of both the cabin and state song, says El Dean Holthus. His aunt and uncle, Ellen and Pete Rust, owned the property where the cabin sits in Smith County for nearly 75 years.
“We have a whole gazillion things planned for that weekend,” Holthus said.
Events include concerts and skits, re-enactments of how the “Home on the Range” story evolved, and a planned appearance by Gov. Sam Brownback.
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In 1871, while living in the cabin, Brewster Higley penned a six-verse poem he called “My Western Home.”
The poem spoke about Higley’s home along Beaver Creek in Smith County, of seeing animals on the ever-changing prairie and a sky that often overtook the bowl-shaped horizon. The words were eventually set to music and became known as “Home on the Range,” the state song of Kansas.
But three years ago, the Higley cabin was crumbling and in desperate need of repair. As Kansas celebrated its 150th anniversary of statehood in 2011, a grassroots effort formed to renovate the cabin, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
More than $113,000 was raised to preserve and restore the cabin to its original integrity. Work was needed to remove dirt on the north side of the cabin that was pushing on its wall, as well as to landscape 15 acres surrounding the cabin. Some of the money was used to build nature walks, footbridges and a wheelchair-accessible entry to the cabin.
Among the the first to help organize support for the cabin was Orin Friesen, operations manager at the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper near Benton and a local country radio personality.
“The cabin and the song is not only about Kansas, it goes around the world,” Friesen said Tuesday. “There is no place I can think of – no other state song – that you can point directly to a place and say this is where it all started.
“It is the most famous cowboy song in the world. The history of Kansas, of the cowboy and music all comes together in that little cabin in Smith County.”
Part of what already makes visiting the cabin an experience is it remoteness. It is located on a farm near the Nebraska state line, surrounded by prairie, wildlife and farmland.
Last weekend, Kansas historian and filmmaker Ken Spurgeon showed his most recent documentary, “The Road to Vallhalla,” in nearby Smith Center. A future project Spurgeon is working on will be a documentary about the “Home on the Range” story, Holthus said.
There are other plans in the works, as well. Within five years, plans are to make the tiny cabin and its surrounding acreage a tourism destination spot, where people can host meetings and reunions, ride horses and perhaps even get married, Holthus said.