CHASE COUNTY — From Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas and all points in Kansas, people came home Saturday to honor the land, the people who settled it and the ones with the vision to carry it into the future.
Mostly, they came to honor the person who helped make Chase County famous: author William Least Heat-Moon.
"I'm not an autograph person but this book, this land resonates with me," said Wichitan Ann Garvey, who stood in line with her copy of "PrairyErth" for Heat-Moon to sign.
"It tells the heart and soul of Kansas," Garvey said.
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Nearly two decades ago, Heat-Moon published "PrairyErth (A Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tallgrass Prairie Country," which became a best seller. On Saturday, more than 500 people attended the anniversary celebration at the Pioneer Bluffs homestead near Matfield Green.
Activities included the premiere of Wichitan John O'Hara's documentary "Return to PrairyErth." So many people came that a third showing was scheduled.
Lynn Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Pioneer Bluffs Foundation, said she has been talking nonstop on the phone and answering countless e-mails since the documentary's premiere was announced more than two weeks ago.
"It is unbelievable," Smith said. "Besides telling me how much they love Heat-Moon, people feel connected. I hope they go home connected to the man who brought them 'PrairyErth' and the spirit of the Flint Hills, but also feeling what it is like to live here and what we are doing. There is where we can grasp the values of the early 1900s, where communities and families and people came together."
By midafternoon Saturday so many people had parked alongside the pasture off Crocker Creek at Pioneer Bluffs that buses were transporting latecomers from Bazaar, six miles north.
"It is hotter than Nebuchadnezzar's oven," said rancher Jane Koger, president of the Pioneer Bluffs board. "We are ecstatic about the crowds we have today."
Shortly before 4 p.m., Billy Tripp of Brownsville, Tenn., rode up on a Harley Davidson that he had decorated with Barbie Dolls, his father's wedding ring and many other accessories of his life.
"My motorcycle doesn't symbolize PrairyErth but my coming does," Tripp said. "... I wanted to see for myself the character of the land and people here. I'm 55 years old and I did this to honor my mom and dad."
Heat-Moon said it was both strange and exhilarating to be attending the celebration.
"To see the response the book has brought to so many people" touched him, he said. When he was writing the book, "so many people said it wasn't going to sell."
Naysayers had said that only Kansans would read the thick book.
"It's now been 19 years after and it's never been out of print," Heat-Moon said. "In Italy it has become a cult book. It is so surprising to see."