Flint Hills pioneer homestead revives 1916 lifestyle

Bill McBride walks around an old barn at Pioneer Bluffs in the Flint Hills. McBride bought the land after moving to Kansas from Chicago. (June 2, 2010)
Bill McBride walks around an old barn at Pioneer Bluffs in the Flint Hills. McBride bought the land after moving to Kansas from Chicago. (June 2, 2010) The Wichita Eagle

PIONEER BLUFFS, CHASE COUNTY — Maud's house still reflects a simple, agrarian way of life. On a hot summer day the glasses for iced tea are chilled and chocolate chip cookies are warm, fresh out of the oven.

It's a way of life meant to be inviting.

Visitors along the Flint Hills Scenic Byway can stop and sit on Aunt Maud and Uncle Henry's front porch.

They can catch the southern breezes and shade from the giant cottonwood, oak, cedar and elm trees. They can learn how environmentally green life in 1916 was, and how that makes sense now in the 21st century.

They can work in gardens, stroll down by the banks on Crocker Creek, explore the barn and granary, or go inside Henry and Maud Rogler's century-old house to see an art gallery featuring local and international artists.

Bill McBride, an architect from Chicago, wanted to re-create this way of life when he raised his hand in 2006 at a land auction and bid on Tract 6 of the Rogler Ranch. His bid included the historic Pioneer Bluffs house on 12 acres, located on U.S. 177 about a mile north of Matfield Green.

He bought the property for $360,000, created a nonprofit foundation and has since opened the homestead to visitors.

"Our mission is going back to that 1916 lifestyle," said Lynn Smith, executive director of Pioneer Bluffs. "We do that by celebrating community, respecting history and heritage and looking at ways we can build a sustainable future. "

In 1916, Henry and Maud Rogler did not use chemicals on their gardens. They used a windmill for water. They were able to raise a family on the land.

The vision

With encouragement from the Land Institute's Wes Jackson and funding from his own funds and Strachan Donnelley, a Chicago philanthropist and heir to R.R. Donnelley and Sons Printing Co., McBride purchased the property.

Four years later, he has the look of a longtime rancher — long, lanky body, blue jeans and a cowboy hat perched firmly on his head.

He and his wife, Julia, renovated the 1924 Santa Fe railroad bunkhouse down the road before building their own home, an environmentally friendly building with a greenhouse and wind turbine.

"I had an interest in the prairie," McBride said. "When I was retiring, I looked up and down the Great Plains. I came across Wes Jackson and decided to come and look at the Flint Hills."

Back in 2006, the Chicago architect camped at the Chase County Fishing Lake. He read "PrairyErth" by William Least Heat-Moon, a story of Chase County, the prairie and its people.

McBride was hooked.

He also was in awe of Wes Jackson, president and founder of the Salina-based nonprofit organization whose work has focused on sustainable agriculture.

"So many people have left the land," said Jackson, who now serves on the advisory team for Pioneer Bluffs. "We know the demise of small towns in rural communities is a problem throughout the state of Kansas. We are losing a rural culture. What they are doing is part of a salvage operation."

Originally, McBride had wanted to buy 750 acres of the Rogler Ranch but was outbid at the auction.

Buying the ranch headquarters, outbuildings and 12 acres, later in the same auction, was a spontaneous decision that somehow made sense.

"It didn't take too much thinking to think, 'Well, God, it is fantastic property,' " McBride said. "It's got a river. It's on a scenic byway. It's historic. Everybody loves it. It seemed like it was an opportunity of some sort."

The ranch legacy

The story of how the Rogler Ranch came to be is the stuff of Kansas legends.

In 1853, Charles Rogler, then 17, left Austria bound for America.

After spending several years on the East Coast, he and a friend walked from Iowa to Kansas.

In 1859, Charles Rogler claimed 160 acres of land in the Flint Hills.

The Roglers built a mile-long native limestone fence in the 1870s, paying $1 per rod (16.5 feet) and providing winter work for neighboring men. The fence still stands, as a landmark along the scenic byway.

When Charles died in 1888, his estate of 1,800 acres was left to five children. Youngest son Henry and his wife, Maud, took over ranching and built the Pioneer Bluffs house. In 1972, Henry's grandson, Wayne, took over the ranch.

In 2006, the ranch was sold for $6.9 million by Rogler Inc. and the Wayne Rogler Revocable Trust. The property included 4,081 acres of grassland, pasture and cropland, and was divided into seven parcels.

The McBrides purchased the historic Pioneer Bluffs house and property near Matfield Green, which had been home to the Rogler family since 1859.

Foundation's mission

Since the Pioneer Bluffs Foundation began in the fall of 2006, its mission has been to educate people about the Flint Hills and how that vast sea of grass and wildflowers once stretched from northern Texas through Manitoba but largely has been plowed up, paved over or built upon. Less than 5 percent of the nation's prairie remains.

McBride envisions the historic ranch as a place for visitors along the highway to stop, get out of the car, experience the prairie and learn about a sustainable agrarian lifestyle.

And although they can do that now, both he and Smith are hopeful that visitors will soon be able to see more: an education center built from the old granary, a farm that provides healthy food for residents of Matfield Green and others within a 100-mile radius, and a place that Kansas schoolchildren can tour to learn more about the natural and human history of ranching in the Flint Hills.

"We are a historic ranch. We are a community. We are an education center. We are looking to build a sustainable future," Smith said.

They are doing it one season at a time. The first Saturday of every month is a workday in which hordes of volunteers come and work on the grounds. They've painted. They've gardened. They've restored.

They have a CSA (community-supported agriculture) garden where shareholders purchase shares of produce in Maud's Market. Each week, their share contains six to eight items from the garden.

They've already harvested chemical-free spinach and lettuce, radishes, bok choy, kale and collard greens.

They will soon be having broccoli, beets, cabbage, tomatoes, rhubarb, eggplant, squash and more. People who aren't regular shareholders can call each Friday to purchase what extra produce is available.

"They are endorsing the local," Jackson said of the community garden. "They have an educational effort under way that involves people of all ages and getting them connected to the growing of food and stewardship."

Pioneer Bluffs has sponsored hog roasts, an evening of jazz, and prairie talks featuring topics such as the history of auctioneering.

Although a date has yet to be scheduled, later this summer the foundation will host the "Return to PrairyErth," a documentary movie featuring Least Heat-Moon, the 20th anniversary of "PrairyErth" and his return to Chase County.

"We do not bring history to life," Smith said. "We live the lessons learned from history."

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