In the far northwest corner of Kansas in Cheyenne County, the population is less than three people per square mile.
There, Tobe Zweygardt had one of the most recognized names.
For decades, he guided busloads and carloads of visitors through the county’s best known feature – the Arikaree Breaks, a rugged landscape of canyons, caves, valleys, creeks and mesas. A farmer by birth and trade, he welded and sculpted signs from old farm and implement parts and marked routes that told countless stories in and around the breaks.
Mr. Zweygardt, who lived in St. Francis, died Sunday. He was 101 years old.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
A funeral service will be at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 20 at Peace Lutheran Church, 202 N. College Street in St Francis.
He was born on St. Patrick’s Day – March 17, 1916 – on his family farm near St. Francis. He grew up proud of his family’s Volga German heritage. His great-great grandfather lived in southern Germany in the Black Forest region. Eventually the family was forced to move to south Russia and then came to the United States in 1884.
And that, he would tell people, was why there were as many as 40 Zweygardts in Cheyenne County, making it the most common last name among county residents.
“Gosh, when they come here, Grandpa, he had six boys and two girls, and so they all had pretty good size families, Mr. Zweygardt told the Eagle in 2008.
He grew up exploring the area and learning its history. He especially came to love the Arikaree Breaks — an area best described as Kansas’ mini Grand Canyon. They are only two to three miles wide but stretch miles from Rawlins County into Cheyenne and into Colorado and Nebraska.
He also began interviewing early pioneers – before their stories were lost – about the history of Cheyenne County. The stories include Cheyenne Indians gathering there in 1864, shortly after the Massacre of Sand Creek, to heal and mark the site of their prayer grounds; and the Pikes Peak Express Stage Coachline bringing more than 100,000 people through the area on the way to the Colorado gold fields.
An early farm accident took four fingers from his left hand. After he recovered, Mr. Zweygardt kept working and later on became a maintenance worker for the city of St. Francis as well as an artist and sculptor.
He sculpted an Indian on horseback, a tepee and buffalo and set them near the encampment grounds on the rugged hills near Cherry Creek, west of St. Francis.
“I like our country,” Mr. Zweygardt told the Eagle in 2012. “I've probably taken more than 2,000 trips out to the breaks with visitors. I want them to know what the country was and that it hasn't been changed any. I like it because everything is natural.”
He would tell visitors about the small country church west of town where he was baptized as a boy and remembered when the congregation still spoke German and the men and women sat on separate sides of the church.
Mr. Zweygardt often talked about the fortitude of the Native Americans and early pioneers who settled the area, pointing out where there are graves in the backcountry of the deep canyons.
“Tobe was so low-key but passionate in the way he would convey his knowledge and love of the Arikaree Breaks,” said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation in Inman, whose organization listed the breaks as one of the Geological 8 Wonders of Kansas. “I would not have known anything about the breaks had it not been for Tobe. Everybody who took his tour or listened to him talk about the breaks never saw them the same again.”
Mr. Zweygardt’s artwork was grassroots. He worked in metal – brass and copper and sometimes old railroad spikes.
“He was a very bold in the metals he chose to work with,” said Rosslyn Schultz, director of the Grassroots Art Center in Lucas, which has several of his pieces of artwork. “He made barbed wire windmills, probably between 200 and 300, for the people around the area.”
Some of Mr. Zweygardt’s signature pieces included a giant, whimsical bird that was four feet tall and three feet wide, a dragonfly, yucca and cactus.
“He was just really a sweetheart and was always so warm and welcoming,” Schultz said. “His back yard shed was filled with his artwork at the place he lived on U.S. 36 highway. He was very talented.”
His wish, Schultz said, that one of his favorite pieces – one depicting Martin Luther, a cross, a descending dove and Bible – be placed on his coffin instead of flowers.
“He was a religious man so he had quite a few pieces that were in depth,” Schultz said.
He was a self-taught artist and told Schultz that he always picked up the things that other people threw away.
Memorials donations can be made in Mr. Zweygardt’s name to the Peace Lutheran Church; Cheyenne County Museum; Good Samaritan Society, St. Francis.