With Konza Prairie Biological Station to its north and the rich variety of the Tallgrass Prairie to its south, the Kansas town of Council Grove is perfectly situated to accomodate vacationing families, prairie enthusiasts, nature photographers, and history buffs.
In the 1800s, the trappers, traders, and settlers who passed through town had different concerns. For them, Council Grove was a pivot point, a final opportunity to reconsider their chosen path before moving on. East of Council Grove, water and wood had been plentiful, and other small communities growing up along the Santa Fe Trail could offer assistance in case of difficulty. Beyond Council Grove, there were more, and arguably less-friendly, Indians. There was less water, less wood for fuel and repairs, and a changing topography that guaranteed new and more difficult struggles.
If a mind-change were to occur, if a new course were to be plotted or a decision made to return to more familiar worlds, it most likely would happen in Council Grove.
At the aptly-named Last Chance Store, westward-bound travelers listened to tales told by eastward-bound traders and pondered their options. Beyond the store, certain necessities of life — an old sign lists them as beans, bacon, and whiskey — would be unobtainable. The store represented a final commitment, a last chance to purchase and replenish before moving into a world of increasing privation and few guarantees.
As the freighters, soldiers, and adventurers rolled away from Council Grove, the Last Chance Store was one of the last buildings they passed before moving out onto the vast expanse of the plains. A few recorded their impressions of the day in journals. Most seem to have kept their own counsel. In the midst of it all, the heavy-laden and creaking wagons began to scribe their own version of the tale into the pages of the prairie. The ruts of their wheels, the tracings of their story, still are visible today, only miles from the town.
As I began my own journey away from the Flint Hills and toward the Cimarron River, subtle changes overtook the land. Cottonwood and bluestem were joined by tumbleweed and yucca. Grain elevators sprouted along the horizon, their silhouettes softened by clouds of blowing dust. Here and there, promontories of rock appeared, their histories predating settlement and statehood by millenia.
I was especially intrigued by Pawnee Rock, a Dakota sandstone formation rising up against the sky not far from the town bearing the rock’s name, and only a hundred yards or so from the old Santa Fe Trail.
Sacred to the Pawnee, the rock served as a meeting place for tribal councils, and as an observation point for buffalo hunters. Sometimes, hunters set their sights on more than buffalo. The Pawnee, Kiowa, Arrapahoe, and Cheyenne all were known to make raids on freighters and caravaners crossing the plains, and the rocks provided a perfect vantage point for their scouts.
For travelers engaged in such crossings, Pawnee Rock was considered to be the half-way point between Franklin and Santa Fe. So many celebrated their arrival at the spot by engraving their names into the soft stone, it’s been said the rock once looked like a hotel register.
One woman who inscribed her name was Susan Shelby Magoffin, the 18-year-old bride of an experienced trader making her first journey across the Trail to Santa Fe and Chihuahua. In her journal entry for July 4, 1846, she wrote:
The wagons left Pawnee Rock some time before us, for I was anxious to see this wonderful curiosity. We went up and… mi alma [“my soul” — Susan’s nickname for her husband, Samuel] with his gun and pistols kept watch, for the wily Indian may always be apprehended here. It is a good lurking place and they are ever ready to fall upon any unfortunate trader behind his company and it is necessary to be careful, so while mi alma watched on the rock above and Jane [Susan’s personal maid] stood by to watch if any should come up on the front side of me, I cut my name, among the many hundreds inscribed on the rock and many of whom I knew.
It was not done well, for fear of Indians made me tremble all over and I hurried it over in any way. This I remarked would be quite an adventure to celebrate the 4th!
Susan, her husband Samuel, and the other members of their party were traveling for convenience and protection with the military — specifically, with the historically significant Kearny Expedition.
When Congress declared war against Mexico on May 14, 1846, President Polk immediately ordered Colonel Stephen W. Kearny to march from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to New Mexico, and to capture the province in the name of the United States.
Kearny was promoted to Brigadier General and went to work assembling his contingent, which eventually numbered between 2,000 – 2,500 men. In his book titled Kearny’s March, Winston Groom says:
It took Kearny less than six weeks to organize, train, equip, and provision his Army of the West. On June 26, 1846, its leading elements marched out of Ft. Leavenworth and turned southward on the the vast plains of Kansas, toward the New Mexican capital, traveling 962 miles.
The trick was to reach Santa Fe quickly and occupy it in the name of the United States of America, before the government in Mexico City could send an army to reinforce the garrison.
When the Expedition reached the halfway point along the Santa Fe Trail, a Private named Robinson and some of his fellow soldiers climbed to the top of Pawnee Rock to see what they could see. What they saw were buffalo. In Robinson’s words:
In this vicinity we saw the first great herd of buffaloes that we had met with. From the top I witnessed one of the greatest sights ever beheld. Far over the plain to the west and north was one vast herd of buffaloes — some in column, marching in their trails, others carelessly grazing. Every acre was covered, until in the distance the prairie became one black mass, from which there was no opening, and extended to the horizon.
Some years later, in May of 1871, Colonel Richard Irving Dodge was able to confirm the vision. In Donald Berthrong’s The Southern Cheyenne, Dodge is quoted as saying:
From the top of Pawnee Rock, I could see from six to ten miles in almost every direction. The whole mass was covered with buffalo, looking at a distance like one compact mass. I have seen such sights a number of times, but never on so large a scale.
My own climb to the top of Pawnee Rock was marked with adventure, but no buffalo. Those great herds are well and truly gone, although I did spot a few grazing behind a fence near the site of historic Fort Larned.
Still, the grasslands support more than buffalo, and if there were to be no buffalo roaming alongside my trail, there would be deer and antelope aplenty, playing, and posing, and exhibiting great curiosity before taking their leave in a rush of hooves and horns.
As I traded the last of the Cimarron grasslands for the Panhandle of Texas, rocks replaced animals as the primary attraction. Palo Duro Canyon is justly famous, but Caprock Canyon State Park is equally striking.
Caprock Canyon also happens to be the home of the Texas State Bison Herd. Using many of the same techniques utilized on the Konza Prairie, experts are expanding a herd of Southern Bison and slowly enlarging the range available to them.
The bison are descendents of animals saved in 1878 at the request of a kind-hearted Mary Ann Goodnight. Moved by the plight of starving bison calves left because of the slaughter taking place, Mary Ann appealed to her husband, and Charles Goodnight started his own bison herd with a few of the orphaned animals. The wonderful results — and some wonderful footage of bison wandering and wallowing — can be seen here.
I’d planned only one more stop after Caprock Canyon — a return visit to a business I’d discovered more than a decade earlier. Named for the pictographs preserved on a bluff stretching alongside the Concho River, Paint Rock, Texas also is the home of Ingrid’s Handwoven Rugs. I’d purchased a small piece to use as a wall hanging during my first visit. This time, I hoped to find a rug.
A weaving business in Paint Rock isn’t as strange as it might seem. Historically, the town has been a major center for sheep and wool production, and the Edwards Plateau has been home to a majority of the nation’s Angora goats.
When Ingrid’s opened in the old general store in 1979, its owners were Leo and Ingrid Haas. Their second cousin, Austrian-born Reinhard Schoffthaler, came to America as a trained chef and operated a restaurant on Long Island, New York, before opting to take the time-honored advice to “go West, young man.”
He found the Panhandle agreeable, and decided to stay. After purchasing an interest in Ingrid’s business in 1981, he became its owner two years later. There were difficulties along the way, particularly when sheep and angora goat numbers declined, but today the business has adapted and is thriving, with a new focus on custom weaving for people who raise llamas and alpacas.
Friendly and sociable, Reinhard was in the shop the morning I arrived, and offered a tour of his business. It was delightful to see the process from beginning to end, from the storage area for fleece arriving from across the country…
to its cleaning and loosening in the blender…
to the beautiful sheen of finely-carded wool ready to be spun around a jute core.
On the turning drums, the yarn is wound into a coil, ready to be used in weaving.
Some new machinery had been added since my last visit, including this twelve-foot loom, shown here from both sides.
The skill of the weavers is remarkable, not to mention their dedication. Reinhard asked if I thought I could stand there all day, doing such repetitive work. When I said without hesitation that I could, he gave me a quizzical glance. “You’re so certain?” When he learned that I sand and varnish boats for a living, his laughter was infectious. “Well,” he said. “I think maybe you could work here.”
We returned to the showroom, where I selected and paid for my rug. As I did, I noticed another, particularly striking rug lying on the floor. Following my glance, Reinhard said, “That’s a nice one., but it’s not for sale. It’s made from buffalo fur.”
He went on to explain that many ranchers who raise buffalo commercially, or maintain a herd for other purposes, collect the animals’ fur after the spring shedding, then send it along to be woven into rugs and saddle blankets.
A shedding bison is quite a sight. As the winter coat loosens and falls, the animal begins to appear moth-eaten. To hasten the process, the bison rubs against everything in sight, trying to relieve itself of the irritation. Soon, bison fur is everywhere, caught on fence posts and trees, spiky plants and rocks. Birds and other small creatures pluck away bits to line their nests, and humans find their own ways to make good use of the fur.
Seeing my admiration for the unusual rug, Reinhard reached down into a box. “Here,” he said. “Here’s some buffalo fur for you.”
Large enough to fill my hand to overflowing, the puff of fur was lighter than I would have imagined — as light as a feather, lighter than milkweed down, lighter than a handful of prairie grasses.
What seemed at first to be a single clump turned out to be a collection of smaller bits, held together by the slight coarseness of the fur. Soft and springy, the fur compressed easily enough to be hidden in my hand. Released, it stretched and grew in the sunlight, a soft, flat-brown tangle shot through with reddish hairs.
“Reinhard,” I said, “this is perfect. I was hoping to take home a souvenir of the bison, but a paper bag filled with buffalo chips didn’t seem such a good idea.” “Oh, no,” he said. “You need something more special, something nice, to keep. Now you have a good memory, a nice bit of fluff to help you remember the buffalo.”
And so I do.
On the prairies, winter is lingering. Snow still falls across the bottomlands; north winds swirl and complain around the Konza hills. Where sunlight slides across the face of Pawnee Rock, shadows play among the frozen ruts below, and the grasses bide their time.
In the midst of it all, the bison stand, patient, impassive, heavily-coated, dreaming of the spring to come — of new grass, new coats, and new calves. Perhaps, if they are lucky or blessed, they may even discover a new future.
They once were lost, these bison of ours, but they are being re-found. At the edge of my desk, close enough to touch, a sweet little puff of buffalo fluff betokens that return.