June 19, 2013
Store’s gone, post office gone, train gone, school gone, oil gone, boys and girls gone — only thing not gone is graveyard and it git bigger.
I live on the southeastern edge of the vast prairies of the United States, only 30 miles south of the site of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. Yet I must confess that I’m more fond of forests and birds than tallgrass and buffalo, so it took me decades to make it out to the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, even though it is only a little more than an hour’s drive to the west in Osage County.
The Preserve is the largest protected area of tallgrass prairie on Earth, spanning 39,000 acres. It is part of what was once the Chapman-Barnard Ranch, a 100,000 acre spread once managed by Ben Johnson, Sr., the father of movie star Ben Johnson, Jr. I’m fortunate to know the generous Ken Adams and his family, who donated 300 bison to the Preserve in 1993. That herd has grown to over 2,500 buffalo which freely roam across 21,000 acres of the Flint Hills. Those hills of thin soil and flinty limestone are unsuitable for plowing, which preserved some of the tallgrass prairie.
I finally visited the Preserve on a whim, having driven Wendy westward to Ponca City to tour the Marland Mansion and Marland’s Grand Home, with a lunch break at Enrique’s. I’ve already taken plenty of pictures of the Marland Grand Home, but I have almost none of the Mansion. However, on this day I did capture the setting on the grounds of a replica of Lydie Marland’s statue.
I became restless on the boring drive back home along US 60, opting to turn north to Shidler to see if the Bivin Garden was open. It turned out it is only open on weekends without an appointment and I didn’t want to backtrack to US 60, so I headed north and east along gravel roads to cut across what some pilots call “the black hole”: a large part of northern Osage County now lacking towns or highways, although it once bustled with oil boomtowns,such as Whizbang and Foraker, which Don Taylor nicely remembers in his online video:
Foraker was an agricultural boomtown of 415 by 1915 and probably reached about 2,000 in the oil boom of the early 1920s, but it has declined to less than 20 residents today. Little remains but a lonely cemetery to the east (here’s a photo by Wade Harris), which made me think of the old cowboy song requesting relocation, the bleakness amplified by the isolated roadside remains of what was once a mighty tree.
Wendy and I drove into the preserve and visited the headquarters, where a kindly docent gave us the low-down on the operation and a tour of the former bunkhouse. He told us to take the nearby Bison Loop road to find the herd, and sure enough, a great many buffalo were to be found grazing amidst the oil wells out there. The proximity of the equipment prevented me from shooting more bison.