I was sitting behind the chutes at the Strong City Rodeo last year getting ready to watch a friend of mine from SW Missouri fight bulls at the longest consecutive rodeo in Kansas, when the wild cow mugging event began. He turns to me and says, “what kind of event is this?” I grew up going to the Santa Fe Trail Days Rodeo in Burlingame and the Eskridge Labor Day Rodeo, so these events were quite common to me. He had never seen them done before. It was at that time that I realized, the Flint Hills of Kansas have some Cowboy character that was uniquely there own. I came home and bought Flint Hills Cowboys by James Hoy, the definitive work on the subject of cowboyin’ in Kansas.
James Hoy has documented the history of the Cowboy in the Flint Hills. He not only writes about the tales, but in most cases his family has lived it. There are tales from homesteading in Chase County, stockyard stories, and rodeo stories from years on the hilly terrain of Eastern Kansas. He begins the book by documenting some of the cowboys that made their living horseback trailing cows. It should be noted at this time that Hoy uses the Flint Hills to denote Chase, Greenwood, and Butler Counties. Very little of his research/stories take place in the northern Flint Hills region. Very briefly does he mention the stone fences that line 177 or the hills of Geary County, but outside of these small notations, his history is limited to the southern Flint Hills.
The second section of the book focuses on the history of the cattle and the horses that made up life on the range of the Flint Hills. Just as in the first section of the book, his personal stories of horses he’d rode, the stories of ranches from the past, and personal connections he had. He tells of cattle coming in from Texas, half-dead and stick thin, grazing the green grasses of the Flint Hills and returning to health. He speaks of Texas Cattlemen sending prized Quarter Horses up to Flint Hills Ranchers as gifts for grazing their animals. Hoy credits the bluestem grasses for the survival of millions of longhorns after being starved on the sagebrush of Texas.
The tradition and customs of the Flint Hills cowboy is more subtle than other places. The Great Basin Buckaroo’s have a style, dress, and methodology that is much different than the Texas Cowboy. There are a few things that do distinguish the cowboy of the Flint Hills from other places. Hoy, in the third section of this book, points out these differences. One being the Chapman Post. The Chapman post was a moveable fence post, that was created because it was nearly impossible to bury a post in the limestone of the flint hills. In 1903 a man named Chapman patented a steel post driven into limestone, by which barbed wire could be attached. The limestone would hold the post in an upright position. The other tool of trade that separated the Flint Hill Cowboy from others, was the Flint Hills Fire-stick used for burning off the prairie every year. Essentially a lighter for controlled burns, this was and still is a mainstay of springtime in the Flint Hills.
Finally, comes the section that I originally bought the book for: the rodeo section. I have collected rodeo books for going on 10 years now and this is the only book that I have found that has any kind of documentation of Kansas Rodeos. He tells stories of the Roberts brothers (World champs in the 1940’s) who called Strong City home. It was their family that began the Strong City rodeo and started the rodeo tradition in the Flint Hills that would ultimately bring the likes of Bill Pickett and his bulldoggin exhibition to Kansas. The Robert’s family, with stiff competition from the Munsell family, the Pope family, and the Rumford family, are still probably the most famous rodeo family from Kansas.
His final section recounts the type of men that it takes to cowboy in the Flint Hills. His stories depict a rough country, harsh winters, rough men, and biting wind that make this region so tough on men and animals. Again his personal stories are pushed to the for front putting a human face on the history. Hoy makes an effort to show the history of the Flint Hills cattle industry as a collection of individual stories that are intertwined and wrapped up in the bluestem prairie. The book is an excellent history of the southern counties and their role in the industry. It is well researched and well written. Some of the images in the book are iconic. This is a must read book for anyone interested in what makes the Flint Hills so special in the history of the cowboy and American History as far as it is concerned with the beef industry.