Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Visit to Dr. Higley's Cabin

At the west end of the restored cabin of Dr. Brewster Higley is a commemorative plaque of "My Western Home," the original title of the poem and the song we now know as "Home on the Range."  I begin with this image because it is clearly not part of the attempt to restore the cabin as it would have appeared during Dr. Higley's occupancy.  Rather, it commerates the events that have made the cabin famous as the birthplace of "Home on the Range."  My blog of that name, posted 1-29-2015 describes the way in which Dr. Higley's poem was put to music and the investigation to prove that "My Western Home" and the music performed by the Harlan Orchestra truly were the original version of "Home on the Range.  You may wish to read my 2015 blog to acquaint yourself with that wonderful Kansas story!

Mark McClain gives us a tour
Last week's post described the home town preview of Ken Spurgeon's "Home on the Range, The Story of America's Iconic Song," and if you missed reading that you may continue reading at the botton of this week's post.  We attended Saturday's showing, and Sunday morning we visited the cabin with Mark McClain and his family.

If our stay at the Ingleboro Mansion B&B in Smith Center gave us a hint of how a wealthy man in earlier times might have lived, the visit to Dr. Higley's cabin, not terribly far away in distance but very far away in character, showed us how a man whose life had been disappointing might have chosen to make a fresh start by going West to stake a claim.  Dr. Higley found a beautiful site near the West Beaver Creek and built his cabin from logs and stone that he found at the site. Most of this blog will consist of the photographs taken while we were there, with a bit of information about Dr. Higley and his relatives among the photographs.
Renovation display inside the cabin
Detail of stones and logs

Dr. Higley came to Kansas from Indiana, and his homestead claim was filed in 1871.  His attempts at marriage back in Indiana had been unhappy, but in 1875 he married Sara Clemens, and they lived in the cabin until 1886, moving first to Arkansas and then to Shawnee, OK where they lived until both of their deaths, his death only four months after hers.  Family oral history recounts Dr. Higley's saying that living in their Oklahoma home after her death was like "living in a tomb."  

By 1936 the property had passed to Ellen and Pete Rust, and they farmed it until Pete's death in 1986.  His widow Ellen died in 2008, but prior to her death she established a Trust to manage the farm and preserve the cabin.  How fortunate for generations to come that Ellen Rust recognized the importance of the cabin where "Home on the Range" originated.

More about the 240-acre land she saved in next week's blog, but for now, the story of the cabin continues.

The property had been a working farm, beginning with the homestead claim of Dr. Higley, and once the cabin was no longer used as a residence, it was put to utilitarian use on the farm.  Many local people remember its use as a chicken house.  In April of 2011 a campaign was begun to raise funds for the restoration of the cabin and grounds.  The goal was $100,000.

Western singer, Michael Martin Murphy did a benefit concert and nearly a quarter of the funds were raised in that first month, thanks to the benefit.

The pair of pictures above show a display of the careful renovation, including a picture of its use as a chicken house prior to the renovation.  The logs and stones were carefully marked and catalogued as the cabin was disassembled in preparation for the repairs necessary before reassembling the cabin.  As far as possible, the original materials were used to rebuild the cabin, but some rotted logs had to be replaced with vintage logs from other demolished structures of that period.

The reassembled cabin has a loft accessed by stairs.  There are no vertical walls in the loft, just the angled pitch of the roof.  In the small alcove beside and beneath the stairs a single bed is fitted.  The rope springs reminded me of the old saying, "sleep tight," a reference to keeping the ropes taught so the mattress would not sag.  The other part of that old saying is "...and don't let the bed bugs bite."    Entries in Isaac B. Werner's journal make it plain just how hard it was to keep bed bugs out of his bed!  It is likely that Dr. Higley experienced the same challenges.

In October of 2016, when the cabin renovation had been completed, two of Dr. Higley's relatives came to spend the night, Distant nephews of Dr. Higley, brothers Greg and Mike Higley traveled from Texas and Oklahoma to experience something of what their uncle might have felt.  Mike told reporter Ivan Schoone, "So peaceful, experiencing the beauty of the morning with the sun shining through the cabin window, the sounds of birds singing, coyotes howling in the night and the quietness of this place."  The brothers said it was hard to describe their feelings, but they also mentioned wondering what it would have been like as a homesteader when Native Americans were still living in what was a frontier.

Much of the filming of "Home on the Range, The Story of America's Iconic Song" was done in the cabin and the surrounding property.  Ken Spurgeon's wife, Amy, a CPA who  normally serves as Production Accountant for Lone Chimney Films,  remembers a very different role while they were filming during the hottest months of summer.  "It was really important that I kept everyone well hydrated in that heat!" she told me, remembering how she made sure everyone had water and that they remembered to drink it.

Next week's blog will share pictures of the creek, trees, and meadows on the 240-acre Trust lands.


Sharon Kohout said...

A wonderful read, Lyn. Thanks for keeping these stories alive!

The Blog Fodder said...

Very interesting story and pictures. No idea how old I was when I first learned that song but very young, likely in Grade 1.
"Sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite. But if they do, take your shoe and beat them till they're black and blue", courtesy my late mother (whose patron saint was Ogden Nash).

Trevor Hall said...

Even here in England we are well aware of 'Home on the Range' and I believe it was used in several 'cowboy' movies released over here in the 50's and 60's. I had on idea about who wrote it though. Living in a medium sized house in a medium sized town in England it is difficult to imagine what life in a 'shack' of that size would have been like. Even your ancestral family home in Branston England was bigger than that Lyn, (although the amount of children at any one time (11 at one point from your Grandfathers Brother, would have filled every room). An interesting read. Thanks Larry for forwarding it on.