Back in the 1980’s, when Danny was first establishing his oil business, I took a trip with him to San Francisco where he met with several potential investors. One of those meetings occurred in a fancy restaurant, where the tuxedo-clad waiter raved about their steaks – the juiciest, most delicious steaks available anywhere, he claimed. “I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of it, but we use only 100% Prime Black Angus beef. It’s flown in, direct to our restaurant,” he told us. Danny and I gave each other a knowing look.
We didn’t tell him our freezer was full of home-grown, black angus beef back in Kansas.
Kansas may be known for its wheat production, but this is also the heart of cattle country. Grassland where the buffalo once roamed is now dotted with quietly grazing cattle that lift their heads in curiosity at the combine harvesting wheat on the other side of the fence. Those grasslands composed of short, tall, or mixed grasses comprise the largest vegetation formation in North America. Yet only a small fraction of the original prairie remains untouched. The rest has been plowed up for crops, or buried under cities and highways.
About 105 acres of that original, unbroken prairie lies on our farm.
During the Great Plow-up from 1900-1930 which eventually contributed to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, our 105 acres of grassland were deemed too rolling or, near the creek, too easily flooded to raise crops on. The acreage was left as undisturbed prairie and used instead to pasture cattle. Before I tell you about our local history with cattle, I would like to share a little history about the land upon which those cattle graze.
My great-grandfather Herman did not homestead the farm on which we now live. He couldn’t. No one could.
We live on Section 16, Township 14 South, Range 16 West of the 6th Principal Meridian, Ellis County, Kansas. The Homestead Act of 1862, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln after the secession of the southern states, designated that Section 16 of every township be sold by the U.S. government, not given away, in order to pay for the establishment of a school in every township.
The land we now own was initially purchased from the U.S. government by Francis G. White, an Englishman residing in London, on May 27, 1890. It is doubtful that White ever lived on what is now our land, because on October 28, 1891, he deeded the land to Alexander G. White, also a resident of London, with no exchange of money. Most likely, Alexander was Francis’ son. A few days later, on November 1, 1891, my great-grandfather Herman purchased the northeast quarter of Section 16 from Alexander White for $1920. In 1900, Herman purchased the southeast quarter as well, for $2080. My great-grandfather then owned the entire east half of Section 16.
Francis White probably purchased the land as an investment, paying only $2190 to the U.S. government for the entire section. And since the land was purchased, not homesteaded, White was not subject to the 5-year residency requirement of the Homestead Act, which allowed him to remain in London. I will never know whether Francis White was one of the original colonists of George Grant – the man responsible for all those amazing black angus steaks I was talking about earlier.
George Grant was a wealthy Scotsman who made his fortune in the silk industry. Intrigued by reports of America’s untamed grasslands, Grant toured the Great Plains in the spring of 1872. Toward the end of his journey, after passing through Fort Hays, he continued east across Ellis County. He became enraptured with the endless rolling prairie, blooming wildflowers and abundant buffalo grazing contentedly on the lush prairie grasses. He yearned to settle here, and dreamed of establishing a colony of wealthy, stock-breeding Britishers.
In the spring of 1873, a contingent of sons and daughters of England’s most noble families set sail for the American frontier. They settled in the eastern part of Ellis County and named their new settlement after the British Queen Victoria.
George Grant brought four angus bulls with him. When he first showed two of his bulls at the Kansas City Livestock Exposition in the fall of 1873, many people considered them “freaks” because of their hornless heads and solid black color. But Grant bred his bulls to native Texas Longhorn cows and proved that the cross-bred calves survived the winter better and gained more weight.
Unfortunately, his countrymen did not fare as well. After several years of poor crop yields, meager water supplies, grasshopper infestations, winter storms and theft of their prized breeding stock, most of the British returned home.
George Grant was one of the few who stayed. He died in 1878, and is buried in Victoria in a grave marked by a monument commemorating his contribution to the American cattle industry. Several miles away atop a rolling hill sits his limestone two-story Victorian home known as “Grant’s Villa”. After Grant’s death, it was sold to Danny’s great-grandfather Moritz Baier and is still owned by a Baier descendant today.
Also in 1872 – the same year Grant first visited – my own great-grandfather, Herman Berens, came to America from Hanover, Germany with his young wife, Elizabeth. They settled in Junction City, Ohio where their first four children were born. In 1878 – the year Grant died – Herman migrated with his young family and his unmarried brother, Ulrich, to Ellis County. Herman and Ulrich shared a homestead in eastern Ellis County. During the 5-year residency requirement, they supplemented their farm income by purchasing excess livestock from area farmers and riding the rails with the cattle to the stockyards in Denver and Kansas City, where they sold the cattle for profit.
In the ensuing years, Herman and Ulrich amassed a small fortune, mostly from the cattle trade. Herman sold his half of the original homestead to his brother Ulrich in 1885, and began buying other area farmland. After his purchase from White in 1891, my great-grandfather built a large, two-story Victorian farmhouse on the new land into which he moved with his wife and then-eight children. His last two children, one of whom was my grandfather William, were born on the land which we now call “home”.
My own experiences with cattle aren’t nearly as riveting. When I was a child, my father’s cattle herd consisted of mostly Holsteins for his dairy, and Angus-Hereford crosses for beef. But since our move back to the farm, Danny and I mostly see Black Angus graze our pasture. One of our first years at the farm, we decided to purchase eight young steers in the spring, graze them all summer, then sell the fattened steers in the fall for a profit. With our lush pasture grass, there was little overhead.
The problem was that the small herd of eight quickly became domesticated. In fact, in the photo you can see our granddaughter hand-feeding the largest of the herd, a curly-haired angus steer that we affectionately called Brutus. Selling Brutus and his companions that fall proved more emotionally difficult than we had anticipated.
Since then, we simply rent our pasture to an area farmer. At the completion of calving in the spring, he brings a herd of one bull, and about twenty-five cow/calf pairs. All summer, we get to watch the playful calves frolic and buck, we get to watch the nurturing cows graze and nurse their babies, and we get to watch the protective bull supervise his herd and bellow menacingly to the bull across the road. Come fall, we get to say goodbye to any winter work or worries.
It’s kind of like being a grandparent – we get all of the fun with none of the fuss.
(I learned long ago that it’s not a good idea to name cattle. Read about Cinnamon the Calf in my first book, A Year on the Family Farm.)
Next Week: Welcome Spring! (A Pictorial Tribute)