Monday, October 7, 2013

Roots and Wings

All across the country the landscape is dotted with abandoned farmsteads and buildings whose walls are filled with stories of heartache and happiness.  On a recent trip back through the Kansas Flint Hills to take photographs for the cover of my book, I was once again transported through time as we captured images of the past.  We photographed abandoned hotels and schools with their roofs open and gaping toward the sky and trees poking through the windows seeking the world outside. We peeked through the windows of abandoned schoolhouses to see blackboards still lining the front wall and a pot-bellied stove still standing guard in the center of the room. It seemed that at any moment the teacher would appear in the doorway to call the children in from recess.  One could almost hear the children’s laughter from the swing set that creaked sadly in the Kansas wind.  The cattle grazing on the hills and the tall prairie grass bent low against the wind lent a timeless quality to the surroundings.  There had been wind and cattle grazing here for centuries.

We were enveloped in a silence so vast that one dared not speak above a whisper. Only the sound of the wind through the prairie grass and the gentle lowing of the cattle prevailed. Clusters of trees followed the creeks and rivers as they meandered through the lowlands. They were protected from the wind here and the comforting sound of rustling leaves softened the harshness of the surroundings.  But on the open range a lone tree struggled to stay upright against the constant wind.

Stacked stone fences lined the roadways, laid by hand over a century ago to mark the boundaries of one’s land against encroachment. Ancient barbed wire fences strung between stone fence posts built when the railroad age ended the era of the open range, kept the herds separate.  It was as if the ghosts of the past were still there...watching and protecting what they had devoted their lives to creating.

Most of the early pioneers to the area used whatever materials were available to them to create their dwellings.  The most basic structure was the dugout.  It was usually dug into a dirt bank with a sod roof. Sod houses required little expenditure because they were built from native grasses and their roots held the dirt together to form building blocks for the house. Very few of these dwellings exist today, because they were subject to water damage and infestation by vermin and were only used as temporary housing.

When settlers to Kansas found that the area was destitute of timber, they turned to a layer of limestone rock close to the surface that they soon found could be used for fencing as well as building. Besides being durable and fire resistant, limestone had several other advantages.  It could be obtained easily with the proper tools and techniques and it was uniform in thickness.  When freshly quarried, it was soft enough to shape with simple tools and hardened after being exposed to air.

Since the lowlands were prone to flooding, many schools and homes were built on the crest of a hill where the endless horizon provided a clear view of approaching storms and marauders. Although this location provided little protection from the wind and weather, it provided an unobstructed view of the Kansas sunset.  As the sun sank below the horizon, it set the entire sky ablaze in shades of bright orange and red against the golden backdrop of the prairie grass.

Gazing out at the abandoned farmhouses, one feels a sense of melancholy co-mingled with joy.  If the building had a voice, it would say, “Don’t mourn for me.  I have had a good life.   While it’s true that I have seen sadness and withered hopes, I have also watched children grow to adulthood and seen dreams realized.  I am here now only as a reminder of the sacrifices made to create this life for you. Embrace me and move on, but don’t forget me. I am the roots; you are the wings."

Stone Schoolhouse: Flint Hills National Preserve

District 22 Schoolhouse, c.1890

Stone Farmhouse: Flint Hills National Preserve
Snokomo Schoolhouse c. 1882
Bushong School, c. 1918

Volland Hotel


  1. Love the photos and your lyrical words!

  2. LOVED the photos! The blue skies with white clouds tell of Kansas' hope for a better classroom. I feel through your photos the lone tree guarding a bell towered school house, abandoned but waiting. Then the all but forgotten stone, one room school house, and the eerie peak through barbed wire at the one room schoolhouse. The last photos showed me buildings without glass and roofs displaced, closing my thoughts about education, in despair. Your photos balanced hope and tragedy, but as you said, all are built on the high ground, the hill, to protect them from floods. Education is protected by our teachers inside the buildings. Love you, Wanda, made me think and feel good.

    1. I love your thoughtful incites into the symbolism suggested by the photos!-Wanda