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K-State Today

August 30, 2011

Prairie primer: Konza's beginnings help shape its future

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

Nestled in a small valley of the Flint Hills just south of Manhattan, sits a ranch house and an old barn. If these walls could talk, the history they could tell. 

Both built of native limestone in the early 1900s, the stone house and the barn are part of the Konza Prairie Biological Station, jointly owned by The Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University and managed by K-State's Division of Biology. Their history began many years ago when Konza Prairie was the Dewey Ranch. 

According to a report by Charles Given, Friends of Konza Prairie historian, land prices in Kansas had dropped significantly in the late 1800s, so Charles Paulson Dewey, a wealthy man from Ohio, began investing in several sections of land in and around the Manhattan area. Among them were large sections of unplowed prairie. 

Chauncey Dewey, Charles Dewey's son, inherited the land after his father's death in 1904, and in 1911 paid a local stonemason to begin construction on the barn and house. 

The limestone and cottonwood supports for both buildings were hauled from a quarter mile away and construction was completed in 1912. Mainly cowhands occupied the house while the barn held up to 36 draft horses, feed, equipment and an occasional barn dance. 

A series of poor choices and expenses from lawsuits over a gunfight involving Chauncey Dewey led to the decline of the family's fortune and the eventual forced sale of the ranch in 1930, splitting the ranch land between Geary and Riley counties. 

The Geary County section ended up in the hands of former Kansas Gov. Alf Landon's wife and daughter, Theo Cobb Landon and Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker.

In 1956, Lloyd Hulbert, K-State professor of biology, first presented the idea of an ecological field station to university administrators. In 1971, with assistance from The Nature Conservancy and an anonymous donor, 916 acres of the Geary County section were purchased from the Landon family to start Konza Prairie.

The anonymous donor had requested that the field station be given an American Indian name. Thus Konza, a variation of the spelling for the Kansa tribe, was chosen.

Hulbert and other K-State scientists developed burning and grazing management research treatments for the site to study the tallgrass ecosystem. However, since several watersheds extended to the north of Konza Prairie, in the Riley County section, it was decided that the inaugural 916 acres weren't enough to effectively study grazing using native grazers. Thus, scientists once again sought to acquire additional acreage.

The Nature Conservancy, again with an anonymous donation, purchased 7,220 acres for Konza Prairie in 1977. Later that year an additional 480 acres were purchased, bringing Konza Prairie to its current size of 8,616 acres of tallgrass prairie. In 1981, Konza Prairie scientists received funding from the National Science Foundation to establish Konza Prairie as one of the first Long-Term Ecological Research program sites, which has been continually funded since.

 The additional land allowed researchers to rethink the management treatments and add native grazers, bison, in 1987. The anonymous donor for both purchases was identified after her death as Katharine Ordway.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Konza Prairie Biological Station and the 30th anniversary of the Konza Long-Term Ecological Research program. To celebrate, K-State's Institute for Grassland Studies is hosting an anniversary symposium, Grasslands in a Global Context, Sept. 12-14. Konza Prairie also is hosting Tasting in the Tallgrass, Sept. 30, at the Dewey Ranch Barn, which was renovated into a meeting hall in 2008 with funds from the Cortelyou family. 

The symposium will feature keynote speakers from grasslands around the world, while the tasting will include wines from grasslands around the world. Complementary food pairings and beer made in the Kansas Flint Hills by the Tallgrass Brewing Co. also will be available. 

Tickets to the tasting are $100 each and space is limited. All proceeds from Tasting in the Tallgrass will enhance graduate student research at Konza Prairie. Sponsors of Tasting in the Tallgrass are Ray's Apple Market, Caterpillar Work Tools, Oz Winery, Tallgrass Brewing Co., KanEquip and WTC. 

Konza Prairie Biological Station is dedicated to a threefold mission of research, education and tallgrass prairie conservation. For more information about Konza Prairie history or the upcoming celebration events visit the Konza Prairie Biological Station website.