The story of the Flint Hills is largely a story about limestone. Now don't wince at the thought of learning about rocks; the story of the flinty-hard layers of stone in the Kansas Flint Hills is as fascinating as any adventure into the wild places of our state. So recently, when warm weather started to melt the piles of snow that had built up around our driveway, my wife and I decided to reacquaint ourselves with the story of rocks and remember again why we love the Flint Hills. For that, we took the drive along Kansas' Native Stone Scenic Byway, passing through Dover, Keene, Eskridge, and Alma along State Highways 4 and 99.
For us, the 48-mile drive over the hills and curves of a two-lane highway is a quick and easy way to connect with the outdoor and rural heritage that makes Kansas such a great place to live. Most of the scenery, and the best, shows off what this land looked like long before settlers arrived. The sun glistened off the melting snow on rolling hills, showing us once again that even in winter, the grasslands of the prairie offer remarkable beauty. The most breathtaking of the Flint Hills scenes comes on the stretch of highway just west of Eskridge, where the hills seems to stretch forever southward. Prairie as far as the eye can see. We shared the beauty with several horses, who, like us, were enjoying the sunshine and warmer weather.
Our quest, however, was to discover how rocks played a role in this region. It is the Native Stone Scenic Byway after all. The many limestone outcroppings along the upper slopes of the hills and the lower creek valleys allow us a peek inside the Flint Hills. The flint-hardened limestone is ultimately what gives the Flint Hills their unique form, as the limestone and shale layers weathered and eroded into the graceful curves and stair-step shapes of the slopes around us. Way back in 1806, Zebulon Pike, one of the first European visitors to write about the region, described the landscape as "very ruff flint hills." It is the stone under our feet that literally shaped the beautiful views before our eyes. The stone also protected the grasslands from the plow and preserved these final remnants of the tallgrass prairie.
The other part of the story is what the earlier settlers did with all that limestone. Coming from a land where wood was plentiful, the early settlers tried to make sense of a land dominated by grass and devoid of trees. One thing they discovered was how the local limestone makes for beautiful and long-lasting architecture. The old stone homes, now weathered into a beautiful yellow, dot the highway like memorials to a long-gone era of settlement. Each building has its own story to tell and the abandoned stone homes remain erect even while nearby wooden structures are collapsing. Those historic homes that are maintained, like Sage Inn in Dover, remind us that the best way to live in Kansas is by making wise use of the stuff nature gave us. And when we drive through a town, we are always impressed by the details in the stonework of the native stone buildings that form each downtown.
The star of the trip, however, is the simple stone fence. Most of the stone fences are found on the western edge of the byway, north and south of Alma in Wabaunsee County. It is fascinating to study the stonework and imagine the toil of building miles of these fences by hand, without the help of mortar or cement. Gravity and the coarseness of the limestone are enough to hold everything in place. A historic marker reminds us why these intricate stone fences came into being. Back in 1867, in the post-Civil War Kansas, the open range was abolished and ranching practices changed. Landowners were paid to maintain a stone fence marking their property. The stone fences are obviously harder to build and maintain than barbed wire fences, but we enjoy the intricate beauty that much more.So enjoy a trip along this scenic byway. Count the number of stone fences and see how many limestone buildings you find along the way. Limestone is not cold and uninviting like you might imagine. Park safely along the way, stop the car, get out and lay your hands on the stone. Look closely for age-old fossils in the rock. Then you will see how rich limestone can be.Dennis Toll is a native of Kansas — his Swedish ancestors settled in Wallace County in the 1890's — and graduated from Kansas State University in 1980 with a degree in landscape architecture. Then Dennis and his wife Amy, a Manhattan native, went to Indiana where Dennis got a master's degree in theology and then to France. They returned to Kansas with four daughters in 2000 and settled in The Little Apple. Dennis enjoys writing for various publications about the Sunflower State and wishes he had more time to spend hiking the prairie. You can learn more about his appreciation for the Flint Hills at his blog, flinthillstallgrass.org.