home-on-the-range

Story by Ron Johnson, this article was featured in the fall issue of 1982 (Editor's note: This article has been lightly edited)

 

A small historical sign in Smith County along U.S. Highway 36 points to a rebuilt homestead, the frontier home of Dr. Brewster M. Higley.

 

Restored in 1954, the log and stone structure is located beside trickling Beaver Creek where at one time "buffalo roamed," "deer and antelope played" and Kansas' state song, "Home on the Range," was believed to have been written.

Since 1873, residents of Smith County and Kansas have recognized the country doctor as the author of the cowboy melody on the basis of a single newspaper account written in 1876.

"It's always been the general feeling that 'Home on the Range' was written by Higley in this county," Darrel Miller, publisher of the Smith County Pioneer in Smith Center, said. "Our factual proof says the earliest origins of the song are here."

With that statement, Miller took from his newspaper office wall what he and the state regard as the "hard" evidence, a photocopy of an early prairie newspaper, the Kirwin Chief, dated February 26, 1876. "Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam," the paper reads, "Where the deer and the antelope play." The actual publication, now on file at the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, records the words of "Western Home," an original verse written by Higley.

"This document is the earliest evidence of the words of 'Home on the Range," Miller said. "As you'll notice, the popular version has been adapted to read 'never' for 'seldom' and 'cloudy' for 'clouded.' "Higley is said to have then taken the poem to Dan Kelley, a Gaylord druggist-musician, who set the words to music.

But in spite of the Kirwin Chief and the poem's slight differences, composers from across the region have laid claim to the perennially popular song. The Kirwin Chief itself printed above Higley's words a stinging editorial on plagiarism scolding a Rooks County resident and newspaper that laid a "false" claim to the tune.

From that date, the identity crisis concerning the authorship of "Home on the Range" continued though the song faded from the limelight until President Franklin Roosevelt revived it in the 1930's. "Home on the Range" was the toast of American radio until William and Mary Goodwin of Tempe, Arizona, brought a $500,000 lawsuit against 35 individuals and corporations who used it. The Goodwins claimed they wrote' and copyrighted a song in 1905 identical to "Home on the Range" entitled "My Arizona Home."

 

cabin-home-on-the-range

 

New York attorney Samuel Moanfeldt investigated the matter in several midwestern states until he traced a lead in the case to Smith County in 1936. "I remember when Moanfeldt visited the county, and he found everything he needed to prove the Goodwins wrong," Bill Lee, Smith Center resident, said. "The court decided Smith County was the birthplace." The Goodwin lawsuit and the flurry of attention in the '30s prompted the preservation of the song's origin, by book as well as by cabin restoration.

The late Margaret Nelson, a long-time Smith County educator and former Higley patient, compiled research into a 1947 version of county settlement and the life of Higley, appropriately titled "Home on the Range."

Coinciding with Nelson's publication, the 1947 Kansas Legislature recognized the tune's birthplace and made 'Home on the Range" the official state song on June 30, 1947. Additional preservation of the "Home on the Range" story came with the restoration of the cabin landmark which is privately owned by Mr. and Mrs. Pete Rust of rural Athol.

"The building had fallen into bad shape by the time of the Goodwin case," Lee said. "When Life Magazine condemned its use as a chicken house in the 1940's, the Smith Center Rotary Club took action and rebuilt the cabin." But the cabin's reconstruction and Nelson's history failed to stop additional claims. The latest dispute involved a report by television's Charles Kuralt.

"Kuralt reported in his 'On the Road' series of 1975 that a Texas man named David Guion had written the song," Miller said. "With that report, people in our area became aggravated and lost confidence in a reporter who had their trust."

Miller and Lee conducted a letter-writing campaign as well as an editorial barrage in the Pioneer to call Smith Countians and Kansans to the attention of Kuralt and CBS. "The most we ever heard from the man was a form letter," Miller said. Lee said he was quite upset when Kuralt would not consider the newspaper relic at the historical society with the materials in Smith County. "I think it's funny that the Kirwin Chief shows 'Home on the Range' was written before Guion was even conceived," Lee said.

Miller tried to look on the brighter side of the Kuralt affair. "I guess it's flattering to know that Smith County has something other composers would love to have," he said, referring to the authorship controversy. Readers of the Pioneer, however, don't get as upset now as they used to."

"There's a different appreciation now for 'Home on the Range,' " Lee said. "Outsiders and second and third generations of old Higley patients are not as strongly influenced by the pioneers." But Lee was adamant that his evidence proved Higley the true author.

"I would feel that someone stole something that belonged to our culture if we were proven wrong," Lee said. "We're lucky to have the earliest evidence." He added a historical insight into what he feels is the county's "good fortune" and related an incident between Higley and the late L. T. “Trube" Reese, an early resident of Smith Center.

"Reese said he discovered Higley's words to 'Home on the Range' on a piece of foolscap paper in Higley's cabin back in 1873," Lee said. "He tried to convince the doctor to print it. I guess Smith County was lucky to have published it first."