tallgrass-prairie-preserve-housePhotography, Kansas Tourism

The 10,894-acre Z Bar Ranch in the Flint Hills of Chase County - purchased in 1993 by the National Park Trust – is America's future tall grass prairie preserve.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the fall issue of 1995. The ranch and prairie discussed in this piece are now the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, operated by the National Park Service. 


America's future tall grass prairie preserve is a magnificent 10,894-acre ranch nestled in the Flint Hills two miles northwest of Strong City. Known as the Z Bar/Spring Hill Ranch, the historic property contains a number of architecturally significant century-old buildings, all of which were constructed from hand-cut and dressed native white limestone quarried nearby.

Travelers on Kansas Highway 177 regularly pull onto the shoulder for a longer look at the palatial, red-roofed three-story mansion that has been the ranch's focal point since 188l. The imposing structure is situated on a hilltop, above a rock wall, amongst mature cottonwoods. An iron gate is out front. The view from the east-facing front porch is of rolling hills and an old cemetery.



Southwest of the residence is an impressive three-story stone barn. Other outbuildings add to the picturesque rural setting which is one of the most photographed in the state.

Until last November, the general public's access to the site was prohibited. Now, once a month, visitors are welcome to tour the 114-year-old buildings and the one-room Lower Fox Creek School, a quarter of a mile to the north, which was built by the ranch's original owner in 1882. All of this has been made possible by the National Park Trust (NPT), a nonprofit land conservancy organization that purchased the Z Bar with the intent of using it to tell the story of the ecology of the prairie, the history of ranching and the culture of the original Native


Americans who once roamed the Flint Hills. Along with a group of dedicated Chase Countians, a philanthropic Texan and other volunteers from throughout the region and state, the NPT is providing time and money to get the preserve incorporated into the national park system.




Why the ranch should be given such recognition isn't a mystery. Once, nearly all of the central United States was covered by prairie. Today, less than 2.8 million of these 140 million acres are left. And, of these, only Nebraska's

Sand Hills, Oklahoma's Osage Hills and our own Flint Hills have large unbroken tracts of tallgrass. The NPT strongly feels the Flint Hills of Chase County best represent what is left of this ecosystem and the Z Bar, because of its, beauty, is the best site available for interpretation. Its virgin prairie has never been plowed because of the rockiness of its hills.

Many types of prairie grasses can be found on the ranch. These include Indian grass, big and little bluestem and switch grass. Additionally, it is home to 30 kinds of mammals, 400 species of plants and some 200 species of birds at various times during the year.

Stephen and Louisa Jones were the ranch's original owners. He was from Tennessee, and she was from Alabama. After moving to Texas and making their fortune in the cattle business, the couple relocated to Colorado. In 1878, they purchased the Langston Farm along Fox Creek in Chase County and, in 1880, paid a railroad $2,000 for 160 acres that included the site where the Z Bar's buildings are now located.



The Joneses' mansion was built by a Strong City contractor and 20 stonemasons, carpenters and laborers at a cost of $25,000. It took another $15,000 to complete the barn. Both were princely sums back then.

The Joneses called their ranch "Spring Hill" because a spring surfaced on the hill behind where the home was built. In the seven years the Joneses lived on the ranch, they acquired 7,000 more acres of the surrounding grasslands and bottomland along Fox Creek.


The ranch has had many owners, the last being the Davis-Noland-Merrill Grain Co. It merged with the Z Bar Cattle Co. in August 1975, and the property became known as the Z Bar, the name by which most Kansans know the property. The mansion was vacated and fell into disrepair but is now occupied by Barbara Zurhellen, director of interpretation for the Z Bar/Spring Hill Ranch, and her husband, Scott.

''We haven't had to do much to make the house livable because Sharon Haun, the former curator at the Kaw Mission in Council Grove, and three others worked on it for about six months ten years ago," Zurhellen says. "The Z Bar Cattle Co. hired them to fix the house up and they did a wonderful job of repairing cornices, stripping paint from the floors, covering the bare wires that were exposed and wallpapering. Without their efforts, I think it would have cost a lot of money to make repairs before we could have moved in."

The third floor has three bedrooms and a bath. There are five rooms on the second floor and two parlors on the first, Surprisingly, none of the rooms are elaborate. The floors are of oak but the trim is pine with false graining. Five different designs accent the plaster cornices, and four rooms have ceiling medallions in them. None of them are identical.

The public can tour the mansion with the exception of the third floor. One of the parlors is being used for exhibits. The other contains antique Victorian furniture donated by Wichita’s Julia and Edward Hobbs.

"It would be nice if we could have some of the original furnishings, but the Joneses took everything with them when they left in 1888," Zurhellen says. "None of the other owners left anything, either, except an antique buggy, some farm equipment and a stone hauling wagon or cart."

Tours are conducted by Zurhellen and volunteer docents from all over Kansas. A highlight is the Z Bar's unique cellar which provided cold storage by means of an ingenious knee-high trough on the walls that circulated water from the spring. Visitors also get a chuckle when entering the outhouse which, in its time, was state-of-the-art. A curtained window provided light and inside there was room for three, two adults, and a child.



The Zurhellens and their cadre of volunteers are working to make the spacious barn more accessible to the public. Also, a recently formed "friends" group donated money and spent many hours cleaning up the second level of the

house. It is used as a reception area and for presentations and displays.

Many other projects are currently underway. The Chase County Lions Club cleaned out the old schoolhouse, sweeping and mopping the floors, washing the walls and windows, and staining the old school desks. Another local resident, Max Gordon, voluntarily repaired the roof, bell tower, ceiling and door.

The smokehouse, adjacent to the mansion, has been cleaned up by members of Milford Lake's U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and their families. Tony Franka, who manages a garbage collection service in Strong City, volunteered his day off to assist in removing the trash they discarded. He hauled away two truckloads!


A ramp to make the facility accessible to persons with physical disabilities also is being planned. When completed, it will allow access to the lower floor of the mansion and a slide show, or a video will describe other areas of the ranch.

The section of land between the mansion and the schoolhouse is being fenced to allow the prairie vegetation that has been grazed to regenerate itself. The interpretive Southwind Nature Trail (named for the Kansa Indians who once used the area as a hunting ground) winds its way between the two buildings through the tall grass and wildflower-covered prairie, across a creek in the gallery forest and then returns via a hill to the northwest. From this vantage point, visitors are afforded a spectacular view of the prairie, the untilled rolling hills and the schoolhouse. After leaving the ridge, the trail winds its way through a grove of cedar trees and back to its starting point. The mile-and-a-half loop is open daily from sunrise to sunset.



Zurhellen also has designed an educational poster aimed specifically at the state's fourth and fifth graders. On the front is a fall picture of the Lower Fox Creek School. The back is divided into several sections and answers the following questions: What is a prairie? Why is it important? How will this help Kansas? Who is the National Park Trust? What is the National Park Service? How can you help? Each section offers information and answers to each question through reading, activities and puzzles.

"It would be great if we could get all 304 Kansas school districts to participate in this endeavor," Zurhellen says. 'We've had more than 5,000 color posters printed up for their use!"

What's in store for the Z Bar/ Spring Hill Ranch in the near future? Fortunately, money issues aren't as pressing as they were at this time last year. Ed Bass, a Texan with business interests in the Flint Hills, pre-paid more than $2 million in rentals for a 35-year grazing lease, which commenced March 1 on 10,734 acres of the property.

"The lease doesn't include some 60-acres of the ranch where the historic buildings are located," Zurhellen says. 'These will continue to be open to the public under the NPT management. Should we want to, the terms of the lease allow us to buy back the grazing rights at any time for purposes of establishing a national park unit.


"What we were able to do with this money, and another $1 million donation he made, is to pay off a considerable portion of the $4.8 million debt we incurred by buying the ranch. This unique arrangement also has made it possible for Chase County to continue deriving tax revenues from the property," she adds. Zurhellen admits opposition to the Z Bar/Spring Hill Ranch being incorporated into the National Park System has been vocal through the years, particularly from area ranchers. But, the current land management arrangement has eased some of their fears that the government will eventually take over their lands.

'Just across the road from us is a sign that says 'Private Lands In Private Hands,''' she points out, "and you'll see more of them throughout the county. What's encouraging to me is that the paint is fading on many of the signs and new ones aren't being put up. Another good indication that we're being accepted is that the Flint Hills Rodeo Association, which puts on the county's largest annual summer event at Strong City, has visited with me on a number of occasions to make sure we'll be open for tours during their celebration."


More From Our Archives

View ALl

From the Archives: Remembering John Steuart Curry

Jan 15, 2024

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the winter of 1992 by Don Lambert… Read More

From the Archives: Birth of the Helicopter

Jan 08, 2024

Editor’s Note This article was originally featured in the winter issue of 1983 by Joan L… Read More

From the Archives: Kansas Outlaws

Oct 05, 2023

The Sunflower State is known for its famous lawmen—but its infamous villains are legendary as… Read More

From the Archives: A Slice of Rural Life

Aug 24, 2023

The Kansas Sampler Festival, the annual two-day gathering hosted by the Penner family on their farm… Read More

Discovering Lewis and Clark

Jun 26, 2023

Editor's note: This article was originally featured in the winter issue of 2003. Quotes and… Read More