IN THE FLINT HILLS OF KANSAS – Outside the isolation chamber that is my automobile, I’m not one for sing-alongs – but I changed my tune as a full orchestra pushed the melody of “Home on the Range” across the Kansas prairie and 7,000 people began to sing.
The occasion was the Symphony in the Flint Hills, an annual concert/picnic/party that draws an appreciative crowd into wide-open spaces for stirring music, a celebrity guest performer, a panoramic sunset and that “Home on the Range” sing-along.
It is no small accomplishment to set up a stage, import the Kansas City Symphony, erect pavilions, arrange catering and address all of the other needs of a crowd of thousands, but it happens every summer for a good cause.
That cause is heightening the public’s appreciation and knowledge of the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie, a region of the state that seems big but is only a tiny portion of the prairie that once covered the middle of North America. Of the 170 million acres of prairie that existed before settlement, only about 4 percent remain.
A not-so-simple birthday party was the origin of the prairie concert. In 1994, a rancher named Jane Koger celebrated her birthday by inviting the public to her Homestead Ranch for what she called the “Symphony on the Prairie.” More than 3,000 people came, demonstrating how a magical union between symphonic music and the prairie landscape can be created.
Ten years later, a grassroots organization (pun intended) formed to increase awareness of the prairie, and it presented the first Symphony in the Flint Hills in 2006. People now come from around the world to experience the magic that began with that long-ago birthday party.
The 2017 Symphony in the Flint Hills is June 10 on the Deer Horn Ranch between Abilene and Manhattan and a few miles south of Junction City. It’s a long way from the Kansas City Symphony’s fancy home, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. The guest artist is Michael Martin Murphey (singer of “Wildfire,” “Carolina in the Pines” and “What’s Forever For” and a real-life rancher).
A special aspect of the 2017 concert is a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Chisholm Trail, the cattle-drive route from Texas to Kansas in the decades after the Civil War. The lush grasslands of the Flint Hills were the cattle’s destination for some fattening up before becoming protein for a hungry nation.
Of course, there are ways to learn about the Flint Hills and the tallgrass prairie beyond a one-day concert.
· * Start at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Cottonwood Falls, a speck of a town with a beautiful courthouse, a surprisingly nice hotel and restaurant (the Grand Central Hotel, built in 1884), art galleries and the offices of the Symphony in the Flint Hills. The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, which encompasses 11,000 acres of rolling hills where buffalo really did roam, is a unit of the National Park Service.
· * Visit the Symphony in the Flint Hills Gallery in Cottonwood Falls for art exhibits, special programs and community events.
· * To do more than observe, spend a few days at the Flying W Ranch near Cedar Point, where you can ride horses, drive cattle, hike, marvel at dramatic sunsets and gaze at the stars. Josh, Gwen and Josie Hoy will make sure you understand the importance of the prairie, and they will feed you well, too.
· * If your time is short, invest it in the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan. Through permanent and temporary exhibits, videos and demonstrations, the center explains the geology, ecology and cultural history of the 22-county Flint Hills region.
My idea of the ultimate experience is a stay at the Flying W, a personal exploration of the region using Cottonwood Falls as home base and the rousing finale at the Symphony in the Flint Hills.
I learned that “Home on the Range” is the state song of Kansas, but if I get back, I’m going to request an extra sing-along of “Don’t Fence Me In,” another fitting song for the location:
“Oh, give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above/
Don’t fence me in./
Let me ride through that wide open country that I love/
Don’t fence me in.”