By Becky Bach
As the orchestra ripped into “The Plow that Broke the Plains,” several attendees stood up, scanning the horizon, where the prairie grass met the vast blue sky. Others perched on the edge of their seats, peering north. Before long, dozens were rushing to the aisles. And what a sight: behind the stage, a ribbon of cattle, hundreds of Hereford-Angus heifers galloping south, the stragglers shepherded by cowboys, real-deal horse-riding cowboys.
I’m at the most spectacular show you’ve never heard of, held each June, when the grass is lush and the days long. It started simply, back in ’94 when Kansas rancher Jane Koger decided to do it up big for her 40th birthday. Koger lives in the Flint Hills, a strip of never-plowed tallgrass prairie that stretches north-to-south through eastern Kansas, a grass-growing region next-to-none that rears many of the 5.8 million cattle that pass through Kansas each year. A cattle ranch might not be an obvious site for a symphony concert, but that didn’t stop Koger. She invited a few musicians, they invited a few of their friends, and soon word spread like a prairie blaze. Can’t be done, the folks in Matfield Green, her tiny town of about 50 people, told her. Koger, a long-time feminist, must have finally gone batty, they said. What if it rains? And, who would show up?
About 3,000 people, it turns out, though it took so much organizing Koger was closer to 41 than 40 by the time the big day rolled around. The revelers included some city dwellers from Wichita or Kansas City — enjoying a jaunt to the country — and the locals, curious as all get out and hungry for a bit of high culture.
“I loved just trying to take something that hadn’t been done and seeing if we could do it,” Koger says. The fourth-generation Flint Hills rancher adored both music and her family’s ranch; she says she wanted to share them with her friends “in both worlds.”
It was quite the bash, everyone agrees. Admission was free, with a charge for the beer and burgers from Lawrence’s Free State Brewery. Revelers sprawed on the grass, enjoying a rousing rendition of Aaron Copeland’s “Appalacian Spring,” heading home as the sun dipped low. Beautiful weather and thrilling performances. A one-time thing, to be sure.
“It was totally exhausting,” Koger says. “It took an army of volunteers… I wasn’t ever going to do it again.”
But Koger’s concert was such a sensation, it stuck. It dug into the hearts and minds of those who were there, sprouting roots as thick as those wedged into the rocky soil found in these parts. In 2006, the first official Symphony in the Flint Hills was held. Now in its ninth year, Koger’s birthday bash morphed into a nonprofit organization with a board of directors, full-time staff and hundreds of volunteers.
Each June, it stages the eponymous concert, attracting a sold-out crowd of 7,000 or so. The event is a force as strong as the wind whipping across the plains and festive as strawberry shortcake with vanilla ice cream — which was desert for those who ponied up $1,250 for a pair of tickets, plus perks. General admission is $90. Every year, the event is held on a different Flint Hills ranch. Attendees can listen to cultural talks, explore the prairie, munch on a burger, or stay late and stargaze. And, the signature event: A performance by the Kansas City Symphony under the vast blue sky.)
Call it a Midwestern Burning Man packed into a single day, minus the drug-fueled euphoria, throbbing trance beat, and the neo-hippies. That said, the SFH serves up a rare Midwestern brew: a refreshing blend of urban artistic, environmental types with a strong showing of pure-bred truck-driving county folk, topped by Kansas’ Gov. Sam Brownback — who made a jeans-clad appearance, as he does most every year. (The crowd, however, is fairly homogenous. Most everyone is white. This is, after all, Kansas.)
It’s no small feat to produce a symphony concert in the middle of nowhere Kansas, a different middle of nowhere each year, miles from the nearest paved road.
This year, SFH was held June 14, on Rosalia Ranch in Butler County about an hour northeast of Wichita.
Driving through, it’s clearly cattle country. Hardly a tree in sight, just prairie, miles of grass capped by a deep blue sky. Layers of limestone and slate underlie these grasslands, chunks of flint speckle the surface. Its too rocky to plow, but packed with minerals that allow the grass to grow thick and juicy, nourishing cattle, which can gain up to four pounds a day during their mid-life stay in the Flint Hills.
It’s country that radiates a “quiet, calm beauty,” still appearing like it did 10,000 years ago, says Jim Hoy, a fourth-generation Flint Hillsman who teaches Kansas culture and literature at Emporia State University. He also serves on the board of SFH.
“The Flint Hills do not take your breath away, they give you a chance to catch your breath,” Hoy says. That’s tough in these times of Instagram attention spans, he said. And that, for Hoy, is why the SFH is wonderful, even necessary.
“The Flint Hills is both a fragile and a durable area that we need to protect and take care of it,” Hoy said. It’s one of the last stands of tallgrass prairie in the world — only 4 percent of tallgrass remains, according to the National Park Service. Nearly everywhere else, prairie has been plowed under.
For Rosalia Ranch manager Bill Oates, teaching others to care about the prairie — and where their dinner comes from — is worth the event’s trampled grass.
“It helps people understand what we do so they don’t hate us for raising beef,” Oates said. “It’s good for the community.”
Oates works for Gottsch Cattle Company, which owns the 10,000-acre Rosalia Ranch. Gottsch was founded in Nebraska by World War II veteran Bob Gottsch, who, according to his biography, “Never Back Down”, was “square cut and bull strong, with live-wire eyes… He’d work you into the ground any day of the week — every day of the week.”
Gottsch didn’t live to see the SFH, but he would have spotted the products of hard work when he saw it.
Giant white tents pocked the event site, billowing in the gale-force wind. Attendees streamed in all afternoon, some lying on blankets near the stage, others checking out lectures on Native Americans or the conservation easements, or grabbing a fresh-flipped burger. Some spread out, searching for a bit of solace or rested in a tent, a respite from the beating sun and the wind. Kids jostled to ride in the covered wagons.
And as the sun dipped low, attendees gathered around the main stage, where the Kansas City Symphony kicked off a thrilling all-Americana performance. It was a shebang of rumbling snares, scurrying strings and trilling winds, backed by view of miles of rolling emerald prairie. More....