Brewster Higley headed west to Kansas from Indiana in 1871 to find some peace and quiet. He wanted to build a home and write poetry. He was tired of doctoring, listening to people’s complaints, and not getting paid. His house didn’t even have a door; he climbed in and out through a window. Besides, his wife spent her time complaining about no money.
Higley homesteaded a plot in Smith County, Kansas, on the banks of Beaver Creek, near current day Athol, Kansas. He loved the bright sky during the day and the stars overhead at night. During his first winter, he made a dugout on his newly claimed land. In 1872, he built a cabin with three limestone walls and a fourth of logs. He added a door with a latchstring lock and two small windows. Peacefully, he sat by a small iron stove in his cabin or on the bank of Beaver Creek and played his violin and wrote poetry. One of his poems, “My Western Home”, was published in the Smith County Pioneer newspaper with verses such as this one:
How often at night, when the heavens are bright
By the light of the glittering stars,
Have I stood there amazed and asked as I gazed
If their beauty exceeds this of ours.
A friend, Dan Kelley wrote a melody to accompany it, and the Harlan brothers, friends of Higley’s, performed it for the first time at a dance in their home. Most anyone who heard it started singing it and took it as his and her own.
Cowboys especially liked it. Their homes typically were dusty trails, rocks for pillows, and burnt camp-fire corn bread. Settlers going west in their covered wagons liked to sing about having a home of their own, too, a way to believe that better days were ahead.
Oh! Give me a land where the bright diamond sand
Throws its light from the glittering streams,
Where glideth along the graceful white swan,
Like the maid in her heavenly dreams.
As these cowboys moved to new locations, they took the song with them and added and subtracted words. They changed the song’s title to make it their own. For example, “My Western Home” became “Home on the Range” and later became “My Colorado Home” for some.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided “Home on the Range” was his favorite song, too. In 1933, newspaper reporters stood on Roosevelt’s porch and sang it to him the night he was inaugurated. Roosevelt believed the song gave Americans hope after the Great Depression had left them poor and discouraged.
Nobody knows for sure why Dr. Higley wrote the poem. He might have written it in memory of the Kansas prairie before homesteaders carved up the land into farms and towns after 1862. Buffalo herds had been slaughtered by the thousands and American Indians driven from their homes. A verse from “Home on the Range’ shows his sadness about the disappearance of Native Americans.
The Red man was pressed from this part of the west,
He’s likely no more to return,
To the banks of the Red River
Where seldom if ever
Their flickering campfires burn.
Dr. Higley’s cabin has lasted as long as the song. In the 1950s, a Smith County civic club replaced rotted logs, and in 1980, farmers in the area braced the stone walls. Today, artists and singers come to see the cabin, paint or photograph it and its setting, stand in the doorway and sing the famous song in its presence. Looking out the small windows, they might imagine a bob cat slinking by with its eye on a white tail deer or a covey of quail proudly marching along. And if they are there alone, they might close their eyes, take a deep breath, and understand the peace and quiet Dr. Higley found in the first place.
As popular as “Home on the Range” became, Dr. Higley never knew how many people loved his writing. In fact, “Home on the Ranage” is still sung by cowboys, learned by school children, and loved by people around the world. But Dr. Higley moved on, first to Arkansas in 1886 and then to Oklahoma in 1892, where he died in 1911.
The cabin, to date, has been completely restored and is open for visitors. Check the website for directions. http://www.kansastravel.org/homeontherangecabin.htm