For 150 years, ‘Home’ has been wherever you sing this song

January 23, 2022 3:33 am

The “Home on the Range” cabin has been furnished to resemble what it would have looked like when Brewster Higley lived there in the 1870s. This is the site where Higley wrote the famous poem, which would later be set to music and became an anthem for the American west. (Michael G. Saft)

Brewster Higley is an enigma.

When he came to Kansas in 1871, he was already pushing 50, so frontier life must have been a special challenge. Higley was a physician, what we would today call an ear, nose and throat specialist. But in rural and remote Smith County, up near the geographic center of the contiguous United States near the Nebraska line, he was a simple country doctor. He amputated limbs with a handsaw, battled typhoid, patched up gunshot wounds.

And he wrote the words to what would become the unofficial anthem of the American cowboy. One hundred and fifty years later, the first line of Higley’s poem-turned-song is immediately recognizable:

“Oh, give me a home …”

As a kid growing up in Kansas, I didn’t think much about the song. It was just always there, part of a collective soundtrack played live at school recitals and wafted from the AM radio on the kitchen table. “Home” was in my old Mel Bay guitar book, but I skipped over it, searching instead for the power chords I hoped (in vain) would make me cool. But in the past few months, I have revisited the song, and have been struck by how each generation has made the old tune its own.

“Home on the Range” became the state song of Kansas in 1947, but it was wildly popular before that. It has been covered by artists from Bing Crosby (1933) to the prog rock band Kansas (2016). A campfire favorite, it’s relatively easy to learn, and you can hear it played at just about any old-fashioned acoustic guitar gathering. It’s also been a lightning rod for claims of plagiarism. Various states have claimed the song as their own, including Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.

There is little doubt now that Higley was the author.

What is less certain is what motivated him to come to Kansas in the first place.

This 1946 brochure, published a year before “Home on the Range” became the state song of Kansas, includes the original poem by Brewster Higley (Michael G. Saft)

“Dr. Brewster Higley was an eccentric character,” wrote his friend, editor W. H. Nelson, in a 1914 edition of the Smith County Pioneer. Nelson recalled Higley, an amateur poet, as “rough and uncouth in appearance, but with a heart filled with poetry and compassion for suffering humanity.”

Back in Indiana, Higley left a life marked chiefly for its unhappiness. Those who knew him there recounted for historians in the decades to come his family’s poverty, his marriages, his losing battle with the bottle. He had good reason to be a troubled and lonely man. His first three wives died, according to C.M. Cooper in the Great Plains Quarterly. When he married a fourth woman, Mercy Ann McPherson, a widow with a young son, the union apparently proved so disagreeable (possibly for both parties) that he sent his own two children to live with relatives in Illinois and left, secretly, for Kansas. For years, according to Cooper, nobody in Indiana knew where Higley had gone.

Brewster Higley (KansasMemory.org/Kansas State Historical Society)

Higley took with him a borrowed revolver and an ambition, apparently, to make a new life by homesteading in Kansas. After spending the first year in a boarding house, he staked a claim on Beaver Creek in Smith County and built a one-room dugout. It was there in 1872 that he wrote the poem that begins with the line, “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam.” The poem was published in the Smith County Pioneer a year later.

Then Higley forgot about the poem for a year or so until a friend found it tucked into one of the doctor’s books. The friend urged Higley to set the poem to music, and Smith County neighbor Dan Kelley, a musician and Civil War veteran, came up with the melody that would be recognizable to us today. Kelley played the song with the local Harlan Brothers band, and a refrain was added that mentioned clear skies and no discouraging words. From there, the song took wing on the cattle trails, being passed from singer to singer, performed in somewhat different versions.

There have been several fanciful retellings of how Higley came to write the song, including a dubious 1947 biography by Margaret Nelson that purports to show his thought process as he penned each line. One of the most common stories is that Higley was waiting for a deer to wander by his cabin so he could shoot it for supper (presumably not with the borrowed revolver) when, tired of waiting, he began writing about what he observed at his cabin door. But Cooper, who wrote the piece in the Great Plains Quarterly, treats such stories with suspicion; it is unlikely that Higley was writing about things he saw at the dugout, because by 1872 there probably weren’t any buffalo left in Smith County. Likewise antelopes, or swans gliding along Beaver Creek.

“The landscape that Higley has created in his poem,” Cooper opines, “is an ideal conglomeration of benevolent forces, a perfect and peaceful ‘garden of the West.’ ”

That may be the point of “Home on the Range,” a yearning for a life someplace pleasant and peaceful where the animals are at play, and not needed for dinner. Certainly Higley was looking for a home, and perhaps he found it in the three years or so he lived in the dugout, and the cabin he built later.

Decades later, the song was a staple of the Golden Age of radio. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt told reporters “Home on the Range” was his favorite, it became the most popular song on the air. Most performers thought it was a traditional folk tune and in the public domain. But in 1934, stations stopped playing the song because an Arizona couple, William and Mary Goodwin, filed a $500,000 lawsuit against NBC claiming copyright infringement. They were the authors, they claimed, and had published sheet music to it, as “My Arizona Home,” in 1905.

A New York attorney, Samuel Moanfeldt, was hired by NBC to find the truth, and the trail led him to Smith County and the version published in the Pioneer in 1873. Although the edition of the newspaper that originally carried the poem had been lost, editor Nelson republished the poem in 1914. More importantly, another local paper, the Kirwin Chief, had reprinted the poem in 1876, and those copies were available.

That settled the case for the Goodwins, but it didn’t stop many others over the years from claiming they wrote the song. And while the preponderance of the evidence weighs heavily in favor of Higley, folklorist John A. Lomax Sr. had doubts, because he had a letter from a Texan claiming to have known the song as early as 1867. Lomax, who first heard the song from a Black saloon keeper and former cowboy, had published the song in 1910 in his anthology, “Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.”

The “Home on the Range” cabin has been furnished to resemble what it would have looked like when Brewster Higley lived there in the 1870s. This is the site where Higley wrote the famous poem, which would later be set to music and became an anthem for the American west. (Michael G. Saft)

So, what is it about the song that has kept it going for 150 years?

For El Dean Holthus, that’s an easy answer.

“I challenge you to close your eyes and sing the chorus and not think of your home,” he told me.

Holthus, the spokesman for the Home on the Range Cabin, has given similar quotes to other journalists, but he delivers the line with such sincerity that you believe him every time. And, there is truth to what Holthus, an 89-year-old who has lived in Smith County all his life, except for stints at college and in the military, has to say. We all yearn for home. It’s hardwired into us, just as it was in Higley.

The song was near the top of the Western Writers of America’s Top 100 western songs. According to Johnny D. Boggs, the multiple Spur Award-winning novelist and editor of the WWA Roundup, the reason is simple.

“Why has ‘Home on the Range’ been recorded by artists ranging from Vernon Dalhart in 1927 to Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Lisa Loeb, Mitch Miller, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, practically every singing-cowboy movie star who ever strummed a guitar and the rock group Kansas? Because while it might be the state song of Kansas,” Boggs said, “its appeal is universal.”

The song gives us an idyllic world without storms or pollution, according to Boggs, where everyone gets along, even the animals.

“Alas, you won’t find that anywhere today,” he told me. “You probably couldn’t find it often in the late 1800s — but wouldn’t it be great if we could look at those stars and wonder if ‘their glory exceed that of ours’?”

My friend Jim Hoy, who has written about Flint Hills cowboys and just about everything else Kansan you could think of, talks about “Home on the Range” in a forthcoming book. He showed me a chapter from the manuscript in which he jokingly says he’s sorry for other states that don’t have such great songs.

“We can lay claim to the most melodious, most poetic, most well-known official state song in the whole country,” Hoy writes. He admits to a bit of hyperbole there, and says he really doesn’t know any other state songs, except for maybe “Oklahoma!”

Brewster Higley, a frontier doctor who wrote the poem “Home on the Range,” homesteaded in the 1870s along Beaver Creek in Smith County, Kansas. The cabin, made of native stone and wood, has been restored and the site is open daily to visitors. (Michael G. Saft)

A documentary about “Home on the Range,” directed by Ken Spurgeon and featuring Buck Taylor, was released in 2017. Filmed entirely in Kansas, it won a 2018 Western Heritage Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy and Western Museum at Oklahoma City. It was made with financial backing from the Peoples Heartland Foundation, a nonprofit that manages the Home on the Range Cabin site.

The cabin, which was in disrepair and used as a chicken coop when author Homer Croy visited it in the early 1940s, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. It was restored in 2013. While privately owned, it is open for tours daily “from daylight to dark,” according to the website.

Holthus, the cabin spokesman, said there is just something special about the site.

“You can come and sing the song on the spot where it was written,” he said.

Higley would never know how popular the lyrics he wrote along Beaver Creek would become. Those who knew him said he never thought much of the song and liked another tune he had written better. But, there would at least be some measure of happiness for the lonely medic with the troubled past.

In 1875, Higley married his fifth and final wife, Sarah Clemons.

He died in 1911, age 88, and is buried not in Kansas — but in Shawnee, Oklahoma.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.