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A man in cowboy hat stands in the middle of a rural road next to a black horse and white pickup truck.

Just another day at the office for Josh Hoy in Flint Hills, Kansas.

Photo © Mark Feiden, 2018

  • How Ranchers in the Flint Hills of Kansas Cope with the COVID Pandemic

    It sneaks up on you. I realized today that I have spent nearly forty years (almost two-thirds of my life) documenting middle America. I have a special interest in the Flint Hills region of eastern Kansas—4.5 million acres that represent one of the last significant stands of tallgrass prairie in North America. Just eighty miles or so at its widest, this narrow oval of land, bisecting Kansas and extending into Oklahoma, is all that remains of a diverse prairie ecosystem that once stretched from Canada to Texas, and from the Great Plains to the forests of the East. According to the Nature Conservancy, less than four percent of the world’s tallgrass prairie remains—and most of that is in Kansas.

    Saved from the plow by a layer of “flinty” rock lying just beneath the surface, this last little bit of lush, protein-rich, bluestem prairie is one of the most economical places in the world to add weight to livestock. It is estimated that more than a million head of cattle are fattened here each summer. As has been the case since the earliest days of statehood, it is a ranching economy that underpins the Flint Hills, and it is the stockman who serves as the principal steward of the land.

    My journey of discovery began innocently enough—with a borrowed film camera and a desire to learn something of my family’s history. How I tumbled from a long weekend in the Flint Hills into four decades of photography, publishing, and advocacy is beyond me! But I wouldn’t trade it. Though I will forever be in love with the landscape, the best part of this adventure, by far, has been the people I’ve met along the way.

    In 2017, I launched Emil Redmon’s Cow—a growing archive of stories collected from older farm and ranch folk. The initial focus of the project has been the Flint Hills. The name references a neighbor of my great-great-grandparents and represents all the stories about my own family that I will never get to hear. When I tell people about what I am doing, I ask what they might give to hear one of their grandfather’s grandfathers tell a good story. I believe it is important to preserve tomorrow’s history today.

    In April 2020, an old friend who works for the Smithsonian reached out to me with an idea. She had been following this project and wondered if I would be interested in checking in with some of the folks I had interviewed to see how they were coping with the pandemic. Of course I was happy to collaborate, share my work, and visit with my friends on the prairie.

    I met with nine people over a two-month period. The interviews were casual and unstructured. I simply wanted to see how they were doing and what they were thinking. It is important to remember that these were the very early days of the pandemic. On May 21, 2020, when the first of these interviews was recorded, Kansas was under a statewide stay-at-home order but had only experienced 204 deaths (today, that number is 5,719). As of September 2021, sparsely populated (2,811) Chase County, where two of the interviews were filmed, has experienced just three COVID-19 deaths.

    The interviews below are organized in the order made. For context, I have provided just a little bit of background and links to earlier conversations.

    Josh, Gwen, and Josie Hoy

    Recorded May 21, 2020 | Read transcript

    Josh, Gwen, and daughter Josie Hoy make their home on the Flying W—a ranch that Josh founded, with cousin Warren Kruse, in 1996. When Warren was killed in a plane crash, Josh and Gwen turned, quite successfully, to an agritourism model to keep the ranch alive. I had not interviewed Josh, Gwen, or Josie before, but I chose to include them because I knew that their tourism-augmented business model put their livelihood at risk.

    Evelyn Zeckser and John Hund

    Recorded May 31, 2020 | Read transcript

    It was a chance meeting with John Hund, at the time president of the Wabaunsee County Historical Society and Museum board, that turned my idea for Emil Redmon’s Cow into reality. He has helped me conduct several interviews—including the very first one with his friend Martin Gnadt. John was instrumental in arranging our memorable 2019 interview with ninety-nine-year-old best friends Evelyn Zeckser and Mary Schultz. Sadly, Mary passed away in 2020, just shy of her hundredth birthday. I was happy to have any excuse to see Evelyn and thought it might be interesting to put John on the other side of the camera.

    Dennis Hague and Piper Hayes

    Recorded June 6, 2020 | Read transcript

    The D.S. (Sauble) Ranch is the oldest continuously operating ranch in Kansas and among the oldest in the United States. Dennis and Susan Hague (neé Sauble) are the fourth generation to manage the ranch, and they are pleased that granddaughter Piper Hayes has taken an active interest and is involved in day-to-day operations. I originally interviewed Piper and Dennis in 2019.

    Jim Hoy

    Recorded June 6, 2020 | Read transcript

    Jim Hoy is the only man I know to have won a rodeo event and earned a doctorate on the same day. A retired professor who still cowboys, Jim is a well-known author and folklorist who has generously collaborated with me on several projects and is an advisor to Emil Redmon’s Cow. Jim was not on my original list because I didn’t want to double up on Hoys, but I stopped to say hello and one thing led to another. I first interviewed Jim in January of last year. He is the only person I’ve interviewed to offer a song.

    Bill Brethour

    Recorded July 12, 2020 | Read transcript

    Bill Brethour is a retired veterinarian who lived and practiced in Wamego, Kansas, until assuming operation of the historic Tod Ranch that his parents purchased in 1954. I first interviewed Bill in 2018 and was bowled over by his presentation. He could easily have a third career in television! With a background in both ranching and science, I thought he would offer an interesting perspective. 

    Epilogue

    In January 2020, Evilyn Zeckser celebrated her 101st birthday. Before COVID-19 vaccinations were available, John Hund and his wife, a social worker, both contracted the virus. Both have fully recovered and been vaccinated.

    The forced restructuring turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Flying W. When I last checked in, Josh, Gwen, and Josie, with Jim’s help, were busy shipping cattle and were doing well.

    I have not had an opportunity to catch up with Dennis and Piper.  

    In August 2021, Bill Brethour was hospitalized in Kansas City with the Delta variant. Because he was fully vaccinated, he had a relatively mild case and has made a full recovery.

    Mark Feiden is a designer, writer, and photographer based in Kansas City. He is the co-founder of The Konza Press, which publishes books and fine-art prints celebrating “plains folk” and prairie landscapes.


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