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'O give me a home': The humble beginnings of the state song of Kansas

 In 1872, Brewster Higley wrote our state song, "Home on the Range," while homesteading in this cabin in Smith County.
Beccy Tanner
In 1872, Brewster Higley wrote our state song, "Home on the Range," while homesteading in this cabin in Smith County.

In a tiny Kansas cabin, perhaps the best-known folk song ever was written nearly 150 years ago.

On a tiny patch of land in Smith County, Brewster Higley wrote a six-verse poem in 1872 that he called “My Western Home.”

It was set to music by Dan Kelley of nearby Gaylord, who’d been a bugler during the Civil War and had enough background in music to give it a distinctive melody.

Kelley then gave the song with Higley’s poem to Smith County Judge John Harlan and his family, who first played the song publicly.

The Harlans added a chorus to the song:

“A Home—A Home—Where the deer and the antelope play – where seldom is heard a discouraging word—and the sky is not cloudy all day.”

None of the men attempted to copyright the song.

The song soon became famous and is now known throughout the world as “Home On The Range,” the state song of Kansas.

Higley came to Kansas from Ohio. He homesteaded on the banks of Beaver Creek in Smith County, near the Nebraska border in north-central Kansas.

His first three wives had died from illness and injury, and his fourth marriage became an unhappy union.

Higley moved far away from his matrimonial discord and, on the Kansas prairie, he found peace, which inspired "My Western Home."

In the 1870s, the song spread like wildfire. It gained popularity along cattle trails and in small-town dance halls.

The sheet music was published for the first time in 1910 by John Lomax, a Texas college professor researching folk music of the Old West. He labeled it “Home on the Range” and published it in the book, “Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads.”

Refrains of the song were heard everywhere, from pianos and pump organs in home parlors to artists who recorded it for phonographs and sang it over radio airways. In the heart of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt declared it his favorite song.

But then it was nearly stolen from Kansas.

In 1934, William and Mary Goodwin of Arizona claimed they wrote the song, “An Arizona Home,” and filed a lawsuit against radio giant NBC. For a time, the song was banned.

In the mid 1930s, Samuel Moanfeldt, an attorney for NBC, was hired to track down the song’s origin so that it could once again be played in public.

His findings showed the song’s Kansas roots.

In 1947, the Kansas Legislature declared “Home on the Range” the official song of Kansas.

“A German interviewer asked me what creates the popularity, and I said … ‘Close your eyes and sing the song .. I challenge you to not think of your home where you were born,' ” said El Dean Holthus, the spokesman for the Home on the Range Cabin.

Even now, as visitors make their way to the cabin — which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 — they sing the words.

A few weeks ago, Janet Hardee and her niece, Rachel Behney, both from Sumter, South Carolina, made a pilgrimage to the cabin.

“I love that song,” Hardee said. “This is probably my fifth time. I love places like this.”

Copyright 2021 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Beccy Tanner