Ottawa County, Kansas
for Professor Jim Hoy
Flint Hills Culture Seminar
July 31, 2000
It stands in pasture seventeen,
Fred Bowen, Cattleman
Fred Bowen put together one of the biggest ranches in Kansas in Ottawa County during the last decade of the 1800' and the first part of the 1900's. At his peak, he owned over 10,000 acres of prime grazing land and rented another 5,000 or so, besides farming another 700 for crops. He was a man of many talents and vision, and the niche he carved for himself in the grasslands of North Central Kansas still stands as true as the pinnacle of rock he built to mark his range.
Origins and early life
At 17, Fred was herding cattle on the open range country of Ottawa County. "He began piling up stones on a high point of ground that served as a point of reference as it was located on a rise that allowed the young cattle herder to see the cattle in all directions" (Adamson). He would take care of cattle driven in from places like Brookville, Wakefield, and Abilene during the summer grazing season for the price of $1.00 a head, and also picked up longhorn cattle from the "long drive" from Texas to Abilene, generally known as the "Chisholm Trail" (Lambert). The herds would usually run from 500 to 700 cattle. During the days as he watched the animals, he would pick up rocks and carry them to the tallest hill in the area, where he would later lay them up into the pinnacle. Over the years, Bowen would add to this stone pillar until it eventually stood almost ten feet high. He placed the last rock onto it by standing on the saddle of his favorite horse, Possum, a white cow pony he bought from a Texas rancher. When he died in 1940, pictures of both the pinnacle and Possum were carved into his tombstone.
The original homestead
In March of 1884, Bowen bought the southeast quarter of Section 16
in Durham Township, Ottawa County, Kansas, under the direction of an
act that provided for the lawful sale of school lands (Lambert). The
sale was approved in 1886, and Bowen bought his first 160 acres for
$560. He paid the treasurer of Ottawa County $56 down, and took an obligation
to pay the rest at an interest rate of 6%. No payment was to be less
than $25. According to the Ottawa County tax records, Bowen paid off
on what he owed three years later on January 28, 1889. His empire was
started.Always a good cowboy, Bowen first built a stable for his horses
on this land, sleeping in the loft until he later built his living quarters.
He had started construction as early as 1881 on a 20 by 9 rock house
before he had even bought the land, a structure which is stil1 standing
today. He built the north half into a bank, thus protecting it from
the winter cold and the summer heat. In this residence he lived as a
bachelor for a number of years until he built a wood frame house. Then
he used the rock house as a bunk house for his ranch hands. Bowen worked
hard. He weathered "the great blizzard of the winter of 1887 and
' 88, when many ranchers in the Plains States had their cattle herds
decimated by that extremely harsh winter" (Adamson).---
Bowen made trips to Texas annually to buy cattle to fatten out on his range, which he claimed was some of the best grass in Kansas. By 1911 Bowen was shipping whole trains of cattle to his ranch (Adamson). The Longford Leader, the local newspaper, reported about a shipment that arrived in Vine Creek: "It was the longest and largest train ever run from station to station for an entire division in the state of Texas. This remarkable train was run over the Santa Fe from Bovina, Texas, to Canadian, Texas, consisting of 72 large cattle cars containing 2,175 head of cattle, owned by Fred J. Bowen of the little city of Longford, (Kansas). The train was pulled by one of the 12 drive-wheel class of big engines of the Santa Fe. This engine is over 110 feet long, and with 72 cattle cars (30 head per car--40 feet long inside measurement) and a way car, it certainly made some train. From Canadian, Texas, to Neva, Kansas, there were two trains, and when they started up the branch the trains were cut up so there were four trains that pulled them into the Vine Creek Stock Yards." (Fred Bowen's Cattle)
Ray O. Smith, a man who later achieved some fame for his buffalo herds and the building of his buffalo monument, worked for Bowen when he was a teenager. Smith said he could recall hearing the cattle trains heading for Vine Creek strain as they headed up the grade near Manchester at around two or three in the morning. When he would hear that train, Smith would get up, saddle his horse, and head to the stock yards to drive the cattle out to the Bowen ranch (Adamson). Smith's buffalo herd now grazes on land that used to fatten Bowen's cattle. In 1929 the Minneapolis Messenger ran a story titled "The Biggest Land Sale Ever Made in Ottawa County," and in the article mentioned that Bowen usually bought several train loads of cattle at a time in the spring, shipping them up from Texas. "As many are brought to this county as can be taken care of here, and others are pastured on the extensive grazing lands of Marion and Chase counties and elsewhere. Last spring, Kansas City papers had big Write-ups of a deal where he purchased 5,000 head of Cattle at one time for the 1928 grazing season" (February 7, 1929). Bowen was using Kansas City bankers to finance his operation, and was also renting pastures in the Flint Hills to fatten up his steers.
Trips to Texas
Bowen was well known both here in Kansas and down in Texas. Apparently his cattle buying trips were fairly predictable, for he was a target for thieves on more than one occasion. He wouldn't talk about them much, but when his Oldsmobile coup came back with bullet holes in it one time in the thirties, he told his family that some bandits had set up a blockade to rob him, and when he crashed through it, they shot at him. He didn't stop and they didn't wound him, so he went on to complete his mission (Lambert)
Bowen lived the life of a bachelor for many of his early years, rising early and working long hours riding the range and taking care of his cattle. According to The Minneapolis Messenger, he was well known for keeping a close track of the animals he was caring for ("Biggest Land Sale... "). He used powerful field glasses to count his herd every day and to check for animals who needed doctoring and for strays. This careful accounting and diligence accounted in no small way for his success. Bowen was also reputed to show a fine hand at the stove. "This young man had a real ranch home and became an excellent cook, doing the cooking himself for the many ranch hands he always employed. He is an expert in the making of hot biscuits and pancakes" ("The Man of the Prairie").
After he was established, he brought his mother to his ranch to take care of her, and she stayed with him until her death. In 1919, Bowen hired Carrie Wolf, a local widow with two sons, to be his housekeeper, and a couple of years later married her when he was 60 years old. The union was a happy one, and the ranch became known far and wide for the hospitality it offered to all who came. Among Carrie's accomplishments was an ability to play the piano, and she often seconded her husband when he would play the violin for guests and visitors. One of their favorite tunes was "Over the Waves" (Lambert)."
"Once in a while Freddie has a birthday, and Carrie plans a surprise on him. It is a most happy privilege to be present at one of these "occasions" the spacious rooms filled with interesting guests from the countryside about, a merry buzz of lively conversation and laughter. And then the guest of honor entertains with beautiful strains of music from his violin, accompanied on the piano by his wife. Freddie plays both the violin and the piano beautifully." (Marty)
Bowen the Businessman
Music wasn't Bowen's only talent. He was also something of an artist, and kept a sketch book filled with drawings of horses, cattle, landscapes, and buildings. He was also an economist of sorts, with theories about how the cycles of the economy would affect the cattle market. "In one of his violin books, Bowen drew a chart of cycles he felt were predictable with regard to "panic years," "Years of good times," and "Years of hard times"(Adamson). Bowen's chart covered the span from 1837 to 1983; it is not dated, but probably was done in 1911 or so. Bowen used this information to help him weather the violent economic storms of the decades before and after the turn of the century. In the 30's during the depression, he lost some of the land he had purchased, but later in his life he regained it. He used financial backers in Kansas City for many of his dealings, and when the crash occurred on Wall Street in 1929, he had borrowed fairly heavily to purchase land. According to the Minneapolis Messenger, Bowen, "who was previously a heavy land owner in the county purchased nine and a half sections known as the Hapgood lands in Durham, Richland, and Ottawa Townships... .Mr. Bowen not only has the largest ranch in this county but also the largest in this part of the state" (Biggest Land Sale Ever...). The same article also says that Bowen typically brought in more than a hundred carloads of Texas cattle to put on pasture. "Like many ranchers in the 1930's his economic theories not withstanding, Bowen lost some of his land during the depression. But Fred J. Bowen was a proud man, a determined man. He fought back and bought back most of the land" (Adamson).
The legacy of the Bowen Ranch
The Minneapolis Messenger carried news of Bowen's death and described his visit to town at age 78 in late spring of 1940, not long before he died. "He was last in town about three months ago. He was in splendid spirits and was preparing to go soon on a trip to Fort Worth, Texas. At that time, he had about 4,000 head of cattle on the ranch, which comprises several thousand acres" ("Prominent Cattleman Dies"). The last shipment of Bowen's cattle was made in October of 1940. He died November 24, 1940, at age 78. The ranch was divided among heirs. "Some was sold, but even today, the remnants contain huge pastures, reminders of prairies past and the days when cattle made kings of cowboys" (Adamson). Bowen is buried in the Rose Meron Cemetery near Longford beneath a tombstone that bears the engravings of his favorite cattle horse (Possum), the pinnacle of stones he built as a teenage cowboy, and his ornate signature.Time changes all things, some more than others. The stockyards of Vine Creek were torn down in the 1960's, and the town itself is just a name on the prairie without buildings. Longford is a small community which has a good rodeo, an elevator, a few houses, and a bar called Slim's (the sign says 'Hamburgers and Ammunition').
None of the ranch owners carry the name Bowen; he had no children of
his own, just his stepsons from Carrie's side. However, cattle still
dot the grassland that Bowen claimed, and the prairie landscapes spread
out beneath the pinnacle of stone that the young herdsman piled up over
a century ago. Many of the pastures are accessible only by horseback
or four wheel drive pickups, and each fall the cowboys gather to round
up the livestock which have fattened on the bluestem and grama grass
over the summer. Semi trucks and cattle trailers move the cattle to
grass now, and the lonesome whistle of Bowen's cattle trains is just
a ghostly wind in the night. Meadowlarks still sing in the spring, though,
and the cattle still graze the prairies that gave rise to the legacy
of Fred J. Bowen's ranch.
Adamson, Elby. "Fred J. Bowen... A Giant Among Kansas Cattlemen." Kanhistique. October, 1997.
"Biggest Land Sale Ever Made in Ottawa County." The Minneapolis Messenger. February 7, 1929.
"Fred Bowen's Cattle." The Minneapolis Messenger. May 4, 1911.
Lambert, Co11een (step granddaughter of Fred J. Bowen).
"Little Journeys to Ottawa County Farms: County's most extensive
Marty, Isabella. "The Man of the Prairie." Kansas Stockman. September 15, 1940.
"Prominent Cattleman Dies." The Minneapolis Messenger: Vine Creek News. July 28, 1940
"The Fred J. Bowen Ranch Home in this County." The Minneapolis
Messenger. July 30, 1925.
Fred J. Bowen
The Longford community was greatly saddened when the word came that
the earthly life of its much beloved "Fred Bowen" had come
to its close. His life's story is as follows:
Fredrick James Bowen was born in Michigan City, Indiana, March 6,
1862. He spent his boyhood days in Indiana, coming to Kansas in his
early teens, where he herded cattle on the open range. Very faithfully
this young lad watched the herd by day and kept careful vigil over them
by night. Later he came to own cattle of his own, first renting range
for them, and later purchasing and fencing pasture land. His mother,
in her declining years, made her home with him, where she was very tenderly
cared for by her devoted son.
Life's day is done;
This obituary was written by Isabelle Marty (a long time resident
of Longford, Kansas.) She and her brother Oliver Marty operated the
bank in Longford after their father died.
FRED J. BOWEN
Born in Michigan City, Indiana, on March 6, 1862. Came to Kansas in his early teens with his father Henry Bowen who homesteaded the N. W. quarter of Sec. 22.