Every year on January 29, Kansas residents living in and outside the state celebrate Kansas Day, the state’s birthday, by singing the official state song: Home of the Range. The folk song is a Kansas original and has become incredibly popular. In fact, it has become so popular that other states, such as Arizona and Colorado, have tried to claim it as their own. Commentator Katie Keckeisen knows best. She is the archivist of collections at the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka.
KPR Kansas Day – Home on the Cabin RangeBy Katie Keckeisen, Kansas Historical Society
In the fall of 1872, so the story goes, Dr. Brewster Higley came out of his cabin in Smith County, Kansas, sat down on the banks of nearby Beaver Creek, and wrote a poem to express his love for the land he now called home:
“Oh! give me a house, where buffalo roam, where deer and antelope play . . .”
Dr. Higley had moved to Kansas in 1871 to reclaim land under the Homestead Act. He had left his fourth wife, Mercy Ann, in Indiana and appeared to have no intention of returning to her. Historians later joked that perhaps the phrase “Where a discouraging word is seldom heard” referred to his ex-wife. Although he was known for being “a fond of drinks” and having a “rough and coarse appearance”, he was remembered by the locals as a kind and compassionate man.
The poem, originally titled “My Western Home,” was hidden away for a while, until one of Higley’s patients read it and told him it needed to be set to music. Daniel Kelly, a friend of Higley’s and a local musician, is credited with setting the piece to music. Kelley was a member of the famous Harlan orchestra with his wife and two brothers-in-law. Soon, “My Western Home” became a favorite dance tune in northeast Kansas.
As with most popular songs, the tune was picked up and carried throughout the West. It was incredibly popular with the cowboys as they rode the cattle trails between Kansas and Texas. In 1925, the song was published as sheet music in San Antonio, Texas. Later, David Guion revised the song for a Broadway show, where it was retitled “Home on the Range”. Released versions treated the song as all popular music, with no known composer or author.
“Home on the Range” exploded in popularity in 1933 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed it was his favorite song. In 1934, William and Mary Goodwin filed a lawsuit claiming that “Home on the Range” had been copyrighted by them in 1905 under the name “My Arizona Home”. New York attorney Samuel Moanfeldt was sent west to investigate the origins of the song. He traced it back to Kansas and found several veterans who remembered singing it with Harlan’s orchestra in 1874. The Goodwins’ claim never went to court.
In the 1940s, a printing of Dr. Higley’s 1874 poem was discovered in the Kirwin Chief, and the song was officially brought home to Kansas. It became the official state song on June 30, 1947.
While critics have argued that “Home on the Range” doesn’t “sell” Kansas enough, all attempts to change the state song have gone nowhere. Historian Kirke Mechem put it best: “Somehow, on the lonely prairie, an obscure poet and an unknown singer created […] the ideal expression of the love the Kansans feel for their unpredictable state.
Commentator Katie Keckeisen is a Kansan native and a second-generation employee of the Kansas Historical Society, where she is archivist of collections. She lives in Topeka.