Historical Timeline ...from a document written by Don Rowlison
Following the American Civil War, leaflets promoting land in the western United States, and especially Kansas, were distributed throughout Great Britain. Articles in newspapers and other periodicals contained letters from correspondents, emigrants, and travelers who were “prospecting” for lands and investments in the Great Plains. The opportunity to obtain 160 acres, or more, of land in America by homesteading or purchasing at a comparatively minimal cost was appealing to many Europeans who were, in many cases, crowded upon small tracts or compelled to pay rent by working or share-cropping to the “landed gentry.” The vast plains of the West were promoted as having a rich potential for agrarian pursuits whether it be horticultural or pastoral, and the potential for profit, although often exaggerated, caused many Europeans to be lured away from their homelands.
Don Rowlinson, Cottonwood Ranch curator
Abraham Pratt of Ripon, Yorkshire County, England, was one of the many who sought a “new life” in America. At age fifty-one, he was a widower with four grown children. He sold his liquor and mercantile business as well as his aerated bottling works and immigrated to America in 1878. Many of his acquaintances considered this a drastic move, but Pratt had been to America before. He had spent at least one year in California during the late 1840s while stranded with a British ship that had originally been assigned to a search party to rescue Sir John Franklin and his group I the Arctic.
By this, it may be surmised that Abraham Pratt was somewhat familiar with hardship and adventure. According to the descendants of Abraham Pratt, 3 after leaving Ripon in 1878, he traveled to central and south-central Nebraska in search of a suitable locale to establish a homestead. After being there for a short but undefined time he heard of promising land on the eastern High Plains of northwestern Kansas along the south or right bank of the South Solomon. Here he built a dugout overlooking a bend in the river’s valley, approximately one hundred miles east of the Colorado state line and forty-five miles south of the Nebraska line.
In late 1879 or early 1880, Abraham Pratt returned to England to visit his family and friends. While there he convinced his eldest son, John Fenton Pratt, to return with him to America, file for a homestead, and go into a ranching and farming partnership with him. Arriving in Kansas sometime in 1880, Fent, as John Fenton was called, obtained railroad land from the Kansas Pacific on the north side of the South Solomon. During his early years in Sheridan County he mostly dwelled with his father in the dugout.
In 1882, Abraham’s second son, Tom, arrived in Kansas to join his father and older brother. The next year the Pratts shared their home with Charles Foster, an old acquaintance from England, and two years later, James Foster, a brother, joined them. In 1885 a one-room stone house was constructed on Fent’s homestead in which the five bachelors lived during the severe winter of 1885-1886. Also, a bachelor half-brother to Abraham Pratt, James Kirk, who had previously homesteaded in Nebraska, joined his relatives in Sheridan County.
Another family of Pratts from Kirkstall, England, moved to the area in 1882 but was not related to the Abraham Pratt family. As might be imagined, the names cause some confusion to today’s historians. The second Pratt family purchased a ranch from Samuel Morgan, an Englishman and one of the first permanent homesteaders in the county. Thus, the George Pratt family of nine began ranching approximately four miles west of Abraham Pratt’s claim. Interestingly, although both Pratt families were from the same county in England, they were not acquainted until settling in Kansas.
The western part of Sheridan County is classified as Central High Tablelands, whereas the eastern part is Rolling Plains and Breaks. The elevation above sea level is approximately 2,250 feet along the South Solomon River in the eastern part and about 2,900 feet in the western part of the county. A rise of 650 feet in western Kansas elevation in thirty miles is rather dramatic. Currently, the main enterprises are farming and ranching with the principal crops being winter wheat, grain sorghum, and corn; much of the latter two are irrigated.
Sheridan County has a typical continental climate characterized by a wide variation in daily and seasonal temperatures. Winters, especially from December through February, are generally cold whereas warm summer temperatures are often enjoyed for six months of the year with variable spring and fall temperatures. Officially recorded temperatures have ranged from minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit in 1899 to 114 degrees Fahrenheit in 1940.
The annual average of precipitation for Sheridan County is 21.35 inches of which seventy-eight percent usually falls during the growing season from April through September. In two out of ten years the seasonal rainfall is approximately twelve inches. The average seasonal snowfall is twenty-nine inches; the greatest snow depth of 56.8 inches on the ground was recorded during the winter of 1923-1924. With the fluctuations of seasonal temperatures, snow seldom covers the ground for more than ten continuous days. The sun shines seventy-seven percent of the time possible in the summer and in the winter, sixty-nine percent. The prevailing winds are southerly with an average speed of thirteen miles per hour. The windiest months are usually March and April.
With these variations in the climate the precipitation is often marginal for growing successful farm crops. A deficiency of two inches of rainfall during the growing season may cause a crop to fail. The rainfall can be extremely heavy on occasion and is often accompanied by thunderstorms and high velocity winds which may be localized as are hailstorms and tornadoes. Agriculture on the High Plains has always been accomplished at a great risk.
In 1879, a large influx of potential settlers arrived in Sheridan County to file for homesteads. The settlement pattern was primarily east to west with most of the people filing for claims along the various streams and areas with live springs. A severe drought during the summer of 1880, combined with an invasion of grasshoppers in northwestern Kansas, prompted many of the would-be settlers to seek other areas for homesteading or to totally abandon their idea of farming on the High Plains. Many returned to the East, as the expression went, to “the wife’s folks.”
After 1880 landseekers began to trickle back into the area with a so-called “boom” year coming in 1884-1885. The newer settlers soon learned that the High Plains could wreak havoc in the winter as they experienced the severe blizzard of 1885-1886, known to local stockmen as the “Great Die-Up.”
The Third Biennial Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture for 1881-1882 gave this description of the county:
[Sheridan] is the second county from the Nebraska State line on the north, and the third from the Colorado border on the west…it was organized in 1880, and contains an area of 900 square miles [30 miles by 30 miles]. Of the eighty-one organized counties, it ranks last in population, and has but .86 inhabitants to each square mile, or less than one person to each 640 acres. The town of Kenneth situated a little north of the center, is the county seat. There are no railroads in the county. The nearest railroad point to Kenneth is Grainfield, in Gove County.
With the settlement of western Kansas, the state’s quarantine law against “through” Texas cattle was strongly enforced by local lawmen and grazing associations. This greatly diminished the numbers of range-bred cattle coming into the area for grazing or being driven through to stock northern ranges. A depression in the cattle market, a worldwide economic depression, and the severe blizzard or “Great Die-Up” of 1885-1886 opened much of the old cattle ranges for grazing sheep.
Many open range cattlemen had to condense their operations or to liquidate their holdings. With the lack of Texas cattle herds coming into the area, Kansas sheep men had an opportunity to increase their flocks and to take advantage of the free range, even during periods of drought. Since approximately five sheep are the equivalent of one cow in consuming vegetation, will eat a much wider variety of forage, and can graze the grass much shorter than cattle and horses, the sheep industry boomed until the mid-1890s in northwestern Kansas.
The Pratt family had an advantage over most of the incoming settlers because family members had their own capital to invest in a sheep ranch. They had enough funds to hire local labor, at a minimum of cost, and they were able to obtain fair profits from their flock. The former John Fenton Pratt ranch, now the state-owned Cottonwood Ranch near Studley, was the base for the Pratts’ sheep operation. Beginning in 1885, and for about three years, the family lived in a one-room native stone house at Cottonwood Ranch. Originally the outbuildings and corrals at the ranch were made of sod, but later, in the early 1890s, these were replaced by stone structures and a stone corral. In the mid-1880s a large sod corral was constructed approximately one and one-half miles northwest of Fent’s homestead to better utilize the range north of the South Solomon.
The complex of stone outbuildings at the ranch was constructed in a pattern similar to farms in the Yorkshire, England, area. That is, the southern faces of the buildings were aligned and then connected with a stone wall. This placement was used so that the walls of the buildings also served as walls for the corral, making convenient accessibility to the livestock. The location of the outbuildings was far enough away from the house so as to not interfere with household activities. The stone used in the construction of the house and outbuildings at Cottonwood Ranch, as well as at many of the other English homes in the area, was procured from land controlled by the Pratt family partnership. The stone was quarried and hauled one and one-half miles to the ranch headquarters by hired laborers for four to five dollars per cord.
Fent Pratt kept detailed records of his business transactions in a set of ledgers still retained by his grandchildren. Those ledgers, which have been microfilmed by the Kansas State Historical Society, contain a vast amount of information regarding his personal expenditures and those of the family’s combined agriculture operation. For example, on September 20, 1892, the total number of sheep owned by the family was 1,581 head: Abraham Pratt owned 100; Tom Pratt, 526; and Fent owned 955. Costs for maintaining the flock were prorated so that each individual paid his proportionate share and received his appropriate profit. The size of the flock was not large when compared with those of other sheep ranches but was an important factor in the family’s overall business operations.
The Pratts’ sheep operation was too complex for all of its details to be presented here. These business records include buying corn from local farmers for feed; payments to the hired herders at forty cents per day; shearing expenses; pounds of wool clipped and shipments made to dealers in Philadelphia and St. Louis; dates as to when the rams were turned out with the ewes; the trading of mutton for beef with neighboring Englishmen; and many other items.
As mentioned, sheep were important to the ranching operation of the Pratts, but other businesses also were indulged in by family members. For instance, Abraham Pratt owned the lumberyard in Skelton, now Studley, and Fent was a successful financier and investor. Tom had his own ranching and farming operation.”
Abraham Pratt and his sons continued with their flock of sheep until Abraham’s death in 1901. Shortly thereafter, Fent and Tom divided their father’s estate with their two sisters in England and pursued their individual business interests in Sheridan and Graham counties. Fent sold most of his land, except for his original homestead, and all of his sheep on 1902. the money from the proceeds of those sales was placed into various investments and was used to finance local settlers who mortgaged their land or livestock at an annual rate of ten to fifteen percent. Tom continued farming and ranching. Fent died in 1937 at the age of eight-one and Tom died in 1940 at the age of seventy-one.
In 1983 the State of Kansas purchased twenty-three acres of the John Fenton Pratt ranch, which included the remaining ranch buildings. The ranch, located just north of U.S. Highway 24 near the Sheridan-Graham County line, is managed as a state historic site by the Kansas State Historical Society. It is the society’s intention to restore all of the structures and to interpret the contributions of English settlers in the area, sheep ranching, and the range cattle business. This will be done through static exhibits and a variety of “living history” programs. All will e based upon the extensive records that gentleman rancher Fenton Pratt left, as well as the outstanding collection of some six hundred glass plates that amateur photographer Fenton Pratt made of the ranch and are settlers from about 1885 through the 1930s.
The preservation of this ranch provides a reminder of the English settlers, the Pratt family in particular, who came to western Kansas, face the environment, and established farming and ranching operations in the late nineteenth century.
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Cottonwood Ranch 14432 E US Hwy. 24 P.O. Box 13 Studley, Kansas 67740
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