Craig Miner: Says adversity forged true Kansas character





Two-thirds of Kansas lies west of U.S. Highway 81, away from the state’s major population centers, distant from its biggest universities.

Western Kansas can be a harsh, often desolate place, where rain is scarce, livelihood uncertain and hard times common. But many believe it is where the true Kansas character was forged.

Its inhabitants — those who’ve lasted two, three and four generations — are a special breed.

“They’ve had to be psychologically strong and balanced, have a lot of common sense and be hopeful — be optimistic that next year is going to be good,” said Craig Miner, a history professor at Wichita State University.

Miner is an expert on western Kansas. He’s researched its history extensively. His father, grandfather and great grandfather grew up in Ness City, where the family still harvests wheat.

Miner’s latest book, “Next Year Country: Dust to Dust in Western Kansas, 1890-1940,” chronicles the region’s drive to survive, to hang on long enough to try again.

“It’s a story of adaptation to a challenging environment,” Minor said. “It’s also a story of experimentation — finding out what was possible, what worked and what was desirable.”

Wheat worked. So did dry land farming techniques, labor-saving mechanization — tractors and combines, mainly — and the development of drought-resistant seed varieties.

“Kansas State University set up experiment stations all over western Kansas, which tested these varieties — it really was a good example of how universities and all their egg-headedness can really make a big difference,” Miner said.

Much has been made of the impact of Russian Mennonites introducing Kansas to Turkey Red. Not so appreciated, Miner said, are the efforts of the K-State botanists who developed hybrids that improved yields and were more drought- and pest-resistant.

“As a state, we’ve gone from raising 1 million bushels of wheat in 1930 to 4 million bushels today,” he said. “That’s amazing.”

Experiments that didn’t work include rain making, sugar beets and ditch irrigation.

Humor reflects optimism

While researching “Next Year Country,” Miner read 34 weekly and daily newspapers — all within a 50-year span, all on microfilm.

“There is no better way to get to know a town than to read its newspaper,” he said. “They may get some things wrong, but it’s hard to fool residents of a small community about what went on yesterday.”

History, he argued, has given the region’s editors short shrift, noting that many were every bit as well-reasoned as the Emporia Gazette’s better-known William Allen White, as colorful as The Atchison Globe’s Ed Howe....


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