Home on the Range title

Home on the Range: Kansas’s state song

The story of “Home on the Range”

In 1873, Dr. Brewster Higley VI sat outside his tiny cabin near Athol (pronounced AY-thole), Kansas, and looked out over the Beaver Creek Valley. His heart filled with joy as he wrote the lines of a poem “My Western Home.” The first line read, “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam….”  While the song would go on to worldwide fame as “Home on the Range,” that phrase was not yet in the song.

The original poem first stanza is :

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not cloudy all day.

But the refrain read:

A home! A home!
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.

However, Higley’s contentment was not a hallmark of his previous life.

Dr. Brewster Higley
Dr. Brewster Higley, the author of “Home on the Range.” (Kansas Memory)

A man who had heard many discouraging words

Higley grew up in Rutland Township, Ohio. By the time he was six, he was orphaned. His grandparents, and later his sister, raised him. He practiced medicine in Indiana from 1851 until 1871. In the 14 years from 1851 to 1864, Higley’s infant son and two wives died. The second wife’s family blamed him for her death.

He also lost his third wife, but the accounts differ. Some say she died shortly after she gave birth to Brewster Higley VII. Others say she left him and returned to her previous husband, taking Higley’s namesake.

Higley’s life spiraled downward after making some bad decisions. In 1866, he married the widow Mercy Ann McPherson. By this time, Higley likely suffered from alcoholism. His practice was declining and the Higleys were nearly broke. The doctor and his new wife did not get along. He sent his children to relatives in Rockford, Illinois, and left Indiana. In 1875, the La Porte (Indiana) Circuit Court dissolved the Higley-McPherson marriage.

By 1871, Higley had settled in Smith County. The land was still on the frontier in the early 1870s. The Pawnee tribe still lived in Kansas, and Smith County would not be organized for another year. The Last Indian Raid was still seven years into the future.

Even though Smith County citizens were pioneers living in rudimentary conditions, Higley had left his misery behind him. On July 4, 1872, Higley moved from his original dugout to a cabin. The voters elected him to county offices and flocked to his medical care. He brought his children from Illinois. Shortly after his divorce became final, he married Sara Ellen Clemens, and the couple had four children.

Dan Kelley, who wrote the tune for "Home on the Range"
Dan Kelley, the author of the “Home on the Range” tune. (Kansas Memory)

“My Western Home” becomes “Oh, Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam”

After Higley completed “My Western Home,” he tucked it into a book. Later in 1873, Trube Reese brought his housemate, John Champlin, to Higley’s residence for treatment. He had sustained an accidental gunshot wound. Reese picked up one of Higley’s books (PDF) and the poem fell out. Reese read the poem, then suggested that Dan Kelley set it to music.

Kelley, his wife Lulu, and her brothers Cal and Gene Harlan played in the popular Harlan Brothers Orchestra. While considering the poem, Kelley started humming a tune. The orchestra members helped him complete it. The song received a new name, “Oh, Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam.” The lyrics still did not include “home on the range.”

The song became an instant local hit. The orchestra played it for every performance, as far away as Hays, 100 miles southwest, home of Fort Hays. Because of the fort and the Kansas Pacific Railroad, Hays attracted cowboys. To soothe their cattle and calm their own loneliness, trail cowboys sang at night. Soon the cowboys and the cavalry began singing, “Oh, Give Me a Home.” The song traveled along the railroad and the cattle trails — and its authorship was quickly lost.

Kelley died in 1905, and Higley died in 1911.

Flag of the Kirwin Chief, the first copy of "Home on the Range"
This edition of the Kirwin Chief included the lyrics to “Home on the Range.” (Newspapers.com)


The Smith County Pioneer published Higley’s poem in 1873, but the newspaper lost all of that edition’s copies. The Kirwin Chief published them in a now-lost edition on March 21, 1874. On February 6, 1876, the Chief published the lyrics again under the headline “Plagiarism!”

The Stockton News had published a poem “purporting to have been written by Mrs. Emma Race, of Raceburgh in Rooks County. … The poem  … was written by Dr. B. Hig­ley … and first published in the Kirwin Chief…. The edition printed Higley’s and Race’s versions, inviting the readers to compare them. The Race version differed by two words. The Kirwin editor fumed, “[Stockton’s editor] must look to his laurels, as he will find plenty of people who are willing to profit by the brain work of others.”

Race was only one of a host who claimed authorship.

Home on the Range” tops the charts

Vernon Dalhart first recorded “Home on the Range” in 1927; reporters serenaded Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the song on the night he was elected President in 1932. Supposedly, FDR said “Home on the Range” was his favorite song. Soon the song was everywhere (PDF). It topped the radio airplay charts for six months. And it was copyright-free!

Or so the recording artists believed.

And then the gravy train stopped.

Who owns “Home on the Range”?

William and Mary Goodwin of Tempe, Arizona, filed a $500,000 suit against 35 individuals and corporations. The Goodwins registered their copyright to the song “An Arizona Home” on February 27, 1905. He had written the lyrics, and she had written the melody. They said that “Home on the Range” derived from their song. All the professionals stopped recording the song.

Searching for America’s music

The Music Pub­lishers Protective Association hired Samuel Moanfeldt, a New York lawyer, to investigate the Goodwins’ claims. Moanfeldt started searching for the song’s origins. All trails he found led to a version that John Lomax had collected.

For 40 years, Lomax searched (PDF) for America’s music. He found a Black bar owner in San Antonio who could sing a large repertoire of cowboy tunes. The unnamed bar owner had traveled the Chisholm Trail several times and learned the songs on the trail. The trail operated from 1867 to 1884.

Under a mesquite tree, Lomax recorded the man’s songs, including “Home on the Range.” A few weeks later, Henry Leberman wrote down the song’s score. In 1910, Lomax published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. The bar owner’s version had replaced Higley’s chorus beginning  “A home! A home!” with the lyrics “home on the range.”

Obviously, the song had existed before the Goodwins had copyrighted it, but Moanfeldt needed more concrete proof.

Never got a cent

Reese and Cal Harlan told Moanfeldt how Higley and Kelley had composed the song. The Goodwins’ case collapsed, and their lawsuit never came to trial. The Goodwins received nothing from the song, but neither did the Higley and Kelley families. Later, the Chief edition came to light, proving Higley’s authorship.

In 1959, the State of Oklahoma placed a marker at the Higleys’ last home in Shawnee, Oklahoma. The Oklahoma City newspaper interviewed Higley’s youngest daughter Theo Brumley. She said, “Neither my father nor any of his children ever got a cent out of ‘Home on the Range.’  But I’ve got a lot of awfully fine memories of him I wouldn’t take anything for.”

Home on the Range” rolls on

With the authorship issue settled, recording artists began to cover the song again. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Willie Nelson, Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, and numerous others sang it.

You Ain’t Home on the Range

In 2004, Disney turned Home on the Range into a traditionally animated feature film about three dairy cows, Grace, Maggie, and Mrs. Calloway, trying to save the Patch of Heaven Dairy Farm. They must catch wanted criminals and notorious outlaws Alameda Slim and his gang to earn a $750 bounty and save the farm. The song “Home on the Range” isn’t in the soundtrack, even though big names like Bonnie Raitt, Alan Mencken, and Tim McGraw performed a musical number. Voice actors Judi Dench, Estelle Harris, Roseanne Barr, and Randy Quaid played the main characters. Will Finn and John Sanford wrote and directed the film, and the Mouse House makes Snow White appear. The film received less-than-stellar reviews; Rotten Tomatoes‘ audience score was 29 percent.

Roxie’s reliable report: Home on the Range was the last traditionally animated Disney movie. The company’s next feature, Finding Nemo, was its first computer-animated offering.

"My Western Home" on the "Home on the Range" Cabin
The Smith Center Rotary Club placed a marble plaque engraved with Higley’s poem in 1954.

Preserving the “Home on the Range” Cabin

Higley’s cabin remained on the farm where he built it, but it had yet to become a Kansas icon.

On April 8, 1947, Kansas named “Home on the Range” its state song. The resolution said, The song “is as truly Kansas as the sunflower.…” Hal Harlan, Dan Kelley’s nephew, had introduced the bill in the Kansas Senate.

After the song became the state song, the Smith Center Rotary Club restored the cabin. Pete and Ellen Rust, who had owned the land since 1935, agreed. They had refused to sell the cabin to people who wanted to move it away. In 1954, the club dedicated the restored cabin and installed an engraved marble plaque with “A Western Home” sheet music on its east end.

On March 26, 1973, the cabin entered the National Register of Historic Places.

The Western Writers of America surveyed their membership in 2010, asking which songs were the greatest Western songs. The state song of Kansas, “Home on the Range, ranked ninth of 100.

Home on the Range Cabin, a musical Midwest Road Trip Adventure
The renovated “Home on the Range” Cabin.

An award-winning restoration

By 2011, Kansas’s 150th anniversary, the cabin needed repairs. Grassroots fundraising efforts gathered more than $113,000. Schamber Historic Preservation, LLC, restored the cabin in 2013, and its foundation rededicated it in 2014. In 2016, Kansas Preservation Alliance awarded the cabin its Honor Award of Excellence.

ElDean Holthus receives Kansas' Finest for "Home on the Range" Cabin
ElDean Holthus of the “Home on the Range” Cabin received Kansas’ Finest Award in 2016. Holthus (left) stands with his sons Lyle and Mitch and then-Assistant Secretary for Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism Linda Craghead.

Kansas’ Finest: The “Home on the Range” Cabin

After Pete Rust died, Ellen Rust established a trust to preserve the cabin and 240 acres of land around it. Trustees include her nephew ElDean Holthus. For his tireless efforts to promote the cabin, Kansas! Magazine named Holthus one of Kansas’ Finest in its winter 2016 issue.

He told the magazine’s editor, Andrea Etzel, “I see people visit the cabin throughout the day, and they walk in like it’s a cathedral.

“They stand in the center of the cabin silently and look around. When I see the admiration and respect for the history they have, that’s a great reward.”

Experience Maria the Mexican and “Home on the Range.”

Rocking the Range

In 2021, I included the cabin as No. 26 in my book 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die.

The song turned 150 in 2023, and Kansas Tourism invited various Kansas artists to interpret the musical icon. We enjoyed Maria the Mexican‘s take.

Cabin post-rock signage
Look for the “Home on the Range” Cabin post-rock signage.

Visiting the “Home on the Range” Cabin

All respectful people are welcome to enjoy the cabin and its trails. Watch for post-rock guidance signs from Highway 8. Buying Ken Spurgeon’s Home on the Range film would be a great souvenir.

Block out those discouraging words and embrace the place where the skies are not cloudy all day.

More to explore

While the cabin is northwest of Smith Center, the Geographic Center of the Lower 48 States is northeast of Smith Center. Visit historic Hays where the Harlan Orchestra introduced the world to “Home on the Range.”

Schamber Preservation also helped restore Goodland’s United Telephone Building. See more post rocks in our tour of Kansas rock formations.

In our book, Midwest Road Trip Adventures, read more about Kansas and Midwest road trips. Listen to more music in our Kansas music playlist.

Explore more of Kansas and the Midwest.


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