If you have driven on K-177 in the last six months you have probably noticed a lot of construction activity taking place around the ranch house at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. AB Construction out of Junction City has been working at the site since July and hopes to be done with the renovations early this spring.
Heather Brown, Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services at the preserve, said that work necessary to keep the house preserved had been identified a while back and that plans had already been drawn up so that when funding became available they could start work soon after.
“Age deteriorates everything and the historic home turns 140 years old this year,” Brown said. “Funding finally became available for its rehabilitation. With the work being done, this historic home will last for generations to come.”
Funding for the project came through federal project funds. Those funds are helping restore a lot of projects that needed to be done to preserve the old ranch house and allow more people to enjoy it into the future.
“Work is being done to firm up the foundation of the ranch house, which has moved slightly over its 140-year history,” Brown said. They are also “installing drains to redirect water around the ranch house’s foundation rather than undermining it, as well as improving accessibility to the ranch house with the construction of ramps into the first and second floors and carefully retrofitting HVAC ductwork and equipment into the historic structure.”
Besides these major structure and usage improvements there are also some aesthetic upgrades being done at the house as well. Reworking the stone terraces in the front lawn is part of the renovation project in addition to some interior work that consists of replastering, painting, replacing fallen cornice mouldings and replacing historic wallpaper.
Brown said lots of care has been taken to make sure the historical significance of the structure is maintained with the renovations.
“Historic preservation personnel from the NPS’s Midwest Regional Office skilled in this type of oversight have been monitoring and advising on the renovations to make sure that the ranch house retains the fabric that makes it historically significant in the first place,” Brown said. “The ranch house and the entire Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch continue to symbolize the shift from open range cattle ranching to the enclosed pasture cattle ranching that characterizes Chase County and Flint Hills ranching today.”
Making sure the historical significance of the ranch house was maintained with the new renovations was never an option the preserve had. The preserve is actually bound by a law passed by Congress in 1916 called the Organic Act that established the National Park Service to manage and preserve the nation’s national park lands.
“The National Park Service is an agency under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior with the stated purpose of promoting use of national park lands, while protecting them from impairment,” Brown said. “This is the overarching reason why we preserve and protect these special places. Each National Park Service site is brought into the service because of its unique, special story or significance, thus the reason for preserving and protecting for future generations to come. As federal employees we are held accountable to this mandate. The Organic Act guides us in every aspect of our jobs and the projects we do at the preserve.”
The renovations to the ranch house are not the only projects in the works at the Tallgrass Preserve right now. Several other maintenance projects are also being done around the park.
The Visitors Center will get a new roof and the Bottomland Nature Trail is going to be hardened in order to make it a fully handicap accessible trail with concrete parking pads. Fox Creek Trail is also getting an upgrade. Work is being done to make its water crossings easier for hikers in addition to making the trail surface better for walking.
The park does plan to celebrate in some capacity when all of the renovations are done but due to COVID precautions they are still working out the details and at this point didn’t want to announce anything specific yet.
“But stay tuned,” Brown said.
The pandemic has not hurt attendance at the preserve as much as some parks due to the fact that most of the park is outdoors and that it’s very easy for people to enjoy it safely.
“The park attracted 29,005 visitors last year and although COVID has reduced visitation somewhat, the nature of the park being mostly outdoors has kept our numbers relatively strong,” Brown said. “With proper COVID precautions practiced by the visiting public and staff alike, the historic ranch buildings and the visitor center have been able to remain open.”
There are a few things the park did have to cancel this past year though due to the pandemic. Most of the park’s special events were cancelled last year and the park’s Prairie Bus Tour was suspended last year and will be again in 2021 due to COVID concerns within the close quarters of the bus.
Brown said their 2021 special events are going to include more outside activities so that social distancing and masking can allow the events to be safer for their visitors to attend.
However, she said the cancellation of the events hasn’t been all bad for the park.
“A pleasant side effect of this suspension has been the increased presence of wildlife, namely the park’s resident bison herd, along the bus tour route — the Scenic Overlook Trail,” Brown said.
She encourages everyone to come out and enjoy the park especially as the park puts their schedule together for the rest of the year after the renovations are done.
“Continue to go to our website, as we put together our schedule for the year, as well as for more digital opportunities for educational outreach,” Brown said.
The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve’s operating hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. seven days a week. Brown reminds everyone that the park’s 40 miles of trails are open 24/7 and that they are a great way to get away from it all right now.
“The solitude and peace of the tallgrass has not been diminished by the pandemic, making the park a welcome refuge from these challenging times,” she said.