Kansas, state, United States: Life on the Prairie

Life on the Prairie

With peace came the development of the prairie lands. The construction of railroads made cow towns such as Abilene and Dodge City, with their cowboys, saloons, and frontier marshals, the shipping point for large herds of cattle driven overland from Texas. The buffalo herds disappeared (some buffalo still roam in state parks and game preserves), and cattle took their place. Pioneer homesteaders, adjusting to life on the timberless prairie and living in sod houses, suffered privation. In 1874, Mennonite emigrants from Russia brought the Turkey Red variety of winter wheat to Kansas. This wheat was instrumental in making Kansas the Wheat State as winter wheat replaced spring wheat on an ever-increasing scale. Corn, too, soon became a major cash crop.

Agricultural production was periodically disrupted by national depressions and natural disasters. Repeated and prolonged droughts accompanied by dust storms, occasional grasshopper invasions, and floods all caused severe economic dislocation. Mortgages often weighed heavily on farmers, and discontent was expressed in farmer support of radical farm organizations and third-party movements, such as the Granger movement, Greenback party, and Populist party. Tax relief, better regulation of interest rates, and curbs on the power of railroads were sought by these organizations. Twice in the 1890s, Populist-Democrats were elected to the governorship.

As conditions improved, Kansas returned largely to its allegiance to the Republican party and gained a reputation as a conservative stronghold with a bent for moral reform, indicated in the state's strong support of prohibition; laws against the sale of liquor remained on the books in Kansas from 1880 to 1949. Over the years the use of improved agricultural methods and machines increased crop yield. Irrigation proved practicable in some areas, and winter wheat and alfalfa could be cultivated in dry regions.

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