The History of Home on the Range, Official State Song of Kansas
Every year, on January 29th, Kansans living in and out of the state celebrate Kansas Day, the state's birthday, by singing the official state song: Home of the Range. The folk song is a Kansas original and it became incredibly popular. In fact, it became so popular that other states - like Arizona and Colorado - tried to claim it as their own. Commentator Katie Keckeisen knows better. She's the collections archivist at the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka.
KPR Kansas Day – Home on the Range cabin
By Katie Keckeisen, Kansas Historical Society
In the fall of 1872, so the story goes, Dr. Brewster Higley stepped outside of his cabin in Smith County, Kansas, sat down on the banks of nearby Beaver Creek, and wrote a poem to express his love for the land he now called home:
“Oh! give me a home, where the Buffalo roam,
Where the Deer and the Antelope play . . .”
Dr. Higley had moved to Kansas, in 1871 to claim land under the Homestead Act. He had left his fourth wife, Mercy Ann, in Indiana and appeared to have no intention of going back to her. Historians later quipped that perhaps the phrase “Where seldom is heard a discouraging word” referred to his estranged wife. While he was known for being “fond of drink” and having a “rough and uncouth appearance,” he was remembered by locals as a kind and compassionate man.
The poem, originally titled “My Western Home,” was tucked away for a while, until one of Higley’s patients read it and told him it should be set to music. Daniel Kelly, a friend of Higley’s and a local musician, is credited with setting the piece to music. Kelley was a member of the popular Harlan orchestra with his wife and two brothers-in-law. Soon, “My Western Home” became a favorite dance tune in northeast Kansas.
As is the way with most folk songs, the tune was picked up and carried across the West. It was incredibly popular with cowboys as they rode the cattle trails between Kansas and Texas. In 1925, the song was published as sheet music in San Antonio, Texas. Later, David Guion revised the song for a Broadway show, where it was retitled “Home on the Range.” The published versions treated the song like all folk music, with no known composer or author.
“Home on the Range” exploded in popularity in 1933 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed that it was his favorite song. In 1934, William and Mary Goodwin filed a lawsuit claiming that “Home on the Range” had been copyrighted by them in 1905 under the name “My Arizona Home.” New York lawyer, Samuel Moanfeldt, was sent west to investigate the song’s origins. He traced it back to Kansas and found several old-timers who remembered singing it with the Harlan orchestra in 1874. The Goodwins’ claim never went to court.
In the 1940s, a printing of Dr. Higley’s poem from 1874 was discovered in the Kirwin Chief, and the song was officially brought home to Kansas. It became the official state song on June 30, 1947.
While critics have said “Home on the Range” doesn’t ‘sell’ Kansas enough, all attempts to change the state song have gone nowhere. Historian Kirke Mechem said it best: “Somehow, out on the lonely prairie, an obscure poet and an unknown singer created […] the ideal expression of the love which Kansans feel for their unpredictable state.”
Commentator Katie Keckeisen is a native Kansan and a second-generation employee at the Kansas Historical Society, where she serves as the collections archivist. She lives in Topeka.