The Sandhills are just that, hills of sand and valleys of sand and hollows of sand held in place by a sod formed by the roots and stems of native grasses. If the grass is destroyed by fire or by too much traffic from cattle or vehicles or a myriad of other possibilities, the result is a “blowout”, a spot where the sand is exposed to the wind and occasional rain. A miniature sand dune desert evolves.
In the late 1800 and early 1900’s sections of land, 640 acre plots, in the Sandhills were made available for homesteading. A community of black families settled on portions of what eventually became the Pass Ranch. The new settlers plowed the prairie and were lucky to have abnormally high amounts of rain for a time, but the inevitable happened. With normal amounts of rain, or less, there were no more crops, just sand dunes. Most of these farms were in dire straights when Don’s great-grandfather showed up and offered what everyone considered a fair price under the circumstances. Putting these properties together with the purchase of adjacent rangelands he put together essentially the same ranch that Don now operates.
We rode in one of the ranch pickups through various pastures checking on the welfare of the cattle that were divided into groups. Groups of young bulls, old bulls, replacement heifers, first calf heifers with their calves, cows with their calves, steers growing to be sold early this coming fall and heifers separated recently to be soon sold were parceled out in various pastures, sometimes in divided groups and scattered to take advantage of what early pasture grass was available.
The ranch is roughly shaped like the state of Kentucky, the fat section, with most of the ranch buildings to the east and narrowing to the west. It is divided into pastures, most taking up roughly six hundred acres some purposely smaller, of hills and small valleys. The flat valley sections are used as hay meadows. We drove slowly. Charlize was loping along side the pickup, her tongue lolling first to one side then the other. Don pointed out the sites of some of the old homesteads. One of them had foundation stones scattered in a small hollow where the house, long gone, had stood. The stones had to have been hauled a long distance by horse and wagon, no place to find stones that big close by. We covered a couple of miles before Charlize started to lag. She was very happy to join us in the cab after refusing to get in when we started out. She should be in shape when we leave if she keeps this up.
A few years ago the relatives of one of the homesteaders showed up tracing their family’s history. Don learned parts of the stories he didn’t know about previously, along with names and family lineage. He showed the seekers the sites he knew that were, after many years, reclaimed by the native grasses. There are a lot of stories to be told about those intrepid settlers and what happened to those families. If I live long enough maybe I’ll get to them, if someone else doesn’t do it first.
Don and I spent a couple of long days in the far west pastures filling in eroded places at barbed wire gates between pastures and around windmills and water tanks where cattle traffic had done the job of removing all the grasses and other plant life and the sand was eroding. It is another of those maintenance tasks that never seem to be completed. Don drove a large tractor with a blade in front and an excavator/mover implement behind. He scrapped out sod from a nearby site and filled the eroded spots. My job was to follow him in a pickup to the next pasture that needed work, open gates for him to drive the tractor through then close the gate behind us. We took the pickup to bring shovels and other tools that might be needed and because he was planning to leave the tractor in those far pastures, probably fifteen or more miles from the ranch houses, until all the necessary work was done. We needed the four-wheel-drive pickup to get back to the house, an hour’s drive away, on dirt tracks and across the pastures and hills.
Here’s Don working on one of the gates. There was about two feet of open space from the bottom wire to the ground where the ground (sand) had eroded. Now it’s fixed:
Here’s a tank that needed work. Behind it is a blowout.