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Higley Cabin in Smith County celebrates 140th anniversary





ATHOL -- For the locals, there are two distinct sources of pride in Smith County -- the geographic center of the United States near Lebanon and the former home of Dr. Brewster Higley north of Athol.

The latter was on full display Wednesday as trustees of the cabin hosted a 140th anniversary celebration to commemorate the building of the cabin in 1872. The cabin is where Higley wrote the poem, "My Western Home," which became the lyrics to "Home on the Range," the Kansas state song.

And it's where Lea Norcross remembers going on the last day of school when she was growing up near Athol.

"On the last day of school, we would come out and see the cabin and bring a sack lunch," said Norcross, who returned to Smith County from Champaign, Ill., this week to see family. "This was the closest attraction."

And it still is.

"We bring guests up here quite often," said Renetta Hookstra, Downs.

The cabin is located 8 miles north of Athol, just west of Kansas Highway 8.

The Hookstras' association with the Higley family dates back to husband Kerry's job with a newspaper owned by Tom Higley, a cousin to the Higleys of Smith County.

"We have an affinity for the Higleys," Renetta Hookstra said.

So too does Doris Sinden, who was raised by her grandfather on a farm approximately a quarter-mile from the Higley cabin. Sinden, who will turn 93 Saturday, attended Wednesday's celebration with her souvenirs -- including a collection of arrowheads she picked up from the area.

"On a still night, (her grandfather) always said he could hear Dr. Higley playing his violin," said Sinden's daughter, Susie Buckley, of Smith Center.

Sinden's history in the Highland area of Smith County is the reason she was the first to contribute money to the renovation of the cabin, which is due to begin in 2013. She admits she might not be around too long to see the results of the work.

"At least I'll know it's done," Sinden said.

The celebration this year commemorated the 140th year of the construction of the cabin. Trustees, including El Dean Holthus of Smith Center, hope the renovation work -- for which bids will be opened in August -- can be completed in time to have another big celebration on the Fourth of July in 2014.

Planned renovations include new footings to strengthen the walls, a new window and door and new roof for the exterior. Sleeping lofts will be constructed inside, and the cabin will be furnished with restored furniture.

In addition, preliminary plans call for improved nature trails and foot bridges along the property.

"This is one of the main historical things we have in Smith County, and I think it's important to preserve it," Norcross said.