SMITH CENTER — The activity around Beaver Creek and in Smith Center this week is the likes of which Dr. Brewster Higley probably could not have imagined.
His homestead site northwest of town transformed into a movie set. Lone Chimney Films, a Wichita nonprofit, is producing a documentary on how a poem Higley wrote became a song of world renown — “Home on the Range.” It was named the state song in 1947.
“I’ve met so many musicians who told me that wherever they play it — they play it in Australia, they play it in China — people know it,” director Ken Spurgeon said.
A career history teacher, Spurgeon is the executive director of Lone Chimney Films and has written and produced the organization’s three previous films, all telling stories of Kansas history.
The scenes being filmed Thursday at the cabin depicted the life of Higley, an Ohio native who came to Smith County in 1871. He constructed the cabin in 1872 and later penned a poem describing why he loved his chosen home.
Higley is portrayed by Tom Leahy, a retired teacher from Conway Springs who has worked on previous Lone Chimney projects.
Some locals even got to suit up in period clothing as extras Thursday. For some, “Home on the Range” is ingrained in their lives.
Stan Smith, who owns Smith Center’s Buckshot Inn, grew up a half mile north of the cabin site, and his father grew up a half mile south. His mother taught in one-room schoolhouses in the area. His family still owns land not far away.
“It’s my stompin’ grounds up in here,” he said.
“It’s an honor for me to be a part of it. It’s something that will be around for years and years.”
The more compelling part of the story, Spurgeon said, takes place in the 1930s, and some of those scenes were filmed in Smith Center this week. For Sharon Black, Smith Center, being a part of the film is like a dream come true.
Black read a book on the song written by one of her mother’s teachers and thought it would make a great movie. So she wrote a script based on the book and even tried to shop it around for a Hollywood producer.
“It was my dream — Hollywood is coming here to do this movie,” she said. “Well, part of it is coming true.”
Other scenes have been filmed in various places throughout the state, including a 1930s radio station set built in Wichita. The advent of radio plays a key part in the film’s story.
Missing from the site Thursday morning was El Dean Holthus, a retired farmer and trustee of the property. It was Holthus’ efforts that led to the complete restoration of the cabin in 2013, and a talk he gave in Wichita sparked Spurgeon’s interest. But the director assured that Holthus would join them for filming this week. His son, Mitch — the voice of the Kansas City Chiefs — also has a role in the film.
Some in Smith County hope the film will bring a tourism boost.
“It’s going to bring a lot of attention to our area. I think the cabin will become a destination,” said Garoleen Wilson, director of Smith County Economic Development.
Making the site into a family destination is the vision, said Mark McClain, president of the People’s Heartland Foundation, which oversees the 240-acre property. The group would like to expand on the existing nature trail and interpretive signs. A concert bandshell is also a possibility.
Spurgeon said his goal is to have a premiere of the film in Wichita and Smith Center in October or November.