Wayne Engelhardt was barely 8 years old back in 1935, during the height of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. But he and an estimated 6,000 other men, women and children made history on Feb. 10 of that year when they assembled in Lane County and took part in the largest jackrabbit drive in the state's history.
Wayne - whose life's work was as an architect in Abilene - and his wife, Barbara, now live in a retirement village in Manhattan. But back in the 1930s, Lane County and many other western Kansas counties were ravaged by a relentless drought. Crop yields plummeted while feed supplies dried up, threatening the area’s livestock herds. To make matters worse, the population of jackrabbits exploded, making huge inroads into already short feed supplies.
“They were eating everything,” Wayne said, “including the bark off trees.”
Other reports document the rabbits even digging up alfalfa roots. Indeed, many considered the jackrabbits to be a biblical plague.
To remedy the problem, a rabbit drive was staged. The Lane County drive covered more than 64 sections, or a block of land 8 miles square, roughly 40,000 acres. Within this area, local farmers estimated there were over 150,000 jackrabbits. The objective of the drive was simple: Surround the area with thousands of people and, at high noon, the circle would slowly start to tighten.
People came from all over Kansas to take part in the drive. They came from Kansas City, Wichita, Topeka, Hutchinson and Hoisington. The Santa Fe and Missouri Pacific railroads were running excursions from eastern points to Lane County. Wayne and his parents were living in Kingman, where his father was a superintendent of schools.
“We had a lot of relatives in Lane County, so we were there and decided to take part in the drive, my father and I,” Wayne said.
Another report about the rabbit problem in western Kansas said there were 269 such rabbit drives in many of the High Plains counties of western Kansas. Each drive averaged killing just short of 1,000 rabbits. The objective of the Lane County drive was to kill 50,000.
The gigantic circle in Lane County looped roughly from Amy to Dighton and up to Shields, then out to Healy. Trucks and cars at these four points carried the people around the 64 sections. They were here for many reasons, such as for fun and sport, but mainly they saw themselves as providing a service to humanity.
Wayne said a lot of people were needed for the drive because, as the circle tightened, the number of jackrabbits became more and more concentrated – and the rabbits would frequently try to run back through the line. A number of people described the concentrated rabbits as behaving like "swarms" of rabbits.
“The rabbits were driven into a large-perimeter fence made out of tall snow fence. Once in the fence, a lot of them tried to jump out, but they couldn’t jump that high,” Wayne said.
After the fence gates were closed and secured, it was up to the crowd to finish off the rabbits. Wayne, who was then an 8-year-old eyewitness to history, explained that you could not use guns, for obvious reasons, to kill the rabbits:
“You simply got in there with a club and went to work. And boy, did the fur fly! That’s the thing I remember most to this day about the drive: The rabbit hair was in and on everything. There were several concession stands at the event, and there was no way to keep the hair out of the food. One man there had a hot dog stand, and, of course, the hair was on the hot dogs, too.”
Wayne said that when the rabbits had all been killed, they were heaped into gigantic piles. To a young 8-year-old, the mountains of dead rabbits seemed to stretch 20 to 30 feet into the sky. So what happened to all the dead rabbits? Many were used for human food, while others were skinned and ground into tankage. Many local farmers said the dead rabbits were excellent feed for both hogs and chickens.
One newspaper report of the Lane County drive quoted a 90-year-old western Kansas resident who, in the early days of Kansas, had seen hundreds of buffalo killed in similar large recreational hunts. In comparison, though, he said, “The rabbit drives of western Kansas this year were the most exciting event of my life.”
And they will be remembered forever by eyewitnesses like Wayne Engelhardt, who, over 80 years later, says, “Every time I eat a hot dog, I think of Lane County.”
Vance and Louise Ehmke grow certified seed wheat in Lane County.