-by Tom Aniello and Family-
I am an aerospace engineer by education, but I always wanted to be a cowboy like my grandfather, Edward H. Brinkman. This is the history of the Brinkman family’s time owning, ranching, and living on 1,180 acres of ranch land along the Illinois Creek southwest of Alma between 1960 and 1990.
If you are reading this in hopes of discovering scandalous secrets, drama, and mystery, I am sorry to disappoint you. To my knowledge, nothing like that occurred on the Brinkman ranch during this period, as it may have during the early years of the ranch’s ownership at the turn of the 19th century. Greg Hoots has already authored those stories, and I encourage you to read the colorful history of the Muehlenbacher family and J.L. Schepp in Greg’s article “Two Barns in Wabaunsee County.”
In fact, it was the “Two Barns” story that connected me with Greg. I discovered it by way of a Google search on my grandfather’s name. In that story, there is a short reference to ownership of the Schepp barn by Edward Brinkman and Anthony Aniello. For such a lengthy and detailed story, it seemed as if my family’s thirty-year stewardship of the ranch was just a passing footnote in history. To me and my family, it was much, much more.
After reading “Two Barns” I contacted Greg and sent him an expanded history of my family’s memories of the ranch. He encouraged me to author this story as a documentation of the history of Wabaunsee County. Thank you, Greg, for your tireless efforts in telling the stories of this amazing place.
Instead of intrigue and shocking events, this story is a compilation of three generations of family memories on the Alma ranch. It is also a story that tries to explain why the quiet, simple beauty of the Flint Hills holds a revered place in our hearts. To those who have spent time in the Flint Hills, I am sure you already understand. And, for those who have not been there yet, I hope it will motivate you to visit and help support the community of people working diligently to preserve this unique place.
Our family’s story begins in Amarillo, Texas, where my grandparents Edward and Caroline Brinkman were dirt farmers in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. They owned a few acres of land around their home and rented additional land from the city. They grew wheat, sorghum, maize, and milo, and occasionally supplemented the crops with a few milk cows, pigs, chickens, and sheep.
Those familiar with this part of the country know that the land and the people in northwestern Texas, western Oklahoma, southeastern Colorado, and southwestern Kansas were deeply affected by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. If you really want to understand the meaning of the word “depression,” I encourage you to read the book “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan. It is amazing that anyone had the strength and resilience to stay and live in this region in the 1920s and 1930s. The people that made it through this time were the definition of “tough,” and those who survived often had small farms which enabled them to get by on what they raised.
The Brinkman farm in Amarillo mostly supported the family’s own needs. Caroline had a garden that supplied vegetables, and fruit trees produced fresh cherries and apples. Chickens put food on the table and their eggs supplied a small income. Pigs and steers were butchered to provide the small family with their daily ration of protein.
After harvest each year, Edward and Caroline, along with their daughter Ann (my future mother), would take brief vacations and drive around different parts of the United States. At some point, in the late 1940s or early 1950s, they drove through the Kansas Flint Hills and both my grandparents fell in love with the region.
Post-World War II, the city of Amarillo was growing, and my grandparents decided to sell the land around their home to local developers. Not ones to sit still and live in a city suburb, Edward and Caroline began looking for another farm or ranch which they could work for a living.
In the late 1950s, my grandmother answered an ad for an 1,180-acre Alma property in Farm Journal magazine. They bought the ranch but did not sell their Amarillo home and move to Alma until my mother graduated high school in 1960. Today, Brinkman Drive in southwestern Amarillo is a half-mile road surrounded by a sea of modest homes.
My mother recalls that they had copies of the original deed to the Alma land that was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant. I don’t know if Wabaunsee county has records of it, but it fits the history of the Homestead Act, as the Muehlenbachers were Civil War veterans and were the first people to settle the ranch around 1857.
Since my mother went to college at Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison (now part of Benedictine College), I suspect my grandparents also liked the fact that she was only a ninety-minute drive from the ranch on Illinois Creek.
Benedictine is where my mother met my father, Anthony Aniello, who grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey. I am sure there was quite a cultural divide between the big city Italian boy and the German farm girl from Texas, but I am proud to report that earlier this summer they celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary!
From 1960 through 1980, my grandparents lived in the farmhouse on the property and worked about 150 head of Hereford cattle. Edward bought the first herd from Mexico and had them shipped to Kansas. My mother recalls him saying they were the wildest cattle he had ever seen.
My grandmother had a fruit tree orchard near the big barn that J.L. Schepp built on the hill, and it produced an annual bounty of pears, apples, and cherries. She made the most delicious fresh fruit pies! My grandfather would use the front loader on the tractor to reach the highest fruit in the trees.
In addition to the pastureland, there were two large prairie hay fields and two other sections of about 50 acres each where my grandparents would rotate crops like milo, wheat, and alfalfa. We loved helping to bale hay, put it up in the barn, and then reverse the process in the winter to feed cattle. They would occasionally have hogs and sheep, and there was one stubborn horse that was smart enough to run away when I or my siblings were inclined to ride him.
Since a ranch is not complete without one or more dogs, Edward ordered a Border Collie that was delivered by mail. He got a call from the post office when it arrived, and he went into town to pick up Trixie. Trixie learned to herd cattle on her own and would go out to the field to round up the cattle just to have something to do. However, my mother spoiled her so much she was not especially useful as a working dog.
Trixie was the first of a series of dogs on the ranch. After her was a dog named Coyote, which my uncle swore (and we believed) was half coyote. Their last dog, another Border Collie named Bub, was completely loyal to my grandfather and had an incredible innate talent for herding cattle. Bub would indulge us kids by letting us pet him, but all my grandfather had to do was let out a short, sharp whistle and Bub would jump into the back of the pickup, ready to go to work.
One summer in the early 1960s, my grandmother’s Uncle Eddie from Texas came to Alma to help with the ranch. On a delivery mission one day, he was pulling a trailer filled with corn and turned the corner by the Fink and Diehl farms a little too fast, spilling the corn. My grandfather formally dubbed that section of Illinois Creek Road as “Corn Corner,” a title which we still use today when we visit the old homestead.
Being a city boy who never had a desire to return to the city, my father absolutely loved coming out to work on the Alma ranch every summer and often over Thanksgiving. In addition to helping my grandfather put up hay, untangling kids’ fishing lines, and taking us into town for an ice cream at the Rexall Drug soda fountain, he made fast friends with the Fink families on neighboring ranches.
There was an old stone house at the top of the hill near the big barn. This was the house the Muehlenbachers built on the property in the late 1800s. In the early 1970s, though, my grandfather razed it, as it was in disrepair and was a hazard. I vaguely recall going down into the cellar with my father to look at it before it was torn down, but due to its poor condition it was off limits to us kids. Of course, we had heard stories about the Muehlenbacher shooting, so we all thought the house was haunted and did not have the nerve to go inside, anyway!
More interesting to us were the three wood and stone buildings near the old Muehlenbacher house. One was a smokehouse, another looked to be a blacksmith shop, and the third may have been a small woodshop or mill. When I was a kid they were filled with ancient hardware, glassware and tools that survived over time, but as I visited the ranch in the 1980s and 1990s it looked like they had been picked over by antique hunters.
I recall one morning when my grandfather took me and my brother Pete to a milo field on the east side of Illinois Creek. Our job that day was to remove weeds from the field, and my grandfather handed each of us a metal rod about three feet long with a sharp hook on the end. After about thirty minutes we realized this was back breaking, tedious work, and as typical young boys, we began whining and complaining. We figured there had to be a machine that could do this job better and faster. Maybe someone at John Deere invented one later in the 20th century, but that day we were stuck with our weed hooks and silent and stubborn patience on the part of my grandfather, who would never give in to the complaints of these soft city kids. I did not realize it at the time, but it turned out to be a good lesson in developing a strong work ethic and finishing a job you started.
As kids, we loved to play in all three of the barns, but the Big Barn was especially fun for us. There were thousands of hay bales to climb on and to build small forts with. One day, Pete fell through one of the floor openings from the main floor onto the ground level where animals were typically kept. He landed on soft ground, so he was more scared than injured. But he was little and crying, and when my father went to help him, Trixie, the protective herding dog, thought my father was hurting him, so she bit him. Two patients visited the nearest hospital in Wamego that day.
Trixie was always with us kids on our scavenger hunts around the ranch. Wherever we kids went, there were always stray wild cats that followed us. My sister Cathy spent countless hours sitting quietly in the barns trying to get the cats to let her pet them.
I recall there being a “cave” under the lower entrance to the big barn, which was a water cistern to supply the animals in the adjacent corral. I never went inside it, but I do recall watching my uncle open a door in the floor that led down into it.
The ground level entrance to the barn was used to load hay during the summer. When it got high enough, we would switch to the upper ramp entrance to load more hay on top and on the sides. In the winter we would do the reverse to take hay out to feed the cattle. It was an ideal set up for lengthy games of hide-and-seek with my siblings.
We managed to spend most of our summer vacations at the ranch, as my father worked for a university and would usually get three weeks off in the summer. On our ranch holidays, my father would help my grandfather bale and stack hay in the blistering summer heat of Kansas.
When Pete and I were old enough, we would help with baling hay. We thought we were a tremendous help, but our father recalls it a little differently. He had to hold himself onto the wagon, catch the bales as they were ejected from the baler, stack them on the wagon, and keep us from falling off at the same time. My grandfather had a unique way of communicating with my father over the din of the baler — when he was going to stop the tractor, he would hold up his fist with his thumb out and just make a quick flicking motion. My father’s interpretation was that it could mean anything was about to happen, so he learned to hold on extra tight whenever he saw that signal.
Most summer evenings we enjoyed fishing in the many ponds around the ranch, where there were always plenty of blue gills and crappie to catch. Occasionally we would haul in a catfish. It was incredibly peaceful around the ponds in the Kansas summer twilight. We would always hear mourning doves cooing, which to this day makes me feel like I am back at the ranch. Often the cows in the pasture around the ponds would be curious about us and come up close to investigate, but the second we moved they would run away.
One evening we decided to fish at a pond farther West from the house because it was not fished very often and had the promise of a big catch. We sat on rocks and waited for the fish to bite. Little did we know we were the food that night – for the chiggers. When we woke up the next morning, we were covered in chigger bites.
In the summer we would go down to the “crick” to cool off with a refreshing dip in the slow-moving water. Illinois Creek ran next to an enclosed meadow on the east side of the ranch. We think the meadow may have been a common location for Indian camps many years ago because we often discovered arrowheads in the area. My brother Anthony, probably four or five years old at the time, recalls discovering a cow skull with teeth intact near the creek.
We also tried to visit the ranch at Thanksgiving, and in the fall season my father would help cut wood and bring it to the house to feed the wood burning furnace in the basement. Scorpions liked to cling to the wood, and we would occasionally find them in the house. One morning my mother woke up with a scorpion crawling up her leg. Much more attention-getting than an alarm clock!
Scorpions were not the only creatures on the ranch — rattle snakes were also seen occasionally. One time we were in my grandfather’s pickup driving in the woods near the creek and a timber rattler crossed the path in front of us. My grandfather took out a chain from behind the truck’s bench seat and killed the snake with it. Real Flint Hills ranchers ain’t afraid of no reptiles! My uncle brought the expired rattler back to the house, cleaned and filleted it, and fried it up as an “appetizer” that night. Yes, it tasted like chicken.
Far less adrenaline-boosting creatures also made their homes on the ranch. Deer were frequently seen, probably because the land was a safe haven for them as my grandfather was not a hunter. In the late 1970s the Brinkmans reintroduced wild turkeys to the land, and we always enjoyed spotting the growing rafter in different spots on the ranch, usually down by Illinois Creek.
We enjoyed going out to help my grandfather feed cattle in the winter, and I am sure he enjoyed staying in the warm pickup cab while his grandkids were outside in the bed distributing the hay! When we were not there to help, he had a system set up to do it himself — his pickup had a “granny gear” that would crawl along at a walking speed without pressing the gas pedal. He would tie a length of twine between the steering wheel and the door handle, then he would get out, climb into the bed, and toss out the hay while the “ghost” drove the pickup!
Our family of six all slept upstairs in the partially finished attic of the farmhouse whenever we visited. The only source of air conditioning was a window fan. It helped a little, but in the summer, it got extremely hot up there and cooled down only minimally at night. During the fall and winter, we would have layers and layers of blankets to keep us warm. The only source of heat was the warmth coming from the chimney. It got very cold.
I recall one winter a blizzard rolled through and we received news that one of the older neighbors had gone out in the storm and was lost. Using the party line phones, every able body within several miles was called to form a search party. Fortunately, after several hours, he was found and brought home to a warm fire and a scolding from his frightened wife.
The neighbors along Illinois Creek Road were very friendly. Fred and Hulda Fink lived to the north, and Freddie and Marguerite Fink lived to the southwest. Keen and Helen Umbehr lived to the south. The Umbehr’s son Jack was very kind to us kids, and occasionally took us for horseback rides on their land. During summer trips to Alma we would often help the neighbors put up hay or help with other seasonal chores in return for a hearty fried chicken lunch and cold iced tea.
All of us kids learned to drive on the ranch, well before the legal age of driving. Our initial training was on an old propane-powered Allis-Chalmers tractor with our dad as driving instructor. There’s not much a kid can run into in the middle of a huge hayfield. When Pete and I got into our early teen years, we graduated to my grandfather’s pickup with a manual transmission. Every person seeking a driver’s license should be required to learn how to drive a stick shift! Once we could make the transition from a stop to first and second gear, our dad would let us drive on the gravel roads, which made us feel like adulthood and the Indy 500 were just around the corner.
Around 1980, though, my grandparents were getting on in years. Eighty-one years, in fact, for my grandmother who was born in 1899. They were concerned about their ability to manage the ranch alone if something should happen to either one of them. My grandmother feared that because there were no relatives around, they would have no support in a crisis.
At the time, I was in high school in Columbia, Missouri, and planned to study agriculture at Kansas State University with the idea in mind that I could help them keep the ranch going. The universe had other plans for us, though.
My grandfather’s family had lived around Harrison, Arkansas when he was young, and he had two nieces who still lived there. Together they decided it would be a good place to retire and have family support in an emergency. They bought a small farm outside of Harrison and moved away from Alma in 1981. They rented the Alma ranch to a family who cared for the place while living in the small farmhouse.
The northern Arkansas farm they moved to was a confined, dark little place compared to the vast open ranch in Alma. While some people like lots of hills and trees, I have always enjoyed beautiful sunrises and sunsets on the far horizons. Neither of my grandparents had much to do to stay active in Arkansas, and their health declined rapidly. My grandmother Caroline passed away in 1983, followed a year later by my grandfather Edward in 1984.
After their passing, my mother and her younger brother Richard Brinkman inherited the Alma ranch. My uncle eventually wanted to sell his parcel of land, so my parents bought his share from him, hoping to keep the entire ranch intact. While living in Illinois, my mother and father managed the rental of the ranch and leased the land to other ranchers for grazing for several years. However, with kids in college and the challenges of trying to manage the ranch remotely in their spare time, it was simply not possible for them to hang on to it. It really pained them to do so, but they eventually sold the ranch to Don Hazlett, an attorney from Lawrence.
I have read that the sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses. And it’s funny, when I asked my siblings to tell me some of their favorite memories of the Alma ranch, we all had very specific smells that we recalled. Even my younger brother Anthony, who was only seven when Edward and Caroline left Alma, has many of the same smell-related memories as the rest of us. To this day, these smells instantly bring us back to Kansas, and bring back fond memories. Freshly cut alfalfa hay, the natural earthiness of cow manure, dust and axle grease of farm machinery, Russian olive trees leafing out in May, bacon frying in the morning, and the waft of Marlboro smoke outside on a crisp fall day reminds us of time spent on the ranch with our grandfather.
I’ve shown my parents what the current owners, the Lockton family, have done to restore the ranch that we once knew so intimately, and it really makes them happy to know that this special place has been preserved for future generations. And I am sure some long-time local residents have mixed feelings about “city folk” moving out to the country to build weekend retreats. But I think we can agree that we all love this special place in the world, and that anyone who appreciates the land, and preserves and celebrates the heritage and beauty of the Flint Hills is welcome in Wabaunsee County.
While writing this I struggled to come up with a theme and title for my family’s history with the Alma ranch. My wife Susie and I were sitting on our patio in northern Colorado one Saturday evening listening to music when one of my favorite songs came up on the playlist. It is a solo instrumental piece by Australian acoustic guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel. As there are no lyrics to this upbeat, happy tune, Susie asked me what the name of the song was. Having listened to it hundreds of times, I could name it in the first few notes, and I replied, “It’s called A Cowboy’s Dream.” Susie smiled, and being the real writer in the family, said, “Well, there’s your theme and your title.” I encourage you to listen to the song and picture your own Flint Hills memories when you do.
I can’t help but think that my grandfather came to the Flint Hills because he had a dream about being a cowboy. And I think it is a common feeling held by many who live and ranch in Wabaunsee County. It’s a dream of freedom, independence, and for living close to the land in a simpler time. This song is inspiration for me to keep pursuing my own dreams. Dreams that I hope will someday lead to me back to the Flint Hills of Kansas, and just maybe becoming a cowboy, after all.