The great thing about “Home on the Range” is that its back-story makes sense. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was written by two guys who had never seen a game. “Dixie” was written by an antislavery Northerner. “God Bless America” was written by a man born in Russia (he was also Jewish, but that didn’t stop him from writing “White Christmas,” either). But “Home on the Range” was written by two men who found a home in the West, two men who left more “civilized” lives for the wide-open spaces of Kansas.
Brewster Martin Higley VI was born in Rutland, Ohio, in 1823. He studied medicine in La Porte, Indiana, and then opened a practice in the small town of Pomeroy, Ohio. Pomeroy was no New York City, but apparently it was too “eastern” for Higley, so in 1871 he packed his bags for Kansas and settled on a patch of land in Smith County.
The move apparently set well with Higley, for within a year he had written a poem entitled "My Western Home." A friend with a great western name, Trube Reese, convinced him that it would make a great song, so Higley took his manuscript to the big town of Gaylord (as of 2010 there were still only 173 people in Gaylord) and showed it to musician Dan E. Kelley. Kelley had been born in Rhode Island, but like Higley, he had made his way west. When the two met, Kelley was a fiddler with the Harlan Brothers Orchestra (the word “orchestra” being used in the loosest possible sense here).
Kelley immediately saw the potential in the poem and roughed out his tune. The next night he played it for the members of his “orchestra,” the Harlan brothers and their sister, Miss Lulu, the belle of Gaylord. Everyone loved the song, including nine-year old Virgie Harlan, who is alleged to have sung the song at its very first performance, and the rest is history. Miss Lulu became Mrs. Kelley, and “Home on the Range” became the state song of Kansas. It’s a real feel-good western love story.
Heck even some of the small details within the back-story are appropriate for a song about the American West. Kelley had been a bugler in the Union Army during the Civil War. Like many veterans, the war introduced him to parts of the country he had never seen, and following the war he settled in a territory a long way from his hometown. Higley came to Kansas for the free land given away under the 1862 Homestead Act; the sod house he built on Beaver Creek and the 160 acres that surrounded it were his, according to the law, so long as he worked the land for five years.
Where Seldom is Heard a Discouraging Word
Of course, the song’s history is not all Western romance. Apparently Kelley’s life with Lulu was not a complete Kansas dream. The couple moved to Iowa with their four children in 1889, and in 1905 the composer committed suicide. Higley also left Kansas, first lighting out for Arkansas and then Oklahoma. His personal life was also troubled, and he had bad luck with women—and they with him. His first three wives died young; his fourth wife drove him to drink and the marriage ended in divorce.
Yet realistically, the mixed fortunes of Higley and Kelley mirrored the experiences of most Western homesteaders. When the government first offered up free land out West in 1862, thousands jumped at the opportunity. It seemed like a can’t lose bet: to secure permanent title on 160 acres, all you had to do was live on and work the land for five years. And for many, the Homestead Act did make their dreams come true. More than 200 million acres were distributed, and almost 400,000 families got a fresh start, families that would have never had the opportunity to own their own property otherwise. But for many, the land-giveaway proved a crushing disappointment. Through separate legislation, railroads managed to monopolize much of the most promising land. And hungry for even more, railroad companies used dummy homesteaders to gobble up land set aside for individuals.
Other challenges met those “lucky” enough to claim their 160 acres. Much of the land was too dry and/or wind-swept to be farmed. Not only that, buy 160 acres was simply not enough to make a living raising cattle. In addition, a lot of the land was so far from railroad lines that neither crops nor cattle could be affordably hauled to market anyway. And even if you could survive financially, the psychological demands of frontier life were enormous. Letters from the period, many of them from women to family back east, reveal that life on the frontier was desperately lonely. Homesteaders could go months without seeing another person, and there was always a good chance that they might never again see the family that they had left behind.
The bottom line is that most homesteaders failed. Two thirds did not make it through the first five years, and so they never received permanent title on the land, the entire venture ending up a bust. Instead, they returned east or took jobs with the large ranchers and railroad companies that—surprise, surprise—managed to acquire more and more land.
And The Sky Isn’t Cloudy All Day
Even though the actual experience of Western homesteaders was pretty tough, the romance surrounding their lives persisted. In fact, as the 19th century drew to a close “The West” took on an almost religious aura for Americans. Books like The Virginian, in which an unhealthy Easterner is reborn in the rugged plains of Wyoming, became best sellers. Men like Theodore Roosevelt, who actually did go west to recover from a personal crisis and subsequently filled his speeches with platitudes about fresh air, hard work, and “the strenuous life,” became political superstars. People who might not be able to move to The West tried to capture a bit of its revitalizing power by visiting the national parks that were developed during these years. And young boys who would never see a buffalo roam or deer and antelope play were given a frontier education of their own in the newly founded Boy Scouts.
America’s fascination with The West has continued into the present. Films about frontier life are still popular. In Far and Away, the Homestead Act provides the backdrop for a grand tale about western adventure and romance. And the superstar of the frontier—the Cowboy—lives on in Western after Western.
Less dramatically, but perhaps just as romantically, visions of a purer and healthier America—the America described by Brewster Higley—lie beneath the present day environmental movement. To a certain extent, environmentalists aspire to turn back the clock to a pre-industrial and pre-urban time when the American landscape was less corrupted.
Home, Home in the Courtroom?
Perhaps nothing better speaks to the post-frontier appeal of the Western romance than the legal fate of Higley and Kelley’s song. By the time it was recorded in 1932, their authorship had been all but forgotten. Decades earlier, their song had passed into American popular culture, where it morphed into dozens of regional variations, such as “My Arizona Home” and “My Colorado Home.” In fact, one Arizona couple, William and Mary Goodwin, swore that they wrote the original lyrics in 1904 and sued for an exclusive copyright. The song spoke so powerfully to Americans’ attachment to the Western home of their dreams that they made it their own. (And apparently the song summarized the feelings of some so precisely that they began to believe that they had written it.)
The legal battle was eventually resolved, and Higley and Kelley’s authorship was established in court. And that’s as it should be, partially because they actually wrote the song, but also because their lives genuinely reflected the experience of many American homesteaders and pioneers. Higley and Kelley lived in the West long enough to know that the frontier could be a wonderful place, with herds of deer and “antelope,” whistling curlews, balmy breezes blowing from the West, glittering streams, and twinkling stars. But they also knew it could be brutally hard, packed with loneliness and disappointment.
Today “Home on the Range” provides a beautiful tribute to the frontier life; but the great thing about the song’s history is that it makes sense. It was written by two guys who were there and who lived the experience of westward expansion that so many others could only sing about.