Bill Kurtis Praises Prairies

Celebrities, Iconic Communities, On the Road, People
on September 30, 2007

On his ranch in the Flint Hills of Kansas, Bill Kurtis walks among cows grazing on big bluestem and other prairie grasses. “Eat up, girls,” he says in a resonant voice familiar to millions of Americans from his hosting roles on the A&E Network programs Investigative Reports and Cold Case Files.

The Chicago-based broadcast journalist has traveled to exotic places around the globe to produce hard-hitting news documentaries. But his favorite off-air destination is the sprawling prairie and the tucked-away towns of Sedan (pop. 1,342) and Independence (pop. 9,846), where he grew up. He returns about once a month to his two-story ranch house with its wrap-around front porch, perfect for watching sunsets stretch across the horizon of his 10,000-acre Red Buffalo Ranch near Sedan.

“This is the story of settling America with immigrants homesteading and moving West,” Kurtis says, gesturing to the wide-open prairie all around him. “The Indian chapter, the cattle trail drives, the Civil War is here. The largest tract of remaining tallgrass prairie in the world is right here in the Flint Hills.”

When he pauses, the countryside is so hushed without traffic or any other manmade noises that the meadowlarks sound downright rowdy.

“I saw the value in trying to save this,” Kurtis says.

Restoring a prairie town
Dick Jones, owner of Jones Realty in Sedan, recalls the day in 1999 when Kurtis began saving downtown Sedan one building at a time. Sedan’s glory days were long gone and many ornate sandstone, brick and limestone buildings on Main Street stood empty.

On visits to the area after buying the Red Buffalo Ranch in 1995, Kurtis began speaking to economic development groups about promoting the treasures of the prairie—its natural beauty, rich history and small, picturesque towns. After one such speech, he was driving to the Wichita airport to fly back to Chicago when he heeded his own heartfelt words and called Jones.

“He asked, ‘Do you have any buildings for sale?’” Jones recalls. “I said, ‘Yes sir, how many do you want?’’’ Jones mentioned the 1920 Fish Building, a former department store.

Kurtis bought and restored it, and today it’s a popular local retail center that houses a gift shop and coffee bar, an antiques store, a local jelly company and the Tallgrass Beef Co., which Kurtis founded to market the meat of the grass-fed cattle raised on his ranch.

The Fish Building was the first of 14 buildings that Kurtis bought and brought back to life in Sedan, including an 1880s stone house—once used as a livery stable—that’s now a bed and breakfast inn. He transformed another 1890 beauty into The Art of the Prairie Gallery to showcase prairie-inspired art. Kurtis offered the restored buildings rent-free for one year to entrepreneurs, then sold the structures at a reasonable price.

“He has literally saved this community by his generosity,” Jones says. “When Bill took on this venture, we had 13 vacant buildings. Because of his belief in Sedan and because of the goodness of his heart, today we have two. Bill has been a godsend to this community.”

Stained-glass artists and partners Terry Ricketts and Debby Hewlett bought two buildings last year from Kurtis and opened The Studio in the Hills and Kokopelli Gallery.

“Bill came into town and bought buildings that needed work—a new roof or a furnace—and fixed them up so it wouldn’t be a burden on people,” says Hewlett, 54. “He gave us a good deal on the buildings and let us set our own payments and financed it for us.”

“But the best thing he did was purchase the old lumberyard,” says Ricketts, 56. Now called the Kurtis Arts Plaza, it hosts painting, woodcarving and other art classes, along with festivals and events that combine art, music and food.

“It’s wonderful fun and great satisfaction giving back and saving a town simply by rehabbing buildings,” Kurtis says. “This is a place where America’s values were born.”

Raised on the prairie
Kurtis, 67, knows small-town values by heart, having grown up in nearby Independence. His parents owned the land where writer Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Little House on the Prairie author, lived in the 1870s. Today, Kurtis and his sister, state Sen. Jean Schodorf of Wichita, own the Little House site, where a replica of the Ingalls’ family cabin has been built. Nearby is Walnut Creek and the well that Pa Ingalls dug by hand.

In 1962, Kurtis graduated from the University of Kansas in Lawrence with a journalism degree, and four years later was anchoring the evening news at WIBW-TV in Topeka, where one career-defining night convinced him of the power of television to save lives. On June 8, 1966, he was winding up the newscast when he was handed a bulletin about an approaching tornado.

“Fifteen seconds later, someone handed me a piece of paper that said: ‘The Huntington Apartments have just been wiped out.’ I drew a straight line in my mind and saw the tornado bearing down on the city and the campus where my wife and child were.” The 26-year-old faced the camera and blurted, “For God’s sake, take cover!”

Kurtis’ distinctive voice has carried him through 41 years of broadcast journalism from WBBM-TV, a CBS affiliate in Chicago, to anchoring the CBS Morning News in New York. In 1990, he formed Kurtis Productions and began producing his popular programs for the A&E Network, including Investigative Reports and Cold Case Files, as well as Investigating History for The History Channel.

Environmental and health topics long have interested Kurtis, who broke the story on Agent Orange, a herbicide and defoliant used during the Vietnam War, and began reporting 15 years ago on global warming. Today, these concerns inspire his ranching on the prairie.

Grass-fed beef
“I’m trying to lead the wave in terms of healthy beef. I think this is the answer to obesity,” says Kurtis, whose Tallgrass Beef Co. raises grass-fed cows on his ranch. He has returned to the way that cattle historically were raised on open range and grass only, without the use of hormones, antibiotics and fattening in feedlots on corn and corn products. At any given time, there are some 2,500 to 3, 500 cows ranging over the Kurtis ranch.

Leading Chicago restaurants Harry Caray’s and Charlie Trotter’s serve Kurtis Tallgrass Beef, which also is sold online.

Kurtis’ cookbook, The Prairie Table Cookbook, will be released next month and is one more tribute to small-town Kansas, says co-author Michelle Martin, a researcher and photographer for Kurtis. The book features 19th-century recipes, firsthand accounts and photographs about the hardships and joys of life on the prairie.

“Bill has worked tirelessly to see that his ranch helps preserve the tallgrass prairie,” Martin says. “He sees magic in the grasses of the prairie that others ignore or take for granted.”

Walking around his ranch, Kurtis mentions other dreams and projects, including a solar- and wind-powered ranch house. His daughter, Mary Kristin, 40, will oversee its construction. Son Scott, 35, also lives in Sedan. Kurtis’ wife, Donna LaPietra, works alongside Bill in Chicago and helps run Kurtis Productions.

He envisions celebrity-chef events on the prairie, opening a restaurant and making Sedan a world-class culinary destination. “People will fly in from New York for a good meal,” he says confidently.

At Butcher Falls on his ranch, Kurtis lingers and admires the water tumbling over a 10-foot-high limestone ledge. Pink columbines sprout here and there. And beyond the creek is open prairie as far as the eye can see.

“The prairie is so forgiving,” Kurtis says. “One rain and it’s lush green grass again. This is a magical spot.”