Jump to Navigation

Pratt Family and Cottonwood Ranch

Cottonwood Ranch, 1888

From England to Cottonwood Ranch, Sheridan County, Kansas.

In the late 19th century shades of the old British Isles popped up in the great sea of grass in central and western Kansas. Wakefield (Clay County) attracted English families who introduced fine blooded cattle and horses that mixed with and improved the tough regional types. Victoria (Ellis County) and Runnymede (Harper County) brought young British aristocrats to take tea, play polo, and follow the hounds on the Kansas plains. Other small British colonies and scattered settlements joined the struggle to scratch a lasting mark on an alien landscape. The task was as daunting as that faced by the colonists of Jamestown, Plymouth, and Massachusetts Bay 250 years earlier when they fought to establish English culture in the wilderness of eastern North America. Now in Kansas, rather than being overwhelmed by an abundance of trees, the new settlers were staggered by the general lack of trees and rain that had been so much a part of life in their native land. Few were able to adjust to the challenges of the Plains environment, and many of the colonies evaporated as the Britishers fled to more hospitable climates.

The Studley community in eastern Sheridan County proved to be more permanent. It grew up around the claim of Abraham Pratt who came to the area from Ripon, Yorkshire, England, in 1878. He built a dugout on the south fork of the Solomon River. Relatives, neighbors, and other fellow countrymen came to take up land in the surrounding area. Most were bachelors or married men who left their families behind until they could become established. Life was difficult but, unlike in their homeland, farmland was available almost for the asking.

In 1880 Abraham Pratt persuaded his son, John Fenton or "Fent," to join him on the South Solomon. Two years later another son, Tom, came over from England. Both sons took up adjoining 160-acre claims. Although they were experienced businessmen, not farmers or stockmen, the three decided to seek their fortunes in sheep raising, a common agricultural endeavor in their native northern Yorkshire. Soon they found that sheep thrived on the buffalo grass of north-central Kansas. The demand for wool was strong, and they prospered by shipping bags of fleeces to the East.

Within five years Fent Pratt had accumulated enough money to build a stone cottage similar to those in parts of England. Its carefully laid walls trimmed with stylish window surrounds and corner blocks contrasted with its rustic sod roof. Later a more durable shingle roof replaced the sod. A sod stable and sheep pens with sod walls stood behind the house. These probably were English features built of native American materials.

Now known as Cottonwood Ranch because of the grove of cottonwood trees that had been planted near the house, Fent's spread became the center of the Pratt's sheep operations. The animals fed in the open countryside, under the care of a shepherd or two. They generally were brought in to the ranchstead only for lambing and shearing.

For three years only bachelors lived in the ranch house, but in 1888 Fent sent to England for his sweetheart, Jennie Place. As was true of many pioneer women, Jennie's first reaction to the bleakness of her new home was dismay. Fent had chased his bachelor friends out of the house and had tried to brighten it with fashionable furniture, but nothing could prevent the shock of giving up the comforts of the Old Country and learning to battle the ever-present fleas that plagued sheep ranches. Through it all Jennie survived, reared a family of two daughters, and became a vital cog in the operation of the ranch, even herding the sheep when the need arose. She fought to make the place seem more like home by planting flowers and herbs while Fent grew vegetables and fruit trees.

As the family expanded and as finances allowed, the ranch house was enlarged. In the late 1880s a wing with a parlor and a bedroom was added to the west end, and in the 1890s a kitchen and bedroom were built on the east end. The resulting symmetrical plan was reminiscent of the much larger two-story houses of the wealthier farmers in Yorkshire. A picket fence and then a woven-wire fence beautified the house and protected the yard from roving farm animals.

The service structures of the ranch also evolved. The sod stable and corrals were replaced by a barn, a shop and bunkhouse, a stable, and a shearing shed, all of stone and connected by stone-walled pens forming a quadrangle much as might have been found in England. The Pratts seem to have borrowed an American tradition of a farmhouse detached from the service buildings, but they used stone construction, forms, and an arrangement of the outbuildings that echoed Yorkshire practices.

Sheepherding at the ranch declined after the death of Abraham Pratt in 1901. Fent and Tom pursued other business interests, and the sheep ranch rather quickly was converted to general farming. This transformation removed a strong British element, sheep, from the culture of the Studley community, but still fragments of the Old Country remained. As late as 1953 it was reported that an English accent could be heard in the local speech and that the residents held onto their heritage by returning frequently to England to visit or search for suitable mates. Most of the original English settlers, including Fent and Tom Pratt, had died, but three were still alive. Jennie Pratt continued on at Cottonwood Ranch until her death in 1959; her daughter, Hilda, until about 1980.

The state of Kansas bought the buildings and 23-three acres of the ranch in 1983. The Kansas Historical Society maintains the property as Cottonwood Ranch State Historic Site.

Entry: Pratt Family and Cottonwood Ranch

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2009

Date Modified: September 2012

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.