Observant travelers along K-15 in northern Marion County will spot several pasture gates bearing the name, Rhodes Ranch.
Providing entrance into acres of tall, bluestem prairie, the gates are a reminder of the 93 years the Harry Walter Rhodes family ranch dominated the area.
A grandson, Kirby Rector of Hillsboro, welded the lettering on the gates in 1966, when he was a senior in high school. The state was widening K-15, requiring the ranch to relocate 6½ miles of fence.
Rector said he spent a lot of time at the ranch throughout his growing up years and lived there for two years before going off to college.
The Rhodes family had a lifetime lease on the six sections of land owned by Scully Estates. The ranch straddles the Marion/Dickinson county line but lies mostly in Marion County.
Scully sold the ranch to a Texas rancher in 1992. According to Marilyn Rhodes Fischer of Olathe, a granddaughter of Harry Rhodes, Texas tradition requires that original names remain with a property when it is sold. Therefore, the name continues.
Fischer recently compiled family memories of the ranch in a book titled, “The Cowboy and the Lady.” She is the daughter of Harry’s oldest son, Harold, and is the oldest grandchild.
The ranch was founded by 18-year-old Harry Walter Rhodes in 1899, when he acquired a Scully lease on several quarters of grassland near College Hill School four miles northwest of Tampa.
Harry’s father, Jacob A. Rhodes, had established a homestead in the area in 1874 and married in 1878.
Harry Walter was Jacob’s firstborn son and the third in a family of 12 children.
“Harry was seemingly a driven young man,” Fischer said. “It was as though he had big plans with many goals and only a short time to accomplish them.”
Harry Rhodes wasn’t afraid of hard work. He went to work at age 13 in his Uncle John Rhodes’ gypsum mill, but his real love was working with cattle and horses.
After Rhodes purchased the Scully lease, he kept to his ranch. He was a loner. He eschewed organizations, didn’t socialize, and didn’t attend church.
He purchased calves in the spring, grew them on grass during the summer, and sold them in the fall.
His busy, solitary life didn’t prevent him from being attracted to the young teacher at College Hill School.
Lillie Hegle was different from him in many ways. She was born and raised near Lost Springs and was taught to be a “proper” lady. Friends and relatives described her as lovely and talented. She was a Christian and active in her community.
Lillie was the second in a family of nine siblings. Following graduation from eighth grade, she returned to country school and studied several high school courses.
In 1905, she enrolled in the Institute of Preparatory Teaching at Marion. She taught in Ottawa County before coming to College Hill.
Proving that opposites attract, Lillie fell for Harry, and the two were married in June 1908. The ceremony took place at her parents’ Shady Lane Farm near Lost Springs.
The couple’s first home was one mile west of College Hill School. They moved with two daughters to another farmhouse in 1912, where they had seven more children — six sons and one daughter.
Harry acquired more Scully leases, including 80 acres of farmland. He made improvements to the farm and bought a new Avery tractor and Avery truck.
Fire destroyed the house and most of the family’s possessions in 1922, forcing them to look for a new home.
A permanent headquarters
In 1923, they moved to a large, two-story house on the west side of the ranch. Located 1.5 miles west of present-day K-15, it became the permanent headquarters of the Rhodes Ranch.
The couple had four more children. Working together, they continued to build up the ranch. Harry was the cattleman, and Lillie was the business manager.
They eventually managed more than 6 sections of bluestem grass and 240 acres of cropland.
The cattle were shipped mostly through the railhead at Durham, and sometimes at Waldeck or Lehigh. They were driven overland to and from the ranch. Cattle drives varied in length from a few hours to several days.
Harry’s sons helped drive the cattle, often getting involved when they were as young as 5. They took a chuck wagon along for meals and overnight stays. Sometimes they had to wait for the train’s arrival.
One night in 1929, the cattle were gathered at the Durham shipyard when a big flood occurred. The crew prepared to move the cattle if necessary. The floodwaters never reached the pens, but the chuckwagon narrowly escaped floating away.
Another time, a prairie fire destroyed the cowboys’ camp and supplies while they were out herding cattle.
The largest shipment of cattle ever received was delivered in 40 to 45 rail cars, with 21 head in each car —800 to 900 head.
One time, Harry Rhodes contracted with a Wichita banker to purchase a herd of re-possessed cattle in the Flint Hills. The cowboys drove them 70 miles.
Some of the wheat raised on the ranch was hauled to the Gypsum Flour Mill and traded for 50-pound sacks of flour. Almost a sack a week was needed to feed a family of 13 growing children.
Harry also raised hogs for a time and acquired a herd of Hereford cows.
The whole family was involved in providing the essentials of life.
A story passed down to family members recounts the time a truckload of 9 to 10 hogs tipped over in a muddy ditch. Harry decided to butcher all of them along with a beef cow, and mix the pork and beef for sausage.
The meat was cooked, then packed into crocks and sealed with hot lard.
Hams and bacon were cured and hung on hooks on the front porch to dry. They were stored in the cellar.
A wood-burning cook stove in the washhouse was used to can fruits and vegetables.
Water for washing clothes, drinking, bathing, and canning was carried in buckets or large milk cans from the barn well.
According to Lillie’s youngest daughter, Geneva, she and her brother Lowell used to haul water and firewood to the house in a little red wagon — one pulling, the other pushing.
Lillie and her daughters sewed the family’s clothing. Lillie made her own patterns, cutting them from old newspapers. Many garments were made from printed flour and feed sacks. Everything was ironed.
Daughter Esther was a tireless seamstress and a good cook. She sewed many items of clothing for the family and for nieces and nephews.
It seems that almost every male member of the family had a nickname. Dale was known as Boss; Robert Jacob was Bob; Willard Dean was Jake; James was known by his middle name, Carroll; Murray Lee was Jack; and Lowell was Shorty. Their longtime friend and cowhand was known as “Deacon” Bruce.
The cowboy dies
In August 1932, Harry Rhodes became ill. He was diagnosed with cancer by a Dr. Goodsheller of Marion. Harry died at the Marion hospital at age 51, on his wife’s 46th birthday. They had been married 24 years.
Left with 13 children ranging in age from 22 to 2, Lillie was determined to carry on Harry’s legacy.
A succession of sons, beginning with Harold at age 20, managed the ranch in future years, including Dale, Bob, and Jake. Carroll and a daughter, Esther, remained on the ranch until the end.
Under the guiding eyes of Lillie and sons, the ranch continued to grow. By 1940, the operation included a large dairy herd of registered Holstein cattle, a modern dairy barn, twin silos, and long cattle shed. The house was modernized.
In the mid-50s, adjoining farms were added. As many as 3,000 to 3,500 head were stocked and fed on the ranch. Cattle were shipped in and out by the semi-loads.
Lillie died in 1974 and was buried beside her husband at College Hill Cemetery. By the late 1980s, the sons and daughter still involved in the operation were growing older and were no longer able to manage the ranch. Jake died in 1987, Esther died in 1988, and Carroll died in 1990.
Harry and Lillie’s legacy ended in 1992, when the Scully family sold the ranch leases to a Texas rancher.
The old farmhouse was torn down, but its memories linger on. Children and grandchildren recall many happy times at the ranch.
Several of the Rhodes men and their sister, Esther, never married. Their nieces and nephews became their children and always were welcome at the ranch.
Rector remembers his Grandmother Lillie Rhodes as being a strong person who was respected by her family.
“In all the years I was around, I never heard my uncles talk back to Grandma,” he said. “When she said something, everyone listened.” Rector said he and three or four cousins spent summers at the ranch putting up hay and doing chores.
“We were like brothers,” he said.
As children, they made tunnels in big stacks of hay and even carved out rooms. This proved treacherous to the one whose job it was to feed the hay from on top; as the stack got lower, he fell through.
“We had to quit that,” Rector said. Sometimes the cousins would take lunches along and go into far-flung areas of the pastures to build forts with limestone rocks and tree branches.
Other cousins joined them to spend weekends camping and fishing at various ponds on the ranch.
Harry Rhodes of Durham, owner and operator of G&R Implement, is a grandson of the original Harry Rhodes and the son of Harry Dale Rhodes. The family owned a farm close to the ranch.
Harry said he and his cousins liked riding horses and fooling around with the long row of saddles kept in the barn at the ranch.
Although most of the aunts and uncles are gone, the cousins and their families continue to hold a reunion every year, sharing memories of their times together at the ranch.
Rector’s mother, Wanda Joan Rhodes Madsen, described the lure of the ranch this way: “It was not a matter of beautiful rolling hills, ponds to fish in, timber to explore and wander in. It was the freedom to be your own person, and the wonderful human beings who lived there that made it all so special.”