For the first time ever, one lone bison will be roaming the Kansas State Fair this September. While fair visitors young and old will have the opportunity to meet the fair’s new mascot, Ike the Bison, his symbolism goes deeper than just a fun-loving, woolly character.
Back in 1955, Kansas was the first state to name the American bison as a state symbol. Several other states followed Kansas’ lead and, finally, in 2016, Congress passed the National Bison Legacy Act making the bison a U.S. symbol.
The bison was an important part of the development and progress of Kansas. Yet, at the same time, it’s also an example of the overuse of a resource. According to the Kansas State Historical Society, prior to white settlers entering Kansas, there were an estimated 20 million American bison, commonly called buffalo, roaming the Great Plains. Bison shaped and maintained the prairie ecosystem that covered the plains. These animals were used by our state’s first resident, Native Americans, for food, clothing, housing and many other essential items.
The next part of the story is, most likely, familiar to anyone who has seen enough TV Westerns. Settlers began shooting bison for profit. Dodge City was a major shipping point for meat and hides. Black and white photos of the day show bone piles 20-feet high. Bone pickers were paid $4 to $6 a ton for dried bones, which were shipped to the east. The bones were ground and used for fertilizer, combs, dice, buttons and bone china dishes
There were also specialized hunting trips that attracted hunters from all over the world. In 1872, George Armstrong Custer took Grand Duke Alexis of Russia on a sport hunting trip through Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas.
If this is where the story would have stopped, it would have been nothing short of a tragedy. A species that once numbered tens of millions had, by the end of 19th century, reached near-extinction — with only 500 of these iconic prairie mammals left in the U.S.
Saving the American bison has been hailed as one of the great achievements of the conservation movement. Fearing the loss of a species, folks like Teddy Roosevelt and Kansan Charles Jesse “Buffalo Jones” of Garden City (who had both hunted bison decades prior) began to breed bison to restore the species. Today, there are an estimated 500,000 bison in the United States — a far cry from the 20 million that once roamed the Great Plains, but the species is thriving.
The Kansas State Fair is a celebration and a showcase of the best of Kansas, its agriculture, its industry, its education, its communities, its politics and, of course, fun, entertainment and food. Ike the Bison represents it all.
The symbolism does not stop there. Why Ike? Ike was the nickname of one of our most famous Kansans, President Dwight Eisenhower. Years ago, the Division of Tourism initiated a brand image campaign that had the tag line; Kansas, as big as you think. I really liked it. As I recall, there were several spots but there are two that stick out. There was one with a little boy in overalls running in a field, fading to General Eisenhower then to President Eisenhower. Another was of a little girl in Atchison who transitioned to famed aviator Amelia Earhart. The point of the ad being, in Kansas, if you can dream it, you can do it.
This year when you come to the Fair to Celebrate All Things Kansas and see Ike, think about how blessed we are to live in a state with great opportunity and abundant natural resources that are the building blocks of our economy. We’ve come a long way, and we’ve learned a lot. To progress and keep that economy growing for future generations, we need to be good stewards of the state.
See you at the Kansas State Fair, Sept. 11-20.