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National Park Mystery Spot 10 Revealed: It’s the Jones House at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

The cultural centerpiece of Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, the Jones House, was built in 1881 in the French Second Empire style with a distinctive late Victorian mansard roof and dormers. Photo by rdwatson78 via Flickr.

You were given these clues to identify this month’s national park mystery spot:

• The park I’m in has three preservation themes, but there are just two management zones, including a privately-owned one that contains nearly all of the land in the park.

• The park I’m in is a cooperative effort of three partners, one of which is the National Park Service.

• My builder wanted you to be able to see me from three miles away.

• I’m three stories high, and so is the barn out back.

• My three-seater privy (no waiting) was built to last.

• Three gazillion fusilinids died to make me and those other buildings possible.

What am I?

The first clue is hugely important, since Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County, Kansas, is the only unit in the National Park System that is almost completely privately-owned. The National Park Service currently owns only 32.26 acres of the 10,894-acre park, while The Nature Conservancy owns the rest.

The second clue alludes to the fact that Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is a partnership between the National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the Kansas Park Trust. The latter organization, which played a key role in land acquisition for the park, now operates a bookstore and gift shop at the preserve's historic ranch headquarters. The National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy co-manage the park.

Authorized by Congress in 1996, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas protects and interprets: (1) the natural history of the tallgrass prairie; (2) Native American cultural history; and (3) the cattle ranching legacy in the Flint Hills. To accomplish this mission, the park administers: a small National Park Service-owned “cultural zone” consisting of the 19th-century ranch buildings and historic cattle operation of the Spring Hill (Z-Bar) Ranch, and a large TNC-owned “natural zone” consisting of an open space landscape being restored to its original, biologically diverse condition.

The additional clues identify the mystery spot as the Jones House, an imposing three-story limestone mansion that pioneering cattleman Stephen F. Jones built in 1881 on his sprawling Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch. To make sure his 11-room trophy house would be visible for miles, he built it atop (and partially into) a prominent hill. Today, the house is the historical centerpiece of the cultural zone and ranger-led tours of the well-preserved mansion are among the park’s most popular attractions.

You can take a virtual tour of the mansion (all three floors) at this site.

Behind the Jones House is an enormous three-story barn built into the side of the hill, much in the manner of the bank barns found in many hilly areas of the northeastern and north-central United States. Thinking that he had built the largest barn in Kansas, Jones was disappointed to learn that the 110 x 60-feet structure fell two feet short of the state record.

Also built on the premises were a massive chicken house with a barrel-vault ceiling, a combined smokehouse-springhouse (one above the other), and a stone three-seater privy that was lighted by an arch window and cupola.

The outbuildings and miles of fences on the ranch were constructed of the same Cottonwood Limestone that served as the primary building material for the mansion. Cottonwood Limestone, a widely-used building stone in Kansas, is durable, even-textured, very dense (~160 pounds per square foot), and nearly white. It also contains the fossilized remains of countless fusilinids, long-extinct foraminiferan protozoa whose calcareous shells produced calcite granules in such abundance that they formed thick layers of limestone in some places, including the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas.

Stephen Jones was exceedingly fond of Cottonwood Limestone. After he sold Spring Hill in 1888, he moved to Kansas City, Missouri. The new house he built there was constructed of Cottonwood Limestone shipped in from Chase County, Kansas.

Postscript: Why does the ranch go by the clumsy moniker “Spring Hill (Z-Bar) Ranch”? The short explanation is this: Stephen Jones called his landholding the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch (there being a large spring on the premises). In common usage, this name was usually shortened to Spring Hill Ranch or Spring Hill. Soon after this ranch was established, it was combined with the adjacent Deer Park Place Ranch and went by either name. The last livestock operation that owned the property was the Z Bar Cattle Company, which was disbanded in 1986. The company used a Z-bar cattle brand (a letter Z followed by a bar). The ranch today is often referred to as either the Spring Hill Ranch or the Z-Bar Ranch, depending on whether the context is historical or modern. To avoid confusion, the name Spring Hill (Z-Bar) Ranch is commonly used.


Having just visited the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in February, I can attest that the mansion, barn and outbuildings are quite impressive. (Being from the upper midwest, I had never seen a barn built of stone before.) It is also worth noting that the Preserve has just re-introduced bison, from the genetically pure stock from Wind Cave National Park. More are expected. Check out the hiking trails.
Finally, I would mention that just down the road in Cottonwood Falls is a charming motel, the Millstream Motel, also built of stone, run by a couple who have both preserved and improved the unique structure. The historic little downtown is walking distance from the motel, and worth a visit too. A great place to stay on your visit to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

Glad you enjoyed your visit to Tallgrass Prairie, Tom, and thanks for the tips on nearby attractions. For details about the 13 bison that were translocated from Wind Cave National Park to Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, see the Traveler article at this site.

I recently visited the reserve and truely and honestly believe I have had a paranormal experience. Do you believe the estate could be haunted by the family members that have died there?

Anon, I have no earthly idea -- or unearthly idea, for that matter -- whether the mansion is haunted. I do know that many people have reported paranormal experiences in national parks. You can read about some of these incidents right here in Traveler. For an article about ghosts in Yellowstone National Park, see this site. An article about ghost sightings in Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area can be found at this site.

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