Striving for the pinnacle

Teter Rock in northwest Greenwood County soars above the prairie landscape in southeast Kansas, offering a wider perspective on the region and the past.

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July 6, 2021 - 9:50 AM

Teter Rock, in northwest Greenwood County, soars above the prairie, providing a place from which to consider the whole of southeast Kansas. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

Time for a wider perspective.

But in order to get there we’re going to have to climb to reach a vantage point high enough to provide a more encompassing story of southeast Kansas.

Luckily, I know just the place.

Teter Rock in northwest Greenwood County soars above the prairie landscape to the point that the separation of “you” and “All” is overcome.

IN THE nineteenth century, pioneers crossing the expansive silence of the windswept Flint Hills would scale Teter Hill in order to navigate their way to the south fork of the Cottonwood River where they might settle.

I dreamt them there, taking in the view, calico skirts and covered wagon fabric tugged subtly by the wind, feeling the elation of discovery of such beauty.

The Teterville Store, above, when taken over by Harvey and Bertha Horst in 1962.Courtesy photo
An aerial view of Teterville during the 1960s. Courtesy photo

In order to help more early travelers find their way, in the late 1870s and 1880s, James Teter, a farmer, rancher and oil man, had a stone marker built atop the notable rise.  The monolith became a beacon of hope and possibility.

The goal was to help travelers not mistake the Verdigris River as their final destination rather than the Cottonwood and its southern fork.

Hence Teter Rock essentially served as a dividing-point, that said, in accordance with the Manifest Destiny of the times: Go West!

ALTHOUGH Teter was born in today’s West Virginia, he’d come with his father to Coffey County around 1859; though it was in Greenwood County that the family would build a reputation along with significant wealth.

Think 11,000 acres spanning two counties and covered with innumerable Hereford cows.

Amber Thornton, of Eureka, stands by Teter Rock to show just how tall the stone is (approximately 16 feet).Photo by Trevor Hoag

One humorous, though slightly cringe-worthy, legend is that James Teter’s life as a businessman sprung from his having convinced a naive native man to trade him a chicken for a pony while he was still a boy.

Teter would eventually pass away in 1929, a decade after the first oil wells were drilled in the area, and that in turn spurred major economic development.

FOLLOWING the oil strike, the Teter family provided land so that a base camp could be established by the Emprise Oil Company, and before long a little boomtown had gushed into being.

It was called, of course, Teterville.

Boasting a population of 500-600, the unincorporated community soon had a post office, grade school, two general stores and quite a few “shotgun” houses, so named because their walls were so paper-thin that a gun blast fired through a front wall would supposedly come out the back one as well.

One of these stores was even open clear into the 1960s, long after the time when building materials were stolen from nearby drilling rigs to literally “set up shop.”

Getting water out to the remote site, however, was a bit of a problem.

No one had indoor toilets, and the water that flowed to houses was actually undrinkable, especially after salt from wells created wide-spread contamination.

The “Golden Lanes” of Flint Hills oil kept on giving, though, and many stubbornly dug in so as to grab their share of the wealth.

Today all that’s left of Teterville are mostly cracked structural foundations.

Remnants of Teterville and various oil operations litter the Teter Rock area.Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

BUT let’s get back to our incredible vantage point and the monument found there, which is actually not the first, nor the only.

What happened is that the original marker atop Teter Hill was torn down by oilfield workers who needed rocks for the cement work they were doing nearby.

This happened sometime in the 1920s, and afterward the pinnacle would remain bare for the next 30 years or so.

During this time, the Teters would continue building up their cattle business, owning over 1,000 head and leasing grazing space for another 5,000.

The first “replacement” stone was actually connected to these ranching efforts, though it wasn’t atop Teter Hill.

Remnants of Teterville and various oil operations litter the Teter Rock area.Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

What’s said to have happened is that a cowboy working for the Teters perished in a nasty snowstorm, and so a monument rock was erected in his honor.

The memorial was fenced with piping and is sometimes known as “small Teter Rock.”

HOWEVER, the primary replacement stone that one still finds today, high atop the hill with its celestial views, has another story.

According to his widow, Paulyne, around 1954 James Teter’s grandson J. Murle decided to replace his grandfather’s absent marker with a new one.

Though it wasn’t as “painless” a task as it might seem.

J. Murle Teter managed to find an immense flat limerock to use for a replacement, but the slab was so enormous and heavy that he couldn’t at first move it.

Fortunately, the Arapahoe Pipeline Company was working nearby, and had heavy road equipment capable of lifting the stone.

They plunged one end of the slab six feet into the earth to stabilize it, with another 16 or so feet sticking out above ground.

With its peculiar shape, some folks have said they think it looks like a giant shock of wheat, or perhaps a bone jutting from the earth.

According to Paulyne Teter, “it was something [J. Murle] had wanted to do for a long time. He told me that you can see into four counties from the rock: Woodson, Elk, Butler and Chase.”

THAT’S the kicker.

There are traditionally fifteen-seventeen counties ascribed to southeast Kansas, and we want to find a way to see them from a height, both physically and conceptually.

We want to begin drawing connections, see how things hang together aesthetically, historically, scientifically, philosophically, and to delight in the expansiveness of the land writ large.

We’re going to widen our search for what this corner of the world contains, swim in its colors spanning from golden brown to navy sky to green growing things of a thousand hues.

But we’re going to have to be infatuated to do it, irrepressibly drawn to the contours of every curve and shape, every feature and memory.

Yes, this is a love story.

Come with me…

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