MARQUETTE — For 30 years, Sherman Ranch was the biggest ranching operation in Kansas, with around 40,000 acres dedicated to raising cattle and hogs.

Dan Hays' interest in Sherman Ranch began when he became a park ranger at Kanopolis Lake State Park. On Monday, he shared about the history of the ranch and its founder, Merritt Masters Sherman, at a meeting hosted by the Starlight Literary Club at the Marquette Fine Arts Center.

Sherman was born in 1854 in Salem, New York. He attended Cornell University, where he met his future wife, Lizette Jones.

A chain smoker, Sherman moved to Tombstone, Arizona, partly out of concern for his respiratory health.

"He had a real knack for rolling his own cigarettes and enjoyed one of those during just about every waking hour," Hays said.

Sherman valued education and founded the public school system in Tombstone, serving as the first teacher and later becoming an administrator.

An interest in ranching led Sherman, backed by friends, to purchase the Sonora Ranch in Mexico. The ranch, which covered 100,000 acres, sold for six cents per acre.

"The environment was not hospitable," Hays said. "Mexican gangs were pretty much the order of the day. There was no law, there was no order."

Cattle theft happened frequently, and when an attack left his ranch foreman and bookkeeper dead and Sherman wounded, he decided to look for a ranch site elsewhere.

"Ultimately, he selected southeast Ellsworth County as his relocation point," Hays said.

Sherman arrived in Kansas in 1896, purchased 25,000 acres of land and leased the Burton Ranch for an additional 10,000 acres.

The ranch was so large that Sherman separated it into ten divisions — Midland, Riverside, Bluff Creek, Highland, Elm Creek, Eastland, Westland, Southland, Yankee Run and Shady Bend.

There were very few trees on the ranch, so many buildings in each division were constructed using Montgomery Ward kits.

"Each of those divisions was staffed by five to 20 men," Hays said.

The ranch's employees were expected to work 10-hour days, six days a week, for $30 per month. They had to work at least five years to earn a week's vacation.

Most things that were needed for ranch life had to come from the ranch itself — it had its own dairy, blacksmith, butcher shops and smoke house.

"Many of the resources that the ranch needed to operate on a daily basis were grown, constructed, developed there on the ranch," Hays said.

In keeping with Sherman's love of education, the ranch even had at least two schools, Hays noted.

Sherman's personal library took up one floor of his house.

"There's no doubt he was an avid reader," Hays said. "He took that interest in reading on the road with him when he traveled."

When he came to a city, Sherman would donate one of his favorite books to the local library.

"When he came back, whether that would be a year or three years later, he'd go back to that library, ask to see that book and if it was present and well read, he'd gift an additional book," Hays said. "If it was not present and well read, he'd have words with the librarian."

A charter member of the Kansas Livestock Association, Sherman bred longhorn cattle with shorthorn cattle. He had a herd of around 4,000 cattle, and sold between 1,000 and 2,000 cattle each year.

"He had a very respected herd and whenever it was market time, his animals brought the best price," Hays said.

Sherman bought the Clausen Ranch and its 4,000 hogs when starting his own ranch. He would buy 10,000 more hogs, butchering between 200 and 300 of the animals each month to feed his employees.

The ranch owner also designed and developed feed mills that used conveyors to take harvested corn from a wagon, processed it without any manual labor, and deposited it back into the wagon.

"He had to design and develop efficient methods of taking care of those animals and he did that through the development of feed mills," Hays said.

Sherman also installed a telephone system for the ranch.

"He was certainly a pioneer. He was an individual who was years ahead of his time," Hays said.

Another example of Sherman's abilities was evidenced when a cholera epidemic wiped out 500 hogs per month in 1913.

Unable to secure enough anti-cholera serum from Kansas State University, Sherman set up a laboratory and manufactured his own.

That incident, along with the events of World War I, shifted market demand from meat products to grain products and made it difficult for Sherman to find workers.

In 1930, Sherman started to lease out sections of the ranch and eventually turned over the management of the business to his son, Carl.

Sherman died in 1937, after which the ranch was sold. When the Kanopolis Dam was completed in 1948, a portion of the ranch area was inundated by Kanopolis Lake.

"Structural remnants do continue exist and dot the landscape, but many of the standing structures are no more," Hays said.

As Hays walks around the land on which Sherman Ranch sat, he can still see old foundations and stairs.

"I knew there had to be a story to be told there," Hays said. "These foundations — storm cellars, old outbuildings, abandoned farm equipment — just kind of dot the Kanopolis landscape out there."

The Kanopolis Lake Legacy Trail has a stop where Sherman Ranch's Riverside Division headquarters was located.

For more information about the Kanopolis Lake State Park area, visit or call 785-546-2565. For more information about Ellsworth County history, visit or call 785-472-3059. 

Contact Patricia Middleton by email at or follow her stories on Twitter at @MacSentinel.