Kansas MemoryKansas Memory

Kansas Historical SocietyKansas Historical Society


Log In



After login, go to:

Forgot Username?
Forgot Password?

Browse Users
Contact us


Martha Farnsworth


Podcast Archive

Governor Mike Hayden Interview
Listen Now
Subscribe - iTunesSubscribe - RSS

More podcasts


Popular Item

Winter 1977, Volume 43, Number 4


Random Item

Views of the Hollenberg ranch house, Washington County, Kansas Views of the Hollenberg ranch house, Washington County, Kansas


Site Statistics

Total images: 735,552
Bookbag items: 40,697
Registered users: 12,341



Kansas Memory has been created by the Kansas State Historical Society to share its historical collections via the Internet. Read more.



Kansas Memory Blog

Apr 29, 2022 by Megan Rohleder

By: Lauren Gray, Head of Reference

Ask anyone what their favorite road trip snack is, and sunflower seeds will likely appear somewhere between corn nuts and Doritos. While the spit-and-flick motion is ubiquitous to long car rides, sunflowers have a long history in Kansas both for their aesthetic appeal and nutritional value.

Native to North America, there are 67 different varieties of sunflower (Helianthus Annuus). It grows best in full sun and well-drained soil. Although the sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, it is found as far north as Minnesota and Saskatchewan and as far south as Texas. Sunflowers can be either annual or perennial, depending on the variety. The sunflower is remarkably sturdy and can be grown easily in most types of soil due to its deep roots (up to six feet!) and drought tolerance. However, the domestic crop in the United States is prone to pests, and sunflowers use a relatively high amount of insecticide compared to other crops. Sunflowers also deplete the soil, so they are not grown commercially in the same spot every year.

According to the National Sunflower Association, the domestication of the sunflower may predate that of corn (maize). Early American Indian tribes cultivated sunflowers for their seeds, which could be ground, roasted, or harvested for their oil. The plant could also be used for dye in textiles, and when dried the stalk could be used as a building material. Sunflowers also served a ceremonial function.

Even today, sunflowers also provide crucial winter food for wildlife, if the field is left uncleared after the harvest. Wildlife, including migratory birds, deer, even bear and moose, are attracted to sunflower fields in the spring and summer for the dense foliage and nutritional seeds.

Early European colonizers were enchanted with the sunflower, and Spaniards transported it to Europe in the 16th century. While its use was mainly ornamental, sunflower seeds gained popularity in Russia in the 18th century because their oil could be consumed during Lent. Extracting sunflower oil became a major industry in Russia.

Increased emigration from the Baltics in the 1880s brought the sunflower back to the United States. Russian emigrants carried the seeds with them to Kansas and the Midwest. The seeds were cultivated both as a feed for livestock and humans, and for their oil.

In 2022, there are two commercially grown types of sunflowers: The Oilseed variety is grown for its oil; and the Non-Oilseed variety is grown for food products and ornamentation. Most consumers will recognize the large, round yellow-petaled single-stalk flower, but there are many smaller varieties that grow like weeds along railroad tracks and fence lines.

Sunflower imagery is present in many aspects of Kansas’s history.

The brightly colored petals and lush foliage evoke a fruitful and bountiful landscape, which appealed to many farmers who immigrated to the state. (Ironically, today the sunflower is grown in high-salinity soil in regions too arid to support other crops.)

There are few state flowers better known than the Kansas sunflower (officially adopted in 1903), and its image is promoted through advertisements, post cards, political messaging, and artwork.



The sunflower’s use is promoted through the Kansas Sunflower Commission, which is responsible for ensuring the economic viability of growing the crop commercially. The sunflower’s enduring appeal makes it a fixture in the legacy of the state, and Kansas wouldn’t be quite as ‘sunny’ without it.

Bibliography and additional reading:




Mar 25, 2022 by Megan Rohleder

By: Lauren Gray-Head of Reference

In celebration of spring finally arriving, here is a short history of Rabbits on the range. 

Bunnies: children love to chase them, hawks love to hunt them, and farmers struggle to build just the right rabbit-proof fence. Rabbits have a long history in Kansas. Whether it’s a cute, bouncing cottontail in your backyard or the scourge of your garden patch, rabbits have been ubiquitous on the range for over 40 million years. 

Cottontails and jackrabbits are members of the taxonomic order Lagomorpha and are not rodents. Rabbits in Kansas live aboveground. They are crepuscular, which means they are most active at dawn and dusk, though you may see more out on a cloudy day. They are herbivores (which means they only eat vegetables and fruits) and enjoy a full range of wild and domestic plants, including dandelion greens, lettuce, clover, and herbs. (Remember, Thumper, you can’t just eat the flowers!) During the winter, they will eat the bark from trees, and small stems and saplings. Rabbits also recycle their own poop (called cecotropes), which means if a bunny invites you over for dinner, it’s BYO! 

The Cottontail rabbit is indigenous to Kansas. Cottontails usually have light brown coats on top and white bellies underneath and are named for their bright white tails. Cottontails can run up to 18 mph and can jump 15 feet in a single leap! There are three types of Cottontails in Kansas. Eastern Cottontails live mostly in areas with excess tree and shrub growth and are the most common. Desert Cottontails live on the dry plains of Western Kansas and make their homes in the tall grasses that roll across the landscape. Swamp rabbits live in the southeastern part of the state, and are slightly larger than their cousin Cottontails, but smaller than jackrabbits. This particular type of rabbit makes its habitat along rivers and creeks and near wetland. Aptly named, they are accomplished swimmers and divers. However, don’t try to take your bunny to the pool with you - not all rabbits like water!

Jackrabbits, while also native to Kansas, are technically members of the Hare family, and are not considered rabbits, despite their name. Jackrabbits are larger than Cottontails, and both White-tailed and Black-tailed Jackrabbits make their homes here. Jackrabbits have long, skinny legs, and large ears. Their coat changes color with the season. Like Swamp Rabbits, these hares can swim. While Cottontail rabbits are born blind and hairless, jackrabbits are bushy-tailed, bright-eyed and ready for mischief just a few hours after birth. 

Rabbits and jackrabbits are prey animals and have many natural predators in Kansas. Bobcats, hawks, coyotes, snakes, domesticated dogs and cats, and even humans are some of the many predators that have a taste for bunnies. Eyes on the sides of their heads means they do not see well straight-on, but which enables them to see above them for circling predators. 


(Exaggerated postcard, 1909)

Rabbits and jackrabbits were an important resource for early Kansans. Native peoples used their pelts for clothing and bedding and supplemented their diets with rabbit meat. Community members would participate in rabbit drives by crafting large nets and driving local wildlife into them in order to kill a large number of animals at a time. This provided a positive resource-to-output ratio (i.e. getting more product for less effort).

The unusual image below represents a rabbit or jackrabbit carved into hematite. The carving was discovered by archaeologists from the Kansas Historical Society in a pre-Wichita village dating from 1400 CE -1700 CE. While its exact purpose is unknown, it certainly bears a stunning resemblance to Kansas’s wild inhabitants! 

When settlers moved to Kansas in the mid-19th century and began to clear fields for farming, they disrupted the ecological balance of the landscape. James R. Mead, writing to his family of the bountiful Kansas landscape in 1859, noted that he had “seen rabbits almost as large as our dog ‘Watch’ and very fine eating.”  


While rabbits are often portrayed as cute, decorative creatures, like in this Easter card from the early 19th century, the reality was much different on the range.

American agricultural practices created an unstable environment for Cottontails and jackrabbits. As farmers pushed into native habitats, massive soil erosion and over-extension of farmland contributed to the ecological disaster known as the “Dust Bowl.” Four periods of intense drought devastated Western Kansas during the 1930s and financially ruined many Kansas farmers. 


As natural predators died off or were removed, jackrabbit numbers increased past the point of environmental sustainability. Jackrabbits can have up to four litters a year and Cottontails can have up to five, which means a lot of hungry baby bunnies! While adorable, they are also incredibly destructive to the environment. Rabbits’ teeth never stop growing, which means they must chew frequently to wear them down. These hungry critters will eat crops--including young fruit trees, a staple for many Kansas farmers--down to the root. 


To preserve farmland in Kansas, communities would participate in “rabbit drives,” similar to how early Native people hunted rabbits. People young and old would gather to round up the local jackrabbit populations. Organizers would set up a large, fenced area in a field, and men, women, and children would line up in two rows and approach the enclosed area from all sides, banging on pots and pans to scare the jackrabbits before them and ultimately into the enclosure. Once trapped, dusty chaos would ensue as the organizers either bludgeoned their captive prey or rounded up the jackrabbits for transport to states with lower jackrabbit populations. 


The meat from these drives was a free and nutritious commodity in western communities that were hit hard by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. It has only been recently that rabbits and hares have reentered modern cuisine after many years of being stereotyped as a poor man’s food. 


Rabbits have also been kept as domesticated animals for several centuries for both companionship and as a meat and fur resource. Domesticated rabbits are descendants of European Wild Rabbits and are not related to Cottontails or jackrabbits. Rabbits raised for the commercial industry are kept on “rabbit ranches.” Most consumers are familiar with the luxurious Angora pelts, but many breeds of rabbits and hares are raised for meat and fur. While the Kansas Department of Agriculture regulates other meat industries (like beef), rabbit ranches that produce under 250 rabbits annually are not subject to registration or inspection. 


For those more interested in befriending Bugs than sautéing him, rabbits are currently one of the most popular pets in the United States, after dogs and cats. While the exact number of domesticated rabbits in Kansas is not known, there are over six million rabbits kept domestically in the U.S. Domestic rabbits come in many breeds, and there are several licensed breeders in Kansas. Pet bunnies are very different from their wild counterparts. Domestic rabbits cannot survive in the wild, as they lack the survival instincts that would enable them to find food and shelter. Domestic rabbits live much longer than wild rabbits when properly cared for; it’s not unusual for pet rabbits to live 8-13 years, while Cottontails only live 2-3 in the wild. Organizations like the Kansas State Rabbit Breeders Association regularly sponsor rabbit shows and promote rabbits as household pets or 4-H projects. Many domestic rabbits are available for adoption through local shelters. These bunnies are friends, not food! 

Rabbits and jackrabbits play an important role in our state’s eco-system. They are an important resource for predators, enabling a complex food chain to thrive. Rabbits also manage weed overgrowth through their prolific consumption. For rabbit breeders and ranchers, they provide economic support, and for domestic rabbit owners, bunnies provide companionship and love.

Helpful tips when encountering rabbits: if you see a wild rabbit, don’t try to handle it without protection. Wild rabbits carry diseases like Tularemia. If a wild rabbit is injured, call a wildlife rescue association. If you spot a domestic rabbit on the loose, contact your local humane society or rabbit rescue group.








Older Posts >>

Copyright © 2007-2022 - Kansas Historical Society - Contact Us
This website was developed in part with funding provided by the Information Network of Kansas.