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Bill Haw Sr., who preserved Flint Hills vistas and revived the West Bottoms, dies at 85

Rancher and businessman Bill Haw sits in his office in Kansas City's West Bottoms.
Frank Morris
KCUR 89.3
Rancher and businessman Bill Haw sits in his office in Kansas City's West Bottoms.

The Kansas City business leader and rancher left a lasting legacy in the Flint Hills and helped redevelop Kansas City’s West Bottoms. He died on Thursday.

Bill Haw Sr., a Kansas City business leader and rancher who left a lasting legacy in the Flint Hills and helped redevelop Kansas City’s West Bottoms, died on Thursday at the age of 85.

For more than four decades, Haw was CEO of National Farms Inc., a cattle-feeding business owned by the Bass brothers of Fort Worth, Texas. Haw bought large swaths of land in the Flint Hills, and transformed ranching practices in the area.

Later in life, he turned his attention to transforming Kansas City’s original downtown, the West Bottoms, an area that boomed with the arrival of the railroads around the 1860s.

In the Flint Hills, Haw, who served two years in the Army after graduating from the University of Missouri, was an early adopter of intensive grazing.

Based on research from Kansas State University in the 1950s, Haw double-stocked his land, grazing more cattle over shorter periods than was the custom. The method made ranching profitable for Haw and the company he ran.

“Essentially, it replicates what the bison did, you know, for thousands and thousands of years as they came up from more southern locations in the spring,” Haw told KCUR in 2021.

The method was controversial in the Flint Hills at first.

“He pioneered a lot of new methods in terms of buying cattle, stocking pastures, feeding cattle, burning the pastures or not burning. He really kind of rewrote the book on a lot of it,” his son Bill Haw Jr. said. “It's pretty much become standard operating procedure for people now.”

Haw Sr., born in Bonne Terre, Missouri, to a medical doctor and a nurse, said intensive grazing was an important key to his successful cattle business. And he hired local, contract cowboys to care for the large herds.

“There is a multigenerational group of people in the Flint Hills who, for a fairly nominal fee, agree to work on a contract basis only for, in my case, three months out of the year,” Haw said in 2021. “So it's very economical for me and it gives me access to this wonderful culture of people who are totally dedicated to the idea of being cattle cowboys and caring for the land and the cattle.”

Haw Jr. said his father was also devoted to the land. Haw Sr. donated three buildings to the Symphony in the Flint Hills, where he also served as director for a time. The annual event is a celebration of music, art, and the ecology of the Flint Hills that moves to a different site each year.

“He also restored several buildings in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, and helped revive the town square and he had a little office down there,” Haw Jr. said.

The view of the Kansas Turnpike I-35 at the Bazaar Cattle Pens exit 15 miles southwest of Emporia.
Julie Denesha
The view of the Kansas Turnpike I-35 at the Bazaar Cattle Pens exit 15 miles southwest of Emporia.

When Haw Sr. decided to sell his two Flint Hills ranches three years ago, he worked with the Nature Conservancy to create perpetual easements to preserve the 14,000 acres of prime grassland for generations to come. It's part of 161,000 acres across the state that the nonprofit has permanently protected, including six preserves that are open to the public.

Haw said the easements will allow visitors to experience the expansive vistas that drew him to the Flint Hills. Now, that land, about half the size of Shawnee, Kansas, can never be developed.

“We've placed a conservation easement which is for eternity, to ensure that it will never change,” Haw said of the property between Emporia and Cassoday. “No additional buildings will be built on it and nothing will change in the view at all.”

“I'm very happy to be able to say I have got probably 14 miles of frontage on I-35, five counties on both sides of the road that, as far as you can see, will always look the same for ever more,” he said.

Haw took on other, more urban restoration projects in the Midwest too.

In 2005, he and his wife Maggie bought the Hotel Frederick, in Boonville, Missouri, and completed an extensive $4 million restoration of the building.

Before that, Haw bought the Livestock Exchange Building in Kansas City’s historic stockyards district in 1991. The neighborhood once served as the distribution hub of Midwestern cattle around the nation, and the building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984. But the area was in steep decline at the time.

“The old stockyards were pretty decrepit,” Haw Jr. remembered. “There was not much going on down there. He really had a long-term vision and a lot of persistence in developing that neighborhood.”

Haw Sr. dedicated the fifth floor of the Livestock Exchange Building to studios, where artists like painter Wilbur Niewald was a longtime resident.

“I love what I'm doing in this particular district here in the development,” Haw said at the time. “And for the first time in 30 years, I don't own any cattle and it's time to move on to something different.”

Haw developed the Telegram Building where Amigoni Urban Winery is located, and the former mechanic's garage which is now home to The Campground cocktail bar and restaurant. He also developed the mixed-use apartment building Stockyards Place.

His son, who founded the West Bottoms modern art gallery Haw Contemporary in 2013, said the neighborhood was important to his father and he hopes to continue his work.

“We're going to keep everything in the family and continue to try to push the neighborhood forward,” Haw Jr. said. “There's so much going on down there. So we're still super excited for the future and to carry on his legacy.”

Copyright 2024 KCUR 89.3

Julie Denesha is a freelance documentary photographer based in the Kansas City area.